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Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu
April 06, 2017
Call number: 2016.027.1.09
OKECHUKWU: Okay, so it is Thursday, April 6th, 2017. This is Amaka Okechukwuinterviewing Mr. Greg Todd in Park Slope for the Voices of Crown Heights Oral History Project. Thank you so much for agreeing to sit down with me, and to speak about your experiences in Crown Heights. If you could-- as we start-- if you could just say your name, your birth date and where you were born, to begin?
TODD: Okay. My name is Greg Todd, and I was born on [date redacted forprivacy], 1949 in the small town of Alma, Michigan; it's A-L-M-A, Michigan.
OKECHUKWU: Okay, so can you--? To begin, can you just tell me about some ofyour first memories of when you moved to New York?
TODD: Well, I moved to New York, I remember being out in Michigan one day, andreading, I think it was probably Time magazine, and the cover; it was the bicentennial-- and they had the tall ships coming-- and it was a big, long 1:00article about New York City, and there was talk about how New York was basically collapsing, and it was probably never going to become a world-class city again. [laughter] I was thinking that, thinking that was the stupidest thing I ever heard, you know? So, about that time I lost my job in Michigan-- and my wife at the time was from Massachusetts, and she was very interested in leaving Michigan-- and I had no reason to stay there at that point. So, I felt like New York's going to be a good place to go to. And I just thought, this idea that New York was going to never recover from this fiscal crisis that it was in; I just thought was such, you know, short-term thinking. So, I decided that we should all move to New York. So, I did, without a job. But I had just gotten a 2:00year ago an MBA, and-- Seemed like a good thing to come to New York with. My wife was very interested in getting into publishing.
So, we moved to New York, and I went out in December of '76 and-- to stay with afriend for a month or two-- and then eventually landed in an apartment in Park Slope. And, but I really didn't like renting at all; I was always raised in houses that my family owned. The idea of renting is just, it's not a Michigan thing, you know? [laughter]
So, I eventually, within about two years, I bought a house on 13th Street,Eighth and the park, in Park Slope. It was a three-family brownstone on the 3:00park block, and because of the economic condition in New York at the time, I was able to buy this house, which was in not great shape. But it was engineeringly solid. I bought that house for $79,000. And it was a three-family house, and so within a year, I had paid off the money I'd borrowed from my relatives, and I was living rent-free with two tenants. [laughter]
So, and I lived there for five years, and my wife and I end up getting divorced.Sold the house in '84 for $225,000. So despite all the gloom and doom, New York was actually starting to come back. You know, and Park Slope was certainly at the center of all that. 4:00
OKECHUKWU: What did -- can you describe to me what Park Slope looked like atthe time, I mean, as compared to now? How is it different?
TODD: Well, this block I was on, which was park block; 13th Street, it wasparallel to Prospect Park, Prospect Park ends at 15th. So, but basically from Ninth Street all the way down south was the stores on Eighth Avenue were either abandoned. Or they were bodegas, or social clubs, or something really skanky. There was no place you would really want to shop; there was no bakeries, or coffee shops, God forbid, or nothing. Just kind of boarded up -- I remember a Chinese dry cleaner. You know, these very old-school, you know, uses. And there really was no shopping; you had to go to Ninth Street to get to any stores. There's the famous "Dizzy's," which is on the corner of Ninth and 5:00Eighth Avenue, and it's like a landmark; it's been there forever. That was still there. It didn't look at all like it did now; it was a very cheap wood façade, old-school, you know, counter.
And Seventh Avenue wasn't much better. Pretty much the same, very -- norestaurants, no bars, clubs, coffee shops, it was just bodegas, and 99-cent stores, and that kind of jazz. So, it was very, very beat down.
Most of my neighbors are Irish. This used to be-- If you ever read Pete Hamill,Drinking Life; he grew up in Park Slope in the '40s and the '50s, and he said, at that time in the '40s, every corner had an Irish bar. I mean, quite often, 6:00you would see four of them in one intersection, and it was just all Irish, all working-class. Most of them worked down in the -- Red Hook on the docks, in the -- they were stevedores; they were associated with the shipping, and the-- so on, and so forth.
So, it was a-- just a totally different neighborhood. And I'll never forget myneighbors, when I moved there on 13th Street; one neighbor on the south side was old, Irish, working-class, and he -- on the north side, it was Italian. And it wasn't infrequently I would get woken up with the Italian guy beating his wife, throwing her against the wall, and boom, thud, screaming. [laughter] You know. Very working-class neighborhood. 7:00
But the housing; it was still very solid, pretty much-- very few vacantbuildings-- at least at that block. Before that, I had been at Carroll Street, Carroll Street between Eighth and the park. That's then, and still is a fantastic block; just gorgeous mansions, so on and so forth. And that never changed.
So, I remember there used to be very few places to eat, restaurant-wise. Therewas a place called "Snookies" on Seventh Avenue between Carroll and -- Garfield, I think it is? And there was a very nice little deli, oh with a funny name that's gone -- There was a, and there was a place called "Gazebo" that was kind 8:00of a hippy-dippy place that had pocket sandwiches, with sprouts, and you know. And then on the corner of Carroll and Eighth, Carroll and Seventh Avenues, there was what we used to call a "head shop." You could buy bong pipes, and [laughter] all that kind of -- fair amount of hippie population in those days. A lot of the people moving in at that point were city workers, a lot of teachers, city administrators. At that point in time, brownstones were affordable for just city workers. And I remember the Park Slope Food Co-op started in '73; and mostly just city workers, and teachers, and people like that, you know, looking for a place to buy affordable food, you know. But kind of on the edge, because it still was considered "edgy," you know, it wasn't a family neighborhood yet, 9:00you know. Only the romantic adventurer folks, you know, without kids would move here and restore these cranky old brownstones, and so on. So, totally different, obviously, than it is now; where it's all doctors, and lawyers, and bankers and whatnot, so on. These are houses -- I don't know, were selling for $40-- or $50,000. I mean, I got mine in seventy, '79 for $79,000 and that was considered a steal by then. But back in the early '70s and late '60s, they were much cheaper even.
So yeah, so I stayed there for, I say, five years. And then I moved to -- Ibought a little co-op; a one-bedroom on Park Place between Carlton and Vanderbilt, which was like now, Prospect Heights. 10:00
OKECHUKWU: Was it Prospect Heights then?
TODD: Yeah, it was Prospect Heights then; I think they still called it ProspectHeights. It was still, at that point, it was a largely African American neighborhood. I'll never forget the broker-- who was like an Asian guy-- who was telling me that, I look around, and you know, kind of checking out the neighborhood, and he says, "Don't worry, all the White folks are working." [laughter] I was like, "Oh, okay." [laughter] So I'm like, "All right," you know.
So, so I bought that in '84, and stayed there for two years, and met my new wifein the building. She had bought a, another co-op in the same building, and we got married, and we bought another brownstone in Park Slope; this time on 10th Street, Fifth and Sixth. And it was a little smaller than my other one 11:00actually, and cost a lot more. I think that was $325,000, we paid for that. It was a two-family; eighteen by thirty-five, small. But it had mostly original details, marble fireplace mantles, and nice crown moldings, and, yeah, but nothing fancy. They were built, those houses, for the kind of tradespeople who were building the Gowanus Canal, supposedly. So, they're people like, you know, bricklayers, and carpenters; you know, skilled trades, but not wealthy middle-class folks. You know, but they did have nice detailing, you know.
And so, we lived there for, let me think, fifteen years? Approximately, webought it in '86 and moved out in 2002. And, the block, again, changed 12:00dramatically. When we first moved in, there was still the remnants of the old working-class crew, mostly Italian and Irish, again. Some of the old people, I mean the old, long-term residents; I remember one was a postal worker, one has retired on disability, who was a dog walker. I remember one was what they call a "stationary engineer," which is a janitor. [laughter] You know, there're, those were the guys that were there; you know, the old ones.
