“I was told I could not be a homeowner…that I was the lowest of the low, that I didn’t have a right to live in New York City…but because of the expertise of Adam Leitman Bailey and his team, I became a homeowner yesterday” – Isabel Celeste, Mother of Rosario Dawson: Squatter Turned Homesteader, Turned Homeowner
Pictured below: Adam Leitman Bailey, Rosario Dawson, Isabel Celeste, and the other owners of 544 East 13th St – the building discussed in the testimonial above and the location of Rosario Dawson’s discovery/start of her career.
“Hello, my name is Isabelle Celeste. John Cleman from our building, is one of the original members. We just became homeowners yesterday and after 37 years for him, 35 years, for me, it’s incredible. My daughter was six years old when we moved into the building, my son was two. He’s now 37. The day that the building was opened up, it was opened by Alpha Diallo who was still the current member. He literally dug his way into that building on April 13th, 1984, which is the same day that I gave birth to my son – April 13th, 1984. So this is a culmination of just incredibleness. But the way that we were able to really become homeowners in an incredibly dignified way, because remember that we were there for 35 years. So we literally put up the walls, put up the windows, we did the electrical, we did the gas, we did everything.
So this place was not just a place. It was our home. Blood, sweat, and tears went into this. Our youth went into this. I was 28 years old when I came there. I’m 59 right now. So this is a real place that we have been. I was 26, I’m 59 – that’s daunting to think about. My son was two and he’s now 37, and this is a really big deal to be able to have home ownership of this place. It’s kind of shocking because we just signed the papers yesterday. So I’m actually a little flabbergasted as I’m just saying this.
Adam Litman Bailey: Personally for me, he has been my champion. I have had certain people that have come against me in a really derogatory way and have falsified actual actions that occurred. And so vilifying me and the fact that at the time I weighed 290 pounds and I was six feet tall. This was before I got hit by a car. I’m now 5’ 10” and 190 pounds. Adam saw me, and he didn’t see the bully that they were saying that I was. He looked in my eyes and he saw the human being that was there. And he stood by me. He counseled me as to how I could, because I have a really big heart. And so I was very hurt by a lot of the things that were being said, and it really affected me emotionally. And that translated into everything that I did because I felt so slighted. I couldn’t understand how and why these things would happen. And he was so clear with what the actual protocol was – what could and could not be done. He would say, just write it all down Isabelle. And I would write it all down and I’d, you know, write literally a book.
And then he would put it in two paragraphs, exactly what I needed to say with none of the emotional attachment or pain or anything like that. He always supported me as a human being and then used his skill to support not just myself and not just my family, but my neighbors and fought for us. We are now homeowners yesterday. We’re homeowners after me being in that building 35 years. Adam Leitman Bailey is your guy – and his team – because I’ve also worked with his team directly, incredibly patient – loving even. And this is a place where you can come and feel safe. They are fair in their prices, and you get what you pay for. You absolutely get what you pay for. And here you have a chance of really winning and keeping your dignity in the process.
We were having problems with the city. They were wanting to evict us because we did not have electricity. And so I went over to the water meter place on 13th street, and I spoke to Willie who was the owner. And I asked him to give us a water meter for our building. He told us we needed to get a bank account. And so we got that. And then he put in the water meter for us. And when he put the water meter for us, then because we already had something in writing that was from a legal entity. We were able to then apply for electricity for our building. And we hired a licensed electrician who then taught us how to do the electrical work ourselves. And we did all of the electrical work. And then we got hit with the lawsuit for eviction because we had no electricity.
We had previously been stealing the electricity from the light post in front of the building, and then ultimately were paying for electricity for our neighbors that lived behind us. We would pay their electrical so that we could tap into their box. And we literally had one refrigerator and one light bulb per floor so that we could see our places. And then inside, we had our own devices, you know, flashlights, candles, things of that nature. And Adam, Adam came to court with us. Richard found him. And we pulled our resources together. He worked with us from the very beginning. He was very honest and very forthright and he made us feel safe. And so, you know, fast forward, I believe that was 2005 the first time. Now it’s 2021. So fast forward, 16 years he’s family.
The city was evicting the squats in the neighborhood. We were blessed to have Adam Leitman Bailey already knowing who our building was because he helped us with the electricity. When he walked into the courtroom, you know, the judge said “They have their electrical in place.” And, you know, Adam said everything that he needed to show and prove that we had done everything properly. And then H P D who was at the opposing council said, “Well, they don’t have gas.” And Adam said, “Well, they didn’t bring them here for gas. They brought them here for electrical. We proved the electrical. So now if they wanna continue…” And the judge agreed with him, so we were able to come back and then he helped us and we wound up getting the gas. We already had the water, we already had the electrical.
Back then in the eighties, the computers weren’t talking to each other, the different systems were talking to each other. So we were able to really come in at a time when computers were just starting to build. Moving forward, because of all of those different actions that he supported us with, he got to really know us individually, as people and as a collective. And when they tried to evict us from the building, he proved that the people that they would be putting into the building were similar to who we already were. And we already had established a relationship with the homeowners that are in the neighborhood, the other tenants, the other landlords in the neighborhood, the business owners in the neighborhood. So we even had community board support. So Adam was very helpful in helping us obtain the support that we needed to prove that they could not replace us with anyone better. Then he went a step further and looked at our relocation agreement and it proved that what they were doing was not beneficial to us at all.
