‘I WAS AN AGITATOR’: HOW LOCALS RALLIED TOGETHER TO STOP EVICTIONS AND CREATE SUPPORTIVE HOUSING

gillian and mig
Gillian Rosenfeld and Mig Boyle, who led the effort to save Capitol Hall.

By Carol Tannenhauser

In the early 1980s, a West 87th street block association, in partnership with Goddard Riverside Community Center and the Settlement Housing Fund, bought a deteriorating single-room-occupancy – SRO – hotel, called Capitol Hall, at 166 West 87th street, to prevent it from being converted to luxury housing and evicting its impoverished tenants.

Welcome to an alternate universe.

“This is a community that organized not to say, ‘Not in my backyard,’ but, rather, ‘The people who live here are our neighbors, and yes on my block,’” said Stephan Russo, executive director of Goddard Riverside Community Center, at the opening ceremony for the newly renovated Capitol Hall, on May 24th.

ribbon capitol hall
Stephan Russo (with red tie and scissors) and others cut the ribbon on the renovated building.

From those beginnings, Capitol Hall went on to become one of the first “supportive housing” programs in NYC, combining permanent housing and on-site social services, for people who had been or were in danger of becoming homeless, as a result of age, poverty, or physical or mental disabilities.

Already a model, Capitol Hall continues to break ground. It recently completed a major renovation.

“The $16.7-million renovation carried out from 2013 to 2015 was ambitious in both scope and structure,” read a statement from Goddard Riverside Community Center. “With help from Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., it was paid for with an innovative combination of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, New York City bond financing and subsidies from New York City Housing Preservation and Development. This arrangement has been lauded as a model for preserving older buildings as permanent housing for homeless people. In addition, the project modernized the building from top to bottom while allowing the tenants to remain in place.”

capitol hall
Capitol Hall.

And, somehow, the architect managed to keep all 202 rooms, while adding a private bath and kitchenette to each, “offering tenants privacy,” Russo said. There are also shared common spaces, including a community room and garden.

“Who’da thunk it,” smiled Kathy Jones, one of the original organizers and now president of the corporation formed by the block association. “I’m gonna cry,” she said. “The secret was getting to know the people in the building. We were all new parents and we would bring our children over here at Christmas time and decorate shopping bags with the folks to give to God’s Love We Deliver, and go caroling on the block together. It was a real community.”

“At the end of the day, it’s not about us,” Russo concluded. “It’s about the people who live here whose lives have been transformed and who really give us as much as we’re able to give them.”

WSR interviewed Gillian Rosenfeld, 78, and Mig Boyle, 77, two good friends who spearheaded the effort to save Capitol Hall, beginning in the late 1970s. As ideas often are, this one was born over a cup of coffee, Mig said, “in a greasy spoon on West 86th street that exists no more.”

“It became apparent in the late 1970s that SROs, particularly on the West Side, were being emptied,” Gillian said. “The landlords, some completely unscrupulous and vicious, wanted the tenants out. They knew they could make a killing by conversion. We could see Capitol Hall was going that way. The building was getting emptied by attrition; nothing was being repaired; whatever leaks were there remained leaks. The tenants were terribly anxious. The writing on the wall was homelessness.

“So, Mig and I met for coffee one day, and I said, “This is very depressing. What’s going to happen to our building? What shall we do?” And Mig said, “I think we should buy it.”

“I was half kidding and, then, half not when I heard myself,” Mig told us. This block association was an amazing group of people in an amazing time and place. And we had gotten to know the tenants of Capitol Hall. They weren’t ‘thems.’ In three days, I raised $30,000 for an option to buy the building. The tenants gave these squishy bills they put into the pot. And we all gave whatever we could. Everything was community and individually raised. People were walking on the other side of the street when they saw me coming during that period. I was an agitator. Remember Gillian, when we talked about picketing the owner’s synagogue?”

HISTORY, NEWS, REAL ESTATE | 22 comments | permalink
    1. dannyboy says:

      Beautiful!

    2. Sherman says:

      In the 1970s & 1980s the UWS was not the sanitized and desirable place it is today. It was actually a scary and dangerous area.

      One of the main reasons it was so awful was because it was full of SROs.

      By preventing “unscrupulous and vicious” landlords from converting SROs into habitable apartments these activists delayed the revival of the UWS.

      I still don’t understand why homeless people need to be housed in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country. It takes enormous state and city aid – not to mention tax breaks – to house them here.

      Wouldn’t it be much cheaper and efficient to house them in a less expensive part of the city?

      • anon says:

        your answer is a logical but un-PC response.

        • dannyboy says:

          I’mguessing that: ” And we had gotten to know the tenants of Capitol Hall. They weren’t ‘thems.’” isn’t in your experience.

