« Twenty years in the big house | Main | Possum Wrangling, Queens-Style »

Abate the nuisance: A detective story

This house arrived in our lives like a mute and traumatized child, dropped off by an incoherent parent who disappeared without a trace.  Over the years, I've made forays into piecing together its history of abuse and neglect. Some bits have emerged with startling clarity from the City of New York's dusty record books and web databases (like a "liber" volume with records of the owners of this parcel of land, going back to Dutch times!)...and some have proved elusive (like a precise date of the CrazyStable's construction, somewhere between 1906 and the 1920s).

There are rocks I haven't turned over yet, but what has emerged so far is a picture of a serially unloved foster child: a boarding house at least since the Great Depression (as were so many of these big places), and before that, a two-family with a variance for "lodgers."    A set of 1940s blueprints reveal that our chopped-up and inexplicable layout was already in place by the Eisenhower administration. By the 1970s, the CrazyStable was owned by one General Chang, who was, according to block legend, a retired senior aide to Chiang Kai-Shek. Perhaps this helps explain why he taped and barred the windows shut, locked the thermostat in the basement, and surrounded the house (on all four sides) will a stockade fence (topped in spots with barbed wire--giving the impression of a lunatic frontier outpost), then filled every room with fellow Chinese immigrants.

The Chang years were a dreary blank ...until last week, when a curious yawp was emitted by the city's bureaucracy in the form of a notice in the mail about the "Violation Re-Issuance Program," offering amnesty for ancient code violations.  I was skeptical that we had open violations on record at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). I'd thought everything on record about the house's physical status was on file at the Department of Buildings, whose website I've mined like a girl Googling her new boyfriend. (At this point I am reminded of the Soviet "Bureau of Bureaus," devoted to furniture with drawers, in Mel Brooks' early classic The Twelve Chairs.)

After some wading through the mailing and then the HPD website, I fed in our block and lot number...and voila.  There it was, a little X-File staring back off my monitor:

"OPEN VIOLATIONS: There are five violations." All were filed in 1974; one was "class A" ("non-hazardous") and four were "class B" ("hazardous"). Reading them, even in  stilted inspector-ese, was a trip down Memory Sewer:

"Properly repair the broken or defective wood floor bathroom 3rd sty public hall."

"Remove the accumulation of refuse and/or rubbish and maintain in a clean condition the cellar throughout."

"Abate the nuisance consisting of concealed ceiling leak--bathroom--2nd sty apt."

"Repair the broken or defective plastered surfaces and paint in uniform color ceiling--kitchen over sink--2nd sty apt.

"Remove the accumulation of refuse and/or rubbish and maintain in a clean condition the rear yard--throughout."

Twelve years later, when we bought the house, old Chang (now deceased) hadn't touched a thing. Rear yard packed with crap? Check. (It included more than 200 glass bottles, a cut-up tree, a demolished roof, and a buried radiator, all concealed in a forest of 5-foot-high ragweed.) Ceiling over kitchen sink broken? oldkitchen1.jpgCheck (and by then the rest of the ceiling and walls had joined it).  Second-floor bathroom ceiling leak? Well, I guess that was why Chang had replaced the plaster ceiling with rusty sheet metal (below). 

bathceiling.jpg Rubbish in cellar? Check--so much of it that our house inspector put a rider on his report, because he couldn't get anywhere near the foundation walls to inspect them.

And as for the "defective" wood floor in the third-floor bathroom, that problem had been resolved by the time we made our first horrified tour of the CrazyStable: There was no bathroom floor. How I discovered this involved House-Hunting Kung-Fu, a tale for next time.

But here's the most intriguing question: Who busted Chang to HPD? His boarders all seemed quiet, humble, intimidated--not surprising for (mostly ) poor single workmen, probably illegal and with little English, whose landlord kept the keys to their window gates under his pillow along with a gun (or so his son bragged to us). So who reported the open pits in this hellhole? A ticked-off ex-boarder?  A compassionate /outraged repairman or visitor? It didn't do any good, but it's the first indication ever that anyone took notice of the Stable's sad and dangerous decline.

Oh, by the way, for all we haven't done around here, and all the other stuff that has fallen apart, we've fixed those five violations quite nicely, thank you.  primrose.jpgIt will be my pleasure to give them an affidavit to that effect...maybe with a bouquet of evening primrose, yarrow and heirloom roses from the "clean rear yard."

All day within the dreamy house,

The doors upon their hinges creak'd;

The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse

Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek'd,

Or from the crevice peer'd about.

Old faces glimmer'd thro' the doors,

Old footsteps trod the upper floors,

Old voices call'd her from without.

From "Mariana," by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Posted on Thursday, June 15, 2006 at 01:05AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments3 Comments

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (3)

I'm enjoying your blog - I discovered you via brownstoner. I find myself relating to your experiences. My husband and I are fixing up a neglected and abused Victorian upstate (we used to live in Carroll Gardens). On a recent visit to Brooklyn, I too got sucked into the Planet of Cheese at the Fairway. I know there are possums around here, but we see more of the local groundhog. Carpenter bees have been systematically devouring the little wood Juliet balcony off our bedroom. I could go on...

Anyway, you write beautifully and I'm enjoying your poetic and offbeat insights!
June 15, 2006 at 04:32PM | Unregistered CommenterJola
Hey, why didn't you tell me the third floor bathroom actually didn't have a floor? Well, I guess it's better that you didn't, or I would have been eternally terrified of it until I could take a full-scale x-ray of the floor to prove it wasn't a hologram. I love the description of the desolate boarding house that is now the CrazyStable. Loved all the descriptions and the post!
June 15, 2006 at 05:07PM | Unregistered CommenterkATIE
Fascinating! Thanks.
June 18, 2006 at 11:39AM | Unregistered CommenterRobin

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.