By Brooklyn Reader

September 20, 2014, 10:37 am

 

downsized_0914141509

Photo: Karen Malpede

By Guest Blogger Karen Malpede

A cocker spaniel pup and an errant bullet ricocheting around the living room caused us to seek a new apartment closer to the ground and further from Myrtle Ave.

The garden duplex we rented in 1991 is in a free standing Italianate villa with a double lot. From the large bay windows in the huge kitchen we see into the Pratt campus and watch the changing seasons. The entrance hall is lined with posters from our plays designed by graphic artist Luba Lukova (I’m a playwright, my husband an actor; together we run a theater with offices in the house).

IMG_2470

Photo: Karen Malpede

The wide-eyed, horned head of the large Yak-like puppet Basil Twist designed for a play peers from a high cupboard. The ceilings on the parlor floor are 14 ft high; there are pocket doors, two fireplaces with original mirrors. The built-in cherry wood bookcases are filled. A bronze statue of Nijinsky dances in the bay in the middle parlor we have painted Tuscan yellow.

There’s an octagonal hand-crafted chandelier we bought outside Al Alzar Mosque, a side table I made with antique Italian tiles brought from Umbria. On a brass coffee table are two masterful ceramic dogs by the artist Susan Rowland, whom I met walking dogs in the park and who, with her husband the late Federal Judge Tony Sifton, was in our living room the night President Obama was first elected.

We joined the flood of neighbors into the streets to dance and cheer: “It’s the first time I’ve seen Americans happy,” the Bodega owner said the next day. The dog park hours were times for jokes and politics; several among us lost good jobs in 2008, including a Crain’s business writer.

My daughter had the downstairs bedroom opening on the garden with a dogwood tree and ancient roses. I made my office in the little room with ground-level windows where I have written seven plays. We put our futon on the front parlor floor. Each Passover, for years, we rolled up our bed and set out snaking plywood tables for 80 or more.

We read through Judith Malina’s telling of the Haggadah, heard the prayers in Hebrew and in Arabic, chorused Allen Ginsberg’s “Holy”. Always, our home has been a semi-public space: I interviewed local survivors of the 9/11 attacks in our living room for an oral history project while my husband and Danny Simmons were installing 8 original large paintings in the G-line subway station.

Our home has been a refuge for two fatherless Bosnian families, a student displaced by Hurricane Katrina, an Iraqi actor; Egyptian, Croatian, Macedonian, Syrian and local artists have danced at our Christmas Eve parties when, in honor of George’s German family who hid him, we light real candles on the tree. We held Peace Salons during the run-up to the Iraq war. A Turkish rug sale for our theater turned the parlors into a souk. A benefit for Rabbis for Human Rights, a baby shower for a Palestinian human rights worker, rehearsals, and so much else has happened here.

Photo: Karen Malpede

Photo: Karen Malpede

But our home is not our house. Its owner, a retired banker living on Long Island, is currently taking private bids (5 to 6 million we guess) for her property which represents “a tidy nest egg” so she can ‘”live off the fruits of her labor.”

We recognize ourselves among those fruits. Developers walk our streets offering homeowners a million and more, cash, sight unseen; if the offer is accepted as happened when a multi-generational black family decamped abruptly for Las Vegas, the house is put on the market days later for twice as much. The eccentrics, the artists, the black and Italian families who owned the homes for generations are disappearing, though some are also refinancing.

The new owners and renters, mainly white, lead corporate lives. They don’t remember people like Bill Sikes who worked to landmark the district, hand crafted his house and with his wife, Lucy, a painter, sang in the Lafayette Presbyterian Church choir, a stop on the Underground Railroad.

IMG_2457

Photo: Karen Malpede

They have never been to the Sikes’ Christmas pot-luck where the rotund black director of that choir gets us to sing the Hallelujah Chorus, including our retired mailman, a tenor. They never heard the rhythms of the African dance in the basement of the Lutheran Church that’s about to become a condo.

When did our affordable, quixotic neighborhood become property? The new owners across the street rent pricey Airbnb’s, lease to film and photo shoots, sell dinners with young chefs. On the corner, a house once occupied by photographers has been carved into high-priced studios; the five family brownstone opposite is on the market. Said a realtor: “no one knows where the people will go.”

I’m reminded of Jesse Jackson’s remark: “The difference between the poor and the middle class is the down payment.” In super-gentrified Clinton Hill, the difference between the displaced and the wealthy is having had that down payment in 1976, when our landlady bought this house for a song from an Italian family whose grapevine we have harvested one last time.

I’m going to make a pie.

Karen Malpede’s newest play, “Extreme Whether,” runs Oct 2 – Oct 26, at Theater for the New City. For information and tickets, visit www.theaterthreecollaborative.org.


Want to write for us? We're looking for interns and experienced writers! Go here for more information.

About The Author

4 Responses

  1. larone

    I definitely feel your pain. Things sure have changed in Brooklyn. I own a home in Bed-Stuy and have seen my neighbors sell their homes that have been in their families for generations to real estate investors who have no concern for the renters. They’re only interested in driving the rents as high as they possibly can. The people like yourself, who have lived here and made Brooklyn the attractive borough that has others wanting to live here, should not be displaced. I’ve had many offers but i refuse to sell because if I do then what will happen to the people that call my house their home? They can’t afford the new rental rates. So i won’t sell because people are always more valuable than money. I just wish that more homeowners felt that way. I wish you the best in your fight with your landlord. I’m rooting for you!

    Reply
  2. Molly Caldwell

    It is definitely worth hiring an attorney to investigate the illegal occupancy. My understanding is illegal conversion mean not having to pay rent…and I think you can sue for back rent…but don’t quote me on that part…
    We had a new person buy our townhouse where we rent and he tried to evict us. The top floor had been illegally converted to SRO units which gave us a 6 unit building, rent stabilized eligible. We all banded together and hired an attorney. Our attorney (Tim Collins) went after the owner on the grounds that the building should be rent stabilized. After a year of fighting in court, we settled for a pretty nice amount of cash, didn’t have to pay any back rent (lived free for a year), and no additional rent for the duration of our leases (an additional 9 months). It is terrible that these owners expect they can just get away with being jerks. We cleaned out the garden, planted a ton of plants, fixed things when the old landlady didn’t. Did our own trash and recycling, and generally took care of the building without any thanks or discounts. If the new owners had come to us and said we need you to vacate the building, how can we help you, we’d have been more than willing to negotiate. But with my neighbor newly pregnant, my other neighbor with a middle school aged daughter in school, we all thought it was best to fight…and we WON!

    Reply
  3. Neighbor

    It is unfortunate that you are being asked to leave. It sounds like your landlady after many years has decided to sell her investment and retire.

    The “new” neighbors, who you mention and who I know, have been in the house since 2007. They rescued a neighborhood gem from the hands of developers. They share your sensibility and much as you describe the events and visitors to your home over the years they now carry this torch. While they rent to Airbnb travelers, the rates are reviewed on a case by case basis and not only are discounts and trades offered but they also provide free short-term housing to artists. They also provide free work space and host free cultural events; film, readings, art shows, and dance and musical performances. The film and photo shoots are often interesting projects by emerging artists. Again, in many cases no money changes hands. The dinners that you mention are part of the underground food scene which offers talented chefs the opportunity to work outside of the restaurant business. Many of these chefs work from their own homes where seating can be limited. Your neighbors provide free space so that these chefs can have the opportunity to sell a table that is in some cases more than four times the size of their own.

    Not everything that is new is bad or necessarily so different. Trust in the groundwork that the people of your generation have laid. It hasn’t been lost on everyone.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.