Herewith, the final installment (for now!) of our A Lot About a Plot series, diving deep into the histories of storied addresses around town.
Sometimes he hears them whispering in the halls.
“Horrible things have happened here,” Jean Paul tells me. “There are spirits still lingering here.”
Jean Paul Chatham is a 40-year-old gay plumber from Belize, dark-skinned with a large bush of curly, Creole hair that he keeps brushing away from in front of his face. He’s lived at Umbrella House for about 14 years. When he greets me he is shirtless, wearing camouflage pants and two protective amulets on a chain around his neck. Although clearly physically fit, he keeps apologizing for his appearance. He says his face looks the way it does because the entire building is trying to cast spells on him, or “bless him with negative energy,” as he puts it.
The main culprits are the Colombian woman downstairs and his roommate, Steven Ashmore, one of the original squatters who broke into the building with a sledgehammer in the ’80s. Jean Paul sometimes refers to Steven as the “the master” of the building, or “the Jefe” – two titles Steven vehemently denies. The two met each other outside of a gay club in Chelsea a number of years ago and they have been roommates ever since – except for a brief period when Steven had Jean Paul committed to a mental institution.
Jean Paul eventually takes me to his room and shows me where he hides his food. He says he can’t keep it in the fridge because he’s afraid Steven will poison him. Later in the night he offers me a slice of cake that Steven brought home, but says he can’t eat it in case it probably has a hex on it. He assures me the hex won’t affect me, though; it’s designed only for him.
When I ask Jean Paul to tell me more about the ghosts of the building, he shrugs it off as merely a benign haunting, not worth worrying about. “Most of the black magic here is done by the living,” he says, nodding towards the kitchen where his roommate, Steven, is brewing us a kettle of tea.
It was November of 1988, just after the second Tompkins Square Riot, when Steven and four friends smashed through the back of the building. Like tomb raiders, the five of them came into the ground floor, stepping over syringes, feces, and piles of wet clothes. The stairwell was gutted. The windows and doors had been bricked up, and the only natural light was coming from holes in the ceiling, like an old Turkish bathhouse.
Steven wasn’t the obvious one to wield the sledgehammer. He was born with a deformity on his right hand that makes him unable to use his right thumb or grip anything at all. But he was young, fit, and most of all, he needed a place to live.
Steven was 28 at the time, a fledgling art student making ends working as a go-go dancer in the Downtown gay club scene. His friend, Geerte Frenken, a Dutch anarchist and self-proclaimed “urban homesteader,” had initially invited him to start a squat on 7th Street – but they selected this place on Avenue C instead, mostly because it was so well constructed, but also because “nobody gave a shit about it.”
It was clear the building had been used as a “shooting gallery.” The needles were everywhere. The smell was awful. Worst of all, it was wet. The holes that allowed the little bit of light in also brought water when it rained. In the early days, they used tarps to keep themselves dry. They would call the building Umbrella House.
Later, while they were digging underneath the foundation to connect to the city’s sewer line, Steven remembers dusting off a date engraved in one of the old bricks. He always assumed that was the date the building went up.
This is the story of the rise, fall, and then rise again, of 21-23 Avenue C.
PART 1: CONQUERORS AND CHARLATANS
Geerte Frenken was not the first Dutch homesteader on this land.
Like most of Manhattan, it was once owned by Peter Stuyvesant, who directed the Dutch West Indies Company’s New Netherland colony from its capitol of New Amsterdam.
The earliest Europeans here were Dutch settlers who, at one point, massacred men women and children from the Canarsie tribe. Using African slaves they had brought with them, the Dutch built a wall (hence the name Wall Street) to protect themselves from Native Americans.
North of the wall were also farms, or “boweries.” At first the company owned all the boweries, but in 1638 they began offering grants for land. Many of these farmlands were worked by African slaves.
In 1654, the first Jews – about two dozen of them – would come on a boat, the St. Catherine. These Jews – most of them Sephardic, fleeing persecution from Spain and Portugal – found a natural home in the Dutch colonies.
Stuyvesant, who was deeply Anti-Semitic – he referred to Jews as a “deceitful” “repugnant” race – tried to bar the Jews from entry to the colony, but the company overruled him. Stuyvesant wrote to his superiors, “Jewish settlers should not be granted the same liberties enjoyed by Jews in Holland, lest members of other persecuted minority groups, such as Roman Catholics, be attracted to the colony.”
Ironically, it was exactly these “persecuted groups” – along with the descendants of his old rivals, the Spanish Puerto Ricans – who would come to people his palatial “bowery” estate over the next few centuries. In addition to Jews and Puerto Ricans, Stuyvesant’s farmlands would become home to African Americans, Germans, Irish, punk kids, squatters, hippies, crusties, holocaust survivors, gays, lesbians, transgender people, interracial couples – runaways of every color and creed, mixing and fighting together like those old maroon communities of the early colonial period, all but tap dancing on Stuyvesant’s grave.
