I Was “Outed” Last Week…

Gay men (especially those who are fairly masculine and can pass for straight) are somewhat used to dealing with being “outed”. I deal with it by being open and honest with people – in that case I can never really be outed, ’cause everyone already knows I’m gay. And that’s one of the reasons why I love NYC – sexual orientation is pretty much never an issue here. But there are other types of closets, and I was “outed” from one of them at last week’s MMPCIA (Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association) meeting…

After “beating upwind” (sailing into the wind) with home renovations, the next phase of “beating upwind” for us became improving the neighborhood. It’s not like we came to Harlem with the intention of changing Harlem, but when you see heroin dealing and heroin addicts on a daily basis, when people repeatedly call you faggot, when they’re beligerant and threaten you physically, when people repeatedly rob your house, steal your iPad, when they tear the DOB permits off your construction fence, etc. – all in the course of a few short months – you don’t just rollover and be passive – at least Dan and I don’t.

So we started working with our block association and with MMPCIA. And as a result, the two of us are now in charge of MMPCIA’s Safety & Security Committee. That puts us in contact with people all over the Mount Morris Park Historic District and what we’re seeing is similar problems in other parts of the neighborhood. In addition to drug dealing, there are reports of crack houses, illegal gambling, even whore houses. Some residents say they’ve even received death threats. We’ve started working pretty actively with the 28 Precinct and the District Attorney’s office to clean up stuff like that from the neighborhood.

By the way – if you’re thinking of buying in Harlem – don’t let all of this scare you off. Most of the blocks in Mount Morris dealt with their problems long ago. Thing is, our block used to be the roughest block in the neighborhood – it was a literal drug emporium (e.g. our house was a full-on crack house). With three methadone clinics one block up on 124th Street, there continues to be a constant demand for drugs, so getting rid of the last bit of drug dealing on our block has taken more time than it has elsewhere.

Plus, when you do encounter a drug dealer chances are they’ll leave you alone – they don’t want you calling the police – it’s not good for their business. There are people who’ve lived here for years who never encountered what we’ve encountered despite walking past the same things we walk past. In fact they often don’t even understand what’s going on – they just see a bunch of guys hanging out. Other people know what’s going on but for one reason or another (the most common being the safety of their kids), they put up with it.

I’ve always heard neighborhoods change when gay men move in. I thought it was just because we made things pretty. Now I realize another big component is that the straight folks with kids let gay men do their crime prevention for them. I find it sort of amusing since gay men are often portrayed in the media as being weak. The media clearly doesn’t see us through the lens of Stonewall – when drag queens stood up to the NYPD and won.

Anyway… The outing… At last week’s MMPCIA meeting the sergeant who I’ve been working with very closely got up to talk. He’s been great. MMPCIA gave him a 3 page list of problem areas a month ago and since then he’s down the list hitting each area – often more than once. All in all we love the work he’s been doing in the area – he made something like 25 to 28 arrests just at locations mentioned on the list – and apparently his arrest outside the bar Paris Blues yielded a significant quantity of narcotics (and to be clear the owners of the bar were not involved in the dealing). He’s sort of a breath of fresh air since other people at the 28 seem to think we’re whiners since there are parts of the precinct that have far more crime. (All in all crime in the 28 is double to triple what you’d see in Washington Heights, but crime in the historic district is half what it is in the rest of the precinct). But the arrests he’s been able to make (especially the one at Paris Blues) show that there is real crime going on – even in our part of the precinct.

The problem was the sergeant we love so much repeatedly mentioned me and the MMPCIA president by name and then went into detail about exactly how we’ve been working closely with him. That wouldn’t have been a huge problem except there was someone in attendance who’s quite friendly with the drug dealers on our block (I don’t think he’s involved in dealing, but some of the dealers are his friends). He made a beeline to the front of the room at the end of the meeting and tried to get the 3 page list we gave the sergeant. Luckily he didn’t get to see it.

