The Thanks He Gets
Landlord to 98-Year-old Veteran: Get Out
I once wrote about a then-homeless nonagenarian war hero. The story got him a rent-free apartment—supposedly forever. But now the landlord is saying uh, we didn’t mean forever.
This eviction will live in infamy.
The landlord is The Black Veterans for Social Justice and on Jan. 4 they will be in Brooklyn Housing Court before Judge Marsha Sikowitz trying to evict James Blakely, a 98-year-old black U.S. Navy veteran of the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—unless he pays rental arrears of $24,130.
Blakely lives with his second wife Bonita in a studio apartment on Bergen Street in Bedford Stuyvesant that he claims was given to him rent free six years ago.
“In December of 1941 I got bombed by the Japanese,” says Blakely, wearing his USS St. Louis hat in his apartment. “This Christmas I’m facing eviction by the Black Veterans for Social Justice. Boy oh boy, what a difference 76 years makes.”
This might all be because the Black Veterans for Social Justice has signed a memorandum of contract to sell the rent-stabilized building to a white Manhattan developer who specializes in snatching up inner-city properties so that Bed Stuy can have more gentrification, even at the expense of a black American hero who survived Pearl Harbor, and who also served in combat aboard three different battleships in World War II in some of the fiercest battles in the Pacific theater.
How did one of the last remaining Pearl Harbor veterans wind up in a war with Black Veterans for Social Justice?
This all started six years ago when I was writing a newspaper column for the New York Daily News and I received an email tip from Phil Napoli, a history professor at Brooklyn College, who had written a wonderful book about Brooklyn Vietnam veterans called Bringing it All Back Home. Napoli told me he had received a tip that an African-American Pearl Harbor survivor was living in a trailer with no running water in a junkyard on Buffalo Ave. in Bedford Stuyvesant.
I drove straight to the junkyard and walked past the crumpled cars, scrap metal, and old appliances to a rusted trailer in the rear where Rev. James Blakely, 92, invited me inside. A biography of Satchel Paige lay on the pillow of his little cot.
Blakely proudly showed me all his military discharge papers, citations from Pearl Harbor, combat medals, and a record of his monthly military pension. Here before me was an American hero living in a junkyard, bathing with cold water from a bucket and a garden hose, reading about Satchel Paige on an avenue named for a symbolic American creature almost as endangered as veterans of Pearl Harbor.
Blakely told me the Cliff Notes of his life that day, how he grew up in Arkansas where one day he stepped on a white man’s foot by accident. “It caused such a ruckus that I had two choices: Get lynched or run away and join the Navy,” he said.
He joined the Navy on Sept. 26, 1939, and wound up on the USS St. Louis, ending up anchored in Pearl Harbor. “Hawaii was a lot better than Arkansas,” Blakely said, adding that Hawaiian girls didn’t care about the color of his skin even if the US Navy relegated all black sailors to segregated kitchen mess duty.
Then on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Blakely was listening to the Ink Spots on the radio singing “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” when sirens wailed and an officer’s command echoed across the ship, “All hands on deck! This is not a drill!”
On deck Blakely saw the Japanese planes roar out of the blue Pacific horizon. “Oh, Lord, they were so loud,” Blakely remembers. “Two bombs hit our ship, but the good Lord didn’t let them explode.” But he saw bombs detonate the USS Arizona in front of his ship, fellow sailors screaming and flying through the smoke and flames.
Blakely served the rest of the war in fierce action across the Pacific Theater on the St. Louis, Relief and Andrew Jackson, receiving Navy combat stars and commendations in Iwo Jima, Lingayen Gulf, Guadalcanal, Coral Sea, Marshall Islands and Luzon, where his body was scorched and scarred by Japanese “chemical smog.”
On Oct. 8, 1945, Blakely received an honorable discharge and a final US Navy paycheck of $87.51. He long-shored on the Brooklyn waterfront, became a janitor at NYU, and bought a house on Green Ave. in Brooklyn with a GI loan, the South Brooklyn Savings Bank holding the $7,000 mortgage for which he paid $51.90 a month. “I lived in that house for fifty-nine-and-a-half years until 2006 when after my wife died. I am ashamed to say my grandson, my own blood, finagled the house from me,” says Blakely.
Blakely lived in his 2006 Mitsubishi for five years until muggers dragged him from it, beating the old vet in a carjacking. It was then that a local junkyard owner moved Blakely into the trailer without plumbing where I found him in 2012 reading about Satchel Paige, who was famous for saying, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
When I met James Blakely he didn’t look back at the vile Jim Crow horrors of Arkansas, the shameful segregation of the US Navy during WWII, the horrific bombing of Pearl Harbor, the unspeakable carnage of WWII in the Pacific, and the betrayal of his own kin. When I met Rev. James Blakely he was a man with an optimistic smile stenciled to his happy face, an infectious laugh, a lifetime of stories and a soulful of gospel songs, a man who believed in hope and the future and America.
I asked him what his hopes were.
“I’d love to have a little place of my own with running water and a stove,” said this veteran who survived a day that lives in infamy to wind up homeless in a junkyard.
I wrote that column, with photos of a smiling James Blakely.
And I was bombarded by readers offering Blakely an RV, an air conditioner, money, invitations to move him into their homes. Some offered affordable apartments. A successful artist offered to auction a painting in his honor. I also received an email from Caryn B. Resnick, Deputy Commissioner, NYC Dept. of the Aging:, “Hi Mr. Hamill: As a result of your story there is a happy ending for Mr. Blakely. Our Case Management team at the Dept for the Aging intervened on his behalf. With the help of one of our contracted Case Management Agencies and the Black Veterans for Justice, he will be moving to Bergen Street, Brooklyn. He will be getting a home-delivered meal starting tomorrow. So far everything is moving very fast for the benefit of this hero.”
