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Using Threats, N.Y. Landlords Feed Immigrants' Fear

Neighborhood Revival

Grange, a powerfully built man with white hair cropped so close to his scalp he appears bald, grew up here in the 1940s and '50s, when Alexander Avenue was known as the Irish Fifth Avenue. Then came waves of bank disinvestment, white flight and arson. Over the past 30 years, Grange watched the death and rebirth of his childhood streets.

"We lost 60 buildings to arson in one month in the 1970s," he said. "Then the Mexicans started coming about 10 years ago, and this place came back to life. Go to the subway stop at 5:30 a.m., and you get knocked over by everyone going to work."

Marielys Divanne, left, of South Bronx Churches works on behalf of tenants such as Sandra and Manuela, right. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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Just to the south in the Mott Haven neighborhood, near the Harlem River, there is another unlikely revival. Developers are renovating abandoned factory buildings for downtown artists in search of affordable lofts. Kalb, a rough-hewn man, works this revival at both ends. He rents lofts to artists and Alexander Avenue rowhouse apartments to Mexicans.

The Mexican tenants pay between $850 and $1,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments.

Kalb's tenements are not the worst. The front doors lock, and there is heat in the winter. But his Mexican tenants said they found holes in the ceilings, mold in the bathrooms, and broken floors and windowsills. When Kalb balked at repairs, the tenants turned to Grange. He, in turn, put them in touch with South Bronx Churches, an organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a nationwide group also active in the District, Virginia and Prince George's County.

The tenants mailed a list of the worst problems to Kalb. "He called up and said: 'I'm not a slumlord; I'll fix this,' " recalled Marielys Divanne, the lead organizer with South Bronx Churches.

Contractors descended on the Alexander Avenue buildings. Then, just as quickly, the work stopped. When the tenants told Kalb that more work remained, he sent his superintendent around to compile a list of the names and ages of those who lived in the apartments. Four weeks ago, Sandra, who has lived in the building for several years, was sleeping on the couch after work when a child came in with a piece of paper.

It was the letter that appeared to be from the landlord informing tenants that he had been in touch with Homeland Security. "What little we could understand, we were very afraid," Sandra said.

Manuela, whose husband works as a dishwasher, nodded. "We were thinking of leaving. This is no way to live."

Post-Sept. 11 Caution

Earlier this month, South Bronx Churches contacted the city's Housing Preservation and Development, which like many city agencies does not help federal agencies track illegal immigrants who lead otherwise law-abiding lives. The agency's chief counsel warned Kalb that he was flirting with harassment. "We are in such a weird time after 9/11," said Carol Abram, a spokeswoman for HPD. "There can be a fine line between someone who thinks they are doing their civic duty and someone who harasses his tenants. But persistent psychological intimidation is harassment."

Kalb said the criticism is unfair. "Why would I want to force them out?" he asked. "They are paying a very high rent."

As for Manuela and Sandra, they feel the cautious optimism that accompanies respect. "We know people who died in the World Trade Center," Manuela says. "We are immigrants trying to build a better life. We just want respect as human beings."

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