This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
In late October, I emailed Fly, a resident of the former Seventh Street Squat, to tell her that I was able to find out when her home of two decades had been built. The six-story apartment building at 209 East 7th Street was completed in 1897. “Interesting!” she wrote back, “There is a marker on the top of our building commemorating 1899 as the year the building was completed.”
From that point on, the legend – 1899 – inscribed within a diamond-shaped box, on the building’s bright turquoise capstone, became my obsession. Was it commemorating the start or completion of the building? Were there really no occupants before then? What was it really memorializing?
From the late 19th century, 209 East 7th Street seemed like the kind of building that sheltered underdogs, especially immigrants and their families. Families from Russia, Prussia, Austria, Germany, and other European countries settled into the tenement from the 1900s onward. By 1916, the building itself had transformed from a five-story tenement into a six-story multi-family dwelling, which included a basement and two ground-floor shops. A synagogue surfaced next door.
And yet, the date on the inscription seemed to ignore what historical records show: the presence of residents at the address, presumably in an older building, as early as 1853. The 1853 and 1868 Manhattan Land Books show a building standing on the northern side of the block between Avenue B and C. In the U.S. Census of 1880, even, Christopher Rangover, a carpenter from Prussia, and Jordan Traub, who worked in glassware and had just migrated from Baden, Germany, put down 209 East 7th Street as their address.
Not much earlier, in 1827, Elias Brevoort, whose family was among New York’s most powerful, owned the land where the original building eventually would stand. His farm bordered that of Prutus Stuyvesant, which he partitioned amongst a number of descendents of the Stuyvesant family in 1806. In fact, if the building’s block was cut diagonally in a perfect half, Brevoort would have ownership over the lower half, while Judith Winthrop, daughter of Peter Stuyvesant and Margaret “Peggy” Livingston Stuyvesant, would get the upper one.
The same year Brevoort came to own the farm, he also conveyed portions of it to Henry Jr. Brevoort, and John Flack. Both men would play a role in saving the building, and all of its 150 surrounding lots, from falling into disuse. According to Katharine Greider’s account in “The Archaeology of Home,” published a few years earlier, nine enterprising men in 1824 formed the Lewis Association and bought what had been a 16-acre meadow from Colonel Morgan Lewis, a governor of New York (1804-1807). The building’s block was part of the meadow. The men divvied up the meadow into plots and eight holdings, with each two men together holding one share.
By the time 1827 came around, the Lewis Association failed to pay a mortgage and faced foreclosure on the property. They transferred the debt to Brevoort and Flack, the strongest merchants in their group and those best equipped to handle the debt. But they defaulted. Six years later, Flack’s executors auctioned off the lots in the blocks between 6th and 9th Street, and Avenues C and D, as well as the building itself. And yet until as late as 1921, the Bromley Atlas still indicated that the property had been part of the Lewis Association. The lots were deeded to James B. Murray, a gentleman and city alderman.
Afterwards, James Murray, Anne and Thomas Davis, and Hiram Curtiss and others were actively invested in buying and selling a set of two dozen or fewer lots, which they had bought from each other over the years between the late 1830s and 1840s. Those lots included the building no. 209-211, which took up one entire lot. In 1852, the building lot changed hands again, and on May 3, 1897, it went to Jonas Weil and Bernard Mayer.
Weil and Mayer were developers, partners of 40 years in the real estate firm of Weil & Mayer. They had amassed a fortune in Manhattan real estate in a short time, after first working in butchery, livestock, and packing. And yet, their pursuit of 209 East 7th Street wasn’t their biggest procurement. Weil and Mayer commissioned the American architectural firm, Schneider & Herter, to build several of the city’s architectural marvels: Park East Synagogue in 1889, and the Congregation Kol Israel Arshi three years later. Just before the century turned, they asked permission to build multiple dwellings on East Seventh Street, among them number 209.
On March 15, 1897, Schneider and Herter filed construction plans with the city on behalf of their two clients. The plans were for the erection of an entirely new building that would be occupied as a tenement by 31 families. There is no mention of the older structure it would replace or whether its demolition was contested. This one was not a bellringer in Manhattan’s architectural history, although many of their other buildings got landmarked. It is not one of the eight buildings constructed by Schneider and Herter that got designated as landmarks in the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District. To emulate a semblance of the Romanesque Revival style, Schneider and Herter applied for a permit to construct a “first story main entrance hall of 4” I beams (steel) filled in width with hollow burnt brick, in place of 8” wall.” The Department of Buildings initially rejected it. But if one thing can be surmised, it is that the legend was put up after the pair took over to mark the completion of the tenement’s construction — two years later.