I visited Blakely when he jingled his new house keys, dancing across the polished floors. A representative from the Black Veterans for Social Justice was there, saying the apartment would be rent free for life for the 92-year-old vet.
“Boy, oh, boy, give me a home where the buffalo roam,” Blakely said, laughing. “I took a shower this morning and stayed in a long time, making the water hotter and hotter… I had been washing in a five-gallon bucket warmed by the sun. Sometimes I’d strip and hose myself down with cold water outside the trailer. Now I have a shower, a stove, a fridge, an air conditioner, smoke alarm, carbon monoxide alarm, closets, dresser, new bedding. Keys. Boy, oh, boy, it’s been a long time since I had keys to a place of my own.”
It was a beautiful moment, a city and an African American veteran’s organization taking care of a local hero who told me the only other thing he could ever hope for after serving in a segregated navy would be to shake the hand of the first black Commander in Chief, Barack Obama.
That never happened.
But the Black Veterans for Social Justice had extended its helping black hand to a fellow black vet.
I returned to visit Rev. Blakely three years later on his 95th birthday, which he celebrated with his new wife, Bonita, and fellow African-American Pearl Harbor veteran, Clark E. Simmons, 93, who was aboard the USS Utah that terrible December morning. Simmons told me that he and Blakely were two of just five Pearl Harbor survivors left in New York and that they had been united by the Black Veterans for Social Justice.
Simmons has since passed on.
No one mentioned to me that day a single word about Rev. James Blakely being in arrears on his rent. Three years after he moved in, neither he nor his wife, Bonita, a nurse, had been served with any friendly reminders, lawyer letters, or eviction notices.
No landlord ever goes three months, never mind three years, of rent arrears without filing an eviction.
So I was shocked when the Blakelys contacted me recently, saying they were facing eviction by their landlord, The Black Veterans for Justice, who after six years wanted back rent of $24, 130 at $635.00 per month.
“The first notice actually came in Sept. 2016,” says Coco Jolly, Blakely’s attorney from Brooklyn Legal Services. “We made a motion to dismiss, claiming Mr. Blakely had never signed a lease and was told the apartment was rent free. The case was basically postponed until October of 2017.”
In that time attorneys from the law firm of Cohen, Hurkin, Ehrenfeld, Pomerantz and Tennenbaum for Black Veterans for Social Justice submitted a lease to the court which they claim was for $778 a month but which was reduced to $635 because of the change in Blakely’s Veterans Benefits.
Jolly disputes the lease’s validity. “First of all Mr. Blakely says he never signed that lease, and the signature does not look anything like his signature on many other documents we have seen,” says Jolly. “But they claim his rent went down when his income changed. But his veteran’s benefits increased after he was married and his wife’s income also made their income higher so it makes no sense that the rent could go lower to $635. We are claiming that the lease was not made contemporaneous with occupation of the apartment.” In addition, Jolly points out that the lease is for one year and there were never any renewals in six years.
Looks to me like BVSJ figured the old salt would be pushing up daisies in a year. They sure didn’t expect him to last another six years. But James Blakely is made of tough stuff and now he might be a fly in the ointment of the apartment building sale.
It’s up to the judge to determine if the lease passes the smell test.
But the judge will certainly be taking into consideration a Memorandum of Contract dated May 31, 2017 concerning the building, in which Black Veterans for Social Justice agrees to sell the 12 apartment building to Michael Khodadadian, of Silver Rock Equities, LLC., which might as well be called Gentrification Equities LLC.
The Silver Rock website says Michael Khodadadian is the founder and principal at Silverrock Equities LLC. “He specializes in the acquisition of distressed and under-valued investment properties,” the website says. Silver Rock lists rental apartments such as one on E. 59 St., East Flatbush for $1900, Section 8 ok. A building for sale on Chauncey St, in Bushwick, Jackie Gleason’s old Honeymooners block, for $2.4 million.
If Blakely is evicted, rental for his little apartment on Bergen St. will likewise go to the moon.
A call to Khodadadian was not returned. But the head of the black veterans’ group did respond to a request for comment.
“When we first put Rev. Blakely into that apartment in 2012 and furnished it for him, it was a one-year rent free lease,” says Wendy McClinton, president and CEO of Black Veterans for Social Justice, herself a military veteran. “After that Mr. Blakely and his wife signed documents agreeing to pay rent. They have not. We submitted those documents to the courts.”
I was there the day Blakely moved into the apartment and it was my understanding that it was a rent-free apartment, period.
“My husband never signed any documents agreeing to pay rent after that,” says Bonita Blakely. “I certainly never signed anything. If they are saying that, it is just untrue, a lie. Our lawyer showed us the documents they submitted to the court and they do not even come close to matching my husband’s signature. They are fraudulent.“
McClinton also claims that Rev. Blakely has an income of $5,000 a month and is only exploiting his status as a WWII Pearl Harbor veteran to live rent free, adding that other vets of Iraq and Afghanistan including single mothers suffering from PTSD and other ailments do pay rent.When asked if Mr. Blakely’s eviction proceeding filed five years after he moved in had anything to do with the sale of the building to Khodadadian of Silverrock Equities she said, “No, but I can’t comment further on that.”
“If the Black Veterans would drop this crazy arrears demand of $30,000 now and made the repairs we have asked for I would agree to pay rent going forward,” says Bonita Blakely. “Right now we can’t cook or drink the water which runs brown from the tap. The toilet is hanging by a thread. There’s a loose board on the floor that my husband fell over already. They refuse to make repairs. What we need is a one-bedroom apartment with working plumbing and a new lease and then we’ll move from the studio they gave to my husband rent-free and agree to pay rent. Otherwise we will see them in court.”