March 29, 2022

The Passion of 964 Park Place

A standoff between tenant organizers and yeshiva students over the fate of a Black family’s home summoned the specter of the Crown Heights riots, and provided an object lesson in housing activism at the end of the Covid eviction moratorium.

Victor J. Blue

Helen Robinson (aka Queen Afua) addresses activists from the Crown Heights Tenants Union and other groups as they block access to the contested rowhouse where she lives at 964 Park Place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, February 16th, 2022.

On February 11th, a few days before I got back from a trip out of town, I started receiving notifications over WhatsApp from fellow tenant organizers and neighbors: An emergency eviction defense was underway at 964 Park Place, a four-story brownstone almost directly across the street from my building in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

The brownstone belonged to a 98-year-old woman named Ida Robinson, who purchased the home with her husband Ephraim in 1951; when the couple moved in, they were the first Black family on the block. In the decades that followed, as Crown Heights became a predominantly African American and Caribbean neighborhood, the house at 964 Park Place became something of an unofficial cultural institution. Ida and Ephraim’s daughter Helen Robinson, professionally known as Queen Afua, became a wellness entrepreneur, a bestselling author, and a well-known holistic health practitioner in the Black community whose devotees came to include figures like Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu. Eric Adams, now the mayor of New York, has credited her with his decision to become a vegan, and his 2020 book Healthy at Last: A Plant-Based Approach to Preventing and Reversing Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses includes several of her recipes. Later, even as the neighborhood gentrified and many Black residents were displaced, the growing family stayed put, coming to include Helen’s daughter Sherease Torain and, for a period, Sherease’s brother Ali Torain and his family.

Now, despite their longtime status as homeowners, the Robinson-Torains find that their ability to stay in their house will depend on tenant activists. In recent years, the family has been threatened with the loss of their home in what they say is an egregious case of deed theft, a white-collar crime in which real estate firms typically employ rings of scammers to swindle property owners out of the title to their homes by means of forgery and fraud. Today, a landlord named Menachem Gurevitch, whose real estate firm, Netz Capital Management, owns hundreds of millions of dollars in property holdings stretching along the east coast from Boston to Miami, claims to have purchased the title to 964 Park Place; the Robinson-Torains said they never intended to sell the property and that they were defrauded. But because Gurevitch—a member of Crown Heights’ large Chabad-Lubavitch community who lives in the neighborhood—now holds the deed to the building, he views the Robinson-Torains as delinquent tenants, and began pursuing action against them in housing court in 2018. The family has been threatened ever since, not with foreclosure—as one might expect in the case of a family that purchased their home 70 years ago—but with eviction.

On February 11th, after a marshal executed an eviction order and the locks were changed on the family’s door, tenant organizers from two groups the Robinson-Torains have become involved with—the Crown Heights Tenants Union (CHTU) and Brooklyn Eviction Defense (BED)—initiated a direct action, helping Helen and Sherease reenter their home and setting up a round-the-clock stoop watch to protect the family from landlord harassment. (Ida is currently convalescing with family out of state.) The women found their house in disarray and their possessions thrown into garbage bags. An agent of the landlord—essentially, hired muscle—came up from the basement and surprised the Robinson-Torains and the activists as they began to clean up the mess; it appeared he had been sleeping in a room upstairs. More agents tried to enter the property through the front gate, but were blocked by a group of activists led by Helen. At 4:30am on Sunday morning, while the stoop watchers were inside, staying out of the snow that had begun to fall, the same man returned and tried to break down the door.

The dramatic events that followed placed the Robinson-Torains at the center of a maelstrom, threatening to ignite longstanding tensions in the neighborhood between Black and Lubavitcher Jewish residents. On February 14th, three days after the family reentered their home, a group of perhaps 20 bochurim—college-age students who come to Brooklyn from across the globe to study at the Hasidic yeshivas clustered around Chabad-Lubavitch’s international headquarters in Crown Heights—stormed the brownstone in an attempt to re-evict the Robinson-Torains by force. Video footage from the scene captured by neighbors and organizers shows them facing off in a chaotic scuffle with tenant activists. Some bochurim climbed onto the roof of a makeshift yeshiva dorm a few doors down from the Robinson-Torains before clambering across adjacent roofs and attempting to force their way in from above, breaking two locks in the process. Others got into physical altercations with stoop watchers on the front steps. “The police were standing around like it was a meditation class,” Helen, who is now 65, said acidly when I spoke with her later in the week. “I picked up a hammer in case they came in.” At one point, for reasons unclear to the witnesses I spoke to, the bochurim began chanting “Mavet La’aravim,” a chant commonly used at right-wing rallies in Israel meaning “Death to Arabs.” When a Jewish member of BED and CHTU translated the phrase for his comrades, some eviction defenders chanted, “Free Palestine!”

