Blog_003: Oh what a wonderful Town

The rain poured out of a misty, neon flecked night sky as we scuttled between doorways trying to flag our first New York cab driver. When we found our man he was polite and quiet instead of the garrulous stereotype I had been hoping for. Nevertheless he brought us to our destination in Williamsburg without difficulty. Stepping out in front of 239 Banker street we were greeted warmly by Brad, an old acquaintance of Richie’s. 

Brad had generously offered to accommodate the three of us for a few of days in New York. He had not mentioned however that he lived in the newly gentrified and bustling hipster enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Bags deposited, our fatigue still masked by coffee and jet lag we searched for pizza and beer. The atmosphere in Williamsburg is excellent, on a friday night the streets heave with a heady mix of latino gangs, bikers, and media hipsters. One assumes they have all been brought together by a mutual love of moustaches and tattoos.

239 Banker is perfectly located in this fashionable area. Inside the apartments are clean, white, industrial, if some are in a shoddy state of repair. The sprinkler system is plastered over. The rooms are windowless and hot. The air conditioning units are louder than diesel engines and equally effective at keeping the rooms cool. The tenants of 239 dont care about that though, it’s not why they are there. The former jumper factory towers above the surrounding manufacturing buildings affording the roof space a spectacular view over Brooklyn and across the water the Manhattan skyline sparkles. The tenants at 239 are sociable to say the least. Their enviable roof terrace is the perfect spot for music, sundowners and, for those who make it, sunuppers too. 

Much loved as 239 is now, it has not always been so. The building has a pretty unsavoury recent history. 239 Banker street was abandoned by a knitwear company in 2001. Being an industrial neighbourhood, city planning rules prohibited residential development of the building. In spite of this, some months after the jumper people left, locals began to notice curtains in windows and plants on balconies. It seemed the factory had been converted to lofts without the permission of the city council. The city immediately issued a “stop work” order and the tenants were turfed out, belongings and all. This did not discourage Max Stark, the building’s somewhat notorious landlord, for long. 

Within months the rooms were let out once more. Advertised on Craigslist under pseudonyms such as “the old sweater factory” and “the rustic house”. During the subsequent years a torrent of complaints flowed from tenants of 239 to the city. The heating didn't work, the kitchens were unsafe. The tenants were evacuated a second time when the ground floor was flooded with sewage. Rats strutted about, accommodated by the landlord’s habit of the storing garbage in uninhabited apartments to avoid paying to have it taken away. In response to these complaints the city issued a constant stream of fines to Max Stark. Most of these remain unpaid.

Over the subsequent decade Menachem “Max” Stark continued to build a large property empire in Brooklyn until on the 3rd of January 2014 he was found in a dumpster, suffocated and set on fire. The New York Post lead with this. 

Max Stark, a pious and respected figure in the hasidic orthodox jewish community, an infamous slumlord, owned most of Brooklyn, made millions and owed millions. Stark had high powered friends and many disreputable business associations but in the end he met his maker at the hands of a contractor over an unpaid invoice for only $20,000.

In the snow two men stamped their feet as they waited for Max outside his office. It had been decided to kidnap the unpopular slumlord and force him to pay the money he owed. As Stark stepped out into the whirling sleet “Erskine”, the larger of his two kidnappers leapt on him. Without assistance from his terrified accomplice “Felix” and recorded on CCTV the first attacker wrestled with Stark in the snow for fully five minutes before he stuffed him into the back of the getaway van. Felix started driving while Erskine struggled to bind and duct tape his prisoner. The pair drove to the home of Erskine’s brother “Kendall” to enlist his help. On their arrival Kendall panicked as he looked into the back of the van, “Is that guy alive?”

The three men drove frantically across the city, Stark had been suffocated during the struggle in the back of the van and now they needed to deal with the situation. They drove 40 minutes across the city and threw the body into a dumpster. The men then tried to burn the corpse by pouring drinks bottles filled with petrol over it and setting it alight. 

The story is paraphrased from a complete confession offered by Felix after police suggested during interrogation that his father, a preacher, did not teach him to tell lies.

On Sunday we decided to explore Brooklyn, we went for a run through Williamsburg to the Brooklyn bridge. We picked our way through the Smorgasbord foodfair crowds. A hipster passed us on his fixed gear bike, cycling with no hands and spinning a basketball on his finger as he went. At one point we entered a street cordoned off by police. Inside was a roaring, writhing mass of leather and chrome, a get together of motorcycle and hotrod enthusiasts was in full flow. Our pace quickened noticeably as we trotted through the street. We were certainly not manly enough to be there in our shorts.

Brooklyn bridge spans the Hudson over a mile to link up to Manhattan. Raised above the traffic pedestrians and tourists swarm through a narrow walkway which they share with impetuous New York cyclists. The tourists stifle the flow by stopping to take pictures and wandering distractedly into the cycle lane. Frustrated cyclists hurtle across the undulating walkway narrowly avoiding shanking an oblivious tourist and careering off into the traffic below.

Each cyclist has his own technique for clearing the path ahead. Some cycle slowly and tinkle their bell politely, some say nothing but snort and huff every time someone obstructs their route. My favorite technique was employed by a large man, with a startlingly loud voice, who barked, in a distinctly passive aggressive tone, “HULLO!! HULLO!!” every 10 yards of the 1.2 mile bridge. He didn’t seem to be enjoying his bike ride very much, it is a wonder he doesn’t take the metro.

On Monday we arrived at the docks for the unboxing of the Landy. Perhaps predictably nothing was ready and the container was several miles away in a compound. We stayed in an unpleasant airport hotel near the docks, we watched Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton beat their heads against their respective lecterns in the first presidential debate then returned to the port nextday to try our luck again.

On Tuesday the gods of international freight smiled on us and with a lot of help from Kevin Price (GCT Bayonne),  our mascot was returned to us. Up the road came the container, it was lowered to the ground and cracked open to reveal the landy, a little dusty and full of spiders but majestic nonetheless. With a rasping breath the engine jumped to life and we set off. Shipping, insurance, passports, customs had all been so difficult that we had not allowed ourselves to believe that this moment would come. We were drunk with excitement, the rusted industrial panorama of New Jersey was a golden horizon and the continent beyond it was ours to be explored. For those interested in this sort of thing, the song that poured from our open windows as we exited steel wire gates and rolled onto the road was “All along the watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix.