Teamsters Local 237

Recollections of Two NYCHA Superintendents

Thomas Santiago

santiagoI left the battlefields of (Korea) the Forgotten War (1950-1953), came home to the Bronx, got married, and started a family. My first apartment was in a Housing Authority project, Throggs Neck Houses. I was employed in the private sector, but I had no job security or union representation. A friend advised me to take a civil service test. I took a test for caretaker “J” in 1958. The rest is history.

My first assignment was at Edenwald Houses in the Bronx. After my probation period I joined Local 237 Teamsters in order to have organized representation, for better working conditions, and decent wages, to be able to support my family.

I was there from 1958 to ‘68. Edenwald had 2,039 apartments and 41 buildings, from three stories to 14 stories. It sounds funny, but the three-story buildings were harder to clean than the bigger buildings, because the smaller buildings had no elevators. The caretakers had to walk up and down the stairs.

I was a shop steward from ‘65 to ‘68. I got along well with the manager, Mary Burrows, and with the superintendent, Al Gordon (he was killed in a car accident), but I had some skirmishes with them, too. Time and attendance was a big problem. I did a lot of negotiating about things like guys going off the premises to get a sandwich, but usually we settled these things among ourselves.

My responsibilities went way beyond what a caretaker normally does. It was great training. I ran the supply room, ordered supplies, did move-outs, replaced key cylinders, worked with heating equipment. I checked apartments, making sure everything was in place, that windows and doors worked. I was responsible for issuing the master keys to the maintenance men. If anyone lost a master key, we would have to replace the keys to all 2,039 apartments. And whoever lost it would lose their job. I never heard of any master keys being lost in my ten years at Edenwald. . . . I met my wife, Vivian. She was a secretary at Baychester Houses.

At the time, there was no career ladder for caretakers. It was a locked-in title. They couldn’t take the maintenance test. If it were not for 237, who knows what would have happened?

In 1968 Local 237 negotiated with the Housing Authority to get training for the caretakers, so we could climb the ladder of success. It was called the Modernization Division. I was in the first class. It was on-the-job training. We traveled to projects all over the city, putting in stoves, fixing up apartments. The instructors were Housing superintendents.

After four years we were eligible to take the civil service citywide maintenance exam. I came in Number One. As a veteran I was entitled to extra points on the civil service exam, but I didn’t need them. I used them later for the assistant superintendent exam. Once you had the citywide maintenance title, you could work anywhere—schools, Police Department, Sanitation, anywhere. I chose housing because I had the background, it’s where I got all my training.

If not for 237 we wouldn’t have gotten the chance to become maintenance workers. It’s how I was able to become a superintendent.

I was assigned as a resident maintenance man, a “turnkey,” to two six-story buildings with 110 apartments each in the Bronx. The buildings weren’t part of projects. ­The federal government had these buildings throughout the city. I lived in and took care of a senior citizens building at 1020 College Avenue at 165th Street and also took care of 1100 Teller Avenue at 167th Street, which was mixed. The senior citizen building was a nice building, with its own community center. I got along well with them. People have to be able to trust you, because you have to go into their apartments, sometimes when they aren’t home. . . .

Things got rough in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the drug scene got big. Once, someone took a couple of BB shots at me. Another time I got called at 2 in the morning to go to check the elevators­­—­­there was an emergency. I had a dog, Gimlet. He was my partner, my Number One dog! Gimlet could smell drugs. I would stand on the landing and send Gimlet up. If he stopped and growled, I knew something was wrong. . . .

I went to Management and Planning at 250 Broadway in the early ‘80s, when I was an assistant superintendent. Then a group of supers were fired or demoted because of a scandal involving contracts, and people in the central office were sent into the field to replace them.

I went to Twin Parks West off Webster Avenue in the Bronx. I was superintendent there at the time of that famous shootout between the sniper and the police in 1985. I brought the blueprints to locate the apartment the sniper was in, nearby entrances, and so on. It was deadly. I got commendations from Poppolizio, the chair of the Housing Authority, and from the Police Department.

I retired in 1986, at age 56. I spent 29 years, nine months at the Housing Authority, and I enjoyed it.

Leon Siegel

As I look back over forty years ago (1961), my employment with the Authority and with the union was an uplifting one, and a turning point of my life. Anyone who chooses to dispute my statements will have me most happy to debate the issue.

Prior to employment with the Authority I was employed as a carpenter-cabinetmaker with one of the city’s largest Millwood firms, for over 12 years. Then perceptibly, little by little. the company started downhill. 1961 was a horrific business year. Orders were dropping off rapidly. New business seemed virtually impossible to obtain. Little by little this vicious cycle persisted. Finally the company closed doors and I was unemployed.

After 12 years, no leads, contacts, I was becoming quite despondent. All my efforts to find a new situation were futile. Finally my wife spoke up. “Why don’t you have a look at the Housing Authority? You passed that exam some time ago. Perhaps they may have encouraging news to offer.”

I did. To my surprise I was on a list with anticipation of being called almost from day to day. The job offer from the Authority came as anticipated. “Maintenance Man.” However, I took the job with some trepidation. The pay was considerably less than my previous employment

However, my wife persisted: “Inasmuch as you are unemployed, a job is better than no job at all.” I finally conceded to her logic and within two weeks went to work for the Housing Authority.

In the following years I ran a gamut of Housing complexes: “Sites,” city-owned property where services had to be maintained until a determination was made; Amsterdam Houses, Pink, Albany, Gowanus followed.

In the interim, numerous changes were made and being made by Local 237. Their persistent effort brought about better conditions and a wage parity almost equal to outside labor.

I must also commend the Authority for their helpful attitude towards employees. All employees who have the pride and determination could avail themselves of special courses given by the Authority to assist them in their efforts for advancement. I, speaking for myself, am extremely grateful to the Authority for the courses. They definitely are a stepping stone to attain promotional status.

I was appointed Assistant Superintendent in 1975. As assistant super I served in Red Hook Houses. Two years later, in Gowanus Houses, as assistant and acting superintendent. I retired while at Vladeck Houses in 1980, with almost 20 years of service.

Let me reiterate once more: The New York City Housing Authority, in conjunction with Teamsters Union Local 237, have been two major influences of my life.

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