The Eviction Notice Messenger Boy of 96th Street
Michael Seltzer, posted April 7, 2016
Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1950’s certainly didn’t expand my racial world view. My neighborhood was white, my elementary and junior high schools were all white. The Supreme Court Brown vs. the Board of Education decision in 1954 fell on deaf ears at the New York City Board of Education. My father, Max, a lawyer, drilled into me that I was not allowed to walk above 96th street, since of course, that was where Harlem began. He informed me that it was unsafe and dangerous and black.
Yet, he wasn’t hesitant to bring me along with him as a messenger boy when he had to deliver eviction notices in Harlem for his landlord clients. He would drive up to an apartment building and give me the legal document to hand-deliver to the unsuspecting tenant. I would walk up the stairs of an aging tenement, buzz an apartment door, hand over the notice, and quickly run away. That was when I saw first saw black men.
When I was 12 and my father’s last marriage ended, I discovered that my father had hidden from me the fact that my uncle and he owned two apartment houses in the Bronx—one on Morris Avenue and another on Monroe Avenue. My grandfather had purchased them in the 1920’s. When he died before I was born, the ownership passed to his two sons. My half-brother and I were next in the queue.
In my teenage years, I learned about some of the uglier aspects of the Bronx real estate industry. My father and uncle used brokers to screen out any non-white renters. In retrospect, the practice was akin to an unspoken form of apartheid. There was an unwritten and unspoken conspiracy in the Bronx among landlords to keep out Blacks and Hispanics.
When I was a junior in high school, I began to understand segregation and its consequences. In 1963, I had seen Martin Duberman’s powerful off-Broadway play In White America in Greenwich Village. The cast vividly reenacted the efforts to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in September 1957. The civil rights movement was burgeoning.
With the white migration to Coop City from 1968 to 1973, the introduction of Section 8 housing in 1974, and the ensuing white flight from the south and central Bronx, fewer whites were interested in renting apartments in the central Bronx. Initially, Section 8 provided landlords with rental income for lower-middle income families. As a result, the Seltzer brothers partially relented from their race ban and started to rent to black policemen.
After my father died in 1964, my half-brother and I inherited his 50% share in ownership of the two Bronx buildings. It was quite clear to me that as a minority owner, I would have little influence in changing my uncle’s segregationist policies, so I sold my share to my half-brother.
Two years later, I worked in a men’s job corps center in West Virginia. Black social workers from the School of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma drilled in us the famous Malcolm X expression –Up South, Down South. They wanted to rid do-gooder white Northerners of any notion that racism was confined to southern rednecks. That summer, I witnessed a race riot between urban northern black men and rural Appalachian white men. I was no longer the sheltered young boy of 96th street.
Michael Seltzer is a Distinguished Lecturer at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, CUNY