You know, there was also -- you're not supposed to talk about it supposedly, amade mobster on the block. I remember mentioning that at a block meeting once, and the old people looked at me like I just said, you know, "Curse Jesus" or 13:00something. They're like, "You don't talk about that." You know, like, "Oh, [laughter] no, that." Yeah, he was there. But he was up in Dannemora, and his son lived in another building; he owned two buildings on the block, and he died of a drug overdose supposedly in prison, and his son was murdered in a house on the block. And interestingly, for a few months, there were some prostitutes living in one of his houses, until they eventually sold it, and the nice young couple from the Midwest that bought the house would tell stories about one of the bedrooms being filled four-feet-deep with pornography tapes, back in the VHS-- [laughter] Very. So, this is Park Slope, you know. This is like, in the late '80s, early '90s, you know, so. Very, still pretty blue-collar, pretty rough. 14:00
But, when I finally sold that house in 2002, I was the last person I know tosell a house on the block for less than a million dollars. I think I sold that for $875,000, you know, and I was very happy, until I realized that everybody else sold those for a million. [laughter] These were not even big houses, you know. And they were just, they're narrow. But by then I had two sons, and they were both getting to be teenagers, and they were both sharing a bunkbed, you know, and they were like, kind of outgrowing the bunkbeds, and a lot of my neighbors were doing things like excavating the cellars, and trying to, you know, make more room, and I was just like, it didn't seem like a good deal.
So, a lot of my neighbors, and friends of mine at Park Slope Methodist Churchwhere I was very involved, were moving out to places like Kensington, and -- Ditmas Park, Greenwood, which is South South Slope. But I took the bold move of 15:00buying a brownstone in Crown Heights. And I had become very familiar with Crown Heights, because in 1987 I started working for a nonprofit that was started by a member of my church. An old labor organizer named Dick Harmon, who had started a grassroots organizing group in the '70s, and had built it up into a very large outfit; he had, at that point in time when I joined, about forty-two churches involved in this group. The name of this organization was Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperative. And Dick described it as a "grassroots empowerment organization." And it, he was truly phenomenal.
OKECHUKWU: So, what was the mission of this organization? What was the main16:00mark of it?
TODD: Well they evolved, as the issues evolved. They started out, actually theoriginal name was Brooklyn Energy Corporation, and they dealt with the energy crisis in the '70s, and the Arab oil embargo, and all that jazz, and they actually started a worker-owned co-op to do energy insulation. And that was part of Dick's vision of doing worker-owned co-ops, which as you know now are coming back a big way, but this was in the '70s. But he was, as always, decades ahead of everyone else. So, he had started a worker-owned co-op, and then he started an energy store to sell energy supplies, like insulation and tape, and that kind of stuff.
OKECHUKWU: Was that in Park Slope?
TODD: That was actually on Atlantic Avenue between Atlantic and Third Avenue --17:00or Fourth Avenue; from Atlantic, between Third and Fourth Avenue. And then of course, the energy crisis got fixed, right? Problem solved. Everybody went back to sleep, Ronald Reagan came in, ripped the solar panels off the White House. [laughter] It was like, oh wait, problem solved. Move on, so that whole mission kind of crashed. But by then, there was a huge problem with affordable housing, and access to capital. So, the next thing that we did at the Brooklyn Ecumenical-- now renamed Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives-- did, was they started a credit union, and because people couldn't get loans, they couldn't get money to buy stuff to fix up things, and they were being, you know, red-lined, and so on and so forth. So, the churches got together and formed a credit union; the Brooklyn Ecumenical Federal Credit Union, and then not too long 18:00thereafter, they started a bank, a state chartered bank called the-- What was the name of the bank? Anyways, it was a state chartered bank. Community Capital Bank, that's the name of it. You know, it was a state chartered bank, and Dick helped raise millions of dollars between his church friends; mostly Catholic societies of various types, and he got enough money to basically meet the threshold to get a state charter. So, they got their own, basically, community bank which could do bigger loans.
But the real issue going on was the lack of affordable housing. Hello, I'venever heard that before. The church members couldn't find housing in their communities they could afford, and the city-- At that point in time, Mayor Koch was I think running for his fourth term, if I remember correctly. And the city 19:00owned tens of thousands of buildings because of the fiscal crisis. People were not paying their real estate taxes, and no one wanted these buildings, so the city was taking them and owning them. And so they were the biggest landlord, or one of the biggest landlords in the city. They were one of the worst landlords in the city. They didn't maintain anything; in fact, they were so bad that the Legal Aid Society sued the city in Housing Court and won. And the court ordered the city to make repairs to their own buildings, which they had to do. And so that's how bad things were. And the city was basically auctioning these properties off to anyone who could come up with a 10% down payment, and many of these properties had gone through the auction cycle two and three times, because they would-- Some struggling entrepreneur would buy the building, then he couldn't get financing to renovate it, and he'd lose his money, and they'd put 20:00it back on the market two years later. Some of these buildings had been through that two or three times. Obviously it wasn't working, and we went on a tour with the church group in 1984; Crown Heights, just literally two train stops beyond where we all lived, and we just were like blown away. I mean, it was nothing but vacant buildings; boarded up, burned out, drug dealers. The storefronts were empty, nothing, no shopping; it was just horrible. And it was the same housing stock with the same architects, and the same families that lived in Park Slope in 1890 lived over there. Yet it was like, utterly different. I mean, just, Park Slope had been-- by that point-- pretty much gentrified, or was in the process. Over there, it was just utter desolation. You know, and some of our biggest church members, our probably biggest member of 21:00Brooklyn Ecumenical Co-op at the time was St. Matthews Roman Catholic, which was on Utica and Eastern Parkway; big, beautiful church. St. Teresa's was a big member. They were on Sterling and Classon. We also had, Union Methodist was a member. And then of course, Dick had managed to get all of the tall steeple churches-- as they call them-- the real wealthy churches; St. Ann, the Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights, the First Presbyterian church, and Unitarian church in Crown, in Brooklyn Heights. You know, all of the fancy churches, Park Slope Methodist where I was a, obviously, was a member. So, we had a really nice coalition. We had both the very wealthy, deep pocket churches, and the churches 22:00that had big memberships but no resources. So together, we were able to build a strong coalition.
And we kept attacking Koch -- he was running for, I believe, the fourth term --about his failure to solve the housing problem, and deal with his huge inventory of vacant buildings. At one point, they were actually-- The solution to the problem with these vacant buildings; along some of the big freeways, they were going along and putting in plastic decals that looked like windows in the buildings to make them look like they were fixed. [laughter] And that was their solution. It was just ridiculous.
So, we kept hammering away at it; and we would, you know, get a posse of likefifteen or twenty people with two or three clergy, and a bunch of folks, and start getting in the mayor's office and they're singing hymns, and disrupting press conferences and things, and nothing seemed to be working. Koch was a very 23:00thick-skinned guy, so on, he-- It didn't seem to bother him a bit. So, we finally started doing some research and find out who are the big developers. And then as now, they were all developers that bankrolled the electeds. So we found out from people who the big guys were, and we started going down to the developer's offices and doing sing-ins, developers' offices. All of a sudden, our phone calls are getting returned. These developers are like, "What are you? You can't do business with these people. Get these people out of -- [unintelligible]." All of a sudden, it's like, "Oh, oh, oh!" Koch is like, "Come on down, let's talk!" [laughter]
And, so it was in April of '87 at St. Teresa's Church; we had the Comptroller ofthe Currency, and we had the Commissioner of HPD, and about two or three hundred people in the sanctuary of St. Teresa's Church, and we got the deeds to twelve 24:00vacant and abandoned buildings in Crown Heights. And eventually, not then but about a year and a half later, we got two-- 2.5 million dollars in subsidies to renovate them. So, good old Dick and his organizational genius; we got CrossLand Bank to give us an 8.5-million-dollar construction loan on these buildings. He was able to get the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Hotel Workers Union to put in twenty million dollars from their pension fund into the CrossLand Savings Bank, and in turn, got them to give us a loan. So, this was just all Dick Harmon building his coalition of labor and 25:00churches into this incredible coalition.
And, so we had a big celebration. I've got a video of it somewhere if I couldever find it. We shot about a, probably a ten or fifteen minute video of all of the clergy, and the members marching up Bedford Avenue, you know, basically celebrating our great victory, and the demolition was under way, and there were these construction workers, you know, busting up these buildings on Bedford between Prospect and Park Place. That whole block, we had -- we got almost every building on that block. We turned, I think let me, like four of them into subsidized condos, and another three into low-income rental buildings. And so that was the block we were out there with.
And the key pastor in that process was a guy named Finley Schaef-- S-C-H-A-E-F,26:00which ironically is German for "sheep." [laughter] Which is hardly what Finley was. But he was the pastor at Park Slope Methodist, and he was the one who found Dick Harmon unemployed in the '70s-- basically, without a job-- having left the Industrial Areas Foundation where he had been working for years as a trainer for Saul Alinsky in the stockyards at Chicago. Moved to New York, got a job working with [unintelligible] in Queens, got fired by the group in Queens, and was unemployed and looking for work, and he became reverend of our church, and Finley started introducing him to all his buddies at all these other organizations, and eventually built this big coalition. And this was our first collection of buildings.
