UNREPRESENTED MAN - Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan

Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)


WE ARE FOREVER complimenting the so-called Great Men, forever scrutinizing their glory-gaining actions, the endeavors that light w up the past like torches in a great hall. In "Representative Men," Emerson writes: "Nature seems to exist for the excellent. The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and nutritious. Life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in such society; and, actually or ideally, we manage to live with superiors. We call our children and our lands by their names. Their names are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them." It is likewise that the nature in which rats exist calls to mind those lives that are not recalled and honored, whose careers are not reexamined in histories—the lives that seem to be unnatural and even ratty or at least low-down but are not, actually. For isn't it the case that the life that exists in the sulfurous swamp, in the stink-laden dreck at the bottom of a bog, is as fertile as that in the alpine waterfall, if not more so, even if it is less classically picturesque? When we look at rats, we are thus compelled to look at the history of the lives in their midst, to search for the Unrepresented Men. To quote Emerson yet again: "Each man is by secret liking connected with some district of nature, whose agent and interpreter he is; as Linnaeus, of plants; Huber, of bees; Fries, of lichens; Van Mons, of pears; Dalton, of atomic forms; Euclid, of lines; Newton, of fluxions." So it is that Jesse Gray is, in my rat-interested mind, the agent and interpreter of rats. Jesse Gray was a tenant organizer in Harlem in the early sixties who screamed and scratched and hissed at the people in charge of the city but didn't really have much luck until he used rats.

Jesse Gray was not tall but he looked a lot bigger than he was, especially in the winter, when he was always bundled up in layers and running from a picket line outside of City Hall or outside the police department or else stopping by the home of someone who had no heat. If you knocked on his door and the assistant answered and you said, "Mr. Gray?" the assistant would reply, "No, I'm Mr. Brown." People described him as nervous or agitated, as "a formidable bundle of energy," in one reporter's words. His distinguishing characteristics included a small mustache and two large bucketeeth, which jutted out when he flashed the wry smile that was indicative of a sarcastic sense of humor. Once, after he was found guilty of obstructing the police as they attempted to evict a family from a rat-infested apartment, a newspaper reporter asked if the jail sentence would curtail his operations on behalf of renters. His face lit up and he smiled his big, toothy grin. "Rather, it will serve to increase them," he said.

Gray was born in Tunica, Louisiana, a little town sixty miles up the Mississippi from Baton Rouge, one of ten children. He attended college on and off for a few years, then worked variously as a merchant marine, a short-order cook, a waiter, and a tailor. In New York, he worked on the docks for a while. "My real school was the waterfront and the union," he used to say. In the winter of 1952, when his heat went out in the Harlem apartment where he was living with his wife and children, he joined a tenant organization, called the Harlem Tenants Council. Asked about his inspiration for organizing people on behalf of their rights as citizens, he said, "I was cold."

For years, Jesse Gray worked out of an office on 117th Street, a neat and sparsely decorated little hole-in-the-wall that was just off Fifth Avenue in Harlem. The history of Harlem is, like that of many New York neighborhoods, the history of migrations and change, and one way to sum it up would be like this: Harlem was first settled by Dutch farmers, who named it Nieuw Haarlem and prized it for its remoteness. When the farmland failed in the 1880s, the Dutch were replaced by Irish squatters, who, when brownstones were built, were replaced by European Jews looking to escape the crowds of the Lower East Side, who, in the 1920s, moved to the Upper West Side to escape the overcrowding in Harlem, where they were replaced by African-Americans, who found less racism in the neighborhood than in other parts of the city and also cheap housing. Harlem grew to be a cultural capital, until, first, the Depression destroyed its economy, and then, problems such as heroin addiction ravaged its inhabitants, so that eventually 117th Street, like the bulk of the streets in Harlem, was in decay. Jesse Gray's office was once described as "a tiny oasis of order and cleanliness in one of the most appallingly filthy blocks of Harlem."

