Gaslight Nation: America’s Next Landlord
After the first fire a young man with very pale skin and black hair who did maintenance in the building whispered to me that he heard it had been set deliberately. We’d previously discussed the election, then still in the heat of the primaries, and he’d informed me Donald Trump was definitely going to win. I said that was ridiculous and he replied, not unapologetically, that America would never elect a woman to its Presidency. I dismissed his mutterings of arson and conspiracy with a similar roll of my liberal over-educated eyes. I lived in a stout white hundred-year-old former grocery warehouse abutting the East River in North Williamsburg. It occupied an entire city block. A few months after I moved in it was announced the building had been purchased by Jared Kushner along with several partners and would be undergoing complete condo renovations. They changed the name from 184 Kent to Austin Nichols and hung a huge flag-like banner off the side scribed with elegant font. In the New York Times they advertise the addition, among other things, of a “jam room.”
During the second fire, the one that occurred two weeks later to the day, when we ran from smoke filled hallways out into the late Spring air and watery Brooklyn light, neighbors who had before only smiled vaguely at each other in passing got to talking. We had very little else to do while waiting for the FDNY to tell the Management to tell us it was safe to go back inside. We tried to calm our terrified animals and confused kids. A man showed me bleeding scratches on his arms from the clutching claws of his fat orange cat. Mine was purring in a seeming effort to self-soothe. However maladapted, our instinct was to take their pictures on our iphones and tell each other everything was going to be fine.
After the second fire there was a third. Management changed the story repeatedly. Renovations had begun about two months previously. We appreciate your patience as we continue to make improvements to the building. All the emails we received announcing the latest demolition or water-shut off or work on Saturday or sudden closing of an amenity we paid 500 dollars a year for, on top of our rent, ended this way. About two thirds of the residents had already moved out due to a legal loophole that allowed the new owners to increase rents dramatically, despite leases being stabilized for tax credits from the City.
The building was separated into quads so unless you were living in the area where the activity was taking place all you knew was that lots of screaming sirens kept peeling down North 4th Street and a bunch of fire trucks parked periodically out in front. You didn’t know why exactly. You didn’t have to feel your way through the thick acrid smoke in your own hallway, you didn’t have dizzying adrenaline snaking up your chest. You were always able to go back to your apartment without issue. Sprinklers weren’t triggered by the heat and water didn’t rain down inside your home. Management was sending you emails saying everything was fine, which you very much wanted to believe.
But outside, holding only what we could carry in our arms, D Quad residents (where the first set of apartment renovations were taking place) got to talking. Those of us in danger had to find out what was really going on, and the people in the other quads, those portions of the building not yet being gutted, knew their areas would be next. So they needed information too. We began sharing our stories with them and collectively documenting what we witnessed (gaping holes in the walls, exposed wiring hanging from the ceilings like nooses, floors caked with dust, people waking up in the night with piercing migraines they’d never had prior to living here, a two-year-old child forced to go on a nebulizer).
I saw the fourth fire with my own eyes. The generic cobalt blue plastic recycling bin with its thick white arrows going infinitely around in a circle, about 15 feet from my apartment, set ablaze. A young security guard put it out with an extinguisher he found in a vacant apartment, covered in gray dust. While one member of the management team came and banged on doors telling us to get out, another — someone more recently hired — sent an email blast on official letterhead to the rest of the building saying there was merely a report of some smoke in a garbage chute and that it had been contained. I received the message on my phone before the FDNY had even gotten to the floor where it was happening. A literal gaslighting. In real time. Smoke they said, but no fire.
Initial suspicion was cast over the non-union workers, mostly Latino, who had been coming in and out of the building’s various entrances since renovations began the prior Fall. Points of access to the address were many and had never been secure in the time I lived there. The intercom system was permanently broken so anyone could walk in and with enough confidence bypass the so-called ‘concierge.’ Security guards were hired to man the floors after Fire Three. They stood patient and stalwart amidst construction debris for ten hours at a time. While the lobby was being renovated one of the people who worked the front desk told me he requested a protective mask. He had to take days off work (never compensated) because the dust made him so sick. The owners said he couldn’t wear a mask because it might frighten the residents. He wore one anyway and drew a smiley face on it with a black ballpoint pen.
There was a third fire and then a fourth. Five in total. After enough of us spoke up, tipped local media, documented the clear building violations, Management was forced to acknowledge the fires appeared to have been deliberately set after all. In an email from the building’s lawyer, residents were told the arsonist was believed to be a neighbor and that we needed to be vigilant and report any suspicious behavior we saw. Some of us looked at each other sideways through narrowed eyes and became visibly more frightened. But more of us became angry. Huddled conversations near the elevators continued. We asked each other an increasingly obvious question: Was there any reason for a person to set repeated fire to their own apartment building? Nobody could come up with one. But the buyer of the building and his partners, who had invested 275 million dollars into that purchase and who very clearly wanted to quickly vacate, renovate, and sell the apartments which were currently occupied by rent-stabilized tenants? They might have a reason.
The management ultimately accused a young man who lived at the end of my hall. He was a big guy wth tattoos who couldn’t have been nicer. And it so happened he had just begun interviewing fellow residents for a lawsuit he told me he intended against the buyer. He gave me the Fire Marshall’s phone number and encouraged me to call him to tell him what I saw (which I did). He was evicted while I was out of town for a couple of days and his apartment was immediately demolished. They claimed he was illegally subletting. It was he who sat outside next to me with his roommate, Dad of the fat orange traumatized cat. No one knows where either man or his animal has gone to this day. I do know his bulldog died suddenly and mysteriously the day after the 4th fire. The building manager and the Superintendent were soon after dismissed with zero notice as well, escorted from the building by security. I heard one of them had a baby on the way.
Some people negotiated over a period of many months and decided to make a deal. They intend to buy. I moved. My lease was up. The fires stopped before I left, but that wasn’t the point anymore. The place I lived did not feel safe to me. The people running it did not seem to care about the lives of those who lived there. I had to go back recently because my car is still parked nearby. Security is considerably tighter at the entrances to the building now and things look cleaner and less chaotic from the outside. They’ve hired a tall man with a bright white smile in a pressed uniform to say Welcome Home! before he pushes the revolving door that takes you inside. You used to have to do that part yourself.
I am still on the tenant email list and was recently alerted they had a major gas leak in the next quad they have begun renovating.
Today it was formally announced Jared Kushner will be a Senior Adviser to the President-elect.
He still has my security deposit.