We got, and eventually, we created 113 apartments; eighty-one condos, and27:00thirty-one, I think, rentals. The biggest building we got was 910 Park Place, which is on the corner of Park Place and New York Avenue; a six-story elevator building with twenty four units, and that was our first project. We closed on the first unit in the building as a condo in March of 1990. I remember we sold it to a Mrs. Smith, an elderly African American woman, and her husband, who died three months later, and they were both in their eighties. And she lived to be in her nineties.
So, my job; I was hired, I was literally the first person hired by this neworganization created to take title to these buildings. It was something called "BEC New Communities." And we are located at 841 Atlantic Avenue, right across 28:00from the credit union. And eventually the credit union moved into our building. And so, we had the credit union and BEC New Communities at 841, and eventually we had a general manager, a deputy general manager, myself, and a property manager. And yeah, all working in that building, along with the BEC staff; which is BEC, Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperative, Dick Harmon, and he had like two or three organizers.
So, we kept on trudging and--
OKECHUKWU: What was your role in this, yeah, BEC?
TODD: I was hired as the marketing director. And I think I was the onlyhousing nonprofit group that had a marketing director, because I convinced Dick that he was not going to just, be able to just get rid of these condos, even though they were very affordable. I knew enough about Crown Heights. I knew 29:00that people are not going to want to buy a condo in Crown Heights, no matter how cheap it was. And I was right, because it took us about, oh, three, four years to sell those eighty-one condos. And, so anyway, I was hired as a marketing director, and it took us from '87 to about 1990 to get the first C of O [certificate of occupancy] for the first unit so it took that three-- three years to renovate these buildings. And, as I say, eighty-one condos. And we got, in addition to the 8.5 million from the CrossLand Savings Bank, we got 2.5 million in subsidies from the city. So, as I recall, the least expensive units was a studio that I think was selling for around $55,000, and we had some one bedrooms for $64,000. I think the most expensive unit was like $115,000, it was 30:00a big duplex, three-bedroom with a large rec room, bath and a half.
And I had a couple of women working with me to market. We had a sales office,we would do open hours. You know, you go out there; the first thing you do, you go out and sweep up all the crack vials, [laughter] all the needles, and the junk off the front of the, of the corner there. And, we plugged away, and we could not find any buyers. I mean, even though these prices seemed absurdly low, we couldn't even get people to come to open houses, and no one would come from anywhere outside of Crown Heights to see these. Nobody even wanted to go to Crown Heights.
But we did get a few curious locals, you know, who lived in the neighborhood;many of them who'd lived in the neighborhood for a long time. Most of them just wanted to get out of Crown Heights, they didn't want to -- You know, they 31:00thought we were crazy to try to get anyone to come there and buy there.
So eventually, we were able to come up with a product whereby we would givepeople the money to pay for their closing cost, which would be as much as the down payment. So, we would get 5% down mortgages, and we would give people the money for their closing costs. But we didn't have any money to give them. So, what we did do, is we said, "Look it, you can move in, and you can rent for one year, and part of every rent payment, you're going to write two checks, one to us for your rent. The other one's going to go to a savings account. And you're going to build up a savings account, enough money to pay for your closing costs after one year. So, every month you write two checks; one to us for rent, the other one to our credit union, and you'll set up your own little credit savings account." And that was the only way we were able to sell these things, and we 32:00called it the -- What was it we called the--? "Equity--" I can't think. Now, anyways, Equity something Program.
But it worked. We were able, for people five -- to make it come up. So you'relooking at a studio apartment; you're looking at about $2,500. That's all they had to come up with to buy these. And for the biggest unit, it would have been around $6,000, cash money, and when we would allow them for the next year, we'd forgive part of their rent, and use the money they had set aside to pay for the closing cost; for, you know, all the appraisal fees, and the points, and the lawyers, and the other expenses associated with closing. So, as I said, I think 33:00it was, my recollection is March of 1990, we sold our first -- had our first closing with Ms. Smith and her husband at 910 Park Place. But it took us at least three years, and we never did sell -- I think we ended up with five unsold units, which we eventually rented out.
So anyways, that was the first project. And then we went on and started doingmostly rental projects, because it was very hard to get funding for condominium projects for ownership. There were no good programs, banks didn't like to lend. So, we started doing mostly rentals. And we did rentals all over Brooklyn. We did a lot of Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Sunset Park, Clinton Hill, all over. 34:00Eventually, we did about 700 apartments, mostly through the so-called Low Income Housing Tax Credit. For about two or three years there, we were the biggest developer of subsidized rental apartments in the country under the Low-Income Support Corporation, LISC-funded program.
OKECHUKWU: Can you explain the difference between a non-profit developer asopposed to someone, like a commercial developer?
TODD: Yeah, because there's a very important difference, because thenon-profits, and the big ones in central, northern Brooklyn would be Fifth Avenue Committee, Pratt Area Community Council, which is now something else. There's a group called NEBHDCO; NorthEast Brooklyn Housing Development 35:00Corporation, NEBDHCO. Man, there's a group called NHS, Neighborhood Housing Services; they're Manhattan-based. They did a lot of projects. But they're -- A, they have a philanthropic mission. They're tax-exempt under the IRS. They have to have a board that's comprised of local members. So, they're basically, they don't -- and they're non-profit, so they're not taking money out of the business and paying big salaries to investors. Obviously, contrasting with Jared Kushner. [laughter] Here's an--He's just -- he's not even one of the big for-profit developers, but he's pretty big. Donald Trump, of course. And then, neither of them are big. The biggest for-profit developer that I know of in New York City right now is a company called Related, which is doing the Hudson Yard 36:00Project, in the West Side of Manhattan. These people are, you know, worth billions and billions of dollars. But, they also pay themselves billions and billions of dollars. Whereas the local nonprofits like BEC New Communities; on our board, we had most of the board were clergy. Finley Schaef was on the board, a guy named Paul Madsen was the treasurer; he was the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church. A guy named John Eversley who lived in Crown Heights on St. Mark's, opposite the children's museum, in a beautiful house, he was on the board. A guy named Noel McDonald was the president; he was an insurance salesman. He lived somewhere in Central Brooklyn. So, these are all local 37:00community folks. And so that's the difference, and they didn't have big resources. All of the money we use to renovate the houses was money that we borrowed from a nonprofit bank called CPC resources, err pardon me, CPC, Community Preservation Corporation. It was a nonprofit bank.
So, this is something that a lot of people don't really appreciate, but backuntil Giuliani, the city would not dispose of its, any of its inventory of buildings, except to nonprofit developers. So, under Koch, under Dinkins, all of the inventory of city-owned buildings were, were sold only to non-profits. And guess who changed that? Rudolph Giuliani, yeah.
OKECHUKWU: Before we get to Giuliani, um, so, as we know, Crown Heights has a38:00significant Hasidic population. Were they connected at all to any of this non-- like, what was their relationship to housing that you can remember at the time?
TODD: Well, another bit of historical trivia, but when they did the originalplanning boards; as in before they become community boards, they were "planning boards." There are currently fifty-nine of them. There originally were more, and what happened was back in the '60s-- when the city was in dire straits, exodus of tax base-- the Rebbes running the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights basically approached the mayor at the time, which I think was Beame, possibly, or Stark, one of the other. They said, "We will continue to stay in this community. But you have to give us our own community board." So, they did, and 39:00that's how they separated Community Board 8 from Community Board 9. Community Board 9 is South Crown Heights from Empire to Eastern Parkway. And up until about two, or maybe three or four years ago, Rabbi Goldstein was the chair. And even though the Hasidim comprised a minority of that population in South Crown Heights, they-- for decades-- were the chair of the community board. And, interestingly, Pearl Miles was the dep-- was the manager who is African American, woman. So they had this kind of political jujitsu of an Orthodox rabbi, African American woman, and for years, they were like -- that was it, and it was -- until you probably know now, Crown Heights South has erupted into -- [laughter] total bizarre-land. But they were there forever; they were totally 40:00stable. The Hasidim controlled that area.
OKECHUKWU: So, none of your developments were in South Crown Heights?
TODD: No, no. We did have one church, come to think of it, St. Ignatius wasone of our churches, a big Catholic -- good-size Catholic church. Father -- forget his name now, really nice guy. But we never could get any city-owned properties in Crown-- South Crown Heights. If there were any, because as you know, the Orthodox basically made sure that nothing ever reached that point, where they would probably control it. So, we never did it, to my knowledge -- there might have been one or two, I just did not -- certainly no significant number in the South Crown Heights.
OKECHUKWU: So then how did -- you know, how did things change with Giuliani?You were right on the cusp of that before. 41:00
TODD: Yeah, well, you remember the history. David Dinkins, our first AfricanAmerican mayor, had a beautiful mosaic; all that, was kind of his mantra. And then they had this -- the riot that broke out in Crown Heights. That was 1991. I remember it was in summer, probably July or August.
TODD: August. I never forget, I happened to be on vacation. I was up at aMethodist camp in the Catskills, and I went into town, and brought back The New York Times. I stretched out on my cot, opened the paper, and the front page, "Riots in Crown Heights." [laughter] I'm like, "Oh shit!" [laughter] We at that point were marketing, in our second year of marketing of these condominiums. And I'm like, "Oh my God," you know? And, fortunately most of the damage, from what I remember, was done in South Crown Heights. The incident that sparked, as 42:00you remember, there was a young African American boy who was run over by an Orthodox gentleman, and died subsequently -- you know. That whole story, is, you know, incredible. But most of the activity was in the south-- where the incident occurred-- and down around Empire, and Utica, and President; somewhere around there.
So, I got back -- By the time I got back, which was several days after theincident, things had pretty much stabilized. And we never saw much damage up in the north end of Crown Heights. But it did create a big political impact, especially for David Dinkins, who, you know, the legacy is, he didn't react quickly enough to the Heights. The riots, he didn't send police in right away; he kind of waited to see if things would calm down, and they didn't, and things got worse, and then someone else was killed. And, so this kind of tarnished his 43:00legacy, and created a sense of -- and this was also, at that point in time, crack had-- the crack epidemic was running wild. Crime rates were going through the roof. All the crime was in poor African American communities. So, there was this big hue and cry for law and order, safety in our streets. And this is what Giuliani, with his Republican, conservative agenda, was able to convert into an election victory for himself.
And that was really when everything changed for nonprofits, because he basically-- I remember working with HPD at the time, when we were getting all of our buildings, and all of our subsidies were coming from them. All of a sudden, all the people we used to work with are gone. They got replaced by puppets. I mean, I remember particularly the woman who headed a program that I was involved 44:00with; a very senior person who'd been with the agency for years, very bright, so on and so forth, got replaced by the woman who used to be the head of the library, had absolutely no experience with doing anything, development, housing, nothing. She was a complete ditz. [laughter] And she was made a head of this big program. And clearly, she got her job because she was told to, "So just shut up and do what you're told and don't ask any questions." And she did. She, she was very happy to have a nice job, and so on and so forth.
But that is what he did throughout the entire bureaucracy, everybody there wason a short leash, and they didn't make any decisions; he totally controlled everybody. And what he said, went. And one of the things that he said was basically, no more buildings to nonprofits. We're giving everything to for-profits. 45:00
And most of the buildings, like, just to give you an example, we were involvedwith a home ownership program. Our-- We got seven buildings from HPD, and mostly in Clinton Hill, that were one-to-three family townhouse. And, we successfully renovated them and sold them to homeowners, and we applied for the next round of that program for a group of buildings in Crown Heights, which is where we had had a long historical presence, and one of them was right around the corner from where I lived for a long time; beautiful buildings. And you know, we were working with the same contractor who had done our previous round, and you know, we're looking good; you know? We have a good track record. We successfully completed the previous round. This is an area we have a lot of 46:00connections. And much to our surprise, rather than our nonprofit-- local base nonprofit getting these houses-- they were given to a developer from Long Island, who had little connection to the community. In fact, was, lived, as I remember, out in Great Neck. And, so that's what's happened in Giuliani-land; they basically hooked up with for-profits who had their own financing in place, typically not from communities, and all the nonprofit groups got stiffed.
So, at that point, I remember the big thing from the nonprofits like FifthAvenue and Pratt, and -- were going into what they called "supportive housing projects," so we had previously done affordable housing for moderate-income families. All that money was now shifted to the for-profits. So the non-profits started doing supportive housing, which is people with -- incapable 47:00of independent living; people with disabilities, ex-felons, you know, drug addicts, etc., so on and so forth. So now, we -- our whole mission shifted from doing affordable housing for people, to doing housing for people with disabilities. And that was all because -- not because we wanted to not do that. And then you ask yourself, well how come there's no affordable housing? Well, because all the for-profits went into business, and started making a lot of money-- pocketing a big hunk of the change for themselves-- all of which went out of the city to places like Long Island, New Jersey, and Westchester, and so on and so forth.
The other thing that Giuliani did-- which is still something that we'refighting-- is up until the 1998, I think it was, the city was taking tax-delinquent property directly, and taking title themselves through what they 48:00call the "in rem" program, and it was a lengthy two or three year-long process, and there was a lot of time for people to buy themselves out. But eventually if they couldn't come up with the dough, the city took their properties. And that's how all the properties that we developed came to be city-owned, through the in rem program.
In '98, approximately, Giuliani did away with that. He, henceforth, and fromthen forward, including the currently -- there, what they call the "tax lien sale," whereby the city would sell the right to collect delinquent taxes to private investors, debt collectors. Basically, loan sharks, if you will, who were private; who were basically based up in Connecticut, who have very deep pockets, and once they acquire the tax liens, that basically, the city gives the 49:00-- there's an auction; the tax liens are sold off to the highest bidder. The city gets the face value of the lien, so if there's a lien on the property for $30,000, they get a check for $30,000; the debt collectors get the right to collect that debt. They immediately begin foreclosure proceedings, and over the next year or so, eventually, they acquire title, throw the often poor family out on the street. Now they own it, and they can develop it as anything they want. And that's been happening over and over again in Crown Heights. And the city no longer, under de Blasio, has any significant inventory in most neighborhoods, except for the really [unintelligible] in like, East New York, certain neighborhoods in the Bronx, and brownfields, and areas that just totally have no 50:00market value.
But in Crown Heights, I am very intimately familiar with the property, 870Schenectady Avenue. It was acquired by a nonprofit around 1982. The nonprofit failed to pay the taxes. Even though it was nonprofit, the city went ahead and sold delinquent taxes in a tax lien sale, and in 2015, the city sold -- not the city, but the liens were sold, and they were purchased for $365,000 for the lot that's twenty by a hundred, a vacant lot. And that's a lot between Dean and 51:00Pacific, and it was right between two lots that were owned by a non-profit gardening group, the NYRP, Bette Midler garden group. But they were unable to get that middle lot when they bought the two adjacent lots around 2002. That was subsequently auctioned off, and it was sold for $365,000 to a for-profit developer. So that's just an example of how a non-profit-- and actually, the non-profit was owned by an adjacent church who wanted to build affordable housing there. But under the way the tax lien sales work, every year, a non-profit has to notify the state that they are the owner of the property, and they're tax-exempt. If they fail to notify the state, then the state does not put them on a list of tax-exempt properties, and the city goes ahead and sends them tax bills. 52:00
And right now, this is the incredible irony, I was notified by a woman namedPaula Segal, who heads up a group, 365 Acres, 395 Acres, that the Tabernacle AME Church-- which is directly across the street from the garden, which is a hundred year old AME church-- their lien is being auctioned off next month for their property. And if they don't pay it off, then they can be foreclosed on. And I actually went to the church, and about two weeks ago, and gave the printout to the sexton and told them to get to the pastor.
So, this is the kind of -- it's not something that's just Giuliani's doing; thisis de Blasio's doing. This is a hundred-year-old AME church, and I think that a cornerstone of the building says 1845 on it, so it's even more than a hundred years. Surviving -- I think Weeksville was founded in 1840-something.