Going to bed that night my mind was racing – wondering what we should do now that the information was out. It felt a lot like being outed – only this time the consequence could be physical violence against me if the people we’re fighting are so inclined. By the morning my mind was made up – double down, don’t fold. If gay history has taught us anything it’s to stand up and be counted. Luckily the MMPCIA president felt the same way (after a period of thinking we should lay low).

Three days after the meeting, narcotics (not the sergeant I’ve been working with) did a major action on our block. They first arrested the drug dealer’s customers and got them to say who sold them the drugs, and then arrested the dealer (who deals out of his SUV). Actually, I don’t know for sure that he was arrested – he (and his wife) weren’t in cuffs when they left with the police. But that was early Friday evening and we haven’t seen him since (knock wood).

There still plenty more to be done in the neighborhood. We’ll be working closely with residents, NYPD and the DA’s office to identify and resolve the problem spots in the historic district. I can’t mention details that aren’t public, but there’s plenty to work on and we’ll continue to “beat upwind” to make our neighborhood better…

Before I end this topic – I’d like to ask you to support NYPD on Stop & Frisk. When you see a stop & frisk action it may look suspicious to you, but realize that often it’s based on information from credible witnesses the officers can’t reveal because it would put the witness at risk. Case and point, a homeless man was sitting next to a playground in the area stroking himself through his pants while looking at the children. He was clearly a pedophile and when confronted by a MMPCIA community member he refused to stop – in fact he was rather belligerent. The police were called and the bystanders didn’t understand what was going on – it looked like the police were just hassling a homeless guy. The police wound up having to be pretty rough with him and he charged police abuse which just fueled the suspicions of the bystanders. It looked bad, but the police were just doing their job – and stopping pedophiles from jacking off to children playing in a playground is a job I think we all want them to do. If you want to see Harlem improve, don’t take stop & frisk away from them – it’s a vital tool they need to do their jobs. That said, I do believe stop & frisk has to be done intelligently, and with “courtesy, professionalism and respect” – there are limits.

Ultimately I think stop & frisk is a problem because good people do nothing about the crime around them. I’ve seen a lot of this in Harlem – too often long time residents just feel powerless to change their community or they rationalize it by saying “it was here before I got here, it will be here after I’m gone”. They’ve stopped beating upwind and are letting the wind blow them and their community onto the rocks. I won’t judge whether that was a valid survival strategy in the past, but from what I’ve seen Harlem has changed a lot and the power is on our side now – we just need to utilize the power we already have. Most of the long-time residents want the community to improve, even if they feel powerless to bring the change about; and the vast majority of homeowners want things to change, even if they do nothing for fear something will happen to their kids. Even many of the renters want change – though they don’t typically have “skin in the game” the same way property owners do.

I really think block associations & neighborhood watches, working in concert with NYPD, can make a huge difference. We’ll never get rid of all the problems, but if we take back our streets, and stop at least the obvious problems, I think everyone’s lives will improve.

I Got To Clean My Own Car

It may seem odd to people who live outside New York, but New Yorkers don’t really get to wash their own cars. We live in apartment buildings and there’s no hoses or extension cords to do the job with. And real estate is too expensive for those high pressure spray self-service car washes you see in other places.

So as odd as it sounds I’ve really been looking forward to washing my own car. But parking is such that it’s hard to find a time get the spot directly in front of the house. So Friday I queued up during alternate side parking and got the spot in front of the house and spent the rest of the morning washing the car.

