The winter wind courses pitiessly through the garbage-trewn courtyard, swirling its way through the smashed window panels into the apartment, building's dank hallways. There, you can see your breath, and the snow sometimes drifts against the graffiti-covered walls.
Behind the double-bolted doors, the jets on the stovetops and ovens burn around the clock, and the rooms are filled with the pungent odor of traces of unburned gas.
It is always quiet these days at 1990 Seventh Ave., in Harlem, because most of the people are in bed, buried under layers of blankets, overcoats and, sometimes, scatter rugs. They watch television, mostly, and wait for night to come so they can go to sleep.
Tiny electric-coil heaters glow impotently against the cold, and in some rooms pans of water boilfuriously on electric hotplates providing a hint of warm moistness against the chill.
In the cave-like basement, a mammoth steam-heat boiler squats idly, covered with frozen cascades of water from burst pipes, surrounded by dingy stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The only sound is that of water spewing randomly in another room.
Unheated apartment houses in Harlem are hardly a new phenomenon. But this winter - the coldest New York has endured in nearly a century - the human suffering that goes on inside them has new dimensions.
Poor persons have frozen to death in recent weeks, including two men who died in an unheated welfare hotel on West 151st Street, and an 80-year-old woman and her 77-year-old brother, who were found dead in their ramshackle Brooklpn home amid thick layers of ice hanging from broken water pipes.
The 29 apartments at 1990 Seventh Ave., which have been without heat for a month, are occupied mostly by old people - the asthmatic, the arthritic and the blind people whose senses to cruelly cold weather are especially keen.
"You don't try to stay warm. You juse try to survive." Philip Teague, 78, tells a visitor. And his neighbors nod in agreement, as if there is nothing else to say about living at 1990 Seventh Ave.
But there is more to say, and it has a lot to do with the degeneration of an architecturally grand old apartment house in a once-proud neighborhood in Harlem. It also has something to do with the chasm of mistrust and loathing between a landlord and his tenants.
The Kortwright Apartments were built in 1904, when Sugar Hill and other fashionable neighborhoods were springing up all over Harlem and such houses routinely were faced with elaborate bas-relief and their lobbies always had fireplaces and were faced with Italian marble.
Wallace S. Hayes, 88, a retired pharmacist who studied at Howard and Columbia Universities, remembers moving in 1926, the first black to live in the Kortwright. Shortly afteward, he helped organize a co-operative of tenants, which bought the building for $300,000 and then lost it to bank foreclosure in 1936 at the height of the Depression.
"This was prime property in those days. There was nothing better downtown, nothing better." Hayes recalled, sitting bundled against the cold in his six-room apartment. He remembers the uniformed doormen and elevator operators, the sidewalk canopy and bright canvas awnings in every window and the heavy oak furniture in the lobby.
"People lived like people in those days, not like dogs shivering in a pen. This was one of the two best houses in Harlem." Hayes said, with a mixture of sadness and bitterness, and also unmistakable resignation.
In the 1940s and 1950s time and wear began to tell on the old Kortwright, yet even though its bright awnings were gone and its lobby furniture faded, it retained its dignity and its now predominantly black tenants treated it, in the words of one man, "like an old lady of fashion, whose veins started to show."
In the 1950s, the older tenants recall, the Kortwright changed hands several times, and finally was sold to a realty firm that seemed to Hayes to "forget they had it." In 1974, it was sold to Franklin J. Mercer, a Bronx landlord who now says he wishes he had never heard of it.
Misfortune seemed to dwell on the Kortwright. The elevator and dumbwaiter broke down, meaning that trash had to be left in hallways until the superintendent could carry it down six floors by hand.
Drug addicts began "shooting" in the basement, and vandals began smashing windows and stealing fixtures. Boisterous younger tenants began moving in and there were occasional fires.
The tenants remember, with horror, a murder in which a man was thrown from his window into the courtyard below. After a while, trash - and even a refrigerator - were thrown into the courtyard.
Then, two years ago, eight of the 29 families began a rent strike, complaining of the worsening conditions and refusing to pay until the building was cleaned up and the elevator repaired.
The rent strike ruined any chances of salvaging 1990 Seventh Ave. "They're trying to take my building. They owe me $20,000. They crippled this business and brought it to its knees," says Mercer, who himself is black.
Mercer said the boiler at the Kortwright is not running because of the rent strike, and that any suffering has been brought on by the tenants.
"They're trying to overthrow the building and take it over for tenant control. If they give me the $20,000 they owe me. I'll fix the boiler and get heat back there. I've carried them enough," says Mercer.
Not surprisingly, the tenants have a different view.
Homer Wade, 53, an adult education teacher, says, "you got one of the best apartments in Harlem being destroyed by the cold. This is one of Mr. Mercer's tricks to get us out.
"He doesn't know if we're living or dead. All he wants to do is get us out of here, and freezing us out is his way? Wade said. Eade, along with several other tenants, said they believed the boiler had been sabotaged to force the current rent-control tenants out and clear the way for city welfare department families. Rent-controlled apartments at the Kortwright go for about $120 plus utilities, while welfare families can bring a landlord up to $300 from the city.
David Savino, director of the emergency services division of the city's code enforcement department, acknowledged that sabortage is responsible for 10 to 15 per cent of the heating breakdowns in tenements.
"It's being committed either by landlords who are taking advantage of the cold weahter to drive tenants from their buildings, or by tenants themselves seeking relocation," Savino said.
A spokesman for the city's Buildings Department's Central Complaint Bureau said on a normal cold winter day, her office receives 4,000 to 5,000 calls from heatless apartments. This winter, she said, the daily calls have been running 10,000 to 15,000.
Earl Allen, 88, a blind man who lives on the fifth floor, also believes sabotage is involved. Allen used to live with George Henry, 50, a friend, but Henry had to move out after the furnace breakdown because of his heart condition.
"A boiler is not a thing that wears out overnight. It either wears out slowly, or somebody turns one little value that can make it burst.
"The key to a house like this." Allen said, " is the elevator and dumbwaiter. Remove them, and you invite filth piling up in the hallways. When that happens, everybody gives up and the garbage just keeps piling higher and higher."Allen, who said he had been a plasterer and lather 62 years before he went blind six years ago, said the Kortwright could be saved with a minimal amount of money.
However, the building is tied up with Mercer's lawsuits to evict the rent-striking tenants, and by a condemnation order posted last week by the city's buildings department.
A spokesman for the Buildings Department said as long as the vacate order is in force, emergency crews paid by the city cannot repair the Kortwright's boiler.
The kortwright's tenants, meanwhile, say they will fiout the vacate order and continue to press Mercer for repairs.
Why rout out in this kind of weather 29 families when its not necessary?? asked Wade. "What you see here does not have to be. With a little effort, everybody could be warm this winter, and Mercer could collect his rent," he added.
Meanwhile, the old people of 1990 Seventh Avenue are trying to convince the city that the Kortwright is worth saving. And they are trying to stay warm.
"Sweaters - that is our weapon against Mr. Mercer." says Allen. "The colder it gets, the more clothes we put on. This may be the frigid zone, but we are strong people," he said.