OKECHUKWU: That church was a Weeksville church; it was part of the Weeksville community.53:00
TODD: Yeah, yeah. And it's not the original site, but that's where they arenow-- and they have a big banner on the side, "Now Celebrating Our 100th Anniversary" -- and they're subject to have their lien sold. And so, this is like, the media is simply not picking up on this. Because de Blasio doesn't want it talked about, because most of his campaign funds come from these same developers that are buying these lots. And we're trying now to get attention to this lot that we're trying to save. We have a big banner on it now, "Save the Willow Tree," our e-- here's our email. If you know this tree, if you know this lot, call, email us. I just got an email last night from a family that was -- you know, remembers getting free chickens from the church. They had that lot then; they were raising chickens there. And they had no idea what was going on. And, you know, so this is -- the media is totally blowing it; they're not picking up on this stuff. And it just really helps you see very clearly how the 54:00money controls the media, that controls the mayor, and around and around and around, and no one wants to talk about it.
We actually had the editor of the Our Time Press, David Greaves, email me. Hesaid, "Okay, what's going on with this lot?" And this is a year ago. And I told him all about it. He says, "Oh, I'll come and do a story on that." I say, "Great." And, so he never called me up. So, I called him back, he said, "Oh, well we've got other things we want to do." You know, I mean, this is, we, we've had so many nibbles. The Daily News had a reporter who emailed me. I think it was AM New York, actually. "We want--I'm thinking of doing a story." And then they never follow through. They get to their editors, you know, people talk to people. Like, "Nah, I don't think you want to talk about that." [laughter]
So, we're working on a video now; in fact, we're going to be interviewing peopleprobably in about three weeks.
OKECHUKWU: What group is this? Who's working on the video?55:00
TODD: It's basically, the gardeners of the garden, in conjunction with 596Acres, Paula Segal's been very helpful. We're setting up a new group that we're right in the middle of getting exempt called "Waste Not Permaculture," that is basically the group that first got me out there. I came out there in 2007 with a bunch of permaculture people, looking to do permaculture projects, and we started out there. And eventually, we got a chicken coop, and a lot of other cool stuff. But that's the core group, Waste Not Permaculture, the garden members, and the 596 Acres. Paula Segal has been giving us, you know, free legal advice, and explaining to us how this tax lien sale works, and how to fight it, and giving us a lot of, you know, legal input in terms of the whole 56:00operation. But --
OKECHUKWU: So, after it became -- after Giuliani came into office and nonprofitdevelopers basically faced huge challenges, what -- I mean, did they just change their mission and sort of do other work? Or what happened to the nonprofit developer in New York?
TODD: Well, they -- I have this funny story, my former director at BEC who isquite a character, his name was Robert Moore. And he was a civil rights advocate, he used to work for NAACP. He was the national housing chair in NAACP at one point. A Black gentleman from Louisville, grew up in the '50s, Jim Crow; a very tough guy. And he says, "You know, Greg, the way it works is, if the 57:00funders decided that they were going to fund nonprofits to paint elephants' toenails pink, suddenly you would see a lot of nonprofits painting elephant toenails." And that's the way it works. [laughter] So all of a sudden, the nonprofits couldn't get money to do affordable housing anymore, so they started doing other things. They started doing, as I mentioned, supportive housing; homeless shelters.
In fact, Fifth Avenue Committee-- Brad Lander, who's the former executivedirector of, now is the city council member-- just nine years ago finished up 575 Fifth Avenue; a permanently affordable, low-income building for formerly homeless individuals, and there they've forty-seven apartment studios that are permanently affordable, all of them for formally homeless families in studios. 58:00So obviously, they're going to be single people, for the most part.
So, they changed their mission. And BEC, being BEC, and being Robert Moore andwhatnot, we were not interested in changing our mission. We're like we're -- the mission is to build affordable housing for people. There's certainly no short of need for affordable housing. We're not going to change our mission because we can't get paid anymore.
So, we basically got out of the development business, and basically weremanaging our 700 units, and the management income was sufficient to basically maintain our staff. But, through a long political process, we eventually lost the management contracts for our affordable housing. And they essentially cease to exist --
OKECHUKWU: When was that?
TODD: --on a practical level. That was right around 2001, and it's a very long59:00story. But basically, BEC now exists in name only. I think they may have one building, they have a-- They still have their name on a subsidized senior housing project that we did out on -- just off of Park Avenue and Nostrand. Interestingly, Robert H. Moore Senior Housing Project, it's still there. But they really don't exist anymore, whereas Fifth Avenue Committee, Pratt, Pratt Area Community Council, NEBHDCO, they still exist, and they just changed their mission to do other things. So, that's how that worked out.
OKECHUKWU: So, what did you do after --?
TODD: Well that's funny, I -- our offices at BEC at the time were at 67 HansonPlace, which is a building we developed, so 114-unit, fourteen-story, low-income 60:00rental building. It's our biggest building we ever did, 114 units, and we had the whole first floor for our offices. So, I left BEC and walked two blocks over to the new real estate company that just opened on the corner of Lafayette and South Elliott, named incredibly enough, The Corcoran Group. And Barbara Corcoran had opened -- she was the first major real estate broker to open offices in, in Brooklyn, and she opened an office there around 2001, maybe 2002. I'll never forget that when they first opened, they put the big Corcoran awning out. I was still working at BEC. I walked around the corner to the diner one day, and the big Corcoran awning was a big bucket of white paint someone had thrown on their awning to protest their being there. [laughter] But Barbara 61:00Corcoran was a pioneer, and she actually bought the building. I think it was a former hair salon. She, and another broker, she actually bought out another brokerage to start the Corcoran's offices, and they jointly owned the building, and we had an African American woman who's still there, name is Juliana Brown, was the director of the office, and I walked in there, and it's like, "I'm a real estate broker, and you seem like some nice folks. Maybe you can hire me." [laughter] I was still there, probably the only person in Corcoran I know of who was a former marketing director for a nonprofit, who's a broker with Corcoran. I was like, one of, you know. They didn't know what I was doing or anything. [laughter]
But she liked me; I liked her, and so I started working at Corcoran. And I62:00started, you know, talking to all these people I had sold subsidized condos to about, you know, when they decided to sell their condos, they should sell it through me. I knew a lot of folks in the neighborhood, and I knew a lot of churches. My job was basically in community outreach in Crown Heights, so on and so forth, so I knew a lot of people.
And the year after that, about the same time I started working in Corcoran, Ibought a house, 866 Park Place, which is in the same block as 910 Park Place, which was the first building that we did there, and it's 866 Park Place. I remember walking by it all the time. It was a crack house, and there had been a fire; there was vacate order in the building. The owner ignored it, and they just, they say, put the seal on; they break the seal. People move in, he puts 63:00another seal. That went on for a couple years, until finally, a developer bought it and fixed it up, and then I bought it. So, that was the house that I moved into with my wife and two teenage sons in, around 2002.
OKECHUKWU: So, what was the neighborhood like then when you moved in? I mean,very different than when you started, set up shop, I guess?
TODD: Well, the vacant -- the building at 910 Park Place, when we bought it,was a former crack house like every other building over there. You could walk, and they had a seal on the front door the city had put in, but it had been broken into, and you could walk in. You could see the crack vials all over the floor, just broken rubble, and crap all over the building. It was just disgusting. And a few on the block, buildings on the block were, you know, being run as, you know, kind of flophouses, and so on and so forth.
OKECHUKWU: This is 2000?64:00
TODD: This is 2002, yeah. And, I remember when we bought the house, there,there was a guy named Lenny, who was a crack addict, whose job basically was being the universal handyman, kind of. There were like two handymen, him, and a guy named -- I forget his real name; he went by the street name of "Dread." And it's funny because the guy's bald, but apparently when he was a young man, he had big dreadlocks. So, he's -- the name "Dread," and he was the handyman, he and Lenny. Dread basically fixed plumbing and did odd jobs for all the -- most of the buildings on the block were owned by elderly Black women who are mostly West Indians. I know my one neighborhood was, the original owners from Jamaica and the other side was the woman from Martinique. And that was, the people 65:00across the street for, from Barbados. So that was most of the block was like that, and West Indians, and bought in the '50s. But Lenny was a crack addict, and he would just kind of go, and pick up stuff on the street, and sell them to the folks on the block, you know? And my wife kind of like took a liking to them, said she was always buying this odd bookshelf, or this odd pot or plant or whatever you would pick out of the trash. [laughter]
And so, and Dread, turns out, lived at 866 Park Place when it was a crack house.And his room was the top floor rear room, and it's the only room in the whole building that still had the mantle place intact. And he says, "That's because everybody knew I had a gun, and no one would mess with me." [laughter] That's 66:00why, he kept that place safe. So, he was telling me some of the stories of what happened there. You know, there was a fire on the parlor floor, you know, and they came in-- the fire department-- and they declared it an unsafe building. But they just kept bringing people in there, and so on and so forth.
