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We first met Marc McBarron Kessler (right) on March 31, 2022 when he stood on the steps of 412 W46th Street alongside a gaggle of local politicians holding a press conference. The fight was to save his Hell’s Kitchen home and correct the “deplorable conditions”. Yesterday, the trucks arrived with scaffolding to begin the demolition of 412. Since a fire and floods, Marc has been living in the building next door — which has the same landlord and is in a similarly derelict condition. He wrote this essay about how he has to leave as the demolition begins this morning.
In my time, I have lost friends, I have lost loved ones and pets, but I have never lost a home. Moving away isn’t the same thing as losing because when you move away you can still visit the place you moved from and hear the echoes of yesterday chirp or cry through the old windows you once looked out of and recall your younger self sitting on the other side of the glass, weeping over a heartache that seemed so crushing at the time but was nothing compared to the adult wars you would one day be asked to fight like a diligent soldier. We are losing our home in a week and I have yet to cry. Perhaps that is the end-result of surviving adult wars. I have raged, I have expressed my “righteous anger” as a friend calls it, I have protested and called upon every resource of my learned activism, but I haven’t cried. Yet, I suspect I will. I’m just in survival mode right now, postponing the human in order to be a warrior.
I succinctly recall the first time I visited John’s apartment on 46th Street to play him my songs and meet his cats (one of them would eventually bite me) and climb the not-straight stairs to his third floor open door. A cat came out to greet me and the building had the feeling of an old funhouse. It was haunted the way old things are and in the air was the quiet excitement that enchants the halls of all New York buildings that have stood through two turns of centuries. John was waiting for me in the hall, a six-foot-four child-man who had lost his partner only a few brief years before to a sudden heart attack after a crippling illness that left him a slave to his wheelchair. They were supposed to grow old in this apartment together but only John and his cats and his partner’s plants remained. His apartment unit was haunted in a different way than his building was. A closed wheelchair leaned against a wall like a resting accordion. A plastic medical stool used for showering sat before his keyboard. Balled-up abandoned black socks made a bleak garden of the dull hardwood floors.
John didn’t know it, nor did I, but in a way, I moved in that day. I refused to sit on a hospital stool to make music. I eventually made him get rid of the wheelchair that his cats used as a makeshift scratching-post. I encouraged him to open the windows and brought my songs to his silent living room. The apartment was once again fed with music. We rehearsed shows there. I composed there and wrote plays at a table on lonely New York afternoons. The garden of socks was moved to the vase of an overflowing hamper. He polished his old floors and they gleamed like bowling alley lanes. And, as days gathered into years, he lost cats, his father, but the apartment remained. And so did his late partner’s plants that I watered and revived.
We were rehearsing our play Burning Circus when, one cold February night, while we were enduring another unjust run of no heat and no hot water, a fire broke out. We acted as swiftly as the flames. I put John’s last remaining cat, the friendly one, into a carrier and gathered up all my writing and John’s photo albums and we got people out of the building and made it safely to the chaos of the street — which had been instantly transformed into a congested storm of smoke and firetrucks and onlookers. John was distraught as flames shot from the upper windows of the building. He cried in a way a person cries during a tragedy. “Oh my god, my home’s burning down!” He cried without tears. I stood by him on the winter street, his elderly cat in a carrier, my writing in my arms, and didn’t fully fathom that this was to be the beginning of a long and futile battle, the beginning of a relentlessly drawn-out end. For, it wasn’t the fire that murdered 412, it was the flooding that came as a result of the building never being given a new roof when the old one was burned away. How can you expect a building to stand without a roof? You can’t.
What is worse, fire or floods? A year with no roof and only tarps clothing the top of the building meant that getting rid of a hospital stool or a wheelchair didn’t matter in the end because they would have been washed away anyway. One Friday night, about a year after the fire and the many floods that followed, John’s building was vacated, just like that. Weeks later, we returned to the building to check on plants and whatever possessions survived and we continued recording our album (John’s apartment was also our recording studio) until light was evicted from the sky, electrical wires skirting puddles, dodging drips from the caving ceiling, because art is like that. Art offers you a reason to live when life fails you without reason. The lostness that I felt after the vacate order was like courting death. I sat alone in the park on 48th Street, not knowing what to do with my days. My heart was a womb of despondency and confusion. How could the city make such a public fail and how could our landlords get away with almost killing us and robbing us of our home? These questions still haven’t been answered, but in the ensuing years, I developed and honed my strength. I fought without boxing gloves, without anyone in my corner. People called me “angry.” (They still do.) Sometimes I think anger is just another word for strength. When someone says, “You shouldn’t be so angry,” maybe they are really saying, “You shouldn’t be so strong.”
