This all happened in 1988, and before
I get downvoted
on this topic let me point
was hurt. I even think some good
came out of it.
At that time I lived in Manhattan
's Lower East Side (aka "The East Village" in
real estate speak)
This was shortly before the neighborhood
, as we residents referred to it, was mostly Latino (really great people
to live amongst by the way)
, with a smattering of struggling artist
s and musician
The neighborhood was pretty run down
back then; most of the tenement
s were owned
by absentee landlord
s who didn't give a shit
about the people who lived in their property
they just wanted to maximize
their return on investment
About one third of the available building
s were warehoused
- that is,
s and window
s were sealed up with bricks and the apartments were unoccupied.
This was - and still is - a pretty common practice despite the
urgent need for affordable housing
in New York
. Many landlord
s choose, for a variety
of reasons, to keep their properties unoccupied
. Some speculate
this is done to keep
s high by limiting supply, but I suspect the real reasons are more complex and varied.
Lots of funky shit
happened on the block, since cops
would only venture into that
part of Manhattan in a police van
- some six officer
s at a time. The entire time I lived
there I never
saw a cop walking down the street.
For the Latinos however, it was home and they made the best of it. Every summer evening
they would sit on their stoops
, getting out of their small, cramped and not to mention
They'd take in the night air
, shout greetings to each other across the street,
and generally enjoy life. Their children
would play in the streets, interrupting
their games when the occasional vehicle drove by.
By 10PM however, the party
was over since most of them worked blue collar job
were up at at the crack of dawn
In the winter
the block was pretty quiet regardless of the time, since nobody was hanging out
It was in the autumn
that we noticed that one of the warehoused buildings had been
s did this all of the time, so none of us ever dreamt
of calling the police
or worse, HPD - New York's "Housing Preservation and Development" (many called it Housing Prevention due to their all around bungling)
It was a few weeks after this that we began to notice
all sorts of lowlife
s types hanging
around the block. They were clearly strung out crackhead
s and it seems like a good idea
at this point to mention Fernando and Eddie
, the "good" drug dealer
Fern and Eddie, as we called them, were neighborhood kids made good. They bought
a needed commodity
at a low price, and sold it at a mark up
They added value by repackaging
the commodity, operating a distribution channel
and running a protection
Fern and Eddie never let anything funky happen with their business
. They were interested
in moving their commodity quickly, quietly and without official attention
of any kind. And they would take drastic action if anyone interfered with any of these goals.
One time a customer
of theirs needed money and stole
a piece of art
from a gallery
owned at the time. I didn't complain
to anyone since the theft
was done so quickly. I reimbursed the artist
for the stolen
work out of my own pocket.
But the artist told Fern, and the next day
his crew grabbed the scum bag
him into my gallery. They asked me if this was they guy that had stolen the art, and when
I said yes, quickly smashed his left hand
several times with baseball bat
, telling him to
never even look
at my gallery again.
Fern and Eddie gave back
to the neighborhood in many ways; every summer they
organised and funded a huge block party
, complete with band
They'd take the kids from the block camping
in the Adirondacks
a couple times a year, and
were known to buy food for families if the breadwinner
was locked down
or otherwise unable to work
were products of, and took care of their community
And surprisingly, Fern and Eddie
were very anti drug
, at least in their own personal space. Perhaps because they saw first
hand the effects of addiction
, they never touched the stuff themselves, or allowed anyone
from their families to touch it either.
The point is that Fern and Eddie sold drugs but they were socially responsible
. The people that
had opened up the warehoused building were different. They were the worst kind of
drug dealer imaginable - they sold but sold to finance their own
They didn't give a shit what happened around them, as long as they could get their stuff
s just wanted to get fucked up
, and didn't care what they had to do to get
the money necessary. There were lots of little and not so little theft
s in the neighborhood.
Lots of people were getting mugged
by one of these scum bags
and of course the
wouldn't do shit.
Fern and Eddie wouldn't intervene either - the low lifes had enough sense not to mess
with these guys, their operation or family members. There was nothing in it for them
to go after the crack heads so the situation deteriorated
It was in December
when I was coming home from an evening of fun at CBGB
s that it
happened. I was too poor
to afford a telephone
in my apartment, and had to use a pay phone
. I was calling the voice mail
box for my gallery when a scum bag passed me,
turned around and came back to ask if I had any spare change
I told him I didn't have any, and turned back to the phone. He then pushed me from behind, not hard but
still pushed me, and asked "why do you have money for the phone then?"
