The “Gardens” was where I spent my teenaged years, played in and around, formed lasting friendships, went to neighboring Taft HS to play ball, and commuted to student teaching at nearby Taft HS and my first job at Adlai E. Stevenson HS in the Bronx until I married and moved up to the Amalgamated Houses near the Deegan.
While taking media studies classes at the new School a few years later, I went back to visit it, abandoned as it was, took photos and priced a slide show to the music of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”, a requiem for a once beautiful place to grow up.
FROM: Battle For The Bronx: Neighborhood Revitalization In a Gentrifying City
By Catherine Claire Guimond, University of California, Berkeley
“In the everyday lives and practices of landlords and tenants, abandonment meant a search for short-term profits that led to violence and hardship for tenants due to under-maintenance, harassment and arson.
The author summarizes the story of Roosevelt Gardens (Where I lived from 1963- 72, and my mom until 1973) here because it encapsulates many of the dynamics of abandonment in the South Bronx and demonstrates the simultaneous reality of profits for owners and extreme difficulty and even death for tenants.2
When it opened in 1922 with 273 apartments, Roosevelt Gardens (then the Theodore Roosevelt) was promoted as the world’s largest apartment house (Rosenblum, 2009). 53 years later, in 1975, it was the first building abandoned on the Grand Concourse. The Concourse, which was modeled on the Champs-Élysée in Paris and stretches the length of the west Bronx, is lined with grand Art Deco apartment buildings and housed the cream of Bronx society in the first half of the 20th century. Abandonment came to the Grand Concourse later than other, poorer sections of the South Bronx, but when it did, it was symbolic.
Until the late 1950s, Roosevelt Gardens was a symbol of upward mobility. There was a waiting list to get in, and the building was well maintained and immaculate (Stevenson, 1979).
In the late 1950s, the building was sold to the Weinreb family, who pursued a strategy of extracting short-term gains from the building and tenants while postponing maintenance. Part of this strategy involved selling the building within the family to increase its value on paper, increase the depreciation and thus the tax benefits, increase the basis for insurance coverage, and essentially refinance the mortgage. Over the course of the fourteen years that the Weinreb family owned the building, they sold it seven times and bought it back six times (Stevenson, 1979).
At the same time they reduced the amenities such as eliminating laundry rooms, cut back on heat and raised rents.
In the 1960s, the Grand Concourse had already begun to undergo demographic changes, with Puerto Rican and African American families moving in from other parts of the Bronx and the city as their neighborhoods started to experience abandonment and as housing became available on the Grand Concourse due to suburbanization.
And in the late 1960s, thousands of white Bronxites moved from the Grand Concourse to Co-op City, a huge new complex in the northeast Bronx, fleeing the arrival of people of color and all this represented.
Popularly, this was often considered the death knell of the Grand Concourse and the South Bronx (Rosenblum, 2011), though it was in fact just one manifestation of processes of deindustrialization, suburbanization and disinvestment.
Tenant turnover in Roosevelt Gardens increased in the early 1970s when the owners began renting to people displaced by abandonment and fire from other parts of the city and the Bronx.
Tenant turnover became hugely attractive to landlords in 1971, when rent control was abolished in the city, and apartments that became vacant were immediately decontrolled — and rents could be raised immediately.3
By 1973, new tenants had moved into nearly every apartment in Roosevelt Gardens (Stevenson, 1979). This was likely facilitated by City welfare policies, which paid much higher rents for families receiving welfare than working poor families could afford to pay, in addition to paying finders fees and security deposits (Stevenson, 1979).
Stevenson argues that all of these maneuvers — taking cash out of the building through repeated sales, postponing maintenance and raising rents — meant that it was not likely that the Weinreb family was losing money on the building.
Nonetheless, conditions continued to worsen until the City ordered the building vacated in 1975. In 1973, the basement flooded and the phone lines needed repairs. The phone company refused to enter the basement “because there were so many rats and water bugs [cockroaches],” as a tenant told Stevenson (1979).
That same year, an eight-year-old girl was killed when she tried to use the elevator. The elevator seemed stuck, but started to move as soon as she tried to crawl out a broken window (Stevenson, 1979). Damage like broken windows was so common that tenants were unlikely to report it.
Tenants organized to pressure the Weinrebs to make repairs, but they were largely unsuccessful. It was difficult to gain leverage over the Weinrebs. The Weinrebs were friendly with local politicians who seemed to be able to protect them from housing code violations (Stevenson, 1979). When tenants confronted Wolf Weinreb in 1973 and tried to prevent him from getting in his car, the superintendent of the building poured water on them from the roof and Weinreb was able to drive away (Stevenson, 1979).
In 1974 the owners stopped paying real estate taxes, and in 1975 they sold the building to a “finisher,” David Teichner, for $11,000 cash (the building had an assessed value of $1.15 million).
Finishers, in the terminology of the South Bronx at the time, “operate by collecting rents, providing no maintenance or repairs, and stripping the building of salvageable materials” (Stevenson, 1979).
Stevenson (1979) estimated that the total salvage profit of Roosevelt Gardens was about $20,000, while the extensive renovation needed to restore it would likely cost more than $7 million.
Teichner used the threat of violence to extract rents from tenants even as conditions deteriorated; he collected rents accompanied by a man who was known to carry a gun and threatened a local politician who was working with the tenants (Stevenson, 1979).
Leaky roofs led to the evacuation of five families and fires broke out, though they remained small. There was suspicion that Teichner was setting some of the fires.
Scavengers tore out the plumbing in 1975, leading to serious leaks, and the water was turned off. Tenants were forced to bring water in by bucket from the fire hydrant outside (using the stairs to upper floors, as the elevators no longer worked). Tenants feared a fire could take the building any time; “we went to bed with our shoes on every night” (former tenant quoted in Stevenson, 1979).
It was at this point that the City finally intervened, ordering the apartments vacated. The mortgage was sold to Kraus Enterprises, which renovated the building to a fraction of its former glory (Stevenson, 1979). “
But, even while not regaining its former glory, it has rebounded to again become a place where kids can play and live their lives.