Turns out I was missing wax – so that didn’t get done, but the car looked much better after I was done…

'08 VW R32 getting cleaned outside a Harlem brownstone

Most people have no clue what kind of car I have. Most think it’s a VW GTI, which is close, but not right. It’s a 2008 VW R32 which I picked up from the dealer almost exactly 5 years ago (I special ordered and it was one of the first to arrive for that model year – got to the dealer in late July ’07 and I picked it up the first week of August). It’s only got 28,400 miles on it which is pretty low for a 5 year old car – less than 6,000 miles/year…

The one person who did recognize it as an R32 was the UPS guy. He didn’t even need to see the R32 badge – he could tell from the tailpipes. Like most people who are car guys – he stood around and asked a bunch of questions for a while…

So while I got all wet and sweaty washing and vacuuming the car, it was fun – a bit of downwind sailing after a lot of beating upwind… 😉

Modern Efficient Water Heaters Are Fragile

Our hot water went out earlier this week. The cause? The boiler room was dirty. Seriously…

Old style water heaters just sat there. Their exhaust was hot, so it rose up the chimney without any effort. New water heaters aren’t anything like that. Hot air going up the chimney isn’t efficient – the heat should be going into the water, not the atmosphere. So they use fans to push the exhaust up the chimney. If you see fan motor sitting on top of your water heater you have one of the new, more efficient, water heaters…

power vent water heater fan

Sometimes the fan is concealed a bit behind a plastic cover…

power vent water heater cover shield

Because the exhaust gases are more condensed and not as hot, instead of using a tin chimney, you’re supposed to use PVC or CPVC or stainless. In fact you’re not allowed to use tin for the chimney  – I think the gasses can corrode tin.

Anyway, the air the fans push up the chimney has to come from somewhere. There are two types of modern water heaters – Power Vent and Direct Power Vent. The term “Power Vent” means, they have a fan that pushes the exhaust up the chimney. Direct Power Vent means the air intake is piped from outside – air inside the boiler room is not used.

I wanted Direct Power Vent, but we were venting through the roof and the total length of piping for venting was a problem. You have to count the air intake into the total length of ducting allowed. In our case, since we have a 5 story townhouse, the intake pipe would have put us over the allowed ducting or dangerously close to being over.

Because the air on a Direct Vent water heater comes from the boiler room, not outside as the repair guy put it – “you’ve got a big vacuum cleaner” sitting in your boiler room. It sucks in air at the bottom, spirals it around the tank and pushes it out the top. So any loose dirt that’s sitting on your floor will get sucked into the water tank. If it’s not light enough to make it to the top of your chimney it will wind up falling back down into the fan when the fan turns off. Eventually it builds up and clogs the sensors that are there to make sure everything is working properly.

When the repair guy took off the chimney and started the fan a huge cloud of dust and dirt went into the air. Not good – and the cause of our problems. Luckily no parts had gotten fried, so as soon as he had cleaned things up everything was working again.

So in hindsight, if you can, I’d recommend a Direct Power Vent instead of a Power Vent. Your outside air is likely to be cleaner than the air in your boiler room. But whichever you have, be careful about the cleanliness of the air going being sucked in. With a Power Vent keep your boiler room clean. During construction that can be hard – so just turn the water heater off until the boiler room can be clean. Even with a Direct Power Vent you should worry if there’s dust in the air where the air intake is – for example, if they’re doing construction next door, etc.

One other thing the repair guy said was that PVC can be a problem for the vent stacks. Apparently the temperature can get high enough to crack the PVC. CPVC or stainless is better. We’ll keep the water temperature down to try to avoid that problem. If you do put in PVC, keep a close eye on it for problems.

Townhouse Shells South of 125 Are Now $850K & Up

For a while now I’ve seen the market going up. Clients come to me and want a $500-600K shell south of 125th Street, and there’s just nothing I can do for them. I finally got around to pulling the comps to demonstrate what I knew from observation…

Here are the class C4 & C5 buildings that sold for less then $900K in the past 6 months south of 125…

  • 319 West 112 – $875K, 2/10/12
  • 53 West 119 – $250K, 2/13/12 – Too low to be a real sale – probably a partial interest
  • 254 West 121 – $895K, 4/2/12
  • 326 West 113 – $720K, 4/24/12 – This seems to have gone through a recent foreclosure. A shell a few doors down is listed at $1.4M and has multiple offers, so I think this sale is a bit out of the ordinary and not a true comp either.
  • 133 West 119 – $830K, 4/27/12
  • 164 West 123 – $618,400, 6/25/12 – Two doors down from me. The owner knew it was worth more. Last I knew he either wanted to bring in someone to help fund the development or he wanted to sell it. I suspect the new LLC is a combination of the old owner and a new investor who’s funding redevelopment – so it’s not a true sale either.