I could see what was coming. I told him to fuck off
and he shouted
Empty your pockets!
Dropping the handset, I moved away from the phone and put on my war face
I yelled. He pulled out this huge knife
and moved towards me.
I kicked at him with me left foot, screaming Fucker!
I had to keep him at a distance, where his weapon was ineffective.
His eyes popped wide open and he stopped coming at me.
Then he turned tail and ran back towards the crack house
I didn't notice that he was looking
past me, and so for a few brief seconds
I felt very macho! But let me explain.
One of my friends - Whiteboy!
- had this huge pit bull
. It wasn't particularly nasty
as these dogs
but it would do whatever he told it to. He used to get drunk in his crib
and would take it out late at night and watch it root around garbage can
s, killing the rats
that would rush out. (A cheap thrill!)
I heard a sound of nails on pavement as the dog charged past me, after the crackhead
The dog assured me as he rushed past (I'll take care of everything boss don't worry!)
The low life moved like an Olympic class sprinter
though, and made it to the building.
My buddy called the excited
ing and aggressive
dog off, and we talked a little about what had happened.
Apparently this wasn't the first time someone from
the block had been accosted in such a manner. He told me that the old latina
across the street
had been beaten just last week. We talked for a while more about how much these asshole
sucked, and then we parted.
I went home and thought about it. I was pissed!
The old woman was quite nice and in fact
had given me rice and beans several times when I was out of work. And what if one of
these low lifes went after my girlfriend
as she came home from her job as an exotic dancer
late at night?
I didn't know why, but this entire thing upset me greatly.
Something had to be done.
So for about a week I'd walk past the crack house several times a day.
I watched as low lifes would enter through a large hole
that had been broken
in the cinder blocks
. It was large enough to walk through with little trouble.
I noticed that people would enter and walk directly to the rear of the front room
. I heard from
residents on the block that all drug-related activity took place in a single room at the
back of the building, farthest from the street. The crack house
was most active in the early hours
of the morning.
I extended my information gathering to approaching the crack house in the daylight.
Several times I entered the front room and noted that I heard no voices during the day.
Now that I had adequate information, I made my plans. I filled several large
plastic trash bags
with toilet paper
Over the course of several days I took the plastic bags and dumped them into the front
room. This wasn't a big deal
since lots of people were dumping their trash there. The
residents, of course, didn't mind much at all since they were fucked up most of the time.
I saved one plastic bag for the last trip.
I waited for a particularly cold and rainy night. I knew that way street traffic
minimal. I put on a black sweatshirt
and blonde wig
a girl had left at my flat. Over
the black sweatshirt I put on a white
In my remaining plastic bag I also put a small milk carton containing gasoline
. I took the
bag and entered the crack house. I dropped my last bag on top of the others I'd left there
and doused all of them with the gas. I lit the mess
up and ran like hell around the corner.
Once around the corner I ducked into a dark doorway and removed my blonde wig and white
sweatshirt. I stuffed them into a trash bag and dropped it into a nearby garbage
container. I darted across the street to a pay phone
and called 911
telling them about the fire.
may not have cared about lots of things that happened down there, but they did
care about fire. In the densely packed tenements entire blocks could catch fire and burn out of control
would be destroyed. I knew they'd react quickly.
I strolled back to watch the action. Even though it was only three minutes later, the fire department
was already there, and quickly extinguish
ed the blaze. They must have encountered the residents during their search for possible victims, since shortly afterward the police
arrived. They entered the building and came out with several crack heads in custody.
The next day the city
came and sealed
the building back up.
So why am I writing this? I don't really know. I've never told anyone - with the exception
of my girlfriend
about it. I could have gotten a lot of mileage
out of it back then with the residents on
the block, but it's not particularly smart
to do something like this and then
I was younger
and much crazier
and more volatile
now. I work as an
. I've since moved to London
and I go to business school
I don't have as much time to make art
as I would like (although I make it a point to write down an idea in my notebooks every day
I have a lot more to lose by doing something
like that now.
But I like to think that even now I would do it again if necessary.
Because it was the right thing
to do at the time.