The drag queens who once paraded through the hallways are long gone.

The rundown walk-up on the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street was a refuge that offered freedom and acceptance, though it was rife with burglaries and drugs — and no shortage of mischief, when Pierson Tyler-Leonard moved in some 35 years ago. He fit right in.

Then the Lower East Side changed, snuffing out the spirit of the gritty tenement. He found himself surrounded by button-down professionals who marched off to day jobs in sales, marketing and tech. To him, they represented the erasure of a neighborhood.

A brown sedan parked on a street corner with the door open and a person’s legs hanging out.
A Lower East Side street scene in 1987, when the rent was cheap and the club scene was epic.Credit…Tria Giovan

When a couple moved into the neighboring apartment six years ago, Mr. Tyler-Leonard assumed they would be like the others. Margaret Kieu was a project manager for BlackRock and her husband, Yuriy Nartov, owned a Queens dance studio.

But the couple baked him pies, looked after his Jack Russell terrier, Mrs. Doodlebug, and carried his groceries up three flights of the five-story building. He gave them gifts plucked from his closet: a worn pair of Tod’s dress shoes, in a size 9½, too large for Mr. Nartov, and Marc Jacobs sunglasses, the lenses scratched. “But they were kind gestures,” Ms. Kieu, 33, said.

Mr. Tyler-Leonard, 58, was in poor health and rarely left his apartment. “I have no relatives, no children. I had nobody to help me and they stepped in,” he said.

A year into the cordial exchanges, Ms. Kieu and Mr. Nartov, 34, were facing the inevitable: The landlord planned to raise their rent 30 percent, to $3,500 a month.

A man and a woman, her hand atop an open binder, standing in front of open shelving.
Yuriy Nartov, 34, with Margaret Kieu, 33, in the Rivington Street apartment where Mr. Tyler-Leonard once lived.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

That’s when Mr. Tyler-Leonard let them in on a big secret — one large enough to alter the course of their lives.

Three decades earlier, he had lived in their apartment. His roommate was Robert Riggs, later convicted of manslaughter in one of the city’s most notorious murders, that ushered in an end to the Club Kid era.

But that wasn’t the big secret.

Standing in his kitchen one recent afternoon, Mr. Tyler-Leonard unfurled the story in deliberate layers, as one might affix false lashes atop iridescent eye shadow before donning the glorious wig. He was wearing round glasses, a tan felt hat and argyle sweater that draped his lanky frame. He is partial to bowler hats, bow ties and dramatics.

“I wanted them to know that whatever they were paying, they were being ripped off,” he said, leaning against the glass countertop he installed, a flytrap dangling from the ceiling above.

His neighbors’ rent was really supposed to be a few hundred a month, closer to what he paid.

And with that, Mr. Tyler-Leonard sparked a new chapter for the 18-unit walk-up, setting up his neighbors for a charmed life in New York, a city that can chew you up and leave you in a pulp.

Standing in his dilapidated kitchen, he reflected on how he’d gotten to Rivington Street and how he was still there — macerated and full with memory. He started from the beginning.

He started with Bella Bolski.

In 1984, Mr. Tyler-Leonard, 18, was estranged from his mother, now dead, in Elmont, L.I., whom he described as abusive and neglectful. He took a train to Penn Station, stuffed his belongings in a locker and headed to Boy Bar on St. Marks Place, drawn to the theatrical world of drag. “It was about being fabulous, and you happened to be gay,” he said. He befriended Connie Fleming, then a fledgling performer. The two squatted in an abandoned building on Avenue B, while tumbling headlong into the electrifying nightclub scene.

Together, they discovered “how you negotiate this new world at a time when it was super dangerous as an L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. person,” said Ms. Fleming, a transgender artist and model. “The AIDS epidemic was rolling up and taking people out by the day, by the hour, by the minute. There was an urgency.”

Madonna and Grace Jones were nightclub nobility, and Mr. Tyler-Leonard climbed the ladder from busboy to go-go dancer to party promoter for Michael Alig, a legend at venues like the Limelight and the Tunnel. He soon earned good money, and “a fancy boyfriend and a fancy apartment,” he said.