Victor J. Blue

Activists from the Crown Heights Tenants Union and other groups block access to a contested rowhouse as young yeshiva students and other agents of the landlord try to force their way in, February 14th, 2022.

Alarmed by the threat of further escalation, the district’s city councilman Chi Ossé summoned state attorney general Letitia James, who showed up that evening. Eric Adams, too, eventually sent emissaries—two rabbis and a pastor—to the scene. Gurevitch himself heightened the specter of violence when, at an attempted negotiating session held that evening at a preschool across the street from 964 Park, he looked at James and said—according to multiple people present—that he could bring out “150 more” yeshiva students, then asked meaningfully: “Do you remember what happened in 1991?”

What happened in 1991, as any longtime Crown Heights resident can tell you, were the notorious riots that broke out after the Chabad rebbe’s motorcade hit two children of Guyanese immigrants, killing a seven-year-old boy. Fanned by anger over the death and the fact that, according to some witnesses, a Chabad-run ambulance service helped Jews involved in the collision but overlooked the struck children, groups of Black youth chanting antisemitic slurs assaulted Hasidic passersby who had nothing to do with the crash, murdering one. Tensions between the communities have continued to flare up over the years, most recently during a wave of seemingly random attacks on Hasidim, primarily perpetrated by Black men, in late 2019. To invoke 1991, then, is to yell fire in a crowded theater, not least because the riots took place under the watch of David Dinkins, New York’s last Black mayor before Eric Adams. Speaking at a rally in front of the Robinson-Torains’ house, James was adamant: “I don’t want another 1991 on my watch.”

Speaking at a rally in front of the Robinson-Torains’ house, state attorney general Letitia James was adamant: “I don’t want another 1991 on my watch.”

Ida and Ephraim Robinson both grew up in the deep South; Ephraim and his family fled Alabama after his father was lynched. The couple met swing dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, married, and bought the house on Park Place. Ephraim later prospered as a businessman, selling dental equipment to Black dentists, while Ida became a dietician; Helen Robinson and later Sherease Torain followed her into the wellness world. The family’s longevity in their house has increasingly become the exception to the rule: Though Crown Heights in many ways remains a thriving Black neighborhood, census data indicates that the neighborhood’s Black population decreased from around 89,000 to around 70,000 between 2010 and 2020, one of the largest such drops in the city. Most of the newcomers who have replaced them are younger white transplants to the neighborhood like myself.

With gentrification has also come an intense wave of tenant activism. CHTU (of which, full disclosure, I am a member) is perhaps the most active autonomous tenant union in the city, and helped spin off a group more focused on direct action, BED, which was established near the beginning of the pandemic. The organizations have helped to create a fledgling but significant web of alliances between longtime, often rent-stabilized Black residents facing displacement, and new primarily non-Black tenants facing skyrocketing rents, often from the same landlords. Largely absent from this alliance is the Chabad community. Although most Hasidim are tenants themselves, thus far the community has largely stood behind the many Haredi landlords in the area who rent property in the neighborhood to Chabadniks, Black residents, and newcomers alike.

According to legal documents filed by the Robinson-Torains this month, their troubles started in 2015, when Ali Torain was contacted by a man who presented himself as a financial advisor named Richard Wright and offered to help refinance his family’s home. The Robinson-Torains were two months behind on mortgage payments, but planned to catch up, they said. In any event, the house was not at imminent risk of foreclosure. Wright promised that because the amount of money the family owed on the home represented only a fraction of its value, he could arrange a refinancing agreement in which monthly payments would hold constant but cash would be freed up for the family’s use. The family agreed to the deal, and Wright, together with a man who introduced himself as a mortgage broker named Jean Paul, arranged for Ida, Helen, and Ali to be taken by car service to an office in Manhattan. There, they were introduced to Yariv Katz, an attorney who said he would represent them in the transaction. The family members were presented with a package of documents that, they were told, reflected the refinancing agreement that had been discussed.

