Tenants and sympathizers in a dilapidated Harlem apartment building received good news Sunday night, when the Occupy Wall Street general assembly approved a $3000 donation as a gesture of solidarity.
The occupation, which has come to be known as Occupy477, began Nov. 1, when one of the building’s residents, Delois Blakely, urged people to occupy her apartment to protest gentrification and corporate malfeasance. This followed a previous occupation of the building’s boiler room; Blakely said the boiler had been defunct and the door bolted shut for months.
By Monday morning, workers were busy installing a new boiler, thanks to an emergency order by the city.
Upstairs in Blakely’s apartment, 11 protestors had camped out. Tony Cochran, 25, a Portland, Ore., transplant, who doubled as the movement’s ad hoc communications director, was joined by two Senegalese men, a temporarily-absent Norwegian and Semi, 25, a mono-monikered North Carolinian who had trekked up from Zuccotti Park.
It’s a small cadre, but “more than Occupy Wall Street started with on the first day,” said Malik Rhasaan, 39, of Occupy the Hood, which represents people of color and lobbied for Sunday’s donation.
The newcomers were quickly learning that they’d waded, perhaps unwittingly, into a thicket of residents’ animosity, financial mismanagement and looming foreclosure.
The dispute underlying Occupy477 can be traced to a long series of legal wrangles between the building’s various shareholders.
The property on 477 West 142nd St. was abandoned when Blakely, who prefers the title Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, took control of it in 1978. In 1982, she said, she negotiated with the city to purchase its eight units for $2000.
“I learned how to bring life to the building,” Blakely said.
But by all accounts, few, if any of the residents paid rent for the next twenty-odd years and by 2007, the city threatened foreclosure for unpaid taxes.
“Some people lived here rent free for 10 years, and that’s a mindset,” Blakely said.
In May 2007, Shirley Pitts, who lives on the top floor, replaced Blakely as president of 477 West 142nd Street Housing Development Fund Corporation, the building’s board.
Pitts, a bishop of the evangelical Faith Restoration Center, Inc., refused comment but asked her adviser and fellow bishop, Ken Bey, 64, to speak on her behalf. He said he managed to negotiate the debt with the Department of Housing and Preservation and Development down to $220,000.
The board then borrowed $650,000 from Madison Park Investors, LLC to pay off its debt to the city. The closing “attorney” for the loan was one Nathaniel McLeon who pleaded guilty in 1993 to practicing law without a license.
Nonetheless, McLeon continued to represent the 477 West 142nd Street Housing Development Fund Corporation until last February.
At closing, the board received just under $300,000 of the loan. Bey said the remainder went into an escrow account or was misappropriated by McLeon, who is currently serving six years in Ulster Correctional Facility, convicted of grand larceny.
Neither Madison Park Investors, LLC, nor Thomas S. Fleishell, the corporation’s current attorney, responded to questions.
Now Blakely accuses Bey and Pitts of working hand in hand with what she termed “predatory lenders,” to pave the way to foreclosure so the building can be sold.
Bey disputed this, and said the board is pursuing a civil case against her. He also questioned what happened to the monthly $7,700 rent roll, which Blakely administered between 2003 and 2009.
“She has no lease, no standing, no deed to occupy unit two,” Bey said. “She’s misrepresenting herself to the public.”
“Who is Ken Bey?” was Blakely’s response. “I don’t do business with Ken Bey, never have and never will.”
Recently the building has been vandalized, its front steps smashed. On Sunday evening, the police forcibly removed Francis King, a toothless man in a cowboy hat who claimed to be undertaking maintenance work for Pitts.
“It will not happen again,” King said as he tried to regain entry Monday.
Blakely pointed the finger at King and a man named Frank Kargbo who occasionally inhabited the building’s basement, a labyrinth of dust and unused junk. Bey admitted to paying Kargbo between $40 and $100 a week for maintenance work, and granted that he sometimes lodged in the basement.
Blakely will now defend herself against eviction in the civil case brought against her by the corporation.
Despite the ongoing legal uncertainty – “this is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Semi – the protestors had no plans to leave.