At a party, Mr. Alig handed Mr. Tyler-Leonard a peach taffeta dress. Twirling in the frock his alter ego was born: Bella Bolski, described as a “seven foot eyelash blinking, heel kicking drag queen,” in nightlife magazine Project X.

“We went out every night to be seen and to drum up work and get our pictures in Interview or Details or in The Village Voice,” Ms. Fleming said. “The equivalent today would be getting a viral photograph on Instagram or on TikTok.”

A black and white photo of two people dressed theatrically.
Robert Riggs, left, with Bella Bolski (Pierson Tyler-Leonard) outside Club USA in 1992.Credit…Tina Paul

Mr. Tyler-Leonard met Mr. Riggs through a friend and the two started a hat-making business. They needed a place to operate, and around 1990, Mr. Riggs found a listing in The Village Voice for an apartment on Rivington Street. “It looked horrible,” Mr. Tyler-Leonard said. But two apartments were available, with monthly rents around $200 and $250.

Clayton Patterson, a photographer who has documented the Lower East Side since 1979, said, “Because it was so cheap to live here, you had that opportunity for creativity.”

A friend’s father, a contractor, took down the wall separating the living rooms, creating a destination for the drag scene, luring club fixtures. “It was chaos, it was bedlam,” said James St. James, who wrote the book “Party Monster,” which later became a movie about the murder and dismemberment of the club denizen Andre Melendez by Mr. Alig and Mr. Riggs.

The cover of the book “Party Monster.”
The book “Party Monster,” by James St. James, chronicled the murder of Club Kid Andre Melendez.

In “Party Monster,” Mr. St. James described Bella Bolski’s dueling temperaments. By day, she was “happy-go-lucky,” “pausing only to hug bunny rabbits and kiss little babies.” Come nightfall, Bella Bolski transformed. “With each layer of foundation that she slathered upon her face, another layer of armor was bolted into place,” he wrote, adding, “When she went out at night and sat in her dark corner, growling at the patrons, she looked flawless.”

Robi Martin, now 56, worked with Mr. Tyler-Leonard at the drag bar Lucky Cheng’s, and briefly lived in the apartment. She said Mr. Riggs, known as Freeze, sewed costumes while Mr. Tyler-Leonard mixed margaritas and piña coladas, and they “would lay out a big plate of drugs and everybody would help themselves while they were getting ready.”

A man standing in French doors in an apartment.
Roger Griffith, 62, recalls Mr. Tyler-Leonard and his friends keeping him up at 4 a.m.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The building earned the nickname “the White House” because so much heroin flowed through its doors. “You’d come home and step over people who’d shot up in the hallway,” said Roger Griffith, 62, a sculpture and objects conservator who has lived in the building since 1988.

There were other dangers: Mr. Griffith was mugged at gunpoint and had his apartment burglarized twice. Mr. St. James remembered the daily survival mode. “You sort of ran from the front door to the lobby and then you hid in the lobby until the car service came,” he said.

The hat-making business had successes — a mention in Women’s Wear Daily and wares sold in Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and at a Bergdorf Goodman trunk show. “We were in every one of those crusty old lady shops,” Mr. Tyler-Leonard said. In “Party Monster,” Mr. St. James described the apartment as “a regular sweatshop” with Mr. Riggs “forced into indentured servitude — running up saucy little frocks for Bella — sunrise, sunset — all day, every day, in exchange for room and board.”

Mr. Tyler-Leonard described himself as the creative force behind the business, as Mr. Riggs sewed. They had a dispute over profits and rent, Mr. Tyler-Leonard recalled. “Freeze and I were living polar opposite lives,” he said. (Mr. Riggs did not respond to requests for comment.)

