Nailed to the side of a dilapidated brick building on East 140th Street is a pair of bullhorns. At any point during the day they might go off, blaring ear-splitting noise that can be heard blocks away.
Tyko and Andrea Kihlstedt hear them in their loft at 305 E. 140th Street, a few buildings over. So does Linda Cunningham, who runs Bronx Arts Space on the ground floor.
The sirens are not aimed at them. They are aimed at a 64-year-old grandmother.
Maria Gonzalez, who is battling cancer, likes to sit outside and take in the fresh air when the weather allows. She and her neighbors say that the building’s landlord Scott Kalb routinely interrupts their peace by blasting those bullhorns any time she tries to try to sit outside.
Gonzalez says that the landlord has been finding ways to harass her for 20 years, to chase her out and free up her rent-regulated apartment.
But his tactics have now started to irk the entire block.
“When you’re harassing an elderly lady who has done nothing to you and you have no reason to be harassing her, of course people are going to go against you,” said Albert Gonzalez, Maria’s son, who also translated for his mother for this story. Maria speaks no English.
Kalb has garnered unwanted attention in the past for harassing tenants. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that he threatened to report tenants’ citizenship status after they sought building repairs.
Kalb could not be reached for this story. The multiple numbers listed under his business and properties have all been disconnected. He currently owns seven buildings in the Bronx and two in Brooklyn. Across those nine buildings, Kalb has racked up 123 open violations from the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 88 Department of Buildings violations and hundreds of 311 complaints. Kalb has also been taken to court by tenants almost 50 times in the last decade.
Gonzalez has lived in the basement apartment of 313 E. 140th Street since 1997. The three-bedroom apartment costs her $1,300 a month, a massive bargain at today’s rates.
“He wants to kick her out so he can charge more,” said Diana Cazarez, Gonzalez’s granddaughter. “He said, ‘With you here, I’m losing money.’”
Kalb, on the other hand, has accused Gonzalez of missing rent payments but she says she always pays the rent on time. Meanwhile, she says Kalb has thrown trash in the backyard, neglected to fix black mold in her bathroom, turned her heat off and called the police on her repeatedly, just for being on the sidewalk.
The Kihlstedts were angered last summer when Kalb installed the bullhorn speakers, particularly because Gonzalez’s daughter Rita cleans their apartment, as well as many of their neighbors. But the sirens also affected their daily lives.
“It was so loud that, one day I was walking back from St. Ann’s Park and I hadn’t even crossed Willis Avenue, I could hear it,” said Andrea Kihlstedt. “Sometimes it would go on for an hour.”
The Kihlstedts said it took the neighbors calling the fire department three times to get Kalb to stop the sirens.
However, the speakers were not taken down. And while blasting a sound imitating a fire truck might be a violation of the city’s noise ordinance code, blaring other noises is not.
“He started broadcasting sort of ugly sounds and bad music,” Tyko Kihlstedt said. “At one point I heard the worst version of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve ever heard.”
There is an obvious pattern, say the Kihlstedts and Gonzalez families. The only time the deafening noises come on is when Maria is sitting outside. And although they don’t roar through the block quite as gratingly as the sirens did, residents have had enough.
“This is kind of an urban war going on between this scuzbag realtor and the persistent fighter immigrant family,” Andrea Kihlstedt said.
Neighbors have said they’ll testify if Gonzalez sues.
“If there were a legal way to make life difficult for him, I think a fairly large group of people in the neighborhood would love to sign on,” Tyko Kihlstedt said.
Meanwhile, a neighborhood vigilante cut the wire to the building’s speakers last month, stopping the noise for a while until it was repaired.
Gonzalez’s son Albert said the harassment is hurting his mother’s cancer treatment. He says his mother has had to talk them out of taking rash measures.
“Whatever he does, God will punish him when the time is right,” he said. “Some of us, we say ‘He takes too long.’”
Maria Gonzalez has her own form of passive resistance—-staying put. She has been approved for an apartment in public housing, but has instead opted to stand her ground.
“The more he bothers her, the less likely she’ll be willing to leave, so he’ll continue to stay mad,” Albert Gonzalez said. “She’s getting back at him in a good way.”