The Changing Faces of New York City, as Seen Through One Tribeca Building

Malcah Zeldis, moved into building in 1975; artist
Malcah Zeldis, an artist, moved into the building in 1975.

Susan Rosenberg Jones

In 1984, when Susan Rosenberg Jones moved into a one-bedroom New York City apartment in Tribeca, her rent was roughly $700 a month.

Usually, that line is great at cocktail parties, with a mention of either having been fortunate to find a great deal or a melancholic reminder that things have vastly changed. In this case, it’s a bit of both.

Rosenberg Jones is currently living in a two-bedroom apartment in the same building, part of three high-rise towers called Independence Plaza North. Built in the 1970s and intended for luxury rentals, the complex was ushered into the Mitchell-Lama program since few people were willing to live in Tribeca at the time. Mitchell-Lama was created to provide affordable housing for middle-income residents (by today’s guidelines the annual adjusted income limit for a household of two in a non-federally assisted and federally-assisted cooperative development is $85,937.50). As a result, many were artists, writers, teachers, and other working class New Yorkers.

In 2004, the program ended, the building was sold, and the subsidies were removed, allowing the owners to begin renting the apartments—after quick renovations—at current market value. That means while Rosenberg Jones continues to pay around $1,600 for her unit, her new neighbors are paying upward of four or five times that amount.

Although there aren’t separate entrances just yet, the pre-2004 tenants know that Tribeca is no longer a neighborhood for the middle class; many fear being forced out of the homes where they have lived for decades. 

 Genie Miller (daughter of Ellen, in separate apartment) ,moved in in 1976; retired - was vp, worked in union contracts
Genie Miller (her mother Ellen lives in a separate apartment in the building and is pictured below), retired, worked as a VP of union contracts. Moved in 1976.

Susan Rosenberg Jones

Manny Toonkel, moved into building in 1981; artist
Manny Toonkel, an artist, moved into the building in 1981.

Susan Rosenberg Jones

Estelle Woldin, moved into building in 1976; retired actress and dancer
Estelle Woldin, a retired actress and dancer, moved into the building in 1976.

Susan Rosenberg Jones

Nathan Weber, moved into building in 1985; retired researcher, writer and editor, and daughters Vanessa and Rebecca (both girls have since moved out)
Nathan Weber, a retired researcher, writer, and editor, moved into the building in 1985. Pictured with his daughters Vanessa and Rebecca (both girls have since moved out).

Susan Rosenberg Jones

Rosenberg Jones began photographing the “original” tenants in the spring of 2011 for a series titled “Building 1,” with the idea of showing the diversity of the residents who live there and their individuality as seen through their apartments.

“When I and my neighbors first moved into our apartments, we had to qualify officially as ‘middle income,’ ” Rosenberg Jones wrote in a statement. “The high cost of living has made it difficult to save for retirement, and many of us don’t own any real estate that can be sold for profit.”

“We have contributed to the diversity of our neighborhood and our city.”

Although many of the apartments are cookie-cutter: same parquet floor, same popcorn ceiling, same linoleum, Rosenberg Jones said entering the apartments has been fascinating, an almost anti-New York experience where people often live inches from one another but always keep a distance.

“That’s the fun of it, I go in, most of the time for the first time,” she said. “I like the original tenants because you see what they’ve done with the raw materials, it feels like home—it has that nest feeling.”

Anita King, a retired director of New York City Department of Buildings, moved into the complex in 1978.
Anita King, a retired director of the New York City Department of Buildings, moved into the complex in 1978.

Susan Rosenberg Jones

Vinette Leo, a retired bookkeeper, moved into th building in 1976.

She said conversation often turns to what they’ve done to the place and what things were like in the early days.

“We end up talking,” she said. “It’s a real collaboration.”

Rosenberg Jones said she is good at reading people and getting to know the essence of who they are. Still, working on the project has allowed her to hone her craft of environmental portraiture even further. 

“I like to help people relax,” she said. “When they’re in their own apartment, they’re comfortable. … I want them to be doing what they’re normally doing in their home.”

For now, although she thought about including some of the newer tenants in the series, Rosenberg Jones is happy to concentrate on the older guard since the story is really about them and the newer tenants are usually transient.

“We’re losing a flavor in Manhattan,” she said. “It just doesn’t feel like New York anymore, the New York we love.”

Ellen Miler, moved into building in 1955; retired: worked for a law firm, also did some work as an actor
Ellen Miler, retired, worked for a law firm and also as an actor, moved into the building in 1955.

Susan Rosenberg Jones

Josephine and Joseph Albanese (she passed away since this photo was made), Joseph and his parents move into building in 1985; Joseph is a college student; grandma Josephine and her late husband also lived in the building.
Grandmother and grandson Josephine and Joseph Albanese (she has since passed away). Joseph, a college student, and his parents moved into the building in 1985.

Susan Rosenberg Jones

Ella Biondi, moved into building in 1976; retired vocational art teacher (NYC Dept of Ed)
Ella Biondi, a retired vocational art teacher, moved into the building in 1976.

Susan Rosenberg Jones