A Complaint, From 126 Years ago

by Amanda Stern
Originally Published: 
Black and white image of an old square with a lot of people from 126 years ago



PLEASE TAKE NOTICE, that you are justly indebted to the Owner/Landlord of the above described premises in the sum of $11,424.00 for rent and additional rent for said premises, for the period November 2013 through July 2015, which you are required to pay before the expiration of FIVE (5) days from the day of the service of this notice to you, or surrender the possession of the said premises to the Owner/Landlord in default in which the Owner/Landlord will commence summary proceedings under the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law to recover possession of the subject premises.

My bank account flashed before my eyes, followed by no-fee apartment ads on Craigslist. Not only did I not have that kind of money, I didn’t owe that kind of money. I didn’t owe any money—but the ominously capitalized FIVE DAYS didn’t seem sympathetic or very interested in the truth. I was disappointed that my letter from the past revealed little more than a lie dipped in an inedible threat.

As instructed when I first moved in eleven years ago, I follow the egg-and-spoon method for paying rent. On the fifteenth of every month I write a check to my landlord, walk from my fourth floor apartment to the second floor, and slip my rent under the apartment door of the building manager (the landlord’s daughter), who retrieves it, walks down to the garden apartment and slips it under her father’s door. It’s a slow and indirect way of paying rent, but for whatever reason, the Groves (not their real names) like the messenger.

We’ve been doing this for eleven years with virtually no surprises or missed payments. In other words, no money was waiting to be claimed.

Letter still in my hand, I walked outside and into the first stage of bewilderment (the shaky helpless patch). I saw my landlord opening the gate to his basement apartment, returning, I imagined, from dropping this notice directly onto the hallway floor, and me into my least favorite situation—confrontation.

“Mr. Groves,” I called out, holding up the piece of paper. “What is this?”

“You owe me money!” he started yelling at me. “You never pay your rent. I know how many people you have living upstairs! Hundreds, that’s how many!” He was so angry spit ricocheted out of his mouth and onto his face.

© flickr/marsmet523

This was so out of character for him that I didn’t know what to do—so I did what anyone in shock would do, and yelled back. We stood on the street yelling in each other’s faces for a good minute before I stormed inside, ran up to my apartment, burst into tears and called my mom, who was not helpful.

“Well, do you owe him money?”


“Then you have nothing to worry about!”

But I did have something to worry about. I had five days to pay a massive sum I didn’t owe, and didn’t have, or Mr. Groves would take my apartment and everything I owned. I was afraid to leave, even to walk my dog, in case I returned to be wrestled to the ground by border patrol with manacles and backup restraints. I dialed the number for the lawyer, to whom the letter stated all inquiries were to be referred, and disputed the allegations.

“You mean you don’t owe any money?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“You’re all paid up?”

“I’m all paid up.”

Then he worried aloud about my landlord’s mental health and age, and I thought that would be that.

How many days until I’ll be homeless?

Two days later another notice appeared. This time it was in a certified envelope and waiting in my mailbox. I called the lawyer again, but he wouldn’t take my call. The next day I got another letter and again, the lawyer avoided my calls. Soon, a certified letter arrived from a different lawyer and the amount they claimed I owed had jumped by $8,000. Now, they told me, I owed $19,992 and if I didn’t pay that in five days I’d be out. How many five days were they going to give me?

I called 311. They directed me to the South Brooklyn Legal Hotline, which only takes calls between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., so that when you call during that time, you get a two-hour busy signal. I called a few lawyers, who told me there was nothing I could do until I got an eviction notice or he sued me—which, I was told, I did not want because even if I was right and he was wrong, if I went to housing court, no one would ever rent to me in NYC again. No, ma’am, it doesn’t matter that you’re a fifth-generation native New Yorker. No one seemed to care that my five-day period would be up in a matter of who knew how many days, and I’d be forced to move into my mother’s one-bedroom apartment and share the couch with my five-year-old brother, a clutch-sized dog named—unintentionally, I hope—after a feminine hygiene product (Maxi) .