Staffed by scores of volunteers, Gray's operation was continually on the verge of bankruptcy. He worked for ten years, agitating relentlessly against landlords without much success, the big problem being lack of sufficient confidence amongst the renters to undertake rent strikes—people were afraid to ignore the eviction notices. In 1959, Gray organized a small rent strike that failed. Then, in 1963, Gray organized the first rent strike utilizing rats. This time renters in 250 buildings went on strike, in an area bounded by 118th Street and 125th Street and Park and Eighth Avenues—thirteen thousand people who were "outraged by their own misery," as Ebony magazine wrote. Photographs of the buildings on strike showed ramshackle apartments with hole-riddled windows that often did not close, with caved-in ceilings, with walls shedding plaster. A portrait of a family in Ebony showed a group of children huddled under blankets during the day, seeking shelter from the winter wind in their bedroom; tenants described heatless, cockroach- filled conditions. During this second strike, Gray allied with local church officials, with labor leaders, with Harlem politicians—he organized the ghetto. "Bring a rat to court!" Gray told the tenants. They had ample opportunity to do so. According to Health Department statistics, one half of the housing in Harlem was rat-infested.

People brought dead rats and live rats. People dangled rats by their tails for the newspaper photographers; people displayed rats spread out on newspapers, like fresh fish they'd bought at market. People wore rubber rats pinned to their jackets. People testified about rats. "The rats are part of our family," one woman said. "I've seen kids try to pet them," said another. Tenants brought rats to civil court and they brought them to City Hall.*

Gray's second attempt was helped by that fact that the black community in Harlem was emboldened by the recent gains of the civil rights movement in the South, as was Jesse Gray. And this time when he asked the rent strikers to ignore the eviction notices, they did. "Our most important aim is to give the people a consciousness of their rights," he said. "Then landlords will wake up downtown and come uptown and see what is happening." Gray equated the tenants to Rattus norvegicus—and it is one of a very small number of pro-rat comments I know of in the annals of New York City history. "The tenants are like rats now," he said. "Rats feel their power, and they come out in broad daylight and just sit there. Once the tenants feel their power, they stop running, they're not afraid anymore. We've shown them—and they see now—that they have rights whether they live on Park Avenue or Lenox Avenue."

As the winter went on, the strike doubled in size. Gray and the volunteers of the Community Council urged the city to take over the dilapidated buildings. Gray called for "a mass rehabilitation of the ghettos." The courts sided with the rent strike; a judge ordered repairs. To this day, it's the largest rent strike the city has ever seen. In January of 1964, the strike spread from Harlem to the Bronx and the Lower East Side, including Hispanic neighborhoods. Now, at protest rallies, the signs that said NO RENT FOR RATS and FREEDOM NOW and JAIL THE SLUMLORDS were accompanied by signs that said LAS RAT AS. Newspapers reported on rat bites that would not have been deemed newsworthy before the strike. "The rat seemed afraid of no one," said the mother of a five-year-old boy who was bitten on the face, a day after their building had joined the rent strike. (The landlord in that case responded, "What can I say? These things happen.") At a rat-oriented rent strike rally, Gray shouted, "Rats are eating up this community. We want emancipation now from rotten landlords!"

Gray and the Community Council held planning sessions in the crowded community centers and sometimes in jails: a photograph taken at the time shows Gray in a tattered suit and tie in a jail cell with his similarly attired colleagues surrounded by benches full of drowsy men. Then, Gray and his colleagues raced out to apartments, to keep the rent strikers from being evicted—with shouts, with court documents, with barricades, with hurried heaps of worn-out furniture. One day in January 1964, Gray was at the apartment of a man named Luther Brown on West 118th Street. Gray was with some students from City College and a few members of the Northern Student Alliance—that people were forced to live amongst rats was seen as an injustice worth fighting for by student activists at the time. In the hallway of the apartment, there was a scuffle with some city marshals when Gray and his entourage would not leave the apartment. Everyone was arrested—Gray was always scrapping with the police and with City Marshal Henry Lazarus. "The tenant had no knowledge of the impending eviction," Gray said, as he was led in handcuffs down the narrow, rickety steps. "The police department reacts with great speed to uphold the law for the slumlords. We ask them to show the same speed in arresting the slumlords and protecting the people."

