“WELCOME, YOU REPTILE”

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Even by the medieval standards of 1980s Brooklyn, the apartment building at 320 Sterling Street managed to distinguish itself as a brick and mortar atrocity.

The blighted 113-unit behemoth between Nostrand and New York Avenues would have scandalized the Bucharest housing authority.

Paint peeled from walls as if the entire structure had been dunked in napalm. Gangs of free range rodents annexed corridors and mounds of low-rent detritus provided an unyielding stink.

Dripping in Gucci and Fila, crack merchants indulged in dark commerce with relative impunity. Heat was considered a luxury back then and Nor’easters were known to turn bone marrow slushy.

Like so many other diseased buildings at the time, 320 Sterling Street was lorded over by an almost comically stereotypical real estate baron.

Far removed from his calving property in an oceanfront Brighton Beach apartment, landlord Morris Gross simply ignored the suffering serfs and cashed his checks.

After racking up and failing to address more than 400 building violations that could have been bound into a treatise on modern squalor, 320 Sterling Street  emerged as the media’s exemplar of callous urban neglect.

It can be rightly assumed that Gross expected little more than a wink wink admonition when he was finally compelled to look up at Judge Ira Harkavy on February 11, 1988 to answer for his avarice.

Much like today, citations and violations were considered nuisance costs for scurrilous landowners. Gross would just proffer some hollow promises and then scurry back to Brighton Beach to resume his disinterest.

But to the delight of newspaper editors across the city, Harkavy ignored prevailing tenant/landlord jurisprudence and conjured up an impossibly delicious punishment. He ordered Gross to live in the decrepitude alongside his tenants for a full fifteen days.

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It was a remarkable arrangement that would later be turned into the film “The Super,” with Joe Pesci assuming the role of the humbled despot.

Looking like an asymmetrical nebbish, it would seem safe to assume that Harkavy was more of a Perry Como devotee than a Public Enemy head-nodder at the time.

But perhaps the gusting zeitgeist of 1988 – induced by newly strident rap music – blew into Harkavy’s staid chambers and exerted some sort of glancing influence.

Perhaps not. Probably not. Maybe. At any rate,  the notion provides a slim pretext for Flatbushed.com to indulge in a tangent on rap’s glory days.

Hip hop – especially New York hip hop – had stopped waving its arms in the air at the time and paused to cross them defiantly.  1988 is considered by many to be one of the most fecund years in the history of the game.

Rick Astley’s daffy crooning and Tiffany’s mall mewling were still dominating the charts, but the streets were reverberating with a far more confrontational sound.

Those 12 months would produce NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, Eric B. and Rakim’s Follow the Leader, Public Enemy’s It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Krs-One’s By All Means Necessary and EPMD’s Strictly Business, among other classics.

These were the sounds that likely thudded out of the Jeep Wranglers and Audi Quattros that whizzed across Flatbush the day Gross was escorted into 320 Sterling Street.

But the cagey property shark wasn’t going to simply abandon the trappings of affluence without resistance. Tenants were aghast to see maintenance men busily refurbishing his apartment before he was ensconced.

They painted the walls, moved in furniture and even replaced the kitchen floor. Unwilling to share in the shivering, Gross had his underlings install a new radiator to fend off the February chill.

“He should freeze too,” griped one resident.

To discourage any escape attempts back to Brighton Beach, Gross was outfitted with what was then a novel technology – electronic ankle-monitoring that tracked his movements.

Wearing sunglasses on that overcast day, Gross arrived amid a crush of cops and cameramen.  Tenants greeted him with a spray painted bedsheet that pithily captured their loathing.

“Welcome, you reptile,” the oversized greeting card read.

Another one of his new neighbors simply held up a mousetrap with a dying critter still ensnared.

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According to news reports, Gross received the occasional visitor and had food and groceries delivered during the first few days of his imprisonment.

But he never emerged from his quarters. Inquisitive door knocks from fellow residents were ignored. Concerned for his safety, Gross had a team of four around the clock security guards stand sentry in 12-hour shifts.

But the collective schadenfreude of the 320 Sterling tenants would come to an abrupt and premature end when Harkavy ruled that Gross would be sprung a week early for good behavior.

For the most part, tenants reacted with bitter disbelief to the leniency, arguing that he  should have had to serve out his entire sentence.

Citing his advanced age, a less stringent faction argued that the brittle codger – no matter how detestable – deserved a break.

Even the New York Times dedicated a few inches of its OpEd space at the time to lambaste the furlough as an “absurdity.”

With police again in tow, Brooklyn’s most notorious landlord was escorted out of 320 Sterling Street amid a mob of reporters and clamoring tenants.

Within minutes, he was back at his Brighton Beach apartment. Gross would later tell reporters that he was hastily exiting the real estate business. The city eventually took over 320 Sterling in 1992 when he stopped paying taxes.

But even after the reptile was successfully chased off, 320 Sterling remained plagued by dysfunction for years. The city handed the management reins over to tenants who were to turn the property into an affordable co-op. But factionalism and infighting arrested that process.

The tenant who marshaled the fight against Gross, Joyce Stewart, was charged with navigating the conversion process.  But she was eventually accused of fiscal chicanery by an opposing tenant group and the co-op plan was scrapped in 2002.

But 27 years after Gross’s stay, the once ghastly cathedral of urban rot appears to have finally righted itself like a cured junkie.

Through the efforts of various housing groups, the units were rehabbed and offered up as affordable co-ops and rentals.

Current pictures of the units online bear little resemblance to the Koch era disrepair and the grounds are impeccably maintained.

And the lobby where Morris Gross once embarked on his coerced sojourn in hell now boasts manicured period detail – save for the spray painted bedsheet.

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2 Comments

  • rv
    9.24.2015

    fascinating stuff!! now, if only barry hers could be made to live in 60 clarkson for a month…..

  • Mack
    9.28.2015

    Audi Quattros? Digging deep.

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