To the best of my knowledge (and my knowledge lives on the Internet), inventing that someone owes you money and bullying them into giving it to you is called extortion. What sort of lawyer willingly writes these letters without asking for proof of such claims? What were my rights? I started researching the legality of my situation, and when I came up short, I started Googling stories of tenants who received this same letter, only to be frightened off by the official [doc] and [pdf] tags preceding each link. Was everyone else so informed about Five Day Rent Demand Letters that they didn’t require solace, guidance or advice from fishy creeps on the Internet? Where were all my confused people? Where were my tormented worriers, my distressed bellyachers? Where were my complainers?

It was then I thought about an old project I loved by the conceptual artist Matthew Bakkom called “New York City Museum of Complaint.” He’d gone down to the Municipal Archives and scoured letters to the city’s Mayors from 1751 to 1969, collecting the best ones for a broadsheet, which would eventually become a book. I’d loved that project when it came out and had always wanted to visit the archives myself.

Now, I decided, was the perfect time. My mission: to uncover past complaints from tenants in my building, perhaps even my apartment. If I could find enough evidence of wrongdoing, neglect and disrepair in my building, I’d have ammunition to use against him. For three years, I’ve had problems with my heat (the chief concern being, not getting it), but every time I told my landlord that my apartment was freezing and that I wore gloves to bed, he’d say, “The heat works. It’s warm in my apartment.”

If for three years I’d gone without heat, it stood to reason that other tenants had also been freezing for three years, potentially plagued by other problems I didn’t know about. Whatever the case, I wanted to uncover a history of issues going back as far as Brooklyn itself. I wanted to find so much evidence that when I made my way to court it would take two volunteers from the municipal archives to roll the cart of evidence of historical dissatisfaction behind me, toward the judge. To the Municipal Archives I went.

Down the rabbit hole

Overwhelmed by the promise of discontent, I arrived unprepared for the number of grievances I’d have to sift through to uncover even a glimmer of disgruntled gold.

With extremely limited time, I hopped on the Microfiche Reader and scrolled away. Engaged in a manual pursuit, I knew the odds of finding complaints from my building in Brooklyn were low, and I was right—but the odds of finding a complaint letter written from the East Village apartment I’d moved from were apparently quite high. After eight years living at 118 St. Mark’s Place, I was noised-out, and due to my advanced age (33!) it was time to consider retiring to quieter parts of the very city I grew up in. The letter I found in the archives is dated August 2nd, 1888, and it’s a report from James C. Bayles, President of Health and Sanitation, to Mayor Abram S. Hewitt (remember him?).

I have the honor to return several complaints with the reports of inspectors detailed to investigate them, viz:

The letter from Andrew Gross of 118 St. Mark’s Place, calling attention to the fact that undertakers empty ice in the streets, that has been in contact with dead bodies, I desire to retain for fuller investigation. I do not believe that this is a general practice, but if it is, I am somewhat in doubt whether it is a source of danger. Ice cannot well be infected and the rapid erasion (sic) of its surface by melting would probably remove from such gradments as fall into the hands of children, any source of danger. I will, however, see that proper action is taken to prevent this if it is done.

Respectfully, James C. Bayles, President

After looking into each complaint, James C. Bayles assessed each situation and reported back to the Mayor with his thoughts. In this same letter, Mr. Bayles writes:

From “Many Residents” complaining of a nuisance in the rear of No. 95 Rivington Street. The inspector in this case has failed to find any cause for complaint and denies the existence of any such nuisance as is reported.


Other letters complained about the smell of dead horses, inquiring whether such a thing as the Board of Health existed, for the dead horse had been simmering in the sun on Houston Street for over a week.

