Squat spirals into new flap with unpermitted stairs

Photo by Jefferson Siegel The squat at 544 E. 13th St. is lagging far behind in the process of being converted to an affordable co-op.
Photos by Jefferson Siegel
The squat at 544 E. 13th St. is lagging far behind in the process of being converted to an affordable co-op.

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Rosario Dawson was famously discovered, at age 15, on her stoop at the squat at 544 E. 13th St., landing her a role in the film “Kids” and launching her acting career.

Since then, Dawson’s star has steadily continued to rise, and she was recently seen in the psycho-thriller “Trance.”

But the building where she grew up today lags far behind a group of other former East Village squats that have been undergoing conversion into permanently affordable co-ops.

In a 2002 deal, the city sold 11 squats for $1 each to the squatters, under a deal brokered by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. Many of these former squats have already completed the renovation and conversion process or are well on their way to doing so.

But at 544 E. 13th St., it seems that renovations have barely started.

There have been accusations of harassment and theft of utility services at the building, whose occupants are divided into two factions. On one side, controlling half the building’s units, are the Dawson family, their friends and allies, led by Rosario’s mother, Isabel Celeste. On the other side are the rest of the building’s tenants, who are hoping that the building’s conversion to an affordable co-op will someday be completed, and that services that have been nonexistent at times — including heat, gas and hot water — will be restored. The gas has reportedly been cut off since September. Tenants use hot plates to cook and to heat up water for bathing, and electrical space heaters in the winter to keep warm.

Things came to a head this past week when Celeste, without permits, reportedly drilled through the floor of her ground-floor apartment and then installed a metal spiral staircase down to the basement, in order to create a duplex for herself. She had recently evicted a tenant from the basement unit who was paying her rent, according to tenants. Over the weekend, several tenants reportedly saw the staircase through the window of the basement, where the light had been left on.


Photo by Jefferson Siegel
The squat’s first-floor lobby is cluttered with all manner of old furniture and other stuff in front of Isabel Celeste’s apartment door.


As a result of complaints about the unpermitted work and vibrations through the building, on Thurs., May 30, Buildings Department inspectors and firefighters arrived and conducted a full inspection of the six-story tenement. It was determined that the rear external fire escape was not securely attached, causing a partial vacate order to be issued, for all the units in the building’s rear. Also, firefighters removed a leaning parapet on an unused elevator shaft, feeling it also posed a danger.

D.O.B. ultimately issued a stop-work order for the entire building, which was still in effect as of press time.

The Villager toured the building about a month ago, led by one of the tenants. The lobby was cluttered with discarded furniture and other junk, and a pile of bicycles were jammed in the bottom of an air shaft.

The Villager has spoken to a handful of tenants, all of whom said they did not want their names printed because they fear reprisals. Celeste is physically imposing, and is frequently described in the tabloids as “Amazonian.”

It’s said that shortly after the deal with the city, Celeste chased out a worker who was in the hallway trying to install an electrical conduit as part of the process of bringing the building up to code.

Recently there was talk that UHAB was so frustrated with the state of the building that it would make it an affordable rental, and scrap the plan to make it an affordable co-op.

Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Rosario Dawson’s apartment at 544 E. 13th St. is the one with the purple door. She returns to the building from time to time. She was recently dating film director Danny Boyle, who was also seen at the building a few times, including during Hurricane Sandy. But Dawson and Boyle reportedly recently broke up.


In a telephone interview several weeks ago, asked about the situation at the building, Marina Metalios, a UHAB organizer, initially said, “UHAB has no comment.” However, she eventually said, “UHAB will work with [544] 13th St. to become a co-op. … We would need to work with a functioning resident group there. We’ll work with them to become a co-op, that’s what we do.”

The Villager called Isabel Celeste at around the same time.

“I’ve been here 27 years, and I raised my kids here,” she said. “People malign me because my daughter is a celebrity and they think that her paycheck is mine. Rosario is my kid and she was raised in this building, so we can’t be as horrible as people make us out to be.”

Celeste also noted she does a lot of nonprofit work around the world, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Ghana.

“I live a life of service,” she said, adding, “I’m not what you would call your run-of-the-mill Boricua goddess.”

As for whether she and her family members have been taking over apartments in the building, she said, “That’s gossip,” adding, “Ask others what have they done in the past — sweat equity. Anytime any work gets done is when I’m here.”

Two or three times during the conversation, Celeste burst into song, including a tune she said she learned at an amputee clinic in Sierra Leone, “Oh, oh, me love, my life — today!”

“That’s my mantra,” she said of the African tune.


Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Bicycles and chairs are piled into the bottom of an air shaft at 544 E. 13th St. There is another collection of a dozen or more bicycles in a pile on the rooftop.

She also said she has turned over a new leaf, and is not the former Isabel Celeste that people may have known.

“I have not misbehaved for like a decade, not really-eeely misbehaved,” she said.

In fact, she said, she prays daily for everyone in the building, including her “nemeses,” as she put it.

“Everyone has a history, but my daughter is a celebrity or nobody would care about me,” she reflected.

At another point, she said, “I’m taking everybody upward with me, upward into the light. … I’ve forgiven them,” she said of her critics.

But at another point, she indicated she’s tired of their complaining.

“You live in the building, but don’t help or work,” she said, before launching into an inspired verse of “Cry me a river!”

It’s easy to see where Rosario gets her dynamic talent.

She didn’t really want to get into details about the litany of charges and countercharges.

“Just Google it, dude,” she said. “It’s all out there, it’s been written about.”

When The Villager went by the building this past Tuesday, a young, heavily tattooed man having a beer on the stoop said Celeste was inside sleeping in her first-floor apartment and they had been told they had to be quiet.

The Villager phoned a bit later and Celeste answered, sounding hoarse and saying she had a cold.

“Things are fine as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “We’re going to get permits, we’re going to be working on the building, because the building needs it. I’m excited about it.”

But when asked about the hole she had reportedly drilled in the floor and the spiral staircase, the conversation quickly ended.

“O.K.,” she said, “you know what? Good bye,” and hung up the phone.

A bit later on, a tenant reported seeing her through the basement window, sitting in a chair and looking at the spiral staircase.

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