We moved into an apartment right next door to our building, temporarily and with the same landlords, until 412 was repaired, with the promise that we would be able to move back in when that happened. That never happened. What was supposed to be a year tumbled into seven years. And all that time 412 sat without a roof as our own building endured (and still endures) a similar tragic fate. No repairs were ever made to either building. How do you expect a building to stand if it doesn’t have a roof? We talk of strong foundations, but what about strong roofs, or any roof for that matter?
Elected officials and city inspectors spoke with us Monday evening and, without apology, told us that 412 will be torn down next week and that, for seven years, the Department of Buildings knew that 412 was on the brink of collapse and if that building collapsed, our current building would go down with it. This is no small confession. They kept referring to the building as “property” and I corrected them and called it “our home.” And after the phone call, I had a “talking-to” regarding my anger. I did not apologize. Yes, I am angry. That anger is a part of me, sort of like a second spine that will never go away. I earned my anger and, in a way, it was the only thing I could trust to stand, to hold me up, to not get flooded, during the weary and futile battle of the past seven years.
When I remember 412, I will try and bypass the subsequent floods and struggles and recall the first day I met it and its somewhat lopsided funhouse halls, John’s cats, now long gone, greeting me through the open door, the kitchen plants that needed reviving but clung to life and light nonetheless, the balled-up socks on the living room floor, the music that immediately offered the sad apartment a new wind of life, and I will feel the immense loss of a building that didn’t do anything to anyone but offer them a home, despite the abuse and neglect it endured, not just through years but through centuries. I will think of all the dreams that were made before windows that looked out onto familiar sidewalks or the changing city skyline, tears shed in its bedrooms, birthdays and holidays celebrated in its living rooms, Christmas trees carried up and down flights of stairs, and I will ultimately feel as I felt on that 48th Street park bench all those years ago after we were forced to vacate 412. I will feel the voluptuous loss that haunts you after surviving a tragedy and sits upon your heart like overfilled luggage, a loss that, when you live with it for so long, becomes a part of you and perhaps that is how the void is filled.
I am not afraid to say that I am a loser. To win, you need people in your corner. People cheering you on. This has been a lonely fight. And I lost it. I fought to save 412, but I couldn’t do it alone. A building cannot live without a roof. So, for now, my plants are safe in our current apartment, unless our building does, in fact, come down with 412. And when 412 is sentenced to its death, maybe I will finally cry. I’ve been so busy fighting that I needed to keep the windshield of my eyes free of rain. I needed to see the road of truth, for truth is often not what is spoken but what is seen. 412 speaks for itself, and its final words to the city, as it is taken down, brick by brick, will be, “You failed me.”
You can follow updates of what’s happening at 410 and 412 W46th Street on the 46th&FedUp Twitter account.
Yesterday afternoon (Wednesday), a group of local officials including Council Member Erik Bottcher and Manhattan Community Board 4 (MCB4) members Joe Restuccia and Paul Devlin came to visit the site along with officials from the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). HPD will be in charge of the demolition of 412 W46th Street, which was condemned by the Department of Buildings (DOB) earlier this year. Residents and officials fear that the demolition will endanger the buildings on either side.
After the meeting, Paul Devlin, Co-Chair of the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen Land Use Committee of MCB4: “The declaration by the Department of Buildings that 412 W 46th Street must be demolished is a travesty and a continuation of the pattern of demolition by neglect we at MCB4 are working to end. I came to today’s walk-through to help protect against damage to adjacent buildings and to highlight this systemic problem so that we can find solutions. We have seen over 19 properties go through this vicious cycle, resulting in the loss of too many homes — and this pattern needs to stop.”
Council member Bottcher said this morning: “What’s happening at 410-412 West 46th Street is an embodiment of the worst side of corporate greed and neglect, combined with flaws in our city policies to address it. The fact that a property owner can leave their roof uncovered and open to the elements for years, until the building is in danger of collapse and taking down adjacent buildings, is a loophole that we must work to have addressed. Since we rallied with the tenants last spring, we’re closer to going to trial in a 7A legal case that would wrest control of the building away from the owner and appoint an independent property manager who would repair and manage the building. The 7A program is one of the most extensive actions that the City can take against a private property owner and we’re hopeful that we will prevail in court and provide these tenants with the safe and comfortable housing they deserve. I want to thank Housing Conservation Coordinators, Community Board 4, the West 45/46th Street Block Association, our partner agencies and, most of all, the tenants who are bravely fighting this fight amidst an unjust system.”
This “pattern of demolition by neglect” is indeed a travesty. And, many times, it is also calculated. Until our “elected officials” start valuing their people over profits and politics, our city will continue to die.
“Love is”, after all, “a responsibility.”
All my love and respect to Marc McBarron Kessler and John Reeds, who gave me a magical artistic home while we developed brave original theater in their living room at 412 West 46th.
They are artists, activists, and human angels.
A powerful article.
A lot of issues to unpack.
Too much suffering and abuse for too many years.
Is the landowner paying for the demolition? If not, why?