Ten years after the St. Catherine arrived, the British took the Dutch colony without firing a shot. Stuyvesant surrendered to the British in his Bowery mansion, which included both farmlands and a large tract of marsh, or salt meadows. The land, to which Stuyvesant retired, would stay in the Stuyvesant family for generations.
In the late 18th century, after the colony had won its independence from Great Britain, Peter Stuyvesant’s great grandson Petrus began subdividing this land into lots. First he divided the land into three large boweries, Petersfield, Bowery Farm, and Leanderts. When he died in 1805, Petrus bequeathed the two largest farms, Petersfield and Bowery Farm, to his two sons, Gerard and Nicholas.
Leanderts and the salt meadow would be divided among his four daughters: Judith, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Cornelia. All of them would get streets named after them. Cornelia received the lot that would become Umbrella House.
Cornelia was living in Albany at the time, with her husband Dirk Ten Broeck, a wealthy Dutch patrician who came from a long line of Albany mayors. Like Cornelia, Dirk’s great great-grandfather had been one of the original Dutch settlers with the company. Dirk’s father was a Revolutionary War veteran, first a colonel and then a brigadier ceneral of the Albany militia. He served as mayor of Albany twice. Their house, Ten Broeck Mansion, is one of the largest in Albany and still stands there to this day. Albany was their town.
Dirk’s wife, Cornelia, died in 1825. Soon after, there were buildings going up on the old Leanderts farm. Originally, these were single-family wooden houses. But then, the Germans started coming, by the hundreds of thousands. By 1855, there were more Germans living in New York City than in any other place in the world outside Berlin or Vienna. Most of them were living in the Lower East Side, a neighborhood they affectionately called Kleindeutschland.
To house all the immigrants, the former single-family houses were broken up into apartments. In 1855, there were two three-story buildings on the Umbrella House lot: 21 and 23 Avenue C, both made of wood – although from maps of the period, 21 looks a little more developed than its neighbor.
This is where young Abe Dispecker lived, a German Jewish kid born to immigrant parents, who would grow up to become the first police commissioner in New York to take a stand against police brutality.
Abe’s father, Moses, owned a store on the ground floor. Moses was a German Jew. Like many Germans, Moses and his wife, Jeanette, came in 1848, a time of political turbulence across Europe. He later opened a dry-goods store on Bowery Street.
Abe was born in Albany, where the Ten Broecks lived, but his parents quickly moved to the Lower East Side. Starting in 1856, Abe attended the City Free Academy on 12th Street, a combination prep school and college designed to give a leg up to children of immigrants. The school went on to become City College.
Abe’s building was improving too. By the time Abe turned 13, the north side of his building was upgraded from wood to brick.
But if his home was improving, the city all around him looked like it was falling apart.
New York City had rival police squads competing with each other at this time. There were the Municipals who were run by the Mayor’s office, and then the Metropolitans who were run by the State. Over the summer of 1857, they began to clash, openly. On June 14, not far from Abe’s house, the Municipals stormed the Metropolitans’ police station on 6th Street. He would have been eleven years old at the time.
Eventually, the Municipals were disbanded, but the disorder from the police riots led to open gang warfare in the streets, where gangs like the Dead Rabbits, the Pug Uglies, and the Bowery Boys battled it out near Chatham Square – the same area where those first Africans had lived as free men, and the Sephardim had buried their dead.
There was also a financial panic that year, which led to some of the first protests in Tompkins Square Park, which the Germans fondly called Weisse Garden. The protesters were beaten up by police, wrote the Times. This is the city Abe grew up in.
Then, in April of 1861, the country fell apart.
Abe was in school for most of the Civil War. He would have been 17 during the Draft Riots that gripped the city for four days, and hit Tompkins as well. Although he graduated school in 1864, just in time to be drafted, there’s no indication that he went into the army.
After the war ended, Abe was 20 years old and trying to figure out what to do with his life. He got some training at Bellevue Medical School, but never practiced medicine. He later said he found it “distasteful.”
Most of Abe’s efforts at this time went into music. He taught piano lessons in the Steinway building on 19th Street. He played organ for a church on Washington Square. He even published some of his own music – although it was later besmirched as “trash” by an anonymous letter to the New York Times when he was appointed police commissioner.
Then at some point between 1867 and 1869, Abe disappeared.
Newspapers later said he “traveled with Gottschalk,” a celebrated Jewish Creole composer and pianist from New Orleans, most famous for voyaging all over the world to give his performances. Gottschalk was forced to leave the country after an affair with a girl from an Oakland Seminary in 1865. For the next four years, Mr. Gottschalk gave most of his concerts in South America.