Only later, the Robinson-Torains claim, did they learn that the contract they had signed was not a refinancing agreement at all. Instead, it represented the sale of 964 Park Place for $800,000 with an option under which they could buy back the property within one year at the inflated price of $1.2 million. The title to the house passed quickly through a series of LLCs before coming to rest in Gurevitch’s possession. The Robinson-Torains say they began to suspect something was wrong after months passed and no refinancing payments arrived. Concerned, they tried to back out of the deal. This time, Paul introduced Ali to a different lawyer, Andre Soleil, who filed a suit in New York’s Supreme Court on behalf of Ida Robinson alleging misrepresentation and fraud in the deed transfer. But the suit was dismissed on the grounds that it had been precluded by an earlier court decision—one that, the Robinson-Torains say, they never even knew about because it was handled by Soleil. As it turned out, Soleil had been working with Gurevitch, Katz, Wright, and Paul to defraud them of their home, the family alleges. There is good reason to be suspicious of the figures involved: Katz was later indicted in Queens on counts of fraud related to a deed theft scheme in 2017, while Soleil faced similar allegations of deed fraud and purportedly fled the country.

The Robinson-Torains say Gurevitch never sent them rent notices, and city records show that he failed to register the property with the Housing and Preservation Department, as landlords are required to do. (Notably, Gurevitch—who did not respond to requests for comment—has been criminally charged in several cases in New Haven housing court for serious maintenance violations in buildings he owns there.) Yet in 2018, Gurevitch began an eviction proceeding against the family in housing court, alleging that they were holdover tenants—in other words, that they had overstayed the terms of their lease. On February 21st, 2020, the court, following the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s dismissal, ruled in his favor. The eviction was stayed several times because of the Covid eviction moratorium, but last month, weeks after the final moratorium period expired, a judge ruled that the family could be removed from their house. The order marked one of the first post-moratorium evictions in Crown Heights.

The Robinson-Torains’ harrowing experience is all too common in gentrifying neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where handsome brownstones and other properties belonging to longtime residents, primarily Black families, have become highly valuable assets sought by real estate investors. New York City officials recorded around 3,000 claims of deed theft between 2014 and 2019, a little under half of which originated in Brooklyn. Because deed theft operatives often employ aliases and use shell companies to slide mortgages around before victims become aware that they have been stripped of their property titles, such cases are incredibly difficult to resolve. And even when deed thieves are eventually convicted of a crime, it is sometimes too late to save a property from being flipped by developers: The Slave Theater, for instance, a storied Black theater and organizing space in Bed-Stuy, was demolished in 2016 to make way for apartments weeks before a Queens lawyer named Frank Racano pled guilty to stealing proceeds from the building’s sale, which the theater’s proprietors claimed was never authorized to begin with. A sibling institution, The Black Lady Theatre, currently sits shuttered under similar circumstances a couple of blocks from the Robinson-Torains’ house.

Real estate companies trawl legal filings looking for families behind on mortgage payments to embroil in equity schemes, and offer homeowners cash for residences that aren’t even on the market.

Families like the Robinson-Torains—longtime Black and brown homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods—pose a particular challenge to the real estate industry, which profits from the churn of racialized displacement. Longtime tenants can be forced out of their apartments through rent increases, harassment, or refusal of services; homeowners saddled with overwhelming mortgage payments or debt can lose their homes to foreclosure. But Ephraim and Ida Robinson had paid off their initial mortgage by 1991, years before home prices in the neighborhood began to rise. The mortgage the family says they thought they were refinancing in 2015 had been taken out more recently, when they wanted to borrow money against the value of their increasingly valuable house. It is this activity that likely made the family a target. Real estate companies trawl legal filings looking for families behind on mortgage payments to embroil in equity schemes, and offer homeowners cash for residences that aren’t even on the market. “Everyone’s approached at some point,” said Trevor Johnson, who lives in a brownstone two doors down from the Robinson-Torains in a unit he rents from friends who live downstairs. “When you’re trying to save your house, you’ll kind of do anything.”

In the past several years, New York electeds have begun initiatives to stop deed theft. As Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams called on prosecutors to investigate the practice. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill in 2019 strengthening protections for homeowners approached by swindlers. The following year, Letitia James led a door-knocking campaign in central Brooklyn to warn residents about deed thieves.

