Local entrepreneur looks to preserve a piece of Mott Haven’s past

Samuel Brooks tends to the door of his house on East 140th St. It was built in 1889 by local developers William O’Gorman and Hermann Stursberg. Photo: Annie Nova

Homeowner will open up historic home for tours next summer

When the president and founder of the newly formed Mott Haven Historic Districts Association says he sees a tsunami coming, he’s referring to the big waves of change he sees washing over the neighborhood where he lives.

“The quickness – I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Samuel Brooks, 54, pointing to a house across the street from his on East 140th Street. An investor tracked down the homeowners in Puerto Rico a few months ago and bought the house from them for $125,000, he said.

It’s now on the market for $1.1 million.

Like many local homeowners, Brooks keeps his door closed to the swarms of prospective buyers who routinely come around pamphleting owners of the block’s elegant old houses, but his door will soon be open to visitors from all over the world.

Capitalizing on a wave of tourism in the South Bronx, Brooks plans to turn his three-story, brick neo-Grec townhouse, which was built in 1889, into a “Decorator’s Show House” next summer, so people can get a sense of the area’s rich history. Mott Haven, which has three distinct historic districts, was one of the borough’s first areas to be settled.

Brooks, who works as an investment researcher for a financial firm, hopes the project will benefit local homeowners by showing them how much their properties have gained in value recently, allowing them to cash in if they should opt to sell.

Though he is excited about the rising tide for local homeowners, he is apprehensive about all the changes happening around him. “I just hope I still recognize a lot of the people,” he said.

Brooks and his family moved to Hunts Point after immigrating from Honduras when he was 10. Over the years, he has always chosen to live in the area, even though his jobs at Morgan Stanley and Citibank made it easy for him to live anywhere he wanted.

“My sense of giving back is just staying put,” said Brooks, who became interested in the local real estate market long before the current bonanza. In the early 2000s he and a partner started buying houses, then renovating and selling them. The house he lives in now, and which he hopes will soon become a tourist destination, was one of the ones he and the partner bought for $125,000. He expects he could sell it for $1.5 million in the next five years without breaking a sweat.

“Every one of the townhomes have been sold to people who’ve been waiting to buy one of these townhomes. And these are people who’ve lived in other neighborhoods of the city,” he said.

The creation of the historic homes district will be one constant in a changing landscape, said Jamila Diaz, SoBro’s assistant vice president of business services. SoBro will connect Brooks with grant opportunities while also helping to publicize the project.

“There’s so much new development, so many new things coming into the South Bronx, so many new people,” Diaz said. “I think it’s really important that we preserve history.”

Brooks anticipates 5,000 visitors this summer, thanks in part to the area’s new hotels like the Opera House and Airbnb rentals, which he says will promote the project, along with the events and exhibits in Manhattan or Brooklyn toward which they usually steer their guests.

He will charge $20 admission for visitors, though tickets for the opening reception will go for around $100. Brooks says he hopes to have luminaries like Mayor de Blasio and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. in attendance.

“The Decorator Show House will be marketed as one whereby, if you’re in New York, you have to come,” he said.

Designers and artists, most of them Bronxites, will renovate and decorate the three-story house and design an Airbnb suite in his basement, which Brooks said he will rent out for around $125 a night.

With the proceeds from admissions, he said he hopes to buy street lamps, tree guards and historic landmark signage for the block, though the ultimate goal, he said, will be to help longtime residents pay for repairs so they don’t have to sell and move out.

“It’s a great idea,” said Carmen Cardona, 60, who lives next door. “I’ve been here since 1976, so for it to become a landmark is an amazing thing.”

But another neighbor said an influx of unfamiliar faces may not go over well with everyone.

“Everybody wouldn’t be into it because people like their privacy,” said Carlos Rodriguez, 25.

Brooks expects local businesses to benefit from the added traffic. “The local coffee shop is suffering,” he said. “The rent is going up. They need more volume.”

Another of the new association’s functions will be to inform homeowners about all the changes and new opportunities, through homeowner meetings. Rodriguez says he is an example of how that can work. Recently, he considered selling his house for $600,000, but it was no easy decision. His father bought the house after returning home from the Vietnam War, and Rodriguez grew up in it. The thought of moving out depressed him.

After discussing his dilemma with his neighbor, Samuel Brooks, he decided not to sell – at least not at that price.

“If you can stay, stay,” Brooks said, about homeowners in Mott Haven. “I’m not leaving. I’m going to self-gentrify my own home.”