A Building Forgotten in the Dust

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A Carroll Gardens walkup is worth at least half a million dollars—so why has it been uninhabited for more than 30 years?

The front view of the abandoned building located at 646 Court St.

The front view of an abandoned building at 646 Court St.
(Gabriel Charles Tyler/The Brooklyn Ink)

At 464 Court St., between Third and Fourth Places in Carroll Gardens, sits a dilapidated three-story, brick building reportedly worth at least half a million dollars. One Stop, a dry cleaning shop, and Nine-D, a Thai restaurant, border the building on both sides. But no one has inhabited the building’s apartments for the past 30 years, and its storefront, once home to a makeshift shoeshine shop, has been completely abandoned for the last five.

At the building’s entrance is a door with an octagon-shaped, purple-tinted glass knob and some graffiti sprayed in black across its window. A second door leads into the property’s first-floor commercial space, which appears to be more of a junkyard than the location of a former business.

The shop’s windows are filled with so much dirt that it’s almost impossible to see through them. A sticker with the name “Chicky” and a dirty “closed” sign fill the middle window’s space. In the top of the left-hand window, a poster featuring an eagle flying across the American flag sticks to the glass. Behind it, a stack of books piled high creates a staircase effect (Wes Craven’s “Fountain Society” is the only novel visible).

In the right-hand window, a copy of the album “Dimples” by the late Richard “Dimples” Fields tops a dusty stack of vinyl records. On top of these records sits a vintage white soap dish. An elevated chair filled with papers sits in the far back. A child’s rainbow-colored xylophone lies nearby. On the wall closest to the window hangs an angel atop a bookmark of Catholic cemeteries. The stopped wall clock next to it reads 7:13.

It’s almost like a portrait of what once was. But what was left of the shop (and the building) is deteriorating, and it’s been unused for quite a few years.

Considering the property’s estimated market price and lucrative location, its abandonment is a mystery.

 

Estimating the Building’s Worth

In the building’s most recent property value report from January 2014, New York City’s Department of Finance listed the building’s estimated market value, an estimate of the property’s worth, as $490,000. Zillow, the web-based real estate information service, reports the property’s most current estimated value as approximately $1.3 million (as of June 2014), more than twice the amount reported by the city. While the difference between these two values is approximately $810,0000 (a stark contrast), the difference may be a result of the methods the local government and real estate analysts use to assess a property’s value.

Zillow’s “zestimate” of value for a property derives from an automated valuation model, which aggregates information from publicly available sources and then processes those findings through algorithms to predict a property’s value and present it to users in an easy-to-understand format, according to information provided by the online real estate resource on its website. While these zestimates offer Zillow users comprehensive information on specific properties, they are not always the most accurate, says  Ernest Hill, a licensed real estate broker and the founder of Book A Broker. “I’ve used Zillow as a resource, but not for its estimates,” Hill says. “Zillow takes a lot of data from different places so it’s not 100% accurate.”

Zillow admits on its website that its workers “have not physically inspected a specific [property],” and as a result its estimates don’t “consider all the market intricacies that can determine the actual price” properties may sell for. Hill says that in the past few years, all the property values in Brooklyn have gone up, so in this case, Zillow’s estimate isn’t too far-fetched for this area. However, Hill warns that, unlike Zillow, real estate agents and brokers take many things into consideration when calculating the value of a property, including its “neighborhood, location, and area.” With this in mind, the current zestimate for the building’s worth may not be the best predictor for its actual current value based on its present condition.

The city’s Department of Finance, meanwhile bases property market values on one of three factors: recent comparable property sales; a property’s generated income; or a property’s construction and maintenance costs. Taking these three factors into consideration, the city’s estimate plausibly took into account the building’s long-standing vacancy and subsequent lack of revenue generated, in addition to its run-down appearance and older structural design.

But in any case, even the lower estimated value ($490,000) is still a hefty chunk of change. So where is the building’s owner, and why isn’t he cashing in?

 

A Carroll Gardens Mystery

Frank Caputo, the owner of Caputo’s Fine Foods (460 Court St.), sells fresh homemade mozzarella, pastas, and other Italian delicacies two doors down from the abandoned building. His parents immigrated to the United States from Puglia. They opened the shop in 1973, and by the following year, they were able to buy the entire building. Caputo took the reins of the family business over 15 years ago, when both of his parents passed away and his brother, Vito, who was helping him co-manage the store, moved to Ecuador.

He’s been in the area almost all of his life, and he, his parents, and his brother once lived in an apartment above the store. “There were a lot of little old Italian ladies in the neighborhood who’d ring the doorbell asking for cannolis and other things, even on Christmas Day,” Caputo says.Caputo stands behind the counter in his shop; customers come in and out. One group of teenage girls comes in asking to know what type of sandwiches they can buy. The worker at the other end of the counter tends to them.

Caputo walks past the building at 464 Court Street everyday, and for the past four years, he’s been keeping a close eye on the property. “Nobody’s lived there for at least 30 years, and it’s been abandoned for the last three to four years,” Caputo says.

Then the phone rings, and Caputo answers it quickly, cutting his response to a question about 464 Court Street in mid-sentence. He answers the customer’s question, hangs up the phone, and puts it back into the breast pocket on his shirt.

A glimpse inside the former shoeshine shop shows a soap dish sitting atop a stack of old vinyl records.