After being booked at the West 123rd Street precinct, Gray was taken to Harlem Hospital where he was examined for injuries resulting from a police officer's foot in the back. The family was evicted. Homer Bigart, the Times correspondent who became famous covering the Vietnam War a few years later, covered Marshal Lazarus as he broke open the door of apartment 4E with a crowbar—and it seems appropriate that a future war correspondent was on hand in a rat-pit-like Harlem apartment. "Mr. Brown and some friends retreated to an inner room, throwing up successive barricades of furniture to stall the eviction," Bigart wrote. "After the City Marshal and his men had removed the furniture from the apartment, Laura Brown and her five children, who share the place with her brother, Luther, re-entered to salvage any remnants of the household. They found only a bassinet and a broken mirror."

WE KNOW WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON dined when he was in New York, in addition to where he slept, as he just barely stayed alive against the British, or we think we know—even the lore of Representative Men is murky. And then there are the lives—lives that are, though not George Washington's, perhaps in some crucial way just as historic—whose record, if it exists at all, evaporates and fades, even now, as garbage putrefies and is dispersed through the city by the tread of shoe, the ruts of a radial tire. So Jesse Gray and the rent strikers have faded—even though the rent strike worked.

The city passed a $1 million rat extermination bill because of the rent strike, for example, and financed the repairs on dozens of buildings; in the summer of 1964 only 60 or 70 of the 325 apartment buildings originally on strike were still striking. At a press conference with a deputy buildings commissioner, Gray said he was "well satisfied," though there were still buildings he hoped the city would take over from the landlords. "It's not enough," he said. In 1967, Jesse Gray brought a rat in a cage to Congress, where Southern Democrats ridiculed a federal rat control bill, calling for a less expensive release of cats in urban areas, predicting a "federal ratocracy." As Gray's group was arrested, they chanted, "Rats cause riots. We don't need a riot bill. We need a rat bill." President Johnson secured $40 million in extermination funds. Later on, in 1971, President Nixon proposed cutting federal rat control funding, but reinstated the money, in 1972, after being criticized for the way he dealt with rats.

An even less visible but more significant result of Gray's rat strike was the way in which Gray's grassroots group energized grassroots groups like it all over the city, and possibly the U.S.—one historian wrote that Gray's strike helped spawn the National Tenants' Organization, in 1969. It was the time in America when urban renewal was paving over old neighborhoods in New York in the name of progress and relocating them for the sake of highways, for sterile planned cities that were like laboratory cities, not at all wild. The chief formulator of urban renewal in New York and, because of his influence, in cities all over America was Robert Moses, the city's master builder. Most historians argue that Robert Moses and his destructive policies were finally halted by a liberal elite—groups of upper-middle-class homeowners who organized in Greenwich Village, for instance—but some people say it was the power of the tenants movement that stopped Robert Moses. "It is not too much to say that these sometimes lonely activists … shaped the awareness of the dignity and integrity of neighborhoods that would become the most significant ingredient of the community-power movement of the 1960s," wrote Joel Schwartz in a history of the tenants movements. "The tenants forlorn protests … helped mold the sense of injustice that would eventually change the course of urban redevelopment in New York and across the nation."

People who liked Jesse Gray liked him for stirring things up. People who did not like him thought he was just stirring things up. During the rent strike, Gray was continually harassed by the police, and he harassed the police back. He led strikes on police headquarters, at one point calling for the resignation of the police commissioner, Michael J. Murphy, who Gray deemed "a servant of the slumlords." Murphy, in turn, accused Gray of creating "an atmosphere of violence." This charge went back and forth, and at one point, Malcolm X, who was attending Gray's rent strike rallies now, argued that he thought the police wanted Harlem residents to resort to violence. "Then they'll be free to put clubs to the side of your head," Malcolm X said. That summer, when a boy was shot by a police officer, there was rioting in Harlem. Gray spoke at a rally at a Mount Morris church on 122nd Street. The theme was "Is Harlem Mississippi?" and when he spoke, Gray, wearing a bandage on his head, said that police had beaten him. "There is only one thing that can correct the situation, and that's guerrilla warfare," he said from the pulpit. He was quoted as calling for "one hundred skilled black revolutionaries who are ready to die." Another less riotous gathering was held at another church down the street, where the aunt of the boy who was shot was in tears and describing how the boy had defended himself against gunfire with the lid of a garbage can.