Neither Weil nor Mayer were Lower East Siders. They lived uptown. Weil was known for his philanthropy. He is pictured in the 1908 History of German Immigration in the United States and Successful German and their Descendants as half-bald with a plump square face. It describes him as “the greatest benefactor of all time,” a man whose name is on the donor list of every charity throughout the city. He even donated to his German hometown, Emmendingen, which made him an honorary citizen.
Indeed, 209 East 7th Street seems to have served a philanthropic purpose of its own. After Weil and Mayer took over the property, it became home for nearly half a century to many newly arrived immigrants. In 1910, as the building fell victim to tenement overcrowding, it was housing 20 families–170 individuals in all. One was Jacob Packer, who was elected president of the First Novoselitzer Bessarabia Lodge; while it is unclear what the Jewish organization did in the early century, post-WWII Novoselitsa organizations would aid landsleits, or Jews from the same district in Europe (usually from Novoselitsa, Ukraine) who had survived the war. The organization helped with funds, relief parcels, and packages.
From the 1850s until just after World War II, the pervasive Jewishness of the Lower East Side and East Village meant that Jewish organizations and Yiddish publications flourished in the area. This tenement, its residents, and owners were no strangers to this crawl. For one, Weil, Mayer, Schneider, and Herter preferred working together because they shared the same ethnic identity. They were German Jews. Weil was also devout. He built the Jewish orthodox Zichron Ephraim Congregation or the Park East Synagogue in memory of his father (the synagogue’s rabbi was his brother-in-law). Moreover, most of the building’s residents had Jewish names. For example, Sam Rosenberg, a cutter from Austria, who moved to the US in 1909, became president of the Sassover Young Men Benevolent and Educational Society in 1916, which was classified as a 53-member local Jewish organization in the American Jewish Year Book.
In 1949, the deed to the building was transferred to the Central Saving Bank of New York after the owner foreclosed on two mortgages, taken out earlier in 1907 and 1923. The total real estate assessment of 209 East 7th Street went down from $56,000 in 1926 to $30,000 in 1943-44. By 1966, the city had seized the building.
That was not unusual at the time. By the late sixties, most of the real estate owners on the Lower East Side, writes Fred Good, were “absentee landlords, living as far away as Florida or California.” “They treated their real estate as income property,” he continues, through collecting rents, “frequently allowing their buildings to deteriorate while accumulating back tax liabilities as well as building violations imposed by city inspectors.” Many buildings were abandoned, and thus repossessed by the city through tax foreclosure. By 1979, the city had taken over ownership of 60,000 units in vacant buildings and another 40,000 units in occupied and semi-occupied buildings, according to a Furman Center report.
Around that time, squatters began moving into 209 East 7th Street, as squatting became popular in the East Village. Squatters in New York were inspired by similar movements worldwide such as the 1960s Dutch Provos, the 19th century French utopian communes, and even the punk rock-styled “Do it Yourself” culture. The squatters, writes Colin Moynihan, were a mixture of working families, artists, skilled tradesman, and anarchists. They moved into the abandoned buildings and restored and repaired them.
Officials responded to the squatters by evicting them in large numbers during the 1980s and ‘90s. The May 30, 1995 evictions on East 13th Street still hold strong in the memories of some squatters. “Hundreds of police wearing visored helmets and supported by armored personnel flooded into the block between Avenue A and Avenue B and evicted residents from three squats there. The eviction was broadcasted on television and reported the next day in newspapers,” writes Moynihan.
Fly is a second generation squatter of 209 East 7th Street, known as the Seventh Street Squat. I visited her in what is now her home apartment, rather miraculously transformed since she moved into the building in 1992. A three-alarm fire ravaged the building. The next day, March 15, 1990, Newsday covered the blaze with a single-page spread, two-thirds of which consisted of a photo of firefighters on a crane trying to extinguish the flames leaping from the upper floors. A caption mentions that “twenty squatters were evacuated from the building.”