Although we can’t know for certain whether Abe was indeed “travelling with Gottschalk,” it’s reasonable to assume he would have needed to be in South America during this time as well. We do know that in 1869, Gottschalk collapsed on stage from malaria at a Rio de Janeiro opera house – during a piece titled, “Muerto,” no less. Gottschalk was pronounced dead the next month.
The same year, Abe appeared back in his birthplace of Albany, New York, under a new name: Abraham Disbecker (the p had been changed to a b).
Rebranding himself as a journalist, Abe, now 23, started to schmooze with the political class of Albany. While working as a stringer for newspapers like the Evening Globe, or the German language “Staats-Zeitung,” Abe fell in with Boss Tweed’s people. One of them in particular would become his patron, a man named A.D. Barber.
“The few members of the legislature who could read German said Abe did not amount of much as a correspondent,” the Brooklyn Eagle wrote. “But he was a dapper fellow with large black side whiskers and a manner of great self importance, which impressed some of the chaste lawmakers of those days Tweed was in power then … The Tammany legislators of 1871 were fond of wein, weib and gesang. ‘Abe’ could play the piano and sing a song … He was a handy man to have about when the wine sparkled and conversation flagged. In this way he made potential political friends.”
At any rate, Abe was a charmer. One article later described Abe as “a medium sized, stocky built man with Hebraic features, a luxuriant dark mustache, restless eyes and a mouth of generous proportions.”
In 1871, Abe married Carolina Perry, a “society belle” who shared the name of a famous judge and state senator, John C. Perry. Abe transitioned from journalism to politics quickly. The Tweed links helped him get low-prestige jobs like “Supervisor for the City Record” or “Clerk for the Committee on Cities.” Years later, Tweed would testify he “paid Disbecker $50 a month for pretending to do work of some kind…He was inspector of something or other, but never did any work.”
Tweed was on his way out at this point anyway, and Abe probably saw he needed to switch sides.
Then opportunity struck. The Panic of 1873, the first real global depression, brought a new city administration under the helm of a German-American businessman, William Havemeyer. Mayor Havemeyer was pro-business, and a Republican, but he owed A.D. Barber a favor, specifically over legislation related to the police commissioners.
New York Chief of Police George Walling would later recall that it was Barber who actually got Abe the job as commissioner, but only on the condition that he would leave when a real candidate presented himself. When that candidate came along, Abe refused to step down, putting him at odds with the Republican mayor. “In fact,” wrote Walling, “Mr. Disbecker continued in office until Wickham [a Democrat] became mayor.”
The Panic of 1873, however, also created massive unemployment, unrest, and violence in New York City. Although there had been disturbances in the park before, when Abe was growing up, the next year would see the eruption of the first real Tompkins Square Riot – pitting thousands of unemployed German workers against the police. At the time, it was the largest demonstration in the city’s history. The police response was harsh.
“It was an orgy of brutality,” labor activist Samuel Gompers wrote. “Mounted police charged the crowd on Eighth Street, riding them down and attacking men, women, and children without discrimination…The next few days disclosed revolting stories of police brutality visited on the sick, the lame, the innocent bystander…they justified their policy by charging that communism was rearing its head.”
This was the city Dispecker, 28, would come to preside over as police commissioner – albeit, for just one year. Still, during his brief tenure as police commissioner from 1874 to 1875, Abe tried to make a stand against what he saw as indiscriminate police brutality.
“Since his advent into the board, the trials of delinquent policemen have been a marked feature of his management,” one newspaper wrote. When officers refused to testify, Abe brought a bill to the state legislature giving him the power to subpoena them.
Here is a transcript of one such trial:
“The charge is that you assaulted and beat this man with your club without cause. Did you strike him with your club?” asked Commissioner Disbecker.
“I struck him on the back.”
“Disorderly conduct. A crowd was standing in front of No. 39 Sullivan Street. They insult everybody. It’s hard to keep them away unless you give them the stick.”
“What! You give them the stick?”
“You mean by that you club them?”
“Where did you hit him?”
“On the back. There was a crowd on the sidewalk and I said, ‘get away from here,’ and struck him.”
“You are a fine officer to use a club. You have convicted yourself by your own statement.”
“The officer has got to use the stick, as they say, on those people.”
“I will not have the club used at all, except in self defense. And I don’t want any such orders given to the men. The club is used by officers too indiscriminately.”
He went on, “If a person commits a breach of the peace he must be arrested, but the officers must not use their clubs indiscriminately….I will not allow officers to club people indiscriminately without cause.”
Later that year he was made to step down, under the new mayor, William Wickham. In retaliation, not only did Abe sue the city for the years he was not paid as commissioner, he introduced a bill back in Albany to try and get the state to pay for his lawyer’s fees.
After leaving the commissionership, Abe became a successful lawyer, stockbroker, and philanthropist – but he never strayed too far from positions of power. Abe had a good heart, but he was essentially a networker. His fortunes came from his connections.
