Casablancad! Charlie Rangel Screwed By New York Times

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[Notes From The Frontline]

Don’t you just adore vintage movies?

Today’s headline in New York Times recalls a famous scene from the 1942 hit movie, Casablanca. Paraphrased, it screams “Rangel Rents Apartments at Bargain Rates”!

“Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York has four rent-stabilized apartments, including three adjacent units in a building owned by a premier developer…”

“I‘m shocked, shocked to discover there‘s gambling going on here!” announces the police chief, played by, Claude Rains, while pocketing his winnings.

Understandably, the casino owner, played by Humphrey Bogart, is perturbed. After all, faithfully, he’s been paying protection, for years.

Whatever else so sensational a front page, New York Post-style story about Rangel’s Lenox Terrace apartment might indicate, it’s at least clear: he must have pissed off someone big-time.

For, just what scandalous thing has he done?

There seems to be only one charge that sticks. Utilizing one of the units, a regulated apartment, not as his primary residence, but as an office; he violates the rent stabilization law.

As for the remaining three apartments that adjoin? These units were combined by the previous tenant, Harlem’s venerated clergyman, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Callender, who presided over a Presbyterian congregation, at the Church of the Master.

By joining three smallish spaces, he’d sought to form one, nice sized, suite for his family, that was also suitable for church related entertaining.

For, from the start, though hyped as an outpost of privilege in a beleaguered ghetto, the Lenox Terrace complex was famously considered to be ,“not all that.”

If, big on luxurious sounding names for individual buildings, such as the Eden-Roc, and the Fontainebleau, for people familiar with high-end housing Downtown, it proved short on any actual deluxe amenities.

Paul Goldberger’s dismissive observation, “ in Harlem, even luxury towers, look like housing projects…” was a typical assessment.

In 1990, the Times was able to announce, in an article expressing horror, how these favored precincts too were being overrun by drugs and violence: “Stray Bullet Leaves a Harlem Oasis Feeling Vulnerable, and Angry.”

The scandal then, during the onset of the crack epidemic, when the average 1-bedroom apartment here rented for only $500 monthly, was of a different sort.

A doctor coming from his bathroom into the kitchen was shot in the chest while his wife looked on, in their third floor apartment. The gunmen were a 20 year old neighbor in the building and his friend who lived nearby.

“Toying” with the gun, in the playground, they’d fired into several apartments but miraculously, only hit and killed Dr. Jolaolu Olusegun Mojola.

“By daring to continue living here then, when things got rough,” says 50 year-plus local resident, Martha Dolly, “Rangel and the rest; they preformed a service. They both set a good example and said, ‘we will stay until we make it better.’ Now, why should anyone begrudge him a nice place to live? Look at his sacrifice! How many people who have been in government for 37 years, do you know, who only have a lousy $1-million to show for it?”

When I sought out the Rangel apartment to include in my book, “Style and Grace: African American’s at Home,” I’d already heard from my friend Willie Stone, their interior decorator, how handsome it was.

Mine was to be the first text ever exclusively dedicated to showing beautiful houses lived in by Blacks. So, I very much wanted to include their space.

It boasts a foyer, a large living room, approximately 20 x 30, a small kitchen, two small bedrooms, 2 and½ bathrooms, a closet-like office, for Mrs. Alma Rangel, a modest family room and two balconies.

Absolutely nice, it’s been beautifully furnished with restored antiques, discovered mostly by the congressman, at thrift shops and garage sales. Willie Stone enhanced the setting with a hardwood floor, architectural moldings and archways.

But, judged by the standards of rich New Yorker’s inhabiting duplexes or triplexes at River House or the Dakota, one must agree it can hardly be called sumptuous.

Leasing this spacious, sunny, rent stabilized apartment when and how he did, Rangel did nothing that you, I or any other astute person would not have done, all too happily, given the opportunity.

So, what’s up here? Why since this story appeared has it generated hundreds of responses? Why now have I been besieged for interviews, when, back in 2003, when “Style and Grace” debuted, very few called?

What it all boils down to is the “terror and tyranny” of the times.

In January, 2007, interviewing Rangel, the newly appointed Chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Mark Jacobson wrote in New York Magazine, “Gentrification is a citywide conundrum. Why should Harlem be any different?”

What he failed to note then is that fundamentally, it’s not.

What Harlemites, New Yorkers and most Americans all yearn for, is merely what fortunate people like Mayor Bloomberg, Amanda Mortimer Burden and Rangel already enjoy: healthcare and safe, nice places to live, that they can afford.

Much like Jesse Jackson’s unintended act of rendering all he said otherwise, disregarded, The Time’s Rangel-rumpus has had an unfortunate consequence as well.

Rev. Jackson’s vulgarity, betrayed an all too obvious envy that’s been pounced on to discredit what might have been widely hailed as a valid critique.

Similarly, Rangel’s widely perceived flaunting of the rules and any sense of fair-play, has resurrected a persisting call for the abolition of any rent regulation at all.

Greater Boston’s skyrocketing rents since housing there was decontrolled several years ago, is amply documented. Yet, the tired canard about how the free market will so incentivize unfettered real estate investment, that there will be “plenty of affordable housing created for everyone,” is alive and well.

At least Jacobson, in the New York magazine piece had the good sense to discern many of the contradictions that are now, unfairly, engendering such hostility towards Harlem’s first citizen.

“Argue”, he wrote, “ all you want whether a new condo development on every block, Home Depot, and latter-day white hipsters getting off the A train at 145th rank with Countee Cullen and Minton’s Playhouse when it comes to a Harlem Renaissance.

There’s some irony that Rangel, a link to an earlier, more flamboyant uptown, will be remembered as a prime mover of this shinier, corporate version. It is a legacy that will no doubt preclude the rise of another Charlie Rangel.”

Perhaps it takes an outsider to be so perceptive a witness. Concluding how a transformed Harlem will come to have an ever greater diversity of conflicted interests, Jacobson wistfully remarks it’s not likely to ever again be hospitable to the notion of reelecting, “the same guy for 36 years.”

Alas, his tenure at least at the beginning of its close, one dares to wonder if Congressman Rangel understands how it sounds when he says, “Housing prices are a problem. But better than boarded-up buildings. Everything changes. But Harlem will stay Harlem.”

“Oh, will it sir?” asks Sophie Charles, when I repeat Rangel’s comment to her; she’s supported Rangel off and on since his first term.

“With the thousands who earn only $26,000, the majority, those who have returned you to Washington, again and again, swept away, will Harlem really, ‘stay Harlem?’”

“Given a vote, do you really imagine we wouldn’t prefer boarded up hovels amongst places we could afford to rent, as opposed to condo towers where apartments cost $900,000? But better than that, we just want, what you already have!”


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