Chasidic leaders in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, were scrambling this week to find homes for some 40 residents evicted from their apartments Monday night: the latest, and most ironic victims of an expanding, politically charged probe of alleged safety violations by local developer Chaim Ostreicher.
The homeless chasidim, from seven families, were doubled up in the homes of other families and sheltered in local synagogues on an emergency basis. But community leaders stressed this was only temporary.
"They are in a horrible position," said Rabbi Leib Glanz, executive director of the United Talmudical Academy, the school system of the Satmar chasidic sect that dominates the area. "In our community, if there is no space, you’ll take anyone in. But I hope the situation will be rectified very soon."
Rabbi David Niederman, executive director the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, stressed Tuesday that "The community took them in for overnight, until they can find accommodation." Rabbi Niederman, whose organization functions as Williamsburg’s Jewish community council, said, "Right now, no one knows where that will be. But a solution must be found."
According to Rabbi Glanz, who acted as an on-site liaison for city building inspectors, the city offered those evicted from the row of 11 attached houses on Lorimer Street accommodation at a hotel in Astoria, Queens. But he said, "That’s unacceptable."
The Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn residents, he explained, have extensive religious requirements and communal needs as members of the tight-knit, insular community. Removed from the daily life and religious rhythms of the sect in which they are rooted, they could not function, he said.
Rabbi Glanz also raised questions echoed by others about both the motivation and timing of the city officials’ eviction action. "When inspectors come and see a building is not safe, that’s one thing," he said. "But if they are coming out on account of political pressure, that’s another."
The sweep, which came after the death of a construction worker at another Ostreicher site, around the corner, on Middleton Street, was part of an ongoing inspection of his buildings amid reports that city officials had approved Ostreicher projects despite numerous safety problems. In a move seen as especially sensitive for Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a likely candidate for the Senate, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, a Democrat, is conducting a probe of possible political influence over the buildings inspection process.
Paul Wein, a Buildings Department spokesman, said the residents on Lorimer were evicted because the buildings’ certificates of occupancy did not authorize habitation of the sections in which they were living, and because there were inadequate fire exits for them. But Rabbi Glanz, who said he personally saw the certificates Monday night while acting as community liaison, said the sections in question did, indeed, have certificates of occupancy.
"The community welcomes inspections to make sure the buildings are safe," he said. But he added: "I have a reservation about why this happened now. And why at night, and during a pouring rain?"
The evictions and the lingering questions were but the latest twist in a spiral of revelations and developments that have followed the death of Daniel Eduardo, a worker at Ostreicher’s Middleton Street construction site on Nov. 24. Eduardo, an illegal Mexican immigrant, drowned in a pool of wet concrete after falling four stories when the building he was working on collapsed. Twelve others were injured in the collapse.
Subsequent press reports led some to suspect that Ostreicher exploited high-level influence to get his buildings built despite numerous dangerous shortcomings. Even before Eduardo’s death, for example, three workers at the Middleton Street project were injured when the second floor collapsed last August. Work was allowed to continue after the developer promised corrections. But the Buildings Department conducted no follow-up inspections, according to published reports.
During construction in 1996, one house at the Lorimer site from which the chasidim were evicted Monday also collapsed, not once but three times. Fire Department inspectors examining the 11 row houses found "questionable construction tactics," the use of "substandard steel beam supports" and buildings being occupied without certificates of occupancy, according to records disclosed in the Daily News.
Deputy Fire Chief Charles Blaich wrote a memo to the Buildings Department warning, "These conditions are extremely hazardous to the lives and safety of any occupants."
In June and October, the Buildings Department issued vacate orders at 29 Lorimer St.. But violations in other row houses went unaddressed.Suspicions that Ostreicher exploited high-level influence seemed reinforced for critics when it was revealed the mayor’s chief of staff, Anthony Carbonetti, personally visited the Lorimer site during construction. But Carbonetti told investigators that after viewing the site, he sided with the Buildings Department efforts to seal the four-story structure at 29 Lorimer. Sources involved said Carbonetti became involved at the request of a chasidic rabbi who acted as an intermediary for Ostreicher. The builder’s attorney, Frank Mandel, said he could not identify the cleric.
Critics could cite no quid pro quo that might demonstrate any favors exchanged between Ostreicher and the Giuliani administration. But many said events surrounding a project by a different developer had sent a strong signal that inspectors should give wide berth to chasidic building projects in Williamsburg in general.
Joseph Trivisonno, the Brooklyn buildings commissioner until last October, said he was forced out of his position after trying to enforce safety codes on a yeshiva construction project sponsored by the Pupa chasidic sect on nearby Heyward Street. Both Trivisonno and his supervisor, then-Buildings Commissioner Gaston Silva, told investigators it was Bruce Teitelbaum, then Giuliani’s chief of staff, who demanded his transfer.
Citing remarks by Jacob Fekete, an expediter for the contractor whom he said he dealt with on the project, Trivisonno, now retired, told The Jewish Week, "The whole nature of his interactions with me was, if you don’t give us what we want, we’ll do whatever we have to do to get it done. It was the old veiled threat.
"He kept pushing and pushing," said Trivisonno, "to the point where he said, if I don’t approve [the project] he’ll bring to bear whatever influence he could. … I can only guess they were doing whatever they could behind the scenes to get me out."
According to architect Gerald Goldstein, the contractors for the Pupa project "spread the word" to political officials that Trivisonno was an anti-Semite enforcing the building code selectively. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one official said he received such a report. But Goldstein, who got involved in the issue as head of the Government Relations Committee for the Brooklyn chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said, "I’ve known Trivisonno many years, and this man is no anti-Semite."
Efforts to reach Fekete for comment were unsuccessful.
An apparent effort to transfer Trivisonno in February 1998 was aborted, perhaps in part by Jewish communal officials who vouched for him behind the scenes after examining the situation. But in October, Silva, citing pressure from Teitelbaum, forced Trivisonno out of Brooklyn.
"That was a signal to others," charged Goldstein. "Stay away. Don’t look. Don’t go near it."
Teitelbaum, who now heads Giuliani’s Senate exploratory committee, did not respond to requests for comment. Other government officials, speaking on condition they not be identified, said Teitelbaum could not have acted alone. But at a press conference, the mayor dismissed charges Trivisonno’s fate was due to political influence and appeared to minimize his good performance record.
"It’s not unusual for commissioners to sometimes protect people they shouldn’t protect," he said, when asked about Trivisonno. "It’s not unusual for someone who has bas performance [to have] all kinds of written accolades in their record."
For his part, Trivisonno told Daily News columnist Michael Daly that if he was still in charge when Ostreicher’s fatal Middleton Street project had its first collapse, he would have insisted on "proper supervision. … Supervision by a general contractor is not adequate."
Rabbi Glanz, however, pointed out that it was Trivisonno who signed off on the Lorimer project from which residents were just ousted for Ostreicher’s alleged safety code violations.
Asked how the Lorimer project got approved despite the memos sent by the Fire Department to his office warning about its safety dangers, Trivisonno replied, "I don’t recall those memos. They probably never got to my desk. No one brought me any records there was anything wrong with the building."
Meanwhile, the evicted chasidim find themselves victims twice, and perhaps thrice over. After living in buildings now judged too dangerous to inhabit, they are now thrown out of them. Worse, Ostreicher, a small-scale Williamsburg builder that many leaders there have long seen as an irresponsible contractor, is now viewed by outsiders as symbolizing special political privileges critics say they have.
"The terrible thing is, the victims are these [evicted] families," said Rabbi Niederman of the UJO. "It’s chasidic families who are now without housing."