And so they were still there; they're still there. Dread is still there. Lennyis, unfortunately, got hit by a car in a crosswalk, broke his hip, didn't get it fixed. You know, on and on, because he was a crack addict, they wouldn't work on him till he got -- It was just a long story. Last I knew, he was in a nursing home in Queens somewhere. But, so that was kind of the vestige of the people that were there. As far as I know, I was probably the first White person to buy a townhouse on the block in 2002. Since then, there's been probably a 67:00half-dozen more. A number of White folks who bought in the condo in 910 Park Place. I know when I sold it-- the building-- back in the '90s, everybody was African American in the building. But slowly, that's starting to change.
So, it's been, you know, because these were owners, and most of them were WestIndians, and West Indians are pretty savvy about real estate business; they haven't met a lot of movement on the block. That's less true I think of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where I think a lot more of those houses were lost to developers, I think, because of percentage, perhaps. On my block, only a few of them have really had non-homeowners in the buildings, so--
OKECHUKWU: So that home in Crown Heights, do you still own it, or did you sell it?68:00
TODD: Well, I sold that in October.
OKECHUKWU: Oh, just sold it.
TODD: And interestingly, to show you how times change, I bought the house for-- let me think -- 479 in 2002. I sold it for $1.84 million in October of 2016. The guy that bought it from me had gone to Amherst. He had an MBA from Stanford, and worked at, guess where, Goldman Sachs. And was the chief of staff for the first deputy mayor of New York City. About two months after he bought 69:00the house, he was made the head of the Economic Development Corporation. His wife is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. [laughter] So, you know, these are not just anybody, you know. These are people with money, with political connections. I remember that his attorney at the closing-- my attorney was a very established real estate attorney, had no idea who this other attorney was, but she had-- the buyer's attorney had worked mostly for large developers, and she had the contract. This -- my attorney looked at it, it was kind of -- it was like this thick, and it was obviously designed for a big development deal, because there was stuff in there that had absolutely nothing to do with home ownership, and she's just like, "What is this?" You know, because the buyer was all hooked up; because he had been spending all of his time hanging out with wealthy developers, because he was hanging out with the mayor's deputy for real 70:00estate. So, MBA, the whole shtick. And, so it was kind of a crazy situation and --
So that's what's happening; these houses now are going on the market formultiples of millions of dollars, you know.
OKECHUKWU: Do you plan on buying something else?
TODD: Well that's actually-- the other interesting part of the story is, backin 1985 -- no, 19, 1986, 2006, there is a little house that you may have seen; it's on Schenectady Avenue between Dean and Pacific, there's one house on that block. It's a little frame house that came on the market. A little African American grandmother, who, her grandsons had lived in that for several years. 71:00It was a wreck; it was falling down. She got foreclosed on, speculator bought it, sold it to someone else. She lost it. Another speculator bought it, went on the market, and I bought it. And I bought that in August of 2016, ironically the same month that the developer bought the vacant lot in the Imani Garden. [laughter] And, over there, in my bag, is a set of plans for that house that I'm going to, hopefully-- if I can get the funding-- turn into a house that I can live in. So, I'll be able to live there, and work in the garden. [inaudible]
OKECHUKWU: So why stay in Crown Heights? Is it the proximity to the garden?
TODD: Totally. For me, this was just -- when I got that -- when I saw thathouse for sale -- I hadn't been aware of the previous sale that was all done, 72:00you know, through bank foreclosures; all those things never reached the public. But the second time it came to market was through a local developer. And this is a funny thing, interesting thing; the name of the group is -- who developed it was "Conscious Community Real Estate." And the development team were all local African American folks. One was a lawyer, one was a contractor, and one was a former Wall Street banker. And these are all local folks. I'm like --
So, I bought it from them, and I -- you know, and their big sign up front,"Conscious Community Real Estate, For Sale." I'm like, damn. I'm looking like this, and I'm like, "Wow. [laughter] If I could live there, how cool would that be?" And how uncool if some, you know, knucklehead bought it, and tore it down, 73:00and put some, you know, crack-y big building there, you know? So, you know, I've really got to save this house, you know?
So, I did. It was very hard, because I had to get a loan on my other house, andit was -- money's very hard to come by now. Because of the fiscal crisis, 2007-2008, I ended up getting a very high interest loan from some less than savory people to get the money to be able to buy that-- and I had to carry that-- and I couldn't really stay in my other house, because the payment on that loan was just ridiculous. So, I sold it in a little more than a year after I bought the other house, and that year, I had hoped to be able to renovate it and fix it. Well, that didn't happen.
So, I had to find a place to live. So right now, I'm living with a friend, andI spent two years in -- two months in Nicaragua. I'd just been kind of floating 74:00around, staying with friends, waiting for this other house to get finished. And, looks to me like it most likely will be another year before it's -- yeah, fully habitable. Who knows, you know? But, that's a lot of work, so.
OKECHUKWU: Did your kids stay in New York?
TODD: Well, they eventually -- all of them have now moved away. My two sonsgot married within a year of each other. One got married to a woman upstate in St. Lawrence County, way up in Canton, New York, where he's working for SUNY Canton as a -- they have an engineering lab. He's been up there about five, six years. My other son just got married a year ago, and he and his wife moved to Las Vegas, where he has hopes of becoming a professional kickboxer, which is 75:00what he's been doing for the past seven or eight years. And as you may know, Las Vegas is a fight capital, and so he's got his first fight-- knock on wood-- next month, and wish him luck, so.
OKECHUKWU: Good luck. Yeah, no, I ask because it seems to me that a lot of thekids that have grown up in New York go elsewhere to buy some things. It's just so unaffordable to stay here.
TODD: Well yeah, yeah, that seems to be the case. If they didn't have the goodfortune of having their parents own a brownstone, because those people are like, got money to go anywhere. But a lot of those owners-- I've noticed them, ones that I've known, tend to move away-- and sell their house. I know several have moved south to places like North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, you know, where 76:00they can get a really nice place. And they hit retirement age, they got this big, empty house, the kids are all gone; they've moved to the suburbs or somewhere else, and I've known several people who have done that, just, you know, moved out of the neighborhood. [inaudible]
But it's less true in Crown Heights, where I think a lot of people, a percentageof people who own their own homes is higher. But, it's just happening more slowly, I think, than in Bed-Stuy, perhaps; where there, more people lost their homes. So on, so forth, or never owned their homes, and were just living in SROs, and rent-stabilized, rent-controlled apartments, so on, so forth.
OKECHUKWU: How did you get into gardening?
TODD: I've always been like an environmentalist. And, some friends of mine77:00were -- actually, it was my wife at the time who got involved in this group, talking about voluntary simplicity, and how to live better for less, and so on, so forth. And so, she started telling me about it, so I went down, I got involved in this reading group. And they just kept reading more books. They were meeting at the Starbucks down on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope. And so, I just stuck with the group, and they eventually started meeting in Manhattan. They got more people involved, and we eventually morphed into this whole permaculture thing, which is kind of like about how to live very sustainably-- and involves designing your life, including your-- the way you eat, the way you 78:00live, and everything else, you know, in a way that's permanently sustainable.
So, I got really into this stuff; the group changed its name to something called"Green Phoenix Permaculture," and we eventually moved a bunch of people up to a Methodist camp near High Falls, New York, where we built a CSA. We built a straw bale house out of timber frames; straw bale house. One of the people living there was an architect, and so he and his wife built this house over the course of four or five years. We conducted a whole series of workshops about natural buildings, and all at this Methodist camp, and then in 2007, I took the 79:00first -- my first permaculture design course at the Methodist camp from a guy named Geoff Lawton, who is like the premier permaculture teacher in the world. He actually worked for Bill Mollison, who's the guy who kind of invented the term "permaculture" in Tasmania in the '70s, and wrote the first permaculture manual. And Geoff Lawton was his like, chief assistant, and buddy, and yadda, yadda.
So, I took the class directly from Lawton, and the same year, with a bunch ofother graduates from the class, we found this garden in -- Imani Garden, which was just empty at that point in time. It was owned by NYRP, but there was 80:00nobody gardening there. One of the permaculture grads was also, worked for NYRP, he says, "Oh yeah, you have to come up to this garden, no one here," yadda, yadda, yadda. So, we went out there and started gardening there, and we did lots of cool stuff. We built a solar-powered aquaponics system. We built a water catchment system. We eventually built a cob oven to make pizza in.
