Why I torched the crack house (idea)
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|This all happened in 1988, and before I get downvoted on this topic let me point
that nobody was hurt. I even think some good came out of it.
At that time I lived in Manhattan's Lower East Side (aka "The East Village" in real estate speak)
This was shortly before the neighborhood became trendy and expensive.
The block, as we residents referred to it, was mostly Latino (really great people to live amongst by the way), with a smattering of struggling artists and musicians.
The neighborhood was pretty run down back then; most of the tenements were owned by absentee landlords who didn't give a shit about the people who lived in their property; they just wanted to maximize their return on investment.
About one third of the available buildings were warehoused - that is, the doors and windows were sealed up with bricks and the apartments were unoccupied.
This was - and still is - a pretty common practice despite the urgent need for affordable housing in New York. Many landlords choose, for a variety of reasons, to keep their properties unoccupied. Some speculate this is done to keep rents high by limiting supply, but I suspect the real reasons are more complex and varied.
Lots of funky shit happened on the block, since cops would only venture into that part of Manhattan in a police van - some six officers at a time. The entire time I lived there I never saw a cop walking down the street.
For the Latinos however, it was home and they made the best of it. Every summer evening they would sit on their stoops, getting out of their small, cramped and not to mention hot apartments.
They'd take in the night air, gossip, shout greetings to each other across the street, share drinks and cigarettes and generally enjoy life. Their children would play in the streets, interrupting their games when the occasional vehicle drove by.
By 10PM however, the party was over since most of them worked blue collar jobs, and were up at at the crack of dawn.
In the winter the block was pretty quiet regardless of the time, since nobody was hanging out.
It was in the autumn that we noticed that one of the warehoused buildings had been opened. Squatters did this all of the time, so none of us ever dreamt of calling the police or worse, HPD - New York's "Housing Preservation and Development" (many called it Housing Prevention due to their all around bungling) department.
It was a few weeks after this that we began to notice all sorts of lowlifes types hanging around the block. They were clearly strung out crackheads and it seems like a good idea at this point to mention Fernando and Eddie, the "good" drug dealers.
Fern and Eddie, as we called them, were neighborhood kids made good. They bought a needed commodity - heroin at a low price, and sold it at a mark up for profit. They added value by repackaging the commodity, operating a distribution channel and running a protection group.
Fern and Eddie never let anything funky happen with their business. They were interested in moving their commodity quickly, quietly and without official attention of any kind. And they would take drastic action if anyone interfered with any of these goals.
One time a customer of theirs needed money and stole a piece of art from a gallery I owned at the time. I didn't complain to anyone since the theft was done so quickly. I reimbursed the artist for the stolen work out of my own pocket.
But the artist told Fern, and the next day his crew grabbed the scum bag and brought him into my gallery. They asked me if this was they guy that had stolen the art, and when I said yes, quickly smashed his left hand several times with baseball bat, telling him to never even look at my gallery again.
Fern and Eddie gave back to the neighborhood in many ways; every summer they organised and funded a huge block party, complete with bands, free food, booze and fireworks.
They'd take the kids from the block camping in the Adirondacks a couple times a year, and were known to buy food for families if the breadwinner was locked down or otherwise unable to work. They were products of, and took care of their community.
And surprisingly, Fern and Eddie were very anti drug, at least in their own personal space. Perhaps because they saw first hand the effects of addiction, they never touched the stuff themselves, or allowed anyone from their families to touch it either.
The point is that Fern and Eddie sold drugs but they were socially responsible. The people that had opened up the warehoused building were different. They were the worst kind of drug dealer imaginable - they sold but sold to finance their own habit. They didn't give a shit what happened around them, as long as they could get their stuff free.
Their customers just wanted to get fucked up, and didn't care what they had to do to get the money necessary. There were lots of little and not so little thefts in the neighborhood. Lots of people were getting mugged by one of these scum bags and of course the police wouldn't do shit.
Fern and Eddie wouldn't intervene either - the low lifes had enough sense not to mess with these guys, their operation or family members. There was nothing in it for them to go after the crack heads so the situation deteriorated rapidly.
It was in December when I was coming home from an evening of fun at CBGBs that it happened. I was too poor to afford a telephone in my apartment, and had to use a pay phone on the corner. I was calling the voice mailbox for my gallery when a scum bag passed me, turned around and came back to ask if I had any spare change.