From above, the building looked like an eviscerated shell – the fifth and sixth floors taken out completely. The eastern stack was in pretty bad shape. It was a ruin, with soot-blackened remnant stones poking up from the top. The squatters, who lost their home to the fire, started recruiting helpers to rebuild the squat. Fly was among the first to volunteer. She was a former ABC No Rio squatter, but she got tired of the younger, punker squats. So, she lent herself to the Seventh Street squat, which she thought was more “diverse” and “professional.” “Some had architectural backgrounds, and could really keep the building up to code,” she said. “Everything was such a wreck.”
The squatters interviewed her, put her on a three-month probation, then voted her in. Eventually, she was granted a space, which is now her home. It was one of the “strict squats,” she remembers. You had to really prove yourself, and “I was a good worker,” she said.
Fly brought out two one-foot thick albums, her own effort to document the history of the building from the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s. She is also now writing a book about the history of squatting in the East Village. She showed me photos of the extensive masonry, framing and scaffolding, roofing, plumbing and piping, flooring, and other construction work put into the building.
There is one photo of her smashing through a brick wall, and another of her laying down weighty beams. She doesn’t look much different today– a bit older, but still lithe and strong, and with her physical trademarks: large-framed glasses, some variation of punk-colored, bold hair highlights and crazy hair dos. Featured on the cover of the 2002 edition of City Limits magazine is a slightly tanned Fly in tobacco-colored glasses, posing sideways, midriff exposed, her tied-back hair a teal blue crossed with bleached stripes.
Today, the frames of her glasses are lime green and the highlights in her hair are green, too. She has deep dimples and a tattoo on her wrist of the building’s number: 209. An upwards zigzag of an arrow shoots through the zero. We sat in her kitchen and skimmed through the albums. She looked back, pointed at the window opposite from us, and then at a photo with the same window. “I chiseled that window out of a brick wall,” she said. “It might’ve taken me a week. It was like a prison!”
Then, she took me through a list of heavy-duty tasks she remembered doing: All the arches were repaired. Floors, with gaping holes in them, were built. The insides of the steps on the stairs were poured with cement. The triangular mosaic above the building’s entrance was handmade with deep-sea-blue Arizona iced tea bottles that are no longer produced. Beams were installed. Walls were cemented. Windows were carved out — the loose bricks underneath them pulled out — and framed with blue police barricades. “We were in a war with the police, but it was funny the things they’d let us get away with. We would walk away from demonstrations with these barricades under a tarp,” she joked.
She then reflected on harder times. “This place was literally a rat hole,” she continued. In the beginning, there was no running water or heat, and barely any plumbing. “If you didn’t leave the water running at full blast, it would freeze in the winter. My piss bucket sometimes froze from the cold. We were pirating electricity. And if I didn’t find wood for my wood-burning stove, or if it went out for any reason, my house would get cold very quickly.” It was a tough way to live.
Things turned brighter in 2002, when the city came to the squatters with a deal that would make headlines worldwide: twelve squats had the chance to be turned into special co-ops if they were brought up to the code under the aegis of the cooperative housing nonprofit Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, or the UHAB. The city sold the East Village squats to UHAB for $1 apiece, which then turned them over to the resident-squatters for $250 after completion of maintenance and repairs. On June 24, 2010, UHAB finally announced the closing of the loan taken out for the 19-apartment buildings. Residents of 209 East 7th Street then took control of their own housing.
Fly, and a few other squatters who still reside in the building, know what it means to come to own your house by the sweat of your brow. In an article she published in an anthology called Resistance, she pondered these lessons.
“Being involved in this whole process,” she writes, “really makes you appreciate and respect your surroundings….The knowledge of how to build and maintain my own living space gave me a sense of calm in the midst of chaos.”
Indeed, Fly has many proud moments. Like the time when they used her paintings, hung for years on scaffolding in front of the building, to fix the basement ceiling. Another of her paintings was installed inside a window in a vestibule. The other time was when the residents paid a contractor $3,000 to dig up the street and fix a broken water main.
“We were proud,” she beamed, “because for once the city was acknowledging us and telling us, ‘You are the owners and you are responsible.’ They finally trusted us.”
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the date that Fly moved into the building.