A few times, he did come close to indictment for corruption and graft (or what they called “boodle” or “dickering” at the time), but they could never catch him. Through the 1880s, a committee tried and failed to connect him to a scandal involving the bribing of Aldermen on behalf of streetcar companies. But when he was called up as a witness, he was coincidentally traveling in Europe, “where he hastened when he saw what was ahead.”
In the 1890s, Abe returned to Albany to lobby the state legislature for rapid transit in the city. He headed the Northwest Dispensary and became a chairman for a school district. He got an Irish servant. He collected art. At this point, the young kid from Kleindeutschland had become fully respectable. He made one final appearance in court where he was described as smoothing out the fur on his silk hat. He was untouchable.
Then, after several years as an invalid, Abe’s wife Carolina died. The year was 1897. Another panic gripped the country and Abe ended up auctioning off 60 of his oil paintings for $40,000. The next year, Abe remarried, this time to a Jewish girl, named Ester Hirsh, more than 20 years his junior.
The following year, a whopping six-story tenement went up on the site of his childhood home. The new address was 21-23 Avenue C, combining the lot where he grew up in with the neighbors’ next door.
In 1900, the first year of the 20th century, former police commissioner Abe Dispecker/Disbecker died of Bright’s Disease in his home on the Upper West Side. He asked that his body be cremated, and that no flowers be brought to his funeral. He was survived by his wife, Ester, who went on to become a contralto singer for Flo Ziegfeld.
In Abe’s last years, a new police commissioner took over the force whose reforms would make him famous nationwide. He instituted physical exams, firearms inspections, and hiring practices based on merit. Sometimes he would walk the cops’ beats at night to check up on them. He hired the first woman, and started the first fingerprint department. His name was Teddy Roosevelt.
Teddy’s friend Jacob Riis would take him on tours of the Lower East Side, showing him how “the other half lives.” Seeing the unsanitary and exploited conditions of New York’s immigrant working class helped shape Teddy’s political philosophy. Later Teddy succeeded where Stuyvesant failed, defeating the Spanish in the Caribbean and bringing the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico under US control for the first time. His role in the Spanish American War made him an American war hero and after serving as Governor of New York, President McKinley asked Teddy to join him on his re-election ticket in 1901. When McKinley was killed by an anarchist, four years after leaving the NYPD, Teddy became President – the youngest in American history. The Progressive Era had begun.
PART 2: THE MOST CROWDED PLACE ON EARTH
Meanwhile, back in Kleindeutschland, things were changing.
The place was always crowded. As far back as 1885, one newspaper called the neighborhood “the most thickly populated district of the world, not excepting the densely crowded parts of Pekin [sic].”
But if the Germans packed it in, they did so in a remarkably orderly fashion.
“The German is peculiar,” wrote the Christian Union. “Unlike his Irish and Yankee cousins, he does not make a great noise and hurrah over his cups, and wind up with a street brawl. He gathers unto himself a few kindred spirits, and together they wend their way to the Trink-Halle, where, in a little back room, with closed doors and drawn curtains, they guzzle beer together till none of them can see. In the morning they come out with queer-looking eyes, but there has been no disturbance in the place.”
The Pogroms in Russia would change that. The new Ostjuden who flooded in, were altogether different from their Yekke German cousins. Generally speaking, they were more religious and less interested in assimilation. They wore different clothes, and ate different food. They talked with their hands. But most of all, they were loud.
“It was a world of loud peddlers and obtrusive hucksters who hawked and screamed and shouted their wares,” writes Hasia Diner in Lower East Side Memories. “Neighbors [who] know each other’s business and intrude upon each other’s affairs.”
The first owners of the Umbrella House building were peddlers like these.
Benjamin Nieburg was a peddler of buttons and writing papers. In 1899, the architect Michael Bernstein put up the tenement on 21-23 Avenue C. The next year, Benjamin went into business with his brother, Louis, and the two of them bought the building for $31,800.
Benjamin and his Louis did everything together, even marrying two women from the same family (Benjamin’s wife, Sarah, was the aunt of Louis’s wife, Minnie). Eventually they prospered in business, moving away from peddling and opening a construction supply store on 18th Street.
Soon Benjamin was living in a “handsome residence” on 10th Street, right next to St. Mark’s Church –a historical landmark, that once served as the personal chapel for the Stuyvesant family as well as the final resting place for Stuyvesant himself.
Benjamin tried to divorce his wife, Sarah, and sent her and the children to live in Mountaindale, New York. “In the less wealthy days she was the loving wife who cooked, sewed, and helped her husband in his business, raised his first wife’s children and in their present affluence was not good enough for her husband,” wrote The World.
After four years, the Nieburg Brothers sold the building to a man named Max Verner. On July 4, 1904, just as the building was changing hands, a cop got shot in the cheek outside the building. The shooter was a Jewish kid named Louis Levy. He also lived on 10th Street, down the street from the Nieburgs.