          Sad

      • Debbie D. says:

        Seriously. They dont deserve to live in nice areas. Just because someone has a mental illness or has had unfortunate things happen so that they are homeless doesnt mean I should have to actually see them.

        People like me deserve to live here because we have the money to afford it. Just because my parents had the resources to ensure I also lived in a good neighborhood, went to good schools, saw doctors regularly, went to college… I worked hard for what I have, and I shouldnt have to subsidize others who havent had those kind of breaks to live near me.

        /s

        If you cant see that your comment is pretty hurtful, discriminatory and selfish, I am really sorry. This is a lovely story about coming together to help each other.

        • Donna says:

          But that’s the way NYC works and always will. If you’re so well off and a snob, then why not move to Scarsdale or something and be with your kind of people?

        • DLC says:

          Wow!! PLM (People Like Me) syndrome on the UWS. Hugely grateful for those of us who appreciate the human condition in its many diversities. I like to treat others how I’d like to be treated no matter what their station in life is. Some of us can afford to keep our mental illness meds on hand and others of us have to forage for what we can get and when. Both equally mental!!

          • dannyboy says:

            Read the Comments made in the school zoning articles. People support segregation in our neighborhood schools because it increases the vale of their apartments.

            This article is the antidote for these PLMs.

      • dannyboy says:

        The tenants in Capital Hill took nothing from you. Why are you so eager to kick them out of their homes?

        Sad

      • Independent says:

        Sherman raises valid points. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see them get the serious discussion and consideration that they are worthy of. For anyone who dares to raise questions such as the ones Sherman has will inevitably be met with reflexive and doctrinaire attacks and dismissals, as we have already seen in the replies to his comment.

        I remember the SROs (Single Room Occupancies) in the 70’s and 80’s. There were at least two on my block and many more throughout the immediate vicinity. The residents used to toss garbage from their windows. My mother and other old-timers recall the drug and prostitution scene that was endemic to the SROs and the blight it brought upon the neighborhood.

        A teenage girl was raped on the roof of our building. I was mugged, circa 1985, in broad daylight, under scaffolding on Broadway. (Thankfully, I not only was unharmed but also hadn’t been carrying anything more than a relatively negligible sum of cash at the time.)

        All that said, there is much about the old neighborhood of my youth that I do miss. There was a certain character that is forever lost. But let’s not allow nostalgia to delude us with a romanticized, sanitized recollection of the past, from which the considerable less-than-positive and pleasant aspects that were unquestionably part of the reality have been airbrushed (or, to be more current, “photo-shopped” or “GIMPed”) out.

        • dannyboy says:

          So, Independent, you’re agreeing with Sherman when he writes: “I still don’t understand why homeless people need to be housed” in their homes?

          Why didn’t you move rather than diposses others, who want to cooexist?

          Real neighborly.

    3. eric says:

      whoa…$16.7M for renovations?! this is where our taxes go?!

      i walk past this bldg regularly, and see some residents milling outside. gotta congratulate them on having nice digs paid for by other people

      • dannyboy says:

        I’m guessing that: ““At the end of the day, it’s not about us” didn’t resonate much with you.

        Sad

    4. Bruce Bernstein says:

      we all owe “thanks” and “props” to these ladies and this block association. People like this have done so much to make the UWS the place we all love.

    5. helen murphy says:

      as long it benefits the low income too

    6. Lisa Borneman says:

      Congratulations, Capitol Hall! It is so heartening to hear that the true, original spirit of the upper west side can still prevail!

    7. Ellyn Berman says:

      Two women I admire who understand the meaning of community, who looked at how their neighbors were living and with a generous spirit became activists.

    8. Denton says:

      I came from a abusive family so when I was sixteen or so I left home and moved into an SRO called the Stratford (iir) on West 83rd Street off RSD. This would have been maybe 1971. You didn’t need much money, you paid by the week, you had a hot plate, and you shared a bathroom. The SRO was full of drug dealers, prostitutes, hustlers, petty criminals, not all of whom were bad people. It was also home to older people who were just poor.

      There were no homeless people on the street then because they all lived in places like this.

      It didn’t take me long to get my feet on the ground and get a real roommate in a real apartment, and then soon after, a real apartment of my own at 156 West 74th Street.

      I was friendly with a gay Black man in his early forties. He taught music in the NYC public schools. He lived in the Kimberly (iir) on West 74th Street, another notorious SRO. Why, I never knew, clearly he could have lived elsewhere. He liked what was known as ‘rough trade’ and one day he was stabbed to death by one of them, right in his SRO room.

      So there you have it folks, the good, the bad, and the ugly of SRO life in the 1970s.

    9. Sarah says:

      Great work. Real devotion to the community!

    10. Bruce Rutherford says:

      The sum parts of the tenants proved to be greater that the whole. What an inspiration these tenant activists/organizers are. Great story Carol Tannenhauser!