And then about 2009-- in a coalition with Just Foods-- NYRP built what's, at thetime, the biggest chicken coop in New York, and we had about fifty chickens in this giant chicken coop. And, a chock -- a flock -- a group of people that we called the "chicken tenders" who basically took care of the chickens. And eventually, they moved on, but another local woman stepped up-- a woman named 81:00Lydia Schmidt-- and she became the chief chicken tender, and she has had a number of apprentices over the years. They still -- NYRP teaches a series of chicken workshops there, and people from all over the city have been coming there for the chicken workshops led by Lydia. So, a lot of people who know the garden, say, "Imani, oh, is that where they have the chicken workshops?" So, it's been a really great consciousness-raiser for people in the community, so it's really cool.
And then, whatsit? 2011, I noticed there was just this vacant lot on the cornerof Pacific and Schenectady. And thinking, "Well, what's going on with that?" So, I looked it up and found out that it was owned by the city. So, I asked around, and someone says, "Well, you can apply to the city to use it as a 82:00garden, but they're not doing that anymore, so you're -- not going to probably let you do it." So, I said, "Well, I don't know." So I sent in the form, and I get called back about a month later, and says, "Well, I think I've got some good news for you. The city's going to let you license, the agreement--" yadda yadda ya. Like, no kidding.
So, at summer 2011, a bunch of me and my permaculture-crazy people, we went outthere with a bunch of kids, and we did a crazy permaculture thing. We took, and got cardboard from all the bodegas, and chopped down all the weeds, and covered it with cardboard, the whole lot, with rocks and cardboard. And immediately, people started saying, "What are you doing? Why are you putting all that cardboard there?" Like, "To kill the plants." "Why? Why cardboard?" Because it's free, you know. And then eventually we got complaints, because people were convinced that rats were living in the cardboard, you know, and yadda, yadda. 83:00
And one day I came out there for -- I left a tool in the garden, and I came outearly that morning, so-- I didn't want anyone to steal this tool. It must have been eight o'clock in the morning, and there was like five or six sanitation workers in the garden, and they were taking up all the cardboard, because they had been convinced that rats were living there. [laughter] I said, "Excuse me, we put that cardboard there to kill the weeds." And they're like, "Well ,who are you?" And I walked them out, and I pointed to the Parks Department sign on the lot, and I says, "I work with the Parks Department. We have a license for this lot. Unless you want Mayor Bloomberg to kick your butt, you better go away." [laughter] And they're like, "Oh." So they, so they stop what they're doing and put the cardboard back in the lot. And you know, it's just really weird; I just happened to be there, that very time -- never there at that time 84:00in the morning. And they were already working.
But eventually, we took the cardboard up, and the weeds were gone, and we-- nowwe got a grant for a greenhouse; we have a nice little greenhouse there. We've got 13 raised beds. We've got our water storage tank, and we applied for a grant to build a sustainable-harvest wood toolshed there next month, so we'll see.
OKECHUKWU: When the city gives you a license to use the land, how long is that for?
TODD: It's basically a revocable, on 30-day notice, and it's for like fouryears. But it's revocable, at notice, and in fact-- in January of 2016, I think it was, or 2015 actually-- the city did that; they revoked it, and they said, "We're going to build a house there, along with eighteen other gardens," and 85:00this led to a big fight, and all these gardens got together and formed a coalition. We had a big protest in front of City Hall in Manhattan in January of 2015, and eventually, at the end of last year, de Blasio signed new licenses with all but one or two of the gardens, and transferred from HPD-- which is a housing development division-- to Parks; so effectively saved the gardens for the foreseeable future.
And just this past week, we got a brand new fence, and on Wednesday, we gotforty-five pieces of lumber to build new raised beds. So yeah, in the same year that they did that, the other lot was sold. So, our garden, we felt like we were getting hit from both ends of the city, you know, and it was just-- It had 86:00been a real struggle the last couple years to try to protect the garden. So, it's just been crazy, you know; between buying the house, at the same time getting the garden lot sold, and getting-- The city threatened to develop it, you know, just like an endless-- This is what it's like in New York City to try to garden; half your time fighting with the city and the private developers, and you know, it's crazy.
OKECHUKWU: So where do you see Crown Heights in ten years?
TODD: Well, it reminds me of the Christmas Carol; you know the EbenezerScrooge, and the Good Christmas, and the Bad Christmas. [laughter] Because I think it's really up to us, you know? I mean, we're like Ebenezer Scrooge here; 87:00if we refuse to let the developers take over, as has just happened literally three weeks ago with this homeless shelter. You know, I was there in the second row when they had the first hearing, and I saw the city's officials up there trying to dance around what they were doing, and the people all around were just screaming, and they were unrelenting, and they just were mad as hell, because this -- The location, 1173 Bergen Street, is directly opposite a school for -- what do you call those -- a marching band, of youth. So, they come there every week, hundreds of youth, right across on this proposed shelter for homeless men. And they didn't find out about this until a week before. So, these mothers 88:00were just going crazy, and they were screaming, and yelling, and it was just-- People were standing outside, and the overflow in the other room [unintelligible], and I'm on the community board, and the community board, you know, staff, and membership, they're up on the dais, and it was just, it was a complete zoo. In fact, the community liaison officer almost arrested one of the community board members [laughter] for-- you know. It was just crazy; it was a zoo.
And then there was another meeting a week later over at the Paul Robeson HighSchool, and then a group of people filed this injunction, and it got filed to the courts, now we still currently have an injunction, which is another-- it's a few more weeks. Point being that it is possible to stop this stuff. But we got to know what we're up against. 89:00
We have to understand that the mayor, even though he is a progressive guy-- youknow, his wife's Chirlane McCray, you know, biracial kids, you know, all that stuff, you know, from Park Slope, used to live a few blocks from where we're sitting now-- he still ultimately has to raise millions of dollars to get elected. And the only people that have that kind of money that want to spend it for a mayoral election are developers. And those developers are the guys that want to make money doing deals, like my buyer of my house; who worked for Goldman Sachs, and is now the head of the Economic Developer Corporation, his best buddies are all real estate developers. So, these are the guys behind the scenes who really control everything, and they don't want anyone to find that out.
And right now, there's another big fight going on just blocks from the shelterat the Bedford Armory, on Union, where two big developers were basically going 90:00to get a deal to do mostly unaffordable housing there. The new assemblywoman there-- Ms. Richards, Marilyn Richards, I believe her name is-- has been fighting this tooth and nail, and Laurie Cumbo, the Council member, has not been fighting it too much-- and the community's calling her on it, and there's a big backlash against Laurie-- and Laurie's in trouble. And I've met several of these activists, and they're like, "We'd rather not do any housing." And the developer who's still left, Donald Capoccia and his crew, they made themselves multimillionaires doing housing they get from the city. So, the people who really win in those situations are-- not the community, but-- these rich 91:00developers, who are going to be getting millions of dollars in developer's fees for doing that.
And if a nonprofit like BEC, or Fifth Avenue Committee, or Pratt Area CommunityCouncil, or NEBHDCO could get that, if there was the money -- first off, they're not going to be making millions of dollars, they're making thousands of dollars, and that money would all go to people who live in the community. And the board that controls those are the people that live in the community, not some guy who lives in, you know, winter in Switzerland, and summer in Mar-a-Lago, or whatever, you know what I mean? But it would be local people. And this-- we lost all that with Giuliani, and we need to get it back, and de Blasio is not talking about this stuff.
OKECHUKWU: So how, you know, what -- how do you fight that, you know?
TODD: You-- they fight it by getting people educated. This is what -- DickHarmon, when he started BEC, Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives, he was very 92:00adamant that no one would go to a protest or an "action" -- as they liked to call them-- unless they had been to at least two training sessions. He didn't want a bunch of people in the -- you may have heard of a group called ACORN. Well ACORN was started by one of his students. And if you want to get Dick mad, just mention ACORN. It was just like, waving a flag at a bull. He'd just go crazy, because he's like, "Those guys, they're scum. They don't do it right." And they would actually go down to homeless shelters, and pay people to come to protests, just to show up. And that just made him so mad, because he said, "Anybody come to our protest, you have to go to at least two two-hour-long training sessions to get educated about the issues. So, if somebody from the press asked you, like what you're doing here, you would know. You would understand, you know, the whole problem with housing, and how it got to be the 93:00way it was, and how the mayor was part of the problem and he wasn't doing anything, and this is what our plan was to fix it, and how it was going to --"
So, he really was adamant about that, and he trained, you know, thousands ofpeople in the community to understand the reason their community is the way it was. And if you don't do that, then, you know, you get mad; you get upset. You go and fight the fight. They give you some chump change; you think the problem's fixed, and then it just keeps on going, because you don't solve the problem, you just -- you know, they'll buy you a few people off. The real raw mouths, they'll give them a little deal; like a little something-something, and set them up in their little, you know, operation, or give them a free apartment, or whatever kind of a deal they cut, and that's just the way they get by. And they've been doing it forever; they're very good at it.
