Leopoldo Colon died in October 2015, but his belongings remained for years inside his abandoned apartment in 66 Steuben Street, Brooklyn, NY. What started as an attempt to reconstruct a dead man’s life, evolved into a project aimed to explore the dark side of NYC’s housing system through the stories of the residents and the buildings of Steuben Street.
The following texts, photos, diary notes and collected objects aim to tell the story of this investigation, which took the form of a book.
In May 2016 I found an abandoned apartment in my friend’s building located in 66 Steuben Street.
The place had belonged to a man named Leopoldo Colon. He had died over a year ago, but his belongings were still inside the apartment.
I became fixated with the idea of reconstructing and understanding a dead man’s life through the objects he had left behind. So I started my investigation by photographing and documenting Leopoldo Colon’s belongings.
The objects that I found provided clues to his story but were ultimately just fragments of his existence. I decided to interview his neighbors. First, I talked to Lucia and Cesar, who had been living in the same block for decades. They told me that Leopoldo Colon grew up with his mom and brother in that same apartment until they moved out when he contracted AIDS in the 90’s.
It was a tragic story, but the neighbors mostly talked about the transformation of their block, their fears of displacement, and the harassment they suffer from the building’s owners, who wanted them out in order to renovate the entire building. It seemed like the finding of this room was opening a window into a larger story, one about the new orders and tensions of Brooklyn’s dramatic urban transformation.
At the time of my visit, there were only three tenants in the six unit building, two of them Latin American immigrants that had been living in the same block since the 70’s and a young woman from Michigan. The two long-time residents had been offered money several times to leave their apartments. The landlords were seeking to renovate the entire building but they weren’t legally allowed to evict them.
So the building remained half abandoned, half renovated.
I got to meet the third tenant of the apartment by complete chance. On the afternoon of October 31st 2016, the Uber pool I was in picked up a second passenger from 66 Steuben street. Her name was McKinsey, had pale skin, short spiky hair, and was wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses on a cloudy day. She had moved in just a few months ago and was working as a bartender in the East Village. She was currently working on a project about strangers she met in Uber pools, like a drag queen or a guy who she ended up having sex with. I told her about my own project and, she agreed to be interviewed and photographed in her apartment.
After our unexpected encounter, I sent her a text asking when a good time to meet would be, but she didn’t respond so I decided to show up in person. But when I knocked on her door she asked me to leave. She didn’t look excited to see me. I sent her another text apologizing for showing up unannounced. McKinsey’s response was very clear.
By January 2017 I decided to expand the project to other buildings from the same block. My goal was to create an archive by gathering more and more stories. Since I needed access to other buildings I started by asking Cesar to introduce me to his friends. But he told me most of them were dead or had moved out of the area because of the rising rents and threats by their landlords, who claimed they would contact the immigration department unless they moved out.
As the access I had to these stories was over, I decided to ring people’s bells and conduct interviews. But the long-time residents didn’t want to talk to me about their landlords so they wouldn’t get in trouble. I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to repeat what I did with 66 Steuben. The rare access I got to the building and the series of moments of synchronicity that allowed me to tell the stories it contained were unrepeatable. In January 2018 I came back to the building and realized it was completely unoccupied and undergoing a full renovation.
The investigation is now closed, yet there are many more chapters in this project, thousands of buildings that contain New York’s stories of displacement.
These objects, some real, some replicas, were found outside or inside buildings in Steuben Street and are testaments of the complexities of NYC’s housing system.