In 2017 and again in 2018, Sherease Torain attended community outreach meetings held by the office of Bed-Stuy councilman Robert Cornegy, where, she said, homeowners desperate for help cried as they told their stories. But she ultimately found that Cornegy’s office, like other government officials she contacted about her family’s situation, claimed they were powerless to help. Furious, Torain took the unusual step of becoming active with CHTU and BED, which are generally composed of apartment dwellers dealing with more conventional forms of mistreatment by landlords. Even as she insisted on the legitimacy of her family’s ownership, the threat of dispossession had altered her understanding of her relationship to her home. “I contacted 25 agencies and nobody helped me,” Torain said. “And so I said, ‘Okay, if I’m a tenant, I’m gonna be a full tenant.’”

It is still unclear
exactly how the bochurim made their way to 964 Park Place on February 14th. But it appears that, once the Robinson-Torains reentered their home, some Chabad community WhatsApp groups began circulating messages on Gurevitch’s behalf. “We need our community to go to court tomorrow morning and show support, this is out of control and may set a precedent that the law means nothing and court orders mean nothing if you are a hard working Jew,” read one such message that circulated anonymously in advance of a court hearing for the Robinson-Torains later that week. Visiting bochurim are a restive force in the Chabad community, and some appear to have responded to similar calls. A group of Israeli bochurim I spoke to at the makeshift dorm near 964 Park said they were not personally present at the standoff, but that their friends, members of a messianist sect within Chabad, had participated. They had heard that a Jewish man was being forced out of his own home by deadbeat tenants, and “wanted to see that justice was done,” Levi Mauda, a 21-year-old student, told me.

The ensuing melee came as a shock even to activists experienced with the heightened confrontations characteristic of eviction defense work. “I’ve never seen a group of landlords’ agents come out in such force like that,” Jessica Dunn, a CHTU member, told me. “It really wasn’t clear to me what they were capable of doing. They snatched the megaphone from my hand and threw it. I thought someone was going to be thrown from the stairs.” Frightened elected officials were supportive, but their material proposals felt inadequate. “I know Queen Afua, this is her house,” Eric Adams told Letitia James when she called him that evening from the Robinson-Torains’, said activists present for the call. But Adams’s emissaries offered the family only the unsatisfying solution of a six-month stay in a hotel. Ossé and James later suggested a nonprofit through which the family could take out a $1.5 million loan to get their house back.

“I know Queen Afua, this is her house,” Eric Adams told Letitia James when she called him that evening from the Robinson-Torains’. But Adams’s emissaries offered the family only the unsatisfying solution of a six-month stay in a hotel.

The following night, I stepped inside the Robinson-Torains’ house for the first time to attend a press conference. In raising the specter of the riots, it seemed Gurevitch had overplayed his hand: James called an emergency court hearing for the family to be held that Wednesday, and promised to investigate the fraud. A small media circus engulfed the family’s living room, an elegant mid-century parlor—stained glass in the entryway, an upright piano with sheet music overlaid with Nubian figurines and Afrocentric art. Sherease and Helen, adept at being on television and visibly rattled by what had happened the day before, huddled under a blanket together in matching pairs of Uggs. The next morning, the family and organizers congregated in the living room again to watch the hastily scheduled hearing on a laptop. The results were inconclusive: The eviction would be stayed for a week, after which there would be another hearing. Sherease and Helen spoke at a rally for supporters gathered in the cold outside. No one knew if the bochurim would come back.

For the Robinson-Torains, it seemed, having a dedicated stoop watch—a rotating cast of visitors bearing snacks and coming in to use the bathroom—was tantamount to a never-ending torrent of houseguests. The young activists who made up the bulk of the watch formed an Occupy-style encampment in the family’s front yard, blasting heat from propane tanks, knitting, and eating the crowdsourced pizza that arrived night after night. Occasional rallies and events served as group activities; one evening, Helen presided over a healing ceremony, leading the crowd in chants of the Yoruba refrain “ashe” and inviting guests to speak about the house. Ali Torain, who now lives in New Jersey, stopped by and related an early childhood memory of Stevie Wonder playing piano in the front parlor before going upstairs for a colonic. “We are building a bit of a life out here, outside the state and outside of the claws of capitalism,” a 20-year-old Brooklyn College student named Ash (who declined to give a last name) told me dreamily when I asked them about their experience of the stoop watch. It was hard not to be a little skeptical about the notion of a life beyond capitalism being built by white kids camping in a Black family’s front yard. But I was also touched to learn that Ash still lived with their parents in the nearby neighborhood of Lefferts Gardens in a home not unlike the one being threatened by Menachem Gurevitch. “I just have a really intense relationship to a house,” they said.