Eventually, Mr. Riggs moved into Mr. Alig’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment. There, in 1996, the two killed Mr. Melendez, 25, who went by Angel, a nod to feathered wings he wore. As Mr. Alig and Mr. Melendez entangled in a fight over money, Mr. Riggs bludgeoned him with a hammer. Mr. Alig then suffocated him, poured detergent down his throat, and duct taped his mouth shut. They stashed the body in the bathtub before dismembering it and dumping it in the Hudson River. Mr. Alig and Mr. Riggs were sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Mr. Tyler-Leonard maintained contact with Mr. Alig,who later died of a drug overdose. Mr. Riggs, now 56, was released in 2010, and studied urban anthropology at CUNY and sociology at NYU.

He and Mr. Tyler-Leonard haven’t spoken since their Club Kid days.

After Mr. Alig went to prison, Mr. Tyler-Leonard scrambled for income. “I had to get a job to supplement my job being fabulous,” he said. He leased a space to start a bar, Lulu’s, on Norfolk Street, in May 2002. A week later, he learned that he had H.I.V.

In those years, luxury condos replaced artist collectives and dives. So many hipster bars popped up that residents begged the State to stop issuing liquor licenses. “There’s a 7-Eleven, a Dunkin’ Donuts, people waiting for the light to turn green” before they cross the street, Mr. Patterson said. “All this stuff sounds silly, but it’s a long, slow move toward gentrification.”

Rents skyrocketed, yet Mr. Tyler-Leonard held on, even after he got a new landlord in 2005, Alan Luke. The previous landlord never cared about one tenant occupying two apartments. But Mr. Luke took Mr. Tyler-Leonard to housing court. In exchange for critical renovations on his current apartment, Mr. Tyler-Leonard, without a lawyer, agreed to relinquish the apartment where Ms. Kieu and Mr. Nartov now live. But the work was not completed, leaving him with a makeshift kitchen and a decrepit bathroom.

Mr. Tyler-Leonard sold the bar, now Nurse Bettie, in 2008, and stopped working in 2009, later turning to the city’s H.I.V./AIDS services for support with rent and living expenses. As his health deteriorated, so did his apartment, though tastefully appointed, with two Eames-style chairs and a shag rug in his living room.

A kitchen sink pipe held together with duct tape and the floorboards rotting beneath it.
The pipes beneath Mr. Tyler-Leonard’s sink are held together with duct tape, and the floorboards are rotted.Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

By 2015, the wooden floors warped, scalding water gushed from faucets, the ceiling leaked and collapsed, injuring Mr. Tyler-Leonard’s back, and faulty wiring left him with blistering burns, according to court and state records and photographs shared with the Times. Mr. Tyler-Leonard channeled his rage, making hundreds of complaints to 311. The court appointed guardians, and some problems were fixed, but his kitchen and bathroom are still in disrepair. “I’ve been invisible my whole life, but now I’m really invisible,” he said.

Complicating matters, in emails, Mr. Tyler-Leonard is often combative with city caseworkers; he declines to schedule repairs when management offers, pointing to a disabling sleep disorder and other ailments.

His monthly rent is currently $582.

Mr. Luke, no longer an owner of the building, did not respond to requests for comment. Lisa Faham-Selzer, a lawyer for the property manager, said in an email, “Arya Management has requested access to complete all repairs and is waiting for cooperation from the tenant.”

Neha Sharma, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, declined to discuss the specifics of the case, citing client privacy rules, but in an email, said: “Whenever we learn of instances that may impact housing stability for vulnerable tenants we promptly work to investigate the facts, advocate for the tenant, and determine if broader agency intervention is warranted.”

The street view of a tenement building.
Decades ago, this Rivington Street building earned the nickname “The White House” because so much heroin went through it.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Ms. Kieu and Mr. Nartov found the Rivington Street apartment on StreetEasy in 2018. They had lost their previous apartment on the Upper East Side to a fire. Their pet cat perished; Mr. Nartov barely escaped.

The apartment was small, but light poured in from the bedroom window with a view of a foxglove tree below. It was a refuge, so Ms. Kieu panicked when she learned that her rent would spike.

