March 20th, 2017
By Tom Robbins
So many people do a good job of writing about this city that at any given moment there are hundreds of them at the big daily papers, scores of weeklies, magazines, and now Web sites, all hard at work, excavating and deciphering news. The best do it with heart, leaning into the story with the same determination as a late-inning relief pitcher.
For 40 years, however, James Breslin has been the standout player in this league, bar none. Breslin himself will gladly tell you this, but the record is there and, as he would say, you can look it up: In November 1963 he famously interviewed the men digging JFK’s grave; in the ’70s he found the heroes of Watergate and publicly corresponded with the Son of Sam; in the ’80s he helped bring the house crashing down on the municipal corruption schemes of his pals on Queens Boulevard. In the ’90s he filed a column by telephone, commas and paragraphs in place, after being beaten in Crown Heights during a riot. Yet he refused to let this sour him. When so many others were silent, he kept up a drumbeat against the anti-poor and anti-minority attitudes at Rudy Giuliani’s City Hall.
He won a Pulitzer along the way, but the greatest tribute was the full-page ads the patrolmen’s union bought in his own newspaper to protest his relentless columns on police misbehavior.
That was over a decade ago. He is 72 now and has lost nothing off his fastball. Today, he is still climbing stairs for stories and still writing the city’s sharpest words. “There were four of them together, bees from the hive, and the sodomy never would have been if they had not been together,” he wrote this month of the cops freed by the appeals court decision in the Abner Louima case. Of Cardinal Egan’s silence about priestly crimes, he wrote this week: “The man betrayed Catholics, and the Irish, and he puts on his red hat.”
The secret of this success is not the bluster and the blarney or the Irish newspaperman act that so easily lends itself to poseurs. It is instead a rock-hard sympathy with people of all colors in pursuit of simple things: job, love, school, home. Combined with a sense of history, a sense of humor, and an angry impatience with those swollen with power and self-importance, this has made him the city’s steadiest and most accurate chronicler.
So it was that when news came to him on November 23, 1999, while at the offices of his employer, Newsday, that a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had collapsed, injuring many immigrant Mexican workers and killing at least one, Breslin immediately took himself to the scene.
“I said, ‘That’s my music they’re playing. I know this novel, it is one of the best ever done,’ ” he said recently of that moment. The novel was Christ in Concrete, a book written in 1939 by an Italian immigrant named Pietro DiDonato. It is about a struggling family on the Lower East Side whose patriarch, working as a laborer, is drowned in wet cement during a building collapse.
This, it turned out, was precisely what happened to Tomás Eduardo Daniel Gutiérrez, 21, who had traveled through deserts, tunnels, and swollen rivers from Mexico to work as casual labor on the construction of buildings in Brooklyn.
His death there was both hideous and predictable. In the days before the collapse, Breslin reports in his new book about the episode, The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez, the workers spotted tiny cracks in the beams and felt the floors give as they walked. They said nothing, however, because they were illegal and feared deportation and the loss of $7 an hour more than the danger.
“There was no swaying or quivering. No time even for a warning gasp from somebody,” writes Breslin of the incident. “An instant, a shrug of concrete and metal, and the floor under Eduardo went. Down Eduardo went, so quickly that he made no sound. . . . The third floor fell into the second floor and the second fell into the first and everything fell into the basement. The rear wall blew out, as did a wall that was supposed to be tied to the building. There was a cascade of cinder blocks and metal. What were supposed to be metal beams holding up the floors were as strong as aluminum foil. Eduardo fell face first into three feet of concrete on the basement floor and drowned.”
It was a big story in the city for a few days. Newspaper city desks became briefly fascinated by the throngs of street corner immigrants who provide so much of the city’s low-wage labor, far from the attention of government watchdogs and union safety specialists. There was also much political buzz because the collapse had occurred in a Hasidic neighborhood where developers were often accused of breaking city safety and building codes but were perceived as insulated from prosecution because of their close ties to Giuliani’s administration.
Breslin, however, did not let go. Weeks after the collapse he could be found on a Sunday, shuffling through the empty Williamsburg streets, notebook in hand, asking questions of the immigrants from Mexico, South America, and South Asia at work on the new housing developments there.
He followed Gutiérrez’s casket back to his village, San Matías Cuatchatyotla, a place of “dust, with children leaning against walls and young mothers standing aimlessly on street corners holding staring babies.”
There was a mariachi singer at the funeral, he reports. Nine young women, Eduardo’s friends, carried the heavy casket, swaying as they moved. “Sway forward on the left leg, sway back on the right foot, sway forward, sway back, sway, sway, sway, dance the young man to his grave.”
Gutiérrez was a shy man, neighbors and family members told Breslin, so shy that it took him months to work up the nerve to address the young girl he loved. Within a year, however, both were gone from the village, headed north looking for work, part of a million-strong army that crosses the border every year in search of jobs.
Their story is part of the great migration that has brought some 275,000 Mexicans to New York. “These people who want to work, who want to scrub floors and clean pots . . . or show up every day in the grimmest of factory jobs, or wash dishes in coffee shops—or work construction for low wages on jobs on which white union members are paid five times as much,” writes Breslin.
Gutiérrez’s girlfriend, Silvia Tecpoyotti, waded across the Rio Grande, sneakers and suitcase held high above her head. In the desert she found herself caught between a rattlesnake “thick as a fuel hose” and the Border Patrol. Surviving these perils, she was welcomed with open arms at an Olive Garden restaurant in College Station, Texas, where she earned the astonishing salary of $420 a week making soup.
Gutiérrez called her there to say he too was doing well, working construction in Brooklyn. He was living, 10 to a room, in an apartment in Brighton Beach with other young Mexican men, sleeping on thin pads and pillows and racing each other to use the single bathroom each morning. From the subway, Gutiérrez would run to his job on Middleton Street, where he was helping put up new four-story buildings. He also told her the buildings “seemed shaky to him . . . dangerous,” Breslin writes.
This wasn’t surprising. Gutiérrez’s employer, a Hasidic builder named Eugene Ostreicher, had been cited several times by authorities for construction problems, Breslin learned. The state attorney general accused him of selling shabbily built condos to Orthodox residents. An engineer called them “the worst constructed buildings I have seen in 10 years.” A fire chief, Charles Blaich, wrote to the city’s Buildings Department complaining about other shoddy construction by Ostreicher. The letters went unanswered.
Buildings Department officials told Breslin this was because anytime they delayed or blocked building permits for the Hasidic community, City Hall accused them of “obstructing commerce.” The message was relayed directly from Giuliani’s chief of staff, Bruce Teitelbaum, who served as liaison to the Orthodox community, Breslin writes.
Ostreicher’s son Chaim, or Richie the Rabbi, as he called himself, managed the construction site. The son was a police buff who had a gold police detective’s badge someone had given him, which he flashed at least once at Fire Department officials who shut down his building for safety reasons. At his wedding banquet in 1998, he listed Teitelbaum, then-police commissioner Howard Safir, and other police bigs as guests. Chaim Ostreicher later fled to Belgium; the father eventually pled guilty to lying to a federal safety inspector. A $1 million fine was assessed, but no one went to jail.
Abuse of office, greedy builders, a growing army of easily victimized immigrants: All of these elements came to a head in the mangled construction of 50 Middleton Street and the death of Eduardo Gutiérrez. It says as much about life in the late 1990s as the many odes to “quality of life” written in praise of Giuliani by so many others. Its telling is one more debt the city owes to Breslin, who keeps track of these things for us.