And so he continued to work on that, hash it out with his team and got us the best relocation agreement, got us everything that we needed, you know, with the tax abatement, everything that is legal, Adam helped us out with. And he made sure that the developer and the sponsor were working within the guidelines that they were supposed to work within. And even to this date, there are issues that we still have that are outstanding in our building. And he and his team are supporting us in moving forward and making sure that we’ll be able to ultimately have the building that we deserve because we’ve worked for it. And, you know, we’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into this, you know. And in a way, so has Adam, because he has been with us for 16 years, you know, so feeling really blessed.
We would not be where we are today. And also, you know, with the support of my daughter who has financially contributed to caring and making sure that, because we are a low income group and she got discovered there and her life changed dramatically because of that building. So, we are all here together as a group, people who were there, people who are there, people who have passed on, like Booker T, we used to call him – his real name, Andrew Washington, he was not able to become a homeowner because cancer took him. Alpha Diallo we’re really blessed to still have him because he’s the original member of our building. Without him digging his way into that building, it would never have happened. Richard Cleman who has stayed with the building throughout all of these years is the other long standing member of the building and myself and Rosario’s dad, Greg Dawson, who has also been a longstanding member of the building have contributed so much work and the new shareholders that are there.
And I don’t wanna exclude Rex Hughes, who’s just incredible. You know, physically, he’s done a lot of work in the building. Karen Sullivan – Karen O. Sullivan – she chose not to become an owner. Suzanne Present, who has passed away, also didn’t get to become a member of ownership of the building. But these are all, people who contributed. Our new members, who purchased into the building who are shareholders now, are mostly the new members that are the board members of our building because they’re fresh blood and they have the energy for it and they are proud of where they live. And so we are happy to be the elders that support them with the history of what the building was and what the building is. But we’re happy to pass the torch and we still have Adam Leitman Bailey.
We were squatting and most people were afraid of letting themselves be known. And one day, when she was about 10, she was walking up the stairs and she felt someone grab her arm. And, you know, there was no light in the hallway and she ran up the stairs and she hid underneath the bed. And when she told me that, I was like, “That’s it, we gotta do something. We can’t keep coming through the ground floor. We have to come up through the lobby.” And so I was working for a real estate agency at the time as a real estate agent. And I asked them to advance my salary so that I could help buy some materials. And the building bought the rest of the materials and together we worked together and made the lobby, made the stoop. It was Richard, Alpha, Rosario’s dad, Paula, who’s no longer in the building, and myself. We actually have a video of us constructing this stoop and we built a 16 foot gate with a staircase, a wood bench and a gate that closed. And we put in a buzzer system because we knew how to do electrical. So we did it all ourselves.
Fast forward to Rosario being 15, they were videotaping for Vibe Magazine Online, a commercial. And Rosario’s dad told her to go downstairs and get discovered. And so she was watching the girls dancing and they were only videotaping the silhouettes of the girls on the brick wall. And on the day of actual shooting, one of the girls did not show up. And one of the people that were working on the film, Michael Denzel, asked Rosario because he had noticed that she had been watching the girls dancing and he asked her, “Do you know how to do this? Have you been watching?” She’s like, “Yeah.” And so she did it. So that was her first paying job as an artist. So she kept coming downstairs and on one occasion, Larry Clark and Harmony Korine were out scouting for locations and she was sitting on the stoop. And again, remember, it’s a 16 foot tall gate that had a bench and it had a gate door that was locked that you needed to have a key or a buzzer to get in. So it was safe for her to be outside by herself because if anything happened, she could just come into the building. And she was 15 at the time. And Larry Clark and Harmony Korine were across the street and they were scouting for locations and they saw her, she was laughing, and a homeless man had asked her, uh, for the time.
And she said that the sunlight hit his hair. And that he looked like Jesus. And he said something that made her laugh and Harmony Korine heard her and he saw her and he said, “Oh my God, that’s Ruby.” And so he and Larry Clark came across the street and said, “Hey, do you wanna be in a movie?” And Rosario had been told earlier that day, “Hey, if somebody comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, you wanna be in a movie’ don’t talk to those guys because that’s crazy.” And so she’s like, “I can’t talk to you.” And Larry Clark said, “That’s okay, here’s my business card. Go get your dad.” And two weeks later she was hired to be Ruby in the movie ‘Kids’ and started her career of 27 now years and being an activist and everything that she is in this world – a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a godmother, a philanthropist, an activist, a designer. There’s so many things that she already is – a great girlfriend, and so many other things that she will be, because she’s young, she’s only 42.
Well, I love to sing <laugh> and right now Mercy Me has a song out that I’m healthier now than I was when I came to that building. I’m a hundred pounds lighter and this one part really sticks out for me because people say that you can’t do things and there’s a narrative that then you put in your head that you can’t do things. And when that happens, you really can’t do things. And you know, your mouth is the closest thing to your ear. And so the first thing that comes outta your mouth, that’s the first thing your ear hears. And it believes you because your brain is not getting the difference. So I’ll just sing this part and not the religious part because my beliefs are mine, but this is universal.
I’m gonna run. No I’m gonna fly. I’m gonna know what it means to live and not just be alive. This world’s gonna, hear cause I’m gonna shout and I will be dancing with circumstances, drown the music out. Say I won’t, say I won’t, say that I won’t, say I won’t.
I was told I could not be a homeowner. I was told I was a squatter and I was the lowest of the low. And I didn’t have a right to live in New York City, in Manhattan, in one of the greatest cities in the world. Because of the people around me, because of my belief – I believe in God. Because of the support of my family and friends and the expertise of Adam Leitman Bailey and his team, I became a homeowner yesterday.”