I told him I didn't have any, and turned back to the phone. He then pushed me from behind, not hard but still pushed me, and asked "why do you have money for the phone then?".
I could see what was coming. I told him to fuck off and he shouted Empty your pockets!.
Dropping the handset, I moved away from the phone and put on my war face.
Fuck you! I yelled. He pulled out this huge knife and moved towards me.
I kicked at him with me left foot, screaming Fucker! I had to keep him at a distance, where his weapon was ineffective.
His eyes popped wide open and he stopped coming at me. Then he turned tail and ran back towards the crack house. I didn't notice that he was looking past me, and so for a few brief seconds I felt very macho! But let me explain.
One of my friends - Whiteboy! - had this huge pit bull. It wasn't particularly nasty as these dogs go, but it would do whatever he told it to. He used to get drunk in his crib and would take it out late at night and watch it root around garbage cans, killing the rats that would rush out. (A cheap thrill!)
I heard a sound of nails on pavement as the dog charged past me, after the crackhead.
Woof! The dog assured me as he rushed past (I'll take care of everything boss don't worry!)
The low life moved like an Olympic class sprinter though, and made it to the building.
My buddy called the excited, barking and aggressive dog off, and we talked a little about what had happened.
Apparently this wasn't the first time someone from the block had been accosted in such a manner. He told me that the old latina across the street had been beaten just last week. We talked for a while more about how much these assholes sucked, and then we parted.
I went home and thought about it. I was pissed! The old woman was quite nice and in fact had given me rice and beans several times when I was out of work. And what if one of these low lifes went after my girlfriend as she came home from her job as an exotic dancer late at night? I didn't know why, but this entire thing upset me greatly.
Something had to be done.
So for about a week I'd walk past the crack house several times a day. I watched as low lifes would enter through a large hole that had been broken in the cinder blocks. It was large enough to walk through with little trouble.
I noticed that people would enter and walk directly to the rear of the front room. I heard from other concerned residents on the block that all drug-related activity took place in a single room at the back of the building, farthest from the street. The crack house was most active in the early hours of the morning.
I extended my information gathering to approaching the crack house in the daylight. Several times I entered the front room and noted that I heard no voices during the day.
Now that I had adequate information, I made my plans. I filled several large plastic trash bags with toilet paper.
Over the course of several days I took the plastic bags and dumped them into the front room. This wasn't a big deal since lots of people were dumping their trash there. The residents, of course, didn't mind much at all since they were fucked up most of the time.
I saved one plastic bag for the last trip.
I waited for a particularly cold and rainy night. I knew that way street traffic would be minimal. I put on a black sweatshirt and blonde wig a girl had left at my flat. Over the black sweatshirt I put on a white one.
In my remaining plastic bag I also put a small milk carton containing gasoline. I took the bag and entered the crack house. I dropped my last bag on top of the others I'd left there and doused all of them with the gas. I lit the mess up and ran like hell around the corner.
Once around the corner I ducked into a dark doorway and removed my blonde wig and white sweatshirt. I stuffed them into a trash bag and dropped it into a nearby garbage container. I darted across the street to a pay phone and called 911 telling them about the fire.
The City may not have cared about lots of things that happened down there, but they did care about fire. In the densely packed tenements entire blocks could catch fire and burn out of control. Property would be destroyed. I knew they'd react quickly.
I strolled back to watch the action. Even though it was only three minutes later, the fire department was already there, and quickly extinguished the blaze. They must have encountered the residents during their search for possible victims, since shortly afterward the police arrived. They entered the building and came out with several crack heads in custody.
The next day the city came and sealed the building back up.
So why am I writing this? I don't really know. I've never told anyone - with the exception of my girlfriend about it. I could have gotten a lot of mileage out of it back then with the residents on the block, but it's not particularly smart to do something like this and then brag about it.
I was younger and much crazier and more volatile then.
I'm older now. I work as an investment banker. I've since moved to London and I go to business school. I don't have as much time to make art as I would like (although I make it a point to write down an idea in my notebooks every day).
I have a lot more to lose by doing something like that now.
But I like to think that even now I would do it again if necessary.
Because it was the right thing to do at the time.