Matarazzo has lived in a gorgeous brownstone on Union Street between Clinton and Henry streets since emigrating from Italy in 1954. Over his half-century in Carroll Gardens, he has made a name for himself as a restorer of the neighborhood’s signature 19th-century architecture, a sculptor and as that nice, silver-haired man who sits with his nice Italian wife on the bench they keep next to their neatly swept stoop.
Some call him “Mr. Brownstone” because of his ability to flawlessly replicate the houses’ characteristic plaster moldings. But now, one of his tenants has launched a campaign to give him a new name: Nightmare Landlord.
The story begins last February when Nickerson and his wife Jeannette Palmer noticed a few broken tiles in the kitchen, creating a hazard for their infant son, T.J., who had just began to crawl. They told Matarazzo that they wouldn’t pay rent until he fixed the tile. That’s about all that’s not in dispute.
In fact, from that point, the story devolves into a spiral of screaming matches, costly visits from city inspectors and public accusations of everything from tire slashing to child abuse to, I wish I didn’t have to write this, uninvited panty-sniffing.
It was Matarazzo who called me first, telling me that his tenant not only hasn’t paid rent since the tile dispute, but also called his wife a nasty word that’s only fair to use in a dog-fancy magazine. Matarazzo told me that he planned to “evict” Nickerson.
“I am an old man, and he is going to kill me,” Matarazzo told me, adding that the nightmare tenant (he did not use the phrase, mind you) was harassing him via the city’s 311 system.
“I live here for 50 years, raised two children and had over 50 people living here with no problem. Then he moves in and suddenly every day is problems with an inspector ringing my doorbell telling me the paint in my bathtub is too dark, or the boiler is bad or there is lead in the walls, and David is taking pictures with a camera and telling me it is on the Internet. We never had this in the neighborhood before,” he said.
I chalked the episode up to simple generational conflict, an Old World vs. New World clash of style and expectation. Nothing that I needed to put in the public record.
A few weeks passed, and then, last Thursday, I got an e-mail from Nickerson telling me that he and Palmer had been evicted and were moving to Massachusetts. But before they went, they wanted to “educate” the neighborhood on who Mr. Brownstone really is.
Nickerson told me he’s been papering the neighborhood with fliers picturing Matarazzo and proclaiming “SHAME.” He said the reception to his “education” campaign has been cool, at best. Nickerson said neighbors have called him “the out-of-towner,” and his wife’s tires were slashed (he says).
Last week, he added, one of Matarazzo’s friends cursed him out at a crowded community meeting. This story had become public without me.
“Everyone thinks they know this guy because he has been in the neighborhood so long, but they don’t know how he really is,” said Nickerson, who then told me about a videotape that, he claims, shows Matarazzo entering his apartment and going through his wife’s underwear drawer.
While all that gnawing was going on, Matarazzo’s daughter called to say that she and her father were planning to sue the couple for slander. Then I read that in Birmingham, Alabama, a member of the City Council wants a law to punish men caught soliciting prostitutes with a public shaming. Their picture would be put on a billboard emblazoned “SHAME.”
That’s pretty similiar to what Nickerson was doing — except for one big difference: In Alabama, the accused would have to be proven guilty first.
I think the same basic rule should apply in Carroll Gardens.
Ariella Cohen, a staff reporter at The Brooklyn Paper, lives in Red Hook.
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