Verner quickly sold the building to a Hungarian couple, Max and Peppy Riess. The next year, a 23-year-old Jewish girl, Hannah Felix, threw herself down the airshaft, killing herself on the eve of her wedding to another tenant. She had been living with her mother-in-law. The census showed 250 other people living in the building at the time.
It’s hard to overstate how crowded this neighborhood was at the turn of the century. If Jacob Riis’ calculations are to be believed, by 1900, the old Stuyvesant Leanderts farm and its environs had become one the most densely populated pieces of land in modern times, rivaled only by the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong.
In fact, this very block where Umbrella House sits may have been the most crowded of all, housing 4,105 people on “the most populous block in Manhattan,” as one architecture magazine wrote.
The area was also a kind of Hungarian enclave. Like the Germans before who had divided Kleindeutschland into wards based on which princely state they came from, the new Ostjuden divided the Lower East Side into zones based on their national origin.
“Between Avenue B and the East River is where the Hungarians lived,” writes Daniel Soyer. “Each regional neighborhood possessed a unique atmosphere. Observers writing in the Yiddish press thought the Romanian Quarter was ‘distinguished by its liveliness.’ Hungarian areas on the other hand, had an air of piety.”
The two most famous Hungarians on the block were Justice Gustave Hartman and “Papa” Joseph Burger.
Burger opened a famous Hungarian restaurant across the street from Umbrella House called Burger’s Café, which played host to a number of politicians over the years, such as Governor William Sulzer and President Howard Taft.
The Times dubbed Papa Joseph Burger “the Mayor of Avenue C.”
Peggy and Max Riess held onto the building through the first World War and the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918. A few years earlier Justice Gustave Hartman, another Hungarian immigrant who rose from a newsboy to a city judge, had opened a Jewish orphanage on the site of the old Methodist Church which ended up housing many of the orphans left behind by these two calamities. To this day, the tiny median across from Umbrella House is named Gustave Hartman Square.
In 1920, there was another suicide in the building. An unemployed Polish paper-box maker named Jacob Chumish had turned the gas on and killed himself in his apartment. Jacob had recently received word his wife and children were coming from Warsaw, Poland. His landlady, Peppy Riess, told the police he was recently out of work and probably thought he wouldn’t be able to provide for his family.
The next year, Peppy sold the building to one of her tenants, a 50-year-old baker named Louis Waldstreicher. He owned a Jewish bakery on the first floor of the building.
Unfortunately for Louis, his was not the only bakery on the block. Next door there was another Jewish bakery, this one run by a Russian named Max Schlessinger.
By this time the Jewish peddlers and shopkeepers had transformed into highly organized, and sometimes militant, Jewish trade unions. Two months after Louis bought the building from his landlady, his neighbor Max tried to fire one of his workers without approval from the Jewish Bakers Union. The union called for a boycott of his store.
For the next year, union members came to Avenue C just to picket Max’s bakery. They exhorted customers to keep away from his shop. They took out ads in the paper against him. Max later testified before a grand jury (in Yiddish, through an interpreter) that one union member berated and pushed his wife out of a grocery store.
The union even went as far as to open a rival store – what was called a “spite store” – next door to Max and Louis, purchasing bread and rolls and selling at a loss to try and drive Max out of business. They raised $15,000 to this effect (roughly $180,000 in 2015 dollars). Louis Waldstreicher started to lose business as well.
Out on the street, Max Shlessinger started circulating a handbill, in Yiddish, trying to bring attention to the unfair treatment he had received from the union. “What does the union want of me?” he asked. “ A question. If the union succeeds in strangling me, how long do you think this store next to mine will continue to sell bread at 5 cents a pound.”
The whole episode got the attention of the Lockwood Committee, a special committee tasked by the state legislature to investigate the city’s trade unions for unfair practices. This was not long after the Russian Revolution, and labor unions in general, were being painted across the country as suspiciously close to communism.
The lead counsel of the committee, Samuel Untermeyer, came after them hard. “There is no despotism on earth comparable with that practiced by these Jewish bakers’ unions,” Untermeyer said, on the front page of the New York Times. He ordered the rival bakery next to Louis and Max closed, and the bakers operating it to be arrested. The union quickly gave in and closed the “spite store.”
By the late 1920s, some of the Jewish trade unions had become violent. In 1928, an independent chicken seller who went against the Jewish Schochtim got his house firebombed in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The papers dubbed it “The Poultry War.” 71 people were arrested, but after some intimidation of witnesses, they all got off. One of them was Charles Herbert, the official business agent of the Schochtim Union and the so-called “Kingpin of Chicken Pullers.” He was arrested under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act for trying to dominate the chicken market, although the charges were later dropped.
Then on November 12, 1928, Herbert and an associate were eating at Burger’s restaurant, when five men walked in and shot them both at point blank range. Two years later, another man – this one with an Italian name – was found dead in a car outside Burger’s cafe.