A glimpse inside the former shoeshine shop shows a soap dish sitting atop a stack of old vinyl records.
(Gabriel Charles Tyler/The Brooklyn Ink)

Caputo says the shoeshine shop wasn’t a large production—it was just Chicky, a retired Italian immigrant, polishing shoes once or twice a week to generate a little revenue for himself. He didn’t live there, and how he got access to the building is a mystery. Caputo hasn’t seen Chicky in four or five years, he says. It’s been longer since he’s seen the building’s owner. “I knew the original owner, John. He was a plumber, and even then there was no running hot water in the building,” Caputo says. “I always wondered how people lived there.”

The property, which houses two residential floors, in addition to its commercial storefront space, has changed hands quite a few times since it was built in 1931. The building’s oldest property statements online list its owner as Sophia M. Cassisi. John Cassisi was Sophia’s husband, Caputo says. No accessible records listing John’s death could be found, but presumably his wife inherited the building after his death. Sophia died on February 18, 2002 at 89 years old, according to the United States Social Security Death Index.

The latest property statements list Anthony Sweeney as the building’s current deed holder. Sweeney is Sophia’s nephew, according to a statement of condolences listed in the March 2002 issue of the Unionist, the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU) 371‘s monthly newsletter. Sweeney is apparently a member of the union.

But the information on the building and its owners dries up there.

“I’m surprised nobody’s sold it yet,” Caputo says. “This area is prime real estate. You’d make the money on the building’s upkeep back in rent easily. I would buy it.”

Bringing the building up to date would be a huge undertaking—one that may outweigh its short-term profits. “Anyone who gets the building is going to have to completely gut it,” Caputo says. “It’ll definitely be a headache.”

Despite all the work the building may need, Caputo says it may be worth the time and money in the long run. He says he’s tried looking for and contacting the property’s owner, but he’s found it rather difficult to dig up information. Even if Caputo had looked up the building’s property information, he’d still have one issue: tracking down the property’s latest owner, Anthony Sweeney.

Searching for Mr. Sweeney

by this time I was too curious not to try. So I did. The first step required a search on whitepages.com, the online version of the largest directory of people and businesses. With the knowledge that his aunt, Sophia, had lived in Brooklyn, I presumed Sweeney lived there, too. However, because I was uncertain, I searched for all the people with the name Anthony Sweeney in the state of New York. This led to an eight-page list, with 12 exact matches for Anthony Sweeney in the state along with 60 possible matches.

I filtered this list down based on location, age, and possible relatives, which I created based on other statements of condolence addressed to Sweeney in the Unionist. This led to two potential matches, both named Anthony F. Sweeney and both 67 years old. One match had the same address at the Court Street property in question, so I didn’t even bother pursuing it. The second match, listed under the same address in Brooklyn as Sophia, had a number that I called more than a dozen times. It did nothing but ring endlessly, so I decided that maybe this was where the story would end.

Determined to find Sweeney and answers to the building’s fate, I turned back to the Internet, and came across a 1998 New York Times article about single mothers living in Queens and their caseworkers. The article featured a few unfavorable details about one caseworker in particular, Anthony Sweeney. I was sure this was the same Sweeney I was hunting, and so I went back to the Unionist to look for more. In the newsletter’s archives, I found a little more information on Sweeney. He’s a delegate and caseworker at the Community Alternative Systems Agency (CASA) in Queens, as well as the SSEU 371’s chapter chairperson and an executive committee member.

I called the union in an attempt to get in touch with Sweeney, but the man who answered the phone seem guarded, and only offered to take my contact information and pass it along.

I was able to find another address listing Sweeney’s name under a Manhattan address (in Kips Bay to be exact). I did an online reverse search on this address, and came across three other potential names for Sweeney (Anthony F. Sweeney, George J. Sweeney, and Anghon Sweeney) and a number, which was disconnected. Thankfully, I found a second number attached to this apartment’s address, but no one answered. From there, I decided to track down potential family members, leaving a voicemail for his potential niece, Regina M. Sweeney, and sending a Facebook message to his nephew, listed in the Unionist, John J. Sweeney.

After a few days with no replies from either, I showed up at Sweeney’s apartment with a letter stating my intent and a folder full of information that I had found. Since I had what I believed was his exact address, including a unit number, I thought I’d just go up and ring the doorbell. The security guard standing at the front desk thwarted those plans, but was kind enough to check the directory for Anthony Sweeney. He found a listing for Sweeney and called up for me. Again, no one answered, and I had finally reached the final dead end in the search for Anthony Sweeney.

Mail addressed to George Sweeney spills out of the mailbox attached to the entrance of the building's commercial space.

Mail addressed to George Sweeney spills out of the mailbox attached to the entrance of the building’s commercial space.
(Gabriel Charles Tyler/The Brooklyn Ink)

A Mystery that Still Lingers

A gray metal mailbox overflowing with mail is attached to the second door at 464 Court St., leading into the space of the former shoeshine shop. A magazine-sized pamphlet from New York University’s School of Professional Studies, addressed to George Sweeney, tops the stack of mail peeking out of the mailbox. One can only imagine why the property has been vacant all these years, but the only person who could begin to answer that question, Anthony Sweeney, seems to be just as much of a mystery as his dusty, empty building.

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