BROWNSVILLE – Standing in his lavender living room, wearing a purple shirt, James Nixon watched as they pulled up his beloved purple carpet and dragged it to the curb. He hated to see it go.
The seventy-seven year old has lived on Marion Street for 65 years. His mother bought a house and moved them in when he was just 12. His current home, across the street, has been his for almost 40 years. Over the decades, repairs have become necessary on the 100-year old property and health hazards abound. Luckily, this past weekend, James Nixon got an upgrade.
The repairs at Mr. Nixon’s house were part of the 5th annual Fall Rebuilding Day organized by Rebuilding Together NYC, a nonprofit housing organization. Started in commemoration of Hurricane Sandy, Saturday’s day of work saw more than 200 volunteers pitching in to help with the projects across Brownsville.
“It’s a mix of people from the local community and from the greater Metro area,” said Kimberly George, Rebuilding Together’s Executive Director, of the volunteer crew. “You really get people from all walks of life.”
Teams were working away at three other houses in the area, making similar upgrades, while others helped repair and revitalize public spaces at the Seth Low Community Center and the Langston Hughes basketball courts.
In the front room of the house on Marion Street, volunteers in green shirts pried up old baseboards and rolled out flooring insulation, or ducked through plastic sheeting, crossing the kitchen crowded with stacked furniture, to emerge in the back room, where another crew joined slats of new bamboo flooring. Seen through the back window, a group of young men cleared the yard below.
Through it all, Nixon darted around, answering questions and helping sweep up here or lending a hand there, making jokes and encouraging volunteers hard at work. “Sorry about the disarray,” he laughed, gesturing at the upheaval.
The projects undertaken by Rebuilding Together for homeowners are designed to keep them in their homes, making the living spaces safe and healthy for their occupants. In Nixon’s house, that means replacing old carpets and refinishing stairs. In some cases, it extends as far as bolting exterior walls in place—literally keeping places from falling apart.
A fresh coat of paint was in order, too. Paint swatches were stuck to the wall in the kitchen—a palette of reds Nixon has picked out. For the staircase, grey. “I guess that’s what people are doing now,” he said, “That’s the trend.”
But for the living room, the lavender was going to stay.
“Purple’s my favorite color,” said Nixon, who studied at Parson’s School of Design as a fashion illustrator. Nixon served in the Army, stationed in Germany as an MP, and fondly recalls his travels in Europe as a young man.
Eventually, he made his way back to New York, going to work for the now defunct Peck & Peck on Madison Avenue.
“I was going door to door,” Nixon said, “And they gave me a job doing window dressing.”
James learned his trade at Peck & Peck, using his eye for color and fashion schooling, before moving to Alexander’s, then on to Macy’s, where he worked for 15 years. But just after he retired, the great recession of the late 2000s took a serious toll on Nixon’s finances.
“Things went downhill from there,” he said, trailing off.
For a while, he worked as a background actor in productions that filmed in the city, even meeting actors like Robin Williams and Denzel Washington. He got the most screen time playing a butler in HBO’s remake of “Mildred Pierce,” but he hasn’t been working in the last few years.
After a prolonged legal battle with the tenant in his basement apartment, who refused to pay rent for over a year, Nixon wasn’t sure how he’d manage to pay for repairs to his home. After visiting HUD and getting a list of resources, he managed to find Rebuilding Together through Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and applied to the program.
Rebuilding Together’s work is free to homeowners who qualify—those living below the area median income, often with limited assets. “These guys are a blessing,” Nixon said, “I needed so much work.”
The demand for Rebuilding Together’s services is high, and there’s often a wait list as the organization works to secure grant money—either through New York state funds, or via a long list of private and corporate donors.
“The need is so big, it’s a constant process,” said George, “Organizing volunteers, finding funding, doing the work.” But it’s rewarding, she added, seeing neighbors volunteering and donating to help neighbors.
“When I got the call, I was shocked,” said Nixon, standing in the kitchen as volunteers scurried past. It’s been a whirlwind—last weekend, a group of students from Columbia were working on the house. This weekend, volunteers from Non-traditional Employment for Women (NEW) were hoping to finish installing the flooring.
As volunteers took a lunch break on the front stoop, Nixon surveyed the house he’s lived in for so long. Recounting the history of the place, he’s struck.
”Where do the years go,” he said, almost to himself. “They go fast.”
But even talking about the past, he’s looking forward to enjoying the newly refurbished space—“If I survive all this!” he says, laughing. And as for the bamboo slats that are replacing the brightly colored carpet?
“I’ll have to get a purple rug!”