Then she bumped into Mr. Tyler-Leonard, who revealed the likelihood that the apartment was rent stabilized. With his apartment crumbling, he saw an opportunity to take money out of the landlord’s pocket. “I can’t get any justice, but I think you can,” he recalled telling her. Ms. Kieu jumped on the information.

“Margaret takes one week to feel sad and the rest is plotting,” said Mr. Nartov, sitting on his beige sofa one recent afternoon, a faux ivy screen covering the brick wall behind him.

Ms. Kieu sat across from her husband at their tiny dining table, the tips of her black hair dyed electric green. With a focused intensity, she explained how she found Jack L. Lester, a lawyer who, she recalled, told her, “unless your apartment looks like the Taj Mahal, there’s no way it’s been deregulated.”

Mr. Lester told her to organize her neighbors.

She knocked on doors, catching one tenant who was in the shower. Another one’s boyfriend scribbled down her phone number in charcoal pencil. Weeks later, five tenants assembled in Mr. Lester’s Midtown office. One tenant’s last rent registered with the state was $198 a month. Another’s was $433. They all paid over $2,500.

Until 2019, landlords could take a vacant rent-stabilized apartment, renovate it, and charge market rate rent, if enough money was spent on improvements. If a tenant challenges the rent in court, the landlord must show receipts. By the time the Rivington Street tenants filed a lawsuit, the building had traded hands to an ownership partnership that included Conway Capital.

The owners produced “problematic” receipts for some apartments, according to a 2021 court decision, and no receipts for the apartment where Ms. Kieu and Mr. Nartov live, despite an updated bathroom and a kitchen with black countertops and beige cabinets. In 2022, a judge reduced the couple’s rent to $347, and tenants in two other units now pay $2,100.

A man in a hat and argyle sweater standing in a kitchen.
Mr. Tyler-Leonard in his kitchen, which was never properly built, despite a court order.Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Mr. Tyler-Leonard is neither involved in the litigation nor represented by Mr. Lester. Yet the wave he started has had a long wake. As new tenants moved in, they learned about the lawsuit, and some hired Mr. Lester. Currently, tenants from seven apartments are negotiating a settlement with Conway Capital.

“The property owners believe that they have a very strong case and that the court will find in their favor,” George Shea, a spokesman for the owners, said in an email, adding that claims that the apartments are rent stabilized are “not correct.”

The reduced rent provided freedom for Ms. Kieu to leave her job at BlackRock. “I can explore what I want to do,” she said.

She has had time to focus on the building, establishing a tenants’ association. “It’s kind of like a ‘Seinfeld’ vibe,” she said. “There is stuff going on; we’re knocking on each other’s door.”

Tenants have adopted Mr. Tyler-Leonard’s fiery spirit, filing 46 complaints with the city that resulted in 44 violations in the last two years over issues including self-closing doors, vermin and trash in common areas. The violations are “not insignificant,” said William Fowler, a spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “It’s not good.”

“Arya Management has addressed and will continue to address all the issues in the building,” Ms. Faham-Selzer said. “Most of these issues have already been resolved.”

Unlike his wealthier neighbors who have Mr. Lester to rally them, Mr. Tyler-Leonard has only a city caseworker. He received a new lease recently, more than doubling his rent, to $1,330 a month, and his apartment was briefly listed on StreetEasy for $4,500. The lease renewal was “a clerical error,” said Ms. Faham-Selzer, and Max Maleh, a real estate agent for the building, described the StreetEasy posting as “a listing error.”

Though Mr. Tyler-Leonard has since received a corrected lease, he sees the episode as a stressful example of harassment in an apartment where pipes are held together with duct tape.

Mr. Tyler-Leonard, who calls himself “Old Crank” on social media, isenvious of his neighbors, closing in on a victory he never tasted. “Without me, it may never have happened,” he said. Although many tenants have benefited, “only Margaret and Yuriy ever offered me a thank you.”

Alone in the apartment where fabulous once ruled, a kitchen cabinet hangs loose from the wall and floorboards are rotting, bitter reminders that Mr. Tyler-Leonard never vanquished the landlord as gloriously as Bella Bolski ruled the dance floor.

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