Dear Sir: – Opposite no. 501 E. Houston Street there is a veterinary hospital kept by W.H. Jackson. At least once a week there is a dead horse lying in the street in front of this place. On July 4th, there was one there and last evening I noticed another. Cannot this man be compelled to keep his dead horse in the stable until the dead wagon calls for the same? I consider this a great nuisance and hope you will send this letter to the proper board and see that it is stopped. I live in no. 501 (my mother is the owner) and think it is too much to see dead horses out lying in the street almost continually opposite my residence. I did not know which board to send this letter and so I directed the same to you. Hoping you will attend to this.

People complained about honking, political corruption, lewd acts, and loneliness. In short, except for dead horses and death-infected ice, not much has changed, including the egg-and-spoon way of relaying messages: from the mail carrier to the inspector, from the inspector to the mayor, from the mayor to the inspector, from the inspector to the mail carrier, from the mail carrier to the complainant. Phew.

I stayed longer than I should have, absorbed in the powdery past and sliding into the universe of every yesterday. History got the best of me, and I allowed myself to become sidetracked by angry East Villagers and urban dwellers whose olfactory pallets were besmirched by the stench of equinus infectus. I had wasted one of my very precious, ever-shifting five days, and come out without verbal artillery or oral anecdotal weapons.

© flickr/supercapacity

An unexpected reprieve

I worried that I’d been gone so long I no longer had an apartment. I sprinted home, a dust devil gusting past the slow walkers, annoyed at myself for having wasted precious time. As I reached my block, my mail carrier stopped me, delaying me more. I tried not to spin my eyes out of their sockets in irritation.

“You have another certified letter,” she told me.

“I do?” I asked, trying not to freak out.

She looked over her shoulder. “I know what’s going on.”

I looked over her shoulder too. “What?”

“There’s a British Real Estate lady”—she filled her cheeks with air and extended her arms to demonstrate width—”telling all the landlords how much they can get for their apartments. Now all the landlords are trying to get their tenants out.”


“Seriously. Don’t complain about anything, don’t give him any reason to get you out.”

“I complained all winter to his daughter about the heat. They wouldn’t fix it.”

“Oh, that’s not his daughter. Eddie doesn’t have children.”

This, I knew, was not right.

“She’s been calling him ‘her father’ since I moved in,” I said.

“She calls him ‘my uncle’ when I deliver the mail. Also, Mr. G worked at the post office for 35 years. He doesn’t have any children.”

This was the strangest information I’d been given in a long time, but I believed her. In fact, as I walked away, I realized that the most direct communicator in this entire rent-drama was the person whose industry is historically known for being the slowest.

I wondered how many hands had touched the letters I was receiving, and why Mr. Groves relied on sending me letters when he could more easily walk upstairs and slip them under my door, or better yet, be brave and knock. Maybe I was going too far by putting the links there myself, but I thought it was sort of incredible that the letter I’d received had been dated in the past, that I’d gone to the past to find answers and ammunition, and that Mr. Groves was relying on the delivery system of his past—a service he believed in so much he’d spent his career sorting mail.

My depending on history to bolster my defense was no different than my landlord using a go-between to receive my rent; our reliance on sentiment spoke to our mutual lack of bravery. Instead of calling, we hide behind email; instead of knocking on our neighbors’ doors we leave notes or send letters, and when we’re afraid we return to the archives of our past. So many advances, not much change.

To prove I didn’t owe any money, I sent the lawyer copies of all Mr. Groves’ cancelled checks, and while the letters finally stopped, in Amanda VS Landlord Groves, the verdict about my future in this apartment remains inconclusive. I pay less than market value and my landlord wants to kick me out so he can raise the rent. In the epic battle between landlord and tenant, I am a small inconsequential piece, and while I’ve been an infiltrator in the story of gentrification, now I’m a pawn. I don’t have to contend with dead horses or death on the rocks; instead I’ve become a part of a centuries-old war between landlord and tenant, and I’m proud to be connected to this great NYC tradition of ire and hostility. After all, I’m a fifth-generation native New Yorker. That it took me so many years to lock horns with a landlord is a shame I will have to live with for the rest of my life. Just probably not in this apartment.

photo: Getty/Hulton Archive

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