The occupation also held out the possibility of transforming into something else. Around 60 people came to a CHTU meeting held outside 964 Park on another cold night that week. When attendees were asked whether it was their first meeting, about half the hands went up. Newcomers were asked to break into groups and talk about the situations in their own buildings, encouraging the young occupiers to imagine what it would mean to organize with their own neighbors on their own blocks.

Along with keeping up the spirits of the crowd, the Robinson-Torains and tenant leaders spent much of the week trying to tamp down the language of interethnic conflict that had begun to emerge in the press. Local Chabad media amplified Gurevitch’s claim that an antisemitic legal system had caved to the demands of a mob of protesters: A website called CrownHeights.info reported, incorrectly, that 964 Park Place itself housed yeshiva students being blocked by protesters from entering their home. Another Chabadnik site called COLlive described chants about “greedy Jewish landlords” for which no evidence has appeared (and which seem unlikely given the significant number of Jewish tenant activists involved in the eviction defense). “There’s a race riot narrative being told,” Sherease said to the crowd gathered outside her home on Wednesday. “That ain’t us! Let me tell you: Half the people on this stoop are from the Jewish community. That is not who we are, period.” COLlive’s allegations had been picked up by the real estate news website The Real Deal; the headache of dealing with the allegations became a dark joke. At a CHTU meeting held outside the Robinson-Torains’ house that night, someone playfully heckled the facilitator: “Can’t hear you over all the antisemitism!”

“There’s a race riot narrative being told,” Sherease said to the crowd gathered outside her home on Wednesday. “That ain’t us!”

Despite the lack of evidence for organized antisemitism at play in the eviction defense, reports of individual incidents help explain why many Hasidic Jews feel suspicious of the tenant movement. When I spoke with the bochurim outside their dorm, Mauda said he first learned about the situation at 964 Park when he walked out of his building the day the Robinson-Torains reentered their house. He said he encountered protesters who wrongly assumed he was affiliated with Gurevitch, confronting him with chants and cameras. “I had just woken up,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

There was also the matter of Sherease’s Instagram Live video. Filming Gurevitch and other onlookers from inside her house as the bochurim tried to break in, Sherease made reference to “rich Jewish people—men—that have New York City on lockdown” and “own these New York courts.” After conversations with Jewish CHTU and BED members, Sherease took down the video and apologized. But she defended her language in an interview. “It was Jewish kids who were trying to come into our house,” acting with impunity in front of a phalanx of police officers, she told me. In housing court, she said, a judge had scolded her like a child, ordering her not to make facial expressions during a hearing, while acting with cultural familiarity toward Gurevitch and his legal team, asking them, but not the Robinson-Torains, if they needed to schedule court appearances around upcoming holidays. She came to feel the court was run by and for Jews entangled in legal cases there, rather than people like her.

Activists hold a Shabbat service at 964 Park Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, February 18th, 2022.

Victor J. Blue

On Friday, one week after the Robinson-Torains moved back in, tenant activists held a Shabbat service outside their home. Next to me, Rohit Chandan, a CHTU organizer who had never celebrated Shabbat before, learned about Manischewitz from a comrade named Ben Rosenfeld. Ash read an excerpt from the Polish Jewish socialist leader Bernard Goldstein’s memoir Twenty Years in the Jewish Labor Bund about militant Jewish tenant organizing in interwar Warsaw. Sherease sat on the steps, wrapped in a blanket, and filmed. Joel Feingold, a founder of CHTU, reflected later that, while Gurevich had invoked the memory of 1991, it was also possible to see in the conflict shades of 1907—the year a rent strike on the Lower East Side that pitted Jewish tenants against Jewish landlords gave birth to what is generally considered the start of the tenant movement in New York. “The history of the tenant movement in the city is very deeply tied up in class struggle within the Jewish community,” Feingold said. “The stereotype of Jews you often hear is, ‘The Jews really stick together.’ I think the opposite is true. In Jewish New York, the class divisions are sharp.”