Donald Capoccia, interestingly, started off in the East Village under Giuliani;where Giuliani was taking community gardens and giving them to Donald Capoccia 94:00to do unaffordable housing. And I had some good friends who were activists who were chained to gates at those gardens, and they had to be cut off, you know, by the police, before they could build buildings there. So, I was there, and my kids were going to school there in the, in the '90s. So that's Donald Capoccia. Now, of course, everyone's forgotten about that, and he's like an established, solid guy, you know? And, he's kind of like, money forgives all, and now that he's a rich guy, he's cool, and so on and so forth.
So, you know, we need to educate people, and I think, hopefully, people aregetting educated, and that's how we're going to stop it, you know?
OKECHUKWU: Is there anything else that you'd like to share about yourexperience with housing, or Crown Heights, or anything that we've talked about? 95:00
TODD: Well only that I've learned a lot in the last couple months, by havinggone to Nicaragua a lot. I've been there seven times in thirteen years, and I-- last was two months living in a coffee plantation near Matagalpa. Matagalpa is the city where the top leaders of the Sandinista Party grew up. And the guy named Carlos Fonseca was the, kind of Fidel Castro of the Sandinistas, and-- who, unlike Fidel-- wasn't so lucky. He actually was killed by the Somoza regime in 1977.
But his best friend and right-hand man-- a guy named Tomás Borge-- survived,and he wrote an autobiography. And I've been reading it. And it's just incredible to see what these Sandinistas went through. And, incredible 96:00hardships and the struggles, and to the point where, you know Borge is-- to the best of my knowledge, the only one who did-- who survived the revolution. Dozens of others were all killed, you know, ambushed, kidnapped, tortured, and all; the whole enchilada. Borge himself was arrested in '77, and spent much of the next two years in solitary confinement on a hunger strike. But he survived, and he was actually the minister of the interior under the Sandinistas, and spent much of the next ten years after the revolution fighting Contras. 97:00
But these were just average guys living in Matagalpa-- you know, who happened tobe Catholic kids-- and they saw what was going on, and decided that they had to do something about it. And, suffered incredible hardships, and saw most of their friends and family killed.
So it's not easy, you know, to fight these fights. You can't just do it fromyour living room. [laughter] And I used to -- you know, there's some very crazy things going on right now. But I think that -- you know, I think the election 98:00of Trump was a big game changer. For the first time, there wasn't one of the good old boys elected. And as bad as he is, he was not somebody who was, you know, bankrolled by the mob. You know, he's his own man, and he's cutting a different path, and it's a path that's crazy. [laughter] But, it's different. [laughter] If nothing else, he's -- turns out some pretty crazy tweets. [laughter] So.
OKECHUKWU: Yeah. So, you have some hope if people band together and fight this?
TODD: Absolutely. I think that de Blasio wants to do the right thing, and Ithink that's what Obama said when he was elected. He says, you know, "You have 99:00to make me do the right thing. You know, I can't do it by myself." And, to the extent that he succeeded, I think, you know, it's because we made him do it. And then, the stuff that he didn't, it's on us, you know. I think de Blasio is a kind of guy who, if he gets a sense that he's going to have to do the right thing to get reelected, he will do the right thing. It's not like he isn't unfamiliar with the problems. But you know, even probably his-- the most, can I say "realistic" challenger is the guy from Wall Street. He's a developer. So, 100:00he knows, like, if he starts getting a little too edgy, in here, a little too far away from where people are comfortable at, these developers are going to jump in and steal the game. So, he has to be very careful not to overstep. But if we push him, and we know the deal, and we understand the plays being played, I'm sure he will step it up. But, we can't just, you know, make a few splashes and run away; we got to --
Interestingly, Tomás Borge's faction of the Sandinista Party was like the"long-term struggle" party. [laughter] It was -- the Sandinistas started in the mid '50s, so it took them twenty years, over twenty years. And up until the 101:00very end, they were a laughingstock. I mean, most people thought they were a bunch of crazy romantics, schoolboys, and they were running around in guerrilla clothing, you know. [laughter] It just, you know, you read press quotes from the '70s and late '70s, just literally years before the revolution ceded, laughing at them. They were just like cartoon, silly, bunch of guys with no money, you know, no, no experience, nothing. Just, it was absurd. So, it's remarkable.
And even ironically, the Mayor-- de Blasio-- was not running at the head of thepack up until six, eight months before the election. He was third or fourth in the polls. But it wasn't until he had that -- remember that crazy ad with his son? Something just clicked. And so, things can happen very quickly. And, so I think you just have to believe, and you know, do the right thing. And I think 102:00you have a lot more power than you realize.
OKECHUKWU: Okay. Well, if you don't have anything else to say --
TODD: No, no I don't.
OKECHUKWU: -- then there's a release form.
TODD: Oh, God.
OKECHUKWU: And I'll fill out my name and stuff.
TODD: Oh, alright. So, I don't need to put all this --
OKECHUKWU: Yes, just your name and your address, that information.
TODD: Mailing address. Well, I'll put where I'm living now. I'll put in my --
OKECHUKWU: I mean, we'll be sure to email you before we try to send anything to you.
TODD: This is where I get my mail now.103:00
OKECHUKWU: Okay. Yeah, I'm sure it must be crazy, like being someone that hadbeen in nonprofit development versus selling for Corcoran now, I mean, just the incredibly -- incredible differences in prices in, not just Crown Heights, but central Brooklyn overall.
TODD: Yeah, yeah. It's -- quite a change. I -- yadda, yadda, yadda. That'sme, I guess, right?
Oral History Interview with Greg Todd
Aged sixty-eight at the time of the 2017 interview, Greg Todd is a real estate broker. He was born in Michigan and moved to New York City in the 1970s. He originally lived in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, then- still within Brooklyn- Prospect Heights, back to Park Slope, and then moved to Crown Heights in 2002. In 2017, he was staying with a friend in Park Slope as serious construction occurred on his newly purchased home in Crown Heights. He has worked in Crown Heights since 1987, first as a non-profit developer (with Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives), and then eventually as a commercial real estate broker. He also is involved in urban gardening at the Imani Garden in Crown Heights. A father of two, Todd is also devoted to the permaculture movement.
In the interview, Greg Todd speaks about the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn in the 1980s, early 1990s, and 2000s. He discusses Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives and the housing conditions in Brooklyn in the 1980s and 1990s. He distinguishes between non-profit housing development and commercial housing development. He describes the role of city government in housing development and argues that Giuliani's administration eliminated the availability of non-profit developers to obtain city owned housing stock, instead selling it to commercial developers. Todd also speaks about his involvement in a community garden, Imani Garden, in Crown Heights. Interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu.
This collection includes oral histories conducted by Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS), Brooklyn Movement Center, and Weeksville Heritage Center beginning in 2016 and collected and arranged by BHS in 2017. Each organization's interviews form a series within the collection. This oral history is one in the BHS series. The assembled collection was part of broader programming efforts by the three organizations to commemorate and examine the transforming Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn a quarter-century after the August 1991 conflicts and unrest sometimes called "the Crown Heights riot." The oral history collection features a broad range of narrators; educators, community organizers, activists, entrepreneurs, artists, bloggers, and longtime neighborhood residents, who describe the changes they have observed in their neighborhood over decades.
CitationTodd, Greg, Oral history interview conducted by Amaka Okechukwu, April 06, 2017, Voices of Crown Heights oral histories, 2016.027.1.09; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Community Board No. 8 (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- De Blasio, Bill, 1961-
- Giuliani, Rudolph W.
- Harmon, Richard
- New York Restoration Project
- Todd, Greg
- Community activists
- Community development
- Community gardens
- Nonprofit organizations
- Real estate development
- Social justice
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Crown Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- New York (N.Y.)
- Park Slope (New York, N.Y.)
- Prospect Heights (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidVoices of Crown Heights oral histories