The next night there was a riot in Harlem. When accused of starting the riot, Jesse Gray testified that he had been, in his words, "trying to finish a document on European history." The city got a court order against any demonstrations by Gray above 110th Street. He held a rally at 109th Street. "It's the landlords who should be enjoined from operating in Harlem, not us," he said. He talked of fearing for his life. He quoted police officers as saying, "There's Jesse Gray, let's get him." After the riot, Mayor Wagner asked Martin Luther King to visit New York. King advised the city on civil rights. A few years later, the police department formed its first civilian review commission.

The rent strike marked Jesse Gray's heyday. After protesting with rats, he faded in and out of politics. He ran for mayor and dropped out after accusations that he had faked his petition signatures—a long list of names in alphabetical order, all allegedly witnessed by Jesse Gray. In 1970, he ran for Congress, arguing, "The money from five days in Vietnam could rebuild Harlem." His campaign slogan was "Nobody is behind Jesse Gray except the people." He lost. He won a state Assembly seat in 1972 and lost it in 1974. He was in the news and nearly sent to jail when his wife said he was not paying child support. He was accused of being a Communist, even though he probably wasn't. And he was accused of distributing anti-Semitic literature, which he did. His son, Jesse Junior was arrested on several occasions for selling drugs and finally sent to prison as a heroin dealer. Gray was quoted in 1977 as saying that he had not dropped out of the civil rights movement and that his silence should "not be misinterpreted as sleeping." Shortly thereafter, he went into a coma, which lasted for several years until his death, on January 2, 1982, in the Bronx. I don't know how he died, but I know that at the time tuberculosis, cancer, and diabetes were epidemic in Harlem. In 1990, the New England journal of Medicine reported that men in Harlem had a shorter life expectancy than men in Bangladesh. A study in 2003, even after rapid gentrification had transformed parts of the neighborhood, indicated that one out of every four children in Harlem had asthma.

Once, I trailed off through Harlem, along streets I'd never been on before, looking for Jesse Gray's old headquarters or anyone who might remember him. I walked with a pace enthused by the knowledge of this rat-affiliated man, seeing the usual telltale signs of rats that I now see on all my walks everywhere in the city since spending time in the alley, but now also seeing the ghosts of rent strikers, of ancient community activists, of renters rising against rats. I walked down 125th Street, still the Main Street of Harlem, where some empty lots have evidence of rat infestation and some lots have brand-new national chain stores, and where one lot was surrounded by a wooden wall decorated with quotes from famous black Americans, such as Malcolm X: "Armed with the knowledge of our past, we can chart a course for our future. Only by knowing where we've been can we know where we are and look to where we want to go." Gray's rent strike headquarters had been demolished; like a lot of Harlem, the neighborhood is full of new housing now, some of it affordable for the people who live there, some not. I asked some people on the corner about Jesse Gray, an older couple. The man couldn't remember; the woman squinted her eyes. "I didn't know him personally, you see, but I understand that people spoke highly of him," she said. Then I saw a guy sitting on a beat-up old chair and leaning against a fence, right across from where Gray's old building had been. He was talking to himself and I wasn't sure if I should bother him, but I took a chance and said hello. As it happened, the guy remembered Jesse Gray and he remembered Jesse Gray's old building—he'd been in the neighborhood for decades. "Man, there's a lot of history in that spot right there, I'll tell you, that's for sure," he said.

* My father used to own a printing shop down near the South Street Seaport on a part of Pearl Street that is no longer there, and months after I had begun researching Jesse Gray and his rent strikes, I learned that my mother had been walking to my father's print shop one morning when she passed a rent strike demonstration at City Hall. She had no idea what the demonstration was about until she got caught up in it. The police began rounding people into paddy wagons. The next thing she knew she was being arrested, though the police released her when she explained that she was just on her way to work. She also told them she was pregnant. In fact, she was pregnant with me. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to hear that I was once sort of arrested during a Jesse Gray rent strike demonstration.