Habitats/East 140th Street Between Brook and Willis Avenues; Rundown Block Revived With Details of Its Past By BARBARA WHITAKER Published: December 28, 1997
HATTIE WILLIAMS got more than a new apartment this year. She got a new neighborhood.
After some 30 years of watching as her Bronx home fell into disrepair and drug dealers took over street corners, her historic block of city-owned tenements on East 140th Street in the Mott Haven section homes finally got some attention. Not only did the tenements get repairs, but they were historically correct improvements that take the neighborhood back to its more stately past.
''You hear the saying, 'You can't fight City Hall,' '' said Ms. Williams, a mother of six who has lived at 455 East 140th Street since 1965. ''Then someone comes along and says, 'Yes you can.' Sure enough we got something done.''
The building in which Ms. Williams lives was one of seven tenements with a total of 114 units on the block between Brook and Willis Avenues selected for a pilot housing rehabilitation program called Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program, which was created by the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.
The program is sponsored jointly by the agency and the New York City Housing Partnership, a private, nonprofit intermediary between government, builders and community groups.
As part of the project local entrepreneurs are identified to manage and own the buildings. The partnership, which took ownership of the seven buildings during the rehabilitation, coordinated the financing and provided technical assistance.
The purpose of the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program is to put such buildings back in the hands of private owners -- in this case, Josue Velazquez, a local landlord, who will operate and eventually own the seven buildings.
Mr. Velazquez invested $50,000 in the project.
CITIBANK provided a $9.7 million construction loan, part of a $24 million commitment to the program in 1996. After construction the Department of Housing Preservation and Development will hold a long-term interest-only mortgage of $6.6 million at a nominal interest rate, with the principal repayable after 30 years.
Operating reserves will come from funds generated by the tax credit programs for historic rehabilitation and low-income housing.
What helps set this low-income housing initiative apart is that the improvements included restoring the historic details of the buildings, which were completed about 1910. The Municipal Art Society selected the renewal project as one of its winners in the 1998 New York Preservation Awards.
''They did a terrific job of rehabilitating those facades,'' said Vanessa Gruen, director of special projects for the Municipal Art Society. ''This was not some millionaire's home. This was done in a rather poor neighborhood.''
To some extent the historic nature of the neighborhood -- the Mott Haven District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and designated a New York City Historic District in 1994 -- dictated that renovations be historically sensitive.
It also made the project eligible for additional tax credits.
''It was a great opportunity to marry historic preservation with the creation of affordable housing,'' said Veronica White, president of the New York City Housing Partnership.
The city had owned 455 East 140th Street since it foreclosed for nonpayment of taxes in 1978. But the city was not a particularly good landlord, Ms. Williams said. Although there were some efforts to upgrade the buildings in the 80's, they become overcrowded and run down.
In 1990, the block, which is home to Public School 40, was featured in an article in The Daily News that detailed how students were not allowed on the school playground because of fears of gunplay among drug dealers.
Looking at the fresh-faced buildings shining in the morning sun, it's hard to imagine what they once looked out on. While work is still being done on the second phase of the project, the buildings where work has been completed feature wood and glass doors like the original ones (they replaced heavy metal industrial doors).
Graffiti is gone. The ornate sheet metal cornices have been repaired and the delicate detailing around limestone entryways and windows has been repaired.
CONDITIONS on the inside had ranged from burned out to severely deteriorated to almost intact. Where original trim remained, lead paint was chemically removed where necessary, and attempts were made to replicate missing historic trim. In the public vestibules iron stairs and marble treads were retained along with the mosaic tile landings.
''It improved people's attitudes,'' Ms. Williams said.
To give some idea of how far the building has come, she recalled the time some 15 or 20 years ago when the building was without heat or hot water. So she and a few other mothers pooled their efforts, living in one apartment in an attempt to cope with the situation.
They would boil water for baths for the children and for cleaning and put boys to bed in one room, and girls in another, keeping them together for warmth.
Ms. Williams, who at 70 is president of the 140th Street Block Association, said the building was partly rehabilitated in the 80's, but not enough to turn the years of decline around.
BUT the most recent effort has won her approval. Her four-room apartment on the second floor has been reconfigured. Although the kitchen had been at the back of the apartment, the new one was constructed at the front, closer to a large living room area, which she also uses as a dining room. Two bedrooms are now at the rear of the apartment.
Walking through her kitchen she opened and closed cabinet doors.
''Cabinets galore,'' she said, smiling. ''I do a lot of cooking at the holidays,'' she added, noting that she has nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Ms. Williams, whose only income is her Social Security check and who pays $174 a month for her apartment, said the renovations had had the added benefit of improving attitudes among those who live in the neighborhood.
''With a new coat,'' she said, ''You stand a little taller.''
Photos: The reconstructed house at 455 East 140th Street in the Bronx, above, where Hattie Williams lives. Kitchen, right. Ms. Williams in the living room of her apartment. ''You hear the saying, 'You can't fight City Hall,'' she says. ''Then someone comes along and says, 'Yes you can.' Sure enough we got something done.'' (Photographs by Frances Roberts for The New York Times)
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