By this time the Great Depression had hit. Umbrella House’s building, like many of the old tenements, was taken over by a lender. In this case, it was the Mutual Life Insurance Company.
In Urban Castles: Tenement Housing and Landlord Activism in New York City, 1890-1943, Jared Day writes, “During the Depression, lending institutions took control of property in the Lower East Side at an unprecedented rate, increasing from less than one percent in 1920, to eight percent in 1930.” But, Day, points out, “as lenders took control of more tenement property, rents and property values continued to decrease.”
Soon the lenders found they couldn’t find new owners to buy the property by themselves, and ended up hiring property managers and real estate agents to manage the buildings for them.
This is where Philip Zaccaro came in. In 1940, Mutual Life Insurance Company hired the famous real estate mogul’s firm to sell the property. Zacarro (father-in-law of Vice Presidential hopeful Geraldine Ferraro) was also a known associate of the Gambino and Joe Porfaci crime families, both of whom had come over in the 1920s as part of Mussolini’s purges in Italy. Zacarro quickly offloaded the building to a John R. Faruolo Jr.
In 1950, Farulo sold the building to another realty company, Absol Realty, who dumped it on to an old Jewish couple around the corner, Benjamin and Gertie Cohen. The Cohens had been living on 3rd Street since the 1930s. They were born in Poland and spoke Yiddish. By the 1970s, they had moved to Miami but kept control of the building. Benjamin and Gertie’s tenants now included two Spanish eateries on the ground floor, the Manuel Dumo and Francisco Diaz restaurants – both which would be cited for health code violations. What’s more, across the street from their old house on 3rd Street, a new kind of venue had popped up. The locals were calling it the Nuyorican Poets Café. The Lower East Side had become Loisaida.
Something had been happening to the neighborhood. It was a process that started many years earlier, back in 1898, the year before the building went up. When Roosevelt famously took San Juan Hill in Cuba, the US Army also took the island of Puerto Rico. Unlike Cuba, however, Puerto Rico remained a US possession ever since. In 1917, Congress gave Puerto Ricans American citizenship as a means to conscript them into the war effort. This meant when Congress placed quotas on immigration during the red scares of the 1920s, the Puerto Ricans remained unaffected, despite some of them actively trying to overthrow the government in Puerto Rico. A notable housing project on Avenue C is named after one such Puerto Rican Nationalist, Pedro Albizu Campos.
Once they were integrated into the American economy, the Great Depression pushed many Puerto Ricans out of the countryside. Some came to the mainland to look for work. The Second World War opened up opportunities for them. With so many American men serving abroad, city government officials began to actively recruit Puerto Ricans as a source of cheap labor. The advent of cheap air travel in the ’50s and ’60s brought them to the city en masse. In turn, they created barrios all over the city, bringing the bodega and piraguero to East Harlem, Williamsburg, and yes, the Lower East Side.
The interactions between the Puerto Rican emigres and the aging Lower East Side Jews ranged from friendly to hostile.
In Lower East Side Oral Histories, one Loisaida resident recalled “an incident where Hispanics and blacks were attacking Jews, running them out of the neighborhood. There were some Jewish merchants in our area, right on Avenue C. But we didn’t see too many of them after a while. But it was the ‘60s, man, and there was a lot of stuff going on. People were angry…about conditions. We felt like we were in poverty.”
But it wasn’t just racial tension and the ‘60s. There was also dope.
Heroin had long been sold in the Lower East Side. First, it was legal. You could get it from your doctor, or those Jewish druggists who met at Burger’s (the name “Smack” supposedly derives from the Yiddish, schmeck, for taste). In 1924, the same year as the immigration act, Congress made heroin illegal.
Then in the late 1920s the Italians moved into the neighborhood, aggressively. The same Sicilians that Mussolini had sent into exile, in particular Carlos Gambino, Joe Porfaci, and Joseph Bonnano, settled here. While Gambino and Porfaci had direct connections with Phillip Zacarro, it was Joseph Bonanno’s family that would become involved in one of the largest drug conspiracies of the age.
By the 1970s, an international conspiracy of Turkish poppy growers, Corsican Mobsters in Marseille, and Italian-American mobsters brought more heroin to New York City than the city had ever been seen before. This was known as the “the French Connection.” As for Alphabet City, the police simply gave up on trying to stop the dealing.
The order came from on high. The Knapp Commission, which was designed to root out widespread corruption in the NYPD, recommended that police direct its efforts away from low level street dealers and focus on the high level suppliers instead. The result was essentially a hands-off policy in the Lower East Side, allowing the area, with its freshly abandoned buildings and empty lots, to turn into one giant open-air drug market. Witnesses called it a “buyers paradise,” and “the Mecca of Dope,” according to We Deliver: The Gentrification of Drug Markets on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
In 1970, New York magazine ran a profile of a Puerto Rican couple, who mugged their neighbors in order to score heroin. They lived in an abandoned tenement on Avenue D. The article was titled “Mugging is a way of life.”