What happens to the empty lot? Will the landowner profit from abuse and neglect?
This has been going on for years. Slime-lords get away with murdering a building by neglect. People elected to help blame lack of legal recourse. I remember a day when the electeds would find ways to find justice that may not be a direct address. Those days are sadly gone.
I am not sure how after this essay was published and after Erik Bottcher spoke of the 7A in his response and after DOB is setting up scaffolding for the demolition of 412, Erik’s office is segueing the sale of our buildings, allegedly meeting with a potential buyer in private and permitting our slumlords to turn a profit on our pain. This information came to me tonight and I promise, as a tenant and as an advocate for other victims in a city that is not doing enough to protect the innocent and honest, I will disclose every hidden corner of this horror story. The timing of this sale is extraordinarily suspicious and the truth, even if it takes years, will come to shore. It is also sad and frustrating that this information was delivered to me by a neighbor (who is a part of our fight) and not the said elected official.
Landlord harassment is criminal behavior and something that should not be rewarded. Keystone Management operating out of California WILL be held accountable for the torture they were permitted to inflict on us and other tenants for far too many years. New York City needs to stop enabling slumlords.
And a final note to other “local officials” who dabble in real estate and who tried to silence me or shape my narrative at yesterday’s futile event: You are not the owner of my mouth and I will say whatever I want. Real estate is killing my city.
It’s about time they did away with it to make room for something new and liveable. Amen!!
This was my home for 30 years. I care more than you can ever know about the people and the state of the building. Having spent countless hours on the phone with management getting things fixed. I spent the holidays feeding the boiler man dinner while he sat in the cold basement trying to fix a boil that was beyond repair.
I visited the tenant’s apartments taking photos and writing the problems down. Reassuring them that they wouldn’t lose their homes.
Fred Oheb Salom, the terrible slumlord, should go to jail or be made to live in the squalor we had to deal with. Meantime, he’s at home in his Kings Point Long Island home.
Thank you for sharing your story! John well remembers you and all your heroic efforts to save the building as a tenant. This is your story, too! We appreciate your update after your initial reply. I know how frustrating it is to fight for justice and to be viewed as angry or unreasonable when it doesn’t arrive and you hold elected officials to task. Your voice still matters and thank you for using it and speaking up. You’re still John’s neighbor.
Thanks to Marc for writing this eloquent article. As one of the longtime tenants of 412, I share with him the heartbreak of losing my home after having fought so hard and so long to keep it.
We endured not only abuse from the landlords and their minions, but time, stress, futility, and thousands of dollars we did not have. We made thousands of complaints City agencies, most of which came to naught. We lost workdays spent awaiting workmen who never arrived. We lived through floods and leaks and the mold they created; fire hazards and actual fires; having only a tarp for a roof; dealing with the vagrants, prostitutes, and drug dealers who were secretly inhabiting the landlords’ warehoused empty apartments; several rounds of bedbug infestations.
And we made many, many trips to landlord-tenant court, where we discovered that, even if the landlord brought the suit in the first place, and we were found to be in the right and won our case, we still had to pay our own legal fees, regardless of New York’s supposed “reciprocity rule.” These millionaire landlords, like many others of their ilk, use the courts to their advantage, bringing case after case, hoping to wear down their much poorer tenants.
We have endured the promises of “taking action” by too many City employees, many who wanted to help, but found themselves unable to do so. Whether their inability to help came from the overwhelming number of like cases in the City’s files or from some kind of deep, underlying corruption, we’ll never know. We only know that the landlords are family members with hundreds of buildings and millions of dollars. We were merely tenants, fighting for our homes.
So, no one helped, in the end. No answers were found. No politician or City employee stepped up to the plate. And we were rendered helpless and homeless as our building was left to rot.
Beautifully and tragically told, Shan. Thank you for sharing your insightful and profound recollections about the horrors we are forced to endure simply for being New Yorkers who wish to remain in our rightful homes, safely and with protection, wherever that security comes from. This is everyone’s story because it can happen to anyone unless you’re wealthy enough to avoid it. I’m so sorry for all you have been through and I know the courage it takes to speak up, despite the unfair repercussions. You will forever be our neighbor.
I remember everything vividly like it was yesterday. I recall each little space of John’s apartment. I call it “The Creativity Workshop” in which most of Marc’s songs were born.
The living room was arranged like the stage of a theater, where Marc and John rehearsed for the show “CAMILLE” and I felt their privileged audience. Every now and then the cat crossed the room lazily.
It was my first time in New York and I saw almost nothing of the city but honestly I didn’t give a damn because to me having Marc in front of me playing the piano and singing just for me, talking till late at night, is worth much more. And now all this has been destroyed. I feel so sorry for all John and Marc have been forced to endure by unscrupulous people only interested in their own personal advantage. I can imagine how painful it must have been witnessing the demolition of their home which meant so much for them.
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