So none of the “real sales” were less than $830K, and take into consideration that those deals were probably all negotiated late last year. The market is much hotter now, so prices are even higher now.

Bottom line you’re probably looking at $850K or more for a shell south of 125 these days. And realistically, if you want to renovate it well you need to buy all cash. A pretty typical Harlem townhouse is about 3600 sq. ft. (18′ x 50′ x 4 stories). You should budget $250/sq. ft. for a decent renovation – so that will cost you $900K which is pretty much the max amount you get on a 203(k) to rehab a building to 2 family.

If you’re wondering what you get for $800K+, here are pics from one of the places listed above…

gutted townhouse in Harlem

fireplace in Harlem townhouse shell

staircase in harlem townhouse shell

I know it’s harsh to say you need $900K in cash to buy a shell south of 125, but it just is what it is… The good part is that you’re not over-investing. Things that are well renovated are selling for $2.5M+ (but that’s another blog post).

Texas Purple Japanese Wisteria Grows Incredibly Fast

wisteria growing up steel pergolafast growing wisteriaOne of the concepts we designed the back of the house around was a porch/pergola with wisteria growing on it. Wisteria have a reputation of taking years to get established and bloom, so we wanted to get the wisterias started early.

A couple weeks after we moved in we went to a couple nurseries trying to find wisteria plants to buy. The second place we went was Sam Bridge Nursery in Old Greenwich, CT. As we were approaching I knew it was going to be incredible. I had figured it would be on the outskirts of Greenwich, but no – it’s smack dab in the center of one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. The mansions around the nursery were humbling.

Needless to say service was incredible. There was always someone close at hand to give advice – they even insisted on loading the stuff we bought into the car, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

They had a few different types of wisteria to choose from. Cell service was pretty bad, but we were able to validate what was on the tags by looking things up online. We had a few criteria – it needed to grow to 25+ feet since the top of our pergola is about 20 feet off the ground. “Fast growing” was a big plus, as was “blooms quickly” (since wisteria can take years to actually bloom after being planted). “Texas Purple” Japanese Wisteria was available and seemed to fit all those criteria.

The web sites said that Texas Purple could grow “up to 10 feet a year”. WRONG. It grew 10 feet the first month after we planted it and one of the plants has actually reached the top of the pergola – which means it’s grown about 15-16 feet in two months! (They were about 4-5 feet tall when we bought them). The other plant is just a couple feet behind it. The faster growing plant actually has three shoots coming up, the slower growing plant has just one (so far). They’ve probably got another month and a half of growing this year – so they may very well grow 25 feet this year alone – which is absolutely stunning.

We got two different types of mulch from Sam Bridge plus top soil that looked incredibly rich. I’m sure they have helped by giving the wisteria lots of nutrients. We should probably go back for more mulch – it seems to do wonders for the plants.

Other than those two wisteria, the back yard is still a complete mess…

messy back yard of Harlem townhouse

But hey, we’ve got two wisteria 🙂

The contractor is starting to wrap up construction, we have our big end-of-project inspection Thursday. We’re hoping to have a TCO (Temporary Certificate of Occupancy) shortly after that. They still have to finish the stoop. Dan’s fabricating the missing pieces out of fiberglass (another blog post), and after not liking the “brownstone finish” our contractor picked out, we think we’ve found one. We even had them do color matching to the original brownstone.