After the service, I spoke with Jewish organizers about a strand of uncanny cultural intimacy that made itself felt during the standoff with the bochurim, at which Yiddish insults had been hurled back and forth, and the invocation of Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where a long campaign of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the guise of eviction set off an uprising last year, seemed to be felt on both sides. When the stoop watchers sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved”—“Just like a tree that’s planted by the water / We shall not be moved”—its lyrics’ biblical origins took on a new resonance. When he joined the chorus chanting “Free Palestine,” said BED organizer Holden Taylor, a yeshiva student told him he was from a settlement and confronted him with a story about Arabs killing a Jewish child. Later that afternoon, when they ran into each other down the block, Taylor said, “he invited me to Shabbos.” Like the complicated reality of young activists camping out at the Robinson-Torains’ home, the specter of Israel/Palestine at 964 Park Place underscored the way that fights over homes are always playing out both on the ground and on an imaginary plane: Where will I sleep tonight? and Where do my people belong?

The specter of Israel/Palestine at 964 Park Place underscored the way that fights over homes are always playing out both on the ground and on an imaginary plane: Where will I sleep tonight? and Where do my people belong?

I’ve lived
down the street from the Robinson-Torains since 2016, but we didn’t know each other until the eviction defense last month. This is partly because of the social scattering wrought by gentrification: My block used to have a block association—for which Ida Robinson served as secretary—but hasn’t since around 2005, a decade before I moved to Park Place. But the oldest member of my building’s tenant association, whose family settled on the block along with many other Black families in the 1960s, chuckled when I asked if she knew our neighbors at 964 Park. “I’m an apartment person,” she said.

By throwing in their lot with tenant organizers, the Robinson-Torains stepped across the border that has placed New York homeowners and apartment people in different, sometimes warring camps on the politics of housing. At the policy level, a real estate lobby driven by the interests of corporate landlords has convinced many homeowners “that their class interest is more aligned with multi-billionaires than it is with people who are also struggling,” said Esteban Girón, a CHTU leader. At the height of the Covid pandemic, the tenant movement demanded the cancellation of rent together with the cessation of mortgage payments for struggling homeowners, tracing the contours of a potential alliance among people facing displacement in an emergency regardless of their social status as owners or renters. The alliance appeared ill-fated; in recent months, homeowners’ associations, which represent many small landlords, have locked horns with tenant advocates over proposals like the Good Cause Eviction bill, which would guarantee lease renewals for most tenants and require landlords to justify any sharp rent increases.

The Robinson-Torains’ story suggests a different path. For Sherease and Helen, the impossibility of getting help from the state despite proximity to New York’s Black leadership class felt like a betrayal—and an invitation to seek solidarity elsewhere. “I went to Howard University, just like the vice president, just like the [state] attorney general,” said Sherease. “She needs to look into this. She should be taking this so personal.”

For all Gurevitch’s bluster, the 150 yeshiva boys never materialized; at least this time around, it seemed no one else had much interest in escalated violence. In an interview with The Real Deal during the week of the standoff at 964 Park Place, a spokesperson for Gurevitch spoke ominously about the meaning of the eviction defense. “Landlords need to know [that] if this eviction is not upheld by the NYPD, then eviction in NYC is out the window,” he told the publication. “Tenants are going to know that if they get evicted, they can just break back in. All they have to do is get a tenant’s union on their side and push off the court date.” For organizers trying to direct the tenant movement away from a reliance on state action and toward on-the-ground tenant militancy, this is a welcome sentiment. Indeed, the lasting import of the struggle over 964 Park Place might have less to do with the riot that never happened, and more to do with the extraordinary thing that did: An unusual alliance between vulnerable homeowners and tenant organizers created enough clamor that a court-ordered eviction was actually reversed. On February 28th, the same judge who had initially signed the eviction order declared that the Robinson-Torains can stay in their home until their deed theft case is reviewed again by the state’s Supreme Court.

That evening, Helen Robinson celebrated the news with a traditional Jewish healing ritual: She headed to the Russian and Turkish Baths in the East Village and took a shvitz.

Dylan Saba contributed reporting to this story. Asaf Calderon provided translation support.

Ari M. Brostoff is the senior editor of Jewish Currents.