HELL’S KITCHEN — Joe Restuccia was working as a stage manager in 1979 when he took over a fire-blackened, electricity-free, city-owned apartment on West 35th Street in Hell’s Kitchen.
"I went to what’s called a phone booth and called a woman who said that, you know, the apartment was available, I could apply for it, and it was six rooms for $225 a month," he said. "But it required a little bit of work."
In the years after the city's fiscal crisis, city government was flush with buildings on the West Side, Restuccia said. The city had taken over buildings where owners had not paid taxes, including the one Restuccia moved into, he said.
"But they were not abandoned," he said. "They were owner-abandoned. They were full of families and full of tenants."
More than three decades into his career as a tenant advocate in Hell’s Kitchen, Restuccia, 58, shared his encyclopedic knowledge of Hell's Kitchen history and all things housing with DNAinfo New York.
Restuccia, now the executive director of community housing organization Clinton Housing Development Company, removed piles of debris and installed the windows on his home. At night, he carried a ginger jar lamp on a 50-foot extension cord to light the rooms as he worked to turn the dilapidated apartment into a home.
"I had to plug and unplug the refrigerator if I wanted to make coffee," he remembered.
Besides fixing up the place, the other condition of move-in was that he join the building's tenant association, which needed a vice-president.
A month into Restuccia's residency, in the middle of a tenant association meeting, the group was served legal papers saying that the former owner was taking the building back, he said.
"And it was very curious," he explained, "because he was dead at the time."
Restuccia and his tenant association won that fight and kept the building. Shortly after that, he was offered a job with Housing Conservation Coordinators, working on housing issues in other buildings around the neighborhood.
When the city later reneged on its agreement to sell apartments it owned to tenants for a nominal fee, he fought to negotiate the price down. HCC also scored renovations of the ancient tenements, including installations of the exalted three-piece bathroom: sink, toilet, shower.
The tenant groups also won the right to be relocated during construction rather than live in their apartments throughout it, which required the trust of the community, he said.
"That was a huge lift to do, and then it became, over a period of five years, the citywide norm," Restuccia said. "And they were all walk-ups. So we're talking to the artists with the pianos and the lady with the library of dance books...or our person would show up to relocate somebody, all arranged, and the woman, in her nightgown, with four kids. And then our manager, relocation person saying, 'Ok now, you gotta get the kids dressed. Let's get 'em dressed first, let's get some breakfast. We'll hold the truck."
"You have to be personal and you have to be local," he said.
The details matter, Restuccia said, whether he is negotiating a zoning change with the city, an affordable housing deal with a big developer or a bathroom renovation in a walk-up.
He helped relocate a woman whose son had died in his 30s and she had kept his bedroom intact, and another who had seen the Virgin Mary in her bathroom.
"And that little bathroom stayed in place, because as far as her and her neighbors were concerned, the Virgin Mary appeared there," he said.
► On getting affordable housing in Hell's Kitchen:
"I realized that the neighborhood was really people who had been around and knew that the way you get something done is, you understand what it is, you ask questions, and then you try to figure out a way to get compromises, not perfection."
►On speaking with one voice as a neighborhood:
"The word in this neighborhood is, certainly in Hell's Kitchen, Clinton, is: there can be blood on the floor when we're alone, but when people come from the outside, no."
►On hashing out zoning details:
"It would have meant a series of very tall towers sticking up above these blocks, which are these whole wedding cake set-back loft buildings from the teens and the '20s that are so emblematic of this part of the city."
►On managing change in the city:
"The city is about change. It doesn't mean that change gets to wipe out the people and the places that were there."
►How Joe got his start as a housing advocate:
"All the windows were sealed with tin. There was no front door."
For more Hell's Kitchen housing history from Joe Restuccia, check out our Soundcloud page.