Down In The Basement

For Decades, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the gigantic rent-stabilized apartment complex built in Manhattan in the nineteen-forties, offered its tenants free trunk-storage services. Such was the mid-century middle-class urban dream: you could summon porters from the residential-services-office, and they’d store your trunks in (and fetch them from) one of the forty-nine storage rooms beneath the complex’s hundred and ten buildings, stacking them in towering clusters that were arranged like city blocks – creating a kind of bloodless small-scale replics of the city-within-a-city overhead.

In 2008, the real-estate developer Tishman Speyer, which had bought (with BlackRock Realty) the complex from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company two years earlier, for $5.4 billion, went through the storage rooms, and tallied up the trunks. There were six thousand two hundred and ninety-one of them. The majority of which could not be identified. At least a third seemed to belong to people who were no longer alive. Before Tishman Speyer could do anything about any of this, however, it defaulted on its debt payments. The debt holders, who took over the complex last fall and would like to resell it, have concluded that they need to put the storage space to more profitable use. As expected, an uproar ensued.

In July, on behalf of Rose Associates, the complex’s property manager, began sending letters to tenants requesting that they clear out their stuff. Last week, Jim Yasser, who serves as Rose’s on-site majordomo, invited a visitor by for a little trunk-room spelunking. As it happens, Yasser, a big, genial guy in shades with neoprene croakies, started out in real estate, in the seventies, as a tenant activist in the Bronx. Now he’s on the other side, serving as a lightening rod, in what is essentially a long-running electrical storm of tenant grievance. He was accompanied by two colleges, Travis Olsen and Kathleen Kehoe, herself a Stuy Town resident for twenty-five years.

“The air is unsanitary,” Yasser said, pushing through a door to the storage room at 285 Avenue C. “It’s repulsive.” Trunks were everywhere. The color of the tags affixed when the trunks were last handled gave a rough indication of their vintages. Red meant the eighties, green meant the nineties. Many of them bore graying white tags, with dates from the forties and fifties. There were wooden military trunks with stenciled names (J. E. Moukad”) and giant steamer trunks with shipping stickers (“Cunard White Star,” “Hotel Continental Paris”). Many of the trunks were locked. All were caked with dust and grime. Some of them bulged. “We’re not opening any of them,” Yasser said. “I’m not very comfortable with this.”

The visitor had hoped to uncover, say, a few unclaimed bottles of 1973 Petrus, or maybe some Japanese bayonets from the Second World War (the buildings had offered bargain rents to veterans).

“It’s kind of sad,” Yasser said, referring to the abandonment and rot of so much jetsam, to say nothing of the futility of accumulation. A few of the trunks had already been pried open. The discharge lay about: along one row, a pile of canceled checks from 1948 (drawn on the Corn Exchange Bank Trust Company) and a supply of canvas Marine Corps ammo belts, satchels, and gaiters belonging to one T.R. Gilligan; along another, an orphaned pair of vinyl LPs – the Village People’s “Live and Sleazy” (1979) ad David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street” (1985).

On the door to another storage room, at 10 Stuyvesant Oval, was a sign that read, “The management will no be responsible for articles stored in basement.” Someone had blacked out portions of it so the first part read, “Age will be responsible.” This was certainly true of some of the things inside, such as a desiccated rat carcass and fleets of dead water bugs caught, legs up, in glue traps along the wall. Yasser pointed to a tower of trunks and said, “This row hasn’t been moved in thirty years. I hate to think about the stuff that would come running out if you did.”

“Some of the more, shall I say, imaginative tenants seem to have found a way to store stuff for others, Yasser said. “Two weeks ago, a tenant’s daughter called to say she’d found two hundred claim stubs. Two hundred.” Another woman told them that, when her in-laws died, in upstate New York, she’d moved their belongings – fifty trunks’ worth – to Stuy Town.

The visitor lifted a lid. Yasser turned away. Inside were a wedding dress and a morning coat, packed in yellow newspaper – the Times classifieds, from November 18, 1967, wherin an apartment building called Stonehenge advertised its “added living dimensions.”

Olsen looked at the paper. “Lefrak City!” he said. “Here’s an ad for a studio apartment.”

“Seventy-five bucks a month?” Yasser guessed?

“A hundred and twenty-three. Not far off.”

“Travis, don’t forget to wash your hands.”

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