It was in this climate that Benjamin and Gertie Cohen called it quits and moved to Miami.
Landlords all over the city were doing the same. The city’s fiscal crisis, culminating in 1976, brought a spiral of crime, decay and abandonment. Some landlords would simply torch their buildings for the insurance money. In an effort to try and stop the abandonment, the city started taking over buildings with unpaid taxes, but like the lenders who took over the buildings in the ‘30s, this only made the problem worse, and abandonment increased. In 1976, Benjamin Cohen died and the Umbrella House building was sold to Lacer Realty. The city repossessed the building soon after.
The city slated Umbrella House for a cross-subsidy plan, and was given over to an interfaith group called Adopt-a-Building. Herman Hewitt was working for the non-profit at the time. He was the one given the job of sealing up the building. He put the cinder blocks in the windows, and in the doors.
A Jamaican immigrant himself, he describes himself as “young, foolish, and idealistic” then. He’s 70 now. Sometimes he would draw plant boxes and put curtains in the windows to make it look like it was habitable.He denies ever putting holes in the roof, though. In Herman’s mind, what they were doing was preserving the building.
“We wanted to stop urban renewal, and preserve the existing housing style so we could turn it over to the community,” Herman said, over the phone. “Sealing up the building was our way to do that.”
In 1984, real estate developers and community leaders were putting pressure on the city to do something about the dealers. There was also a new mayor, Ed Koch, a new district attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, and most importantly, a new police commissioner, Benjamin Ward. It was Ward’s initiative, called Operation Pressure Point, that attempted to take Alphabet City back from the dealers. His tenure as police commissioner would also show a huge increase in hiring of minority police officers.
Ward was the first African American to hold the position. Ward had risen through the ranks, from a traffic cop on First Avenue to being a key figure in the Koch administration’s “tough on crime” campaign. First, he was a state commissioner for correctional services. One of his reforms was prohibiting New York state prison guards from being in the KKK. Koch brought Ward into head the Housing police for the city, then the Corrections department.
In 1983, Koch appointed him police commissioner.
Ward announced at the news conference: “Many people make the mistake of thinking that black people are liberal because they are black. I’m very, very liberal when it comes to race relations, but when it comes to law enforcement, I am very, very conservative. I certainly believe bad guys belong in jail.”
On Thursday, January 19, 1984, 240 uniformed police officers hit the streets of Alphabet City. One newspaper at the time described it as “an army of occupation.” In an article titled “D-Day hits Lower East Side,” Ward is quoted saying, “Our goal is to give the streets back to the community.” The police arrested over 100 people in one day. The majority were from outside New York, coming to buy or sell near the top of the supply chain where the drugs were purest.
Ward’s incursions into the East Village continued, and soon the police were getting into altercations with the tent squatters in Tompkins Square Park. These skirmishes escalated, and eventually culminated in the second Tompkins Square Riot of 1988. Police on horseback had returned, except this time with helicopters overhead.
It was the height of summer and demonstrations against the park closure were underway. Ward was determined to empty the park, and enforce the curfew.
In an almost exact repeat of the first Tompkins Square riot of 1874, police made a distress call, and the reinforcements, having no training in riot control, attacked the mob with brute force. The New York Times called it “a war zone.” Poet Allen Ginsberg told a Times reporter, “the police panicked and were beating up bystanders who had done nothing wrong and were just observing.
A few anarchists did throw bottles and M-80s at the officers, however. They called themselves the “Bottle Brigade.” In the front facade of Umbrella House, right above the door, you can still see some artifacts from that riot. Look closely, and you can see a bottle among the bricks.
It was in the aftermath of this riot that Steven Ashmore and four friends broke into the back of Umbrella House with a sledgehammer.
On the roof, he showed me the exact spot where they had come in.
He gave me a quiet knowing nod. Steven doesn’t smile much, but when you see his lip curl up just a little bit, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm.
They had scouted out buildings for a few months during the summer. Originally they were looking at a building on 7th Street. Then they eventually came on Umbrella House, he said, because it was so well constructed, but also because it was city property.
Soon refugees from the Tompkins tent city started coming to stay in the building. Many were drug users. The first winter was harsh, but for whatever reason, they were left largely alone by the authorities. Steven described the area then as a kind of no man’s land. The police presence from the riot or Operation Pressure Point seemed to be non-existent down on Avenue C.
In the spring of 1989, the building next door started to collapse. A demolition crew came with a wrecking ball, and the police announced that the squatters would have to be evacuated. Siobhan Meow, a transgender activist, artist, and cat-lover, barricaded herself in the building, and put up a sign in the window saying, “I’m willing to die for my home, how about you?”
“Siobhan is a bit more dramatic than me,” Steven recounted to me. “But It was close. It was very close.” A claw came to start taking down the building next door, and they felt their own tenement start to shake. It had hit the side of the building.
Through criminal defense lawyer Stanley Cohen, who did pro bono work for the squatters among other things, they were able to make a deal with the police to allow them to stay in the building during the demolition. Not only that, Cohen managed to negotiate with the contractors to stop using the claw on the building next door. They had to take it apart with crowbars instead. Cohen is currently in jail for tax evasion.
For the next few years, the squatters made improvements to the building. They had stair-making parties. They mixed concrete. They even connected the building to the sewer line under the street. With the airshaft in the center that Hanna Felix had used to jump to her death, they installed a pulley system that allowed them to pull supplies up and down quickly. The pulley is still there today.
“Everything you see in my house – everything – I carried up,” Steven told me. He wiggled his right hand at me, to remind me of his handicap.
Then in 1995, under Giuliani, the raids started up again. There were around 30 squats in the East Village at the time, and the police were taking them out one by one. Helicopters would come by at night and personnel carriers filled the streets. “It was like an army invasion,” Steven says. They waited for the day the raid would come on Umbrella.
But the day never came.
“That was actually the most stressful aspect of living in the building, more than the condition,” Steven told me. “It was insecurity everyday. Any day could be the day they come to evict you.” They created a phone tree with the other squats, to warn each other if one got raided.
But the raid never came.
In 2002, they started to work out a deal with the city to get sponsorship with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. The Bloomberg administration was more amenable to them than Giuliani had been. Just as it seemed the deal was about to go through, though, a fire inspection came.
Steven described coming home and finding the building full of fire department people. Some of them started swinging their axes at Siobhan’s artwork in the stairwell. Then an official showed up from Housing and Preservation Department, an agency the squatters had traditionally been at odds with. It could have been the final eviction.
“This tall handsome Latino guy comes in,” Steven explains, “and we knew we were either fucked or had just been saved.” It turns out the tall, handsome man was the Assistant Commissioner for the Housing and Preservation Department. He told the firefighters to back off, and that HPD would “take care of everything.”
“They saved our ass that day,” says Steven. HPD ended up paying to bring Umbrella up to code, replacing the homemade stairs the squatters had poured, and providing new fire escapes and doors. The deal with UHAB and the city went through, and the building became a limited equity co-op. “We were very fortunate,” Steven says.
The squatters had, for lack of a better word, won.
Ten years later, during Superstorm Sandy, it was the squatters who would be pumping out the water from their neighbor’s apartments. The bottle brigade had become the “Bucket Brigade,” and Bill DiPaola’s Times Up bike became locally famous for powering people’s batteries. He claims they were feeding people on the street a week before the National Guard showed up. In the spring of 2015, Umbrella House started a garden on the roof. Once again, 21-23 Avenue C had become a farm.
The last time I met Steven, he was vacuuming the stairwell on the top floor which he shares with his roommate Jean Paul and Siobhan Meow, the only other original squatter left in the building.
I noticed that among the many paintings in the stairwell there is a large one of a naked man in a crucifix position. Steven explained to me it was actually a photo of him from his go-go days. This is naked Steven. The painting was his unfinished thesis from art school.
Beneath the painting, there’s two patches of the wall that haven’t been painted over. You can see the concrete underneath, and the tags that were there “even before we moved in.” Steven explained he has left the original layer there on purpose. “For the history,” he said.
“For years it was empty, destroyed – as far as I’m concerned we saved something existing and made it viable,” Steven said. “We saved it.”
Then Steven started telling me about this show he was watching. The subject was Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Adoration of the Magi.” Steven is a case manager now for homeless youth, but his passion is still clearly painting. He went on and on about the program. The part of the show that struck him most, though, was how many other artists had worked on the Da Vinci painting.
At first it was Da Vinci, or “the master” as Steven calls him. This is especially funny to me, because Steven’s roommate, Jean Paul also likes to call Steven “the Master” of the building, or “the Jefe.”
But then, Steven added, another 30 painters came and worked on it as well, each adding their own layer. Looking around the halls at those left-behind concrete patches, standing on the stairs that Steven once laid with his own hands, it became clear Steven was talking about the building, and also, in a way, himself. Umbrella House is his “Adoration of the Magi,” a living work of art – a culmination not just of his life’s work, but of all the tenants, slumlords, artists, poets, schemers, addicts, dealers, squatters and survivors who passed through over the years.
Downstairs a family entered the building, and a child’s voice echoed up the stairwell. I shook Steven’s hand again, and he went back to his vacuum. “The building pays us to clean it,” he said, putting his earmuffs back on, as if he is a simple servant of the co-op, as opposed to its founder and keeper. “But we take shifts. This week, it’s my turn.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story was revised because it misidentified someone as a member of the Bottle Brigade.