Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

Talking Point

Living among the enemy in an all-De Sapio building

By Ed Gold

My wife and I were thrilled to find a two-room apartment in the heart of the West Village. We had been married for about six months and had been living in what amounted to a single-room-occupancy hotel in the West 70s where the nights were frequently shattered by much yelling and occasional gunshots. So getting an apartment at 95 Christopher St., on the corner of Bleecker, seemed like a mitzvah, although it turned out to be full of surprises.

Two years after we moved in, I joined the Village campaign for Adlai Stevenson, who was running for the presidency against Dwight Eisenhower. I then discovered that I was living in a building fully dedicated to the local Democratic district leader and the influential head of Tammany Hall, Carmine De Sapio.

The building, as I learned, was home to a large number of De Sapio captains who had run Village politics out of the old-line Tamawa Club on Seventh Ave. for more than two decades.

The 1956 presidential campaign was an eye-opener to Stevenson loyalists, who found the De Sapio captains, poll watchers and election inspectors lukewarm to cold toward Stevenson. They particularly didn’t like Stevenson’s vice presidential running mate, Senator Estes Kefauver, who had made a name for himself as a crime fighter.

Of course, officially Tamawa backed the Democratic slate and I met with the captain in my election district, Rocky Falitico, to discusss a cooperative vote-pulling operation.

He had a very parochial view on the subject. When I suggested we might bring out 600 votes for Stevenson, he balked.

“If we bring that many people, out,” he argued, “they’ll say this district is too large for me and they’ll take away some of my territory.”

We no doubt would have lost the election in any case against a war hero and incumbent, but the Village vote for Stevenson was disappointing. So a group of us decided in early 1957 to form a reform club. One suggestion was Village Democrats but “V.D.” didn’t sound so good, so we chose Village Independent Democrats. (I believe we had about 40 founding members, although hundreds have since claimed to be founders, including one young V.I.D.’er who would have been 11 years old in 1957.)

The trouble for me at 95 Christopher began when I ran for county committee in what was an overwhelming De Sapio election district. The owner of my building, Irving Hartstein, was a longtime De Sapio captain who had been a county committeeman for many years.

He was very upset when he found I was running against him.

“You’re not a very loyal tenant,” he told me, “and I’ll keep that in mind when you come to me for help.”

He asked me to come down to the lobby one day and suggested I examine a wall montage that faced the front door of the building. It was a collection of Village symbols. In the center was the Washington Square Arch. But Hartstein pointed to an area just to the left of the arch. It was a silhouette of a man from the neck up, dark glasses and all; it was Carmine De Sapio!

The dedicated Stevenson supporters in 1957 were young and brave. We rang every Democrat’s doorbell in a house with about 200 apartments, looking for petition signers for Herman Greitzer, who was running against De Sapio for district leader.

Most of the Democrats in the building treated us like traitors. There was lots of door slamming and some not-so-nice language.

Hartstein was both a bully and a liar. He visited people in the building whom he thought might be attracted to Stevenson. He was most effective with working-class single women who occupied many of the smaller apartments. He assured them that De Sapio could tell how they voted, and if they voted the wrong way, forget about that new refrigerator!

There was another side to Hartstein, that of negotiator. One day, in a mellower mood, he approached me and suggested that Greitzer should get out of the race and they would make it worthwhile for him to do so.

Herman Greitzer, then married to Carol Greitzer — who would four years later become district leader and then win election to the City Council — was the purist of all the reformers. He would get upset when membership meetings ended before midnight. He questioned whether teachers should be considered patronage receivers.

In 1961, he led the so-called “hardheads” in the club who opposed running on the same slate with Bob Wagner for mayor after Wagner had broken with De Sapio and had joined forces with Eleanor Roosevelt and Senator Herbert Lehman, who led the city reform forces.

I asked Hartstein what he had in mind for Greitzer. “Carmine can get him a judgeship” was his response. I told him to forget it, that Greitzer was the last person in the world who would accept such an offer.

My wife and I were poll watchers for V.I.D. at P.S. 3, at Hudson and Grove Sts. In two primary campaigns against De Sapio, a neatly dressed man wearing a derby had shown up to vote, claiming he lived at 95 Christopher.

By 1961 I was positive he was a phony. So when he showed up I asked him to sign a stipulation that he was telling the truth about his home address. “If you’re lying, it’s perjury and you could wind up in jail,” I mentioned.

“No one ever questioned my honesty before,” he bristled.

“So sign the stipulation,” I urged. He stood there for a few minutes, red in the face, then turned heel and left the building.

But we could never stop the Meolas, who owned a three-apartment building on Christopher St. and who were said to be in the street-paving business. In every primary I covered, the Meolas would begin arriving in the middle of the afternoon, all husky men, mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s. All told, 17 would show up and claim that modest building as their residence.

I would see De Sapio walking around the Village, tall, well groomed and with a persona that indicated leadership and confidence. But he did show up at P.S. 3 in 1961, the year we beat him, and displayed some temper.

He came over to our polling area to talk to Rose Bernardi, an inspector who doubled as a De Sapio aide. She kept a separate list on De Sapio supporters who hadn’t yet voted. Periodically, colleagues would come by and pick up a pulling list.

De Sapio greeted her and asked what the total vote in our district was at that point. He didn’t like the number. He slammed his fist on her table and suggested a more thorough pulling job was in order.

“Yes, Carmine, I’ll take care of it,” Bernardi replied softly.

Through all the ups and downs, there was one advantage for everyone living at 95 Christopher. After a heavy snow, our roadways and sidewalks were cleaned first. The sanitation commissioner lived in our building.

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