Living with the Dead

In a city where the race for real estate can often feel like a life-or-death quest, three New Yorkers reveal what it’s like to live in an apartment where the former resident met a grisly end.

Living with the Dead

“In New York, you share everything with everyone,” Emma Grady says. “If you’re moving into an apartment, there are constant reminders that someone was there before you…and those are the things I like to cover up.”

But some stories aren’t forgotten after a fresh coat of paint.

Grady is one of three people I tracked down last year, all tenants of New York City apartments tainted by grisly histories: a suicide, a murder and an overdose. These women talked about being haunted—not by literal ghosts, but by sadness and pain that wasn’t their own. Some spent considerable time trying to sort out the macabre pasts of the residents who came before them; one still can’t shake the questions surrounding her predecessor’s end.

Getting other New Yorkers in similar situations to talk was not easy. In the grimy apartment building above Carnegie Deli where actress Jennifer Stahl was shot in 2001, a man in boxers slammed and locked his door at the mention of the late starlet’s name. At a lavish Upper West Side building, a pair of amiable doormen clued me in to the gruesome secrets of their workplace. I had come for a murder case on the eighth floor. They told me of another: a famous author’s meticulously plotted suicide on the second. Did the new owners have any idea about either of these incidents? “We only see [residents] for a moment, so it’s just small talk,” one doorman shrugged. “Don’t want to bring something like that up.”

New York real estate law does not require brokers to disclose a homicide, suicide or other death to potential buyers, only physical concerns regarding the property. The extremely curious could turn to New York magazine’s research tips, provided in a September feature. The rest of us might be content sleeping and showering in peaceful ignorance, pretending the space is completely our own, quieting the screaming matches, raucous laughter—and yes, even deaths—that preceded our short time there.

Aimee Nassif thought her neighbor Richard Veloso was referring to sloppy previous tenants when he told her the apartment looked “better.” But then, as Veloso stood in the doorway of her third-floor apartment at 205 Columbus Avenue, he asked: “You know what happened in this apartment?”

“Just like that,” Nassif recalls. “Just like a scary movie.”

Veloso discovered the body of Jonathan Levin, the son of then-Time Warner C.E.O. Gerald Levin, slumped between the kitchen and living room floors in Nassif’s apartment on June 2, 1997. The thirty-one-year-old schoolteacher was shot by a Bronx high school student he once taught, after being tortured with a knife for his A.T.M. card pin number. “Because [Veloso] told me so vividly what happened, I couldn’t get these images out of my head,” Nassif says.

That night, Nassif barricaded her door with a chair (“I was so crazy!”), purchased a dead bolt, and searched for nonexistent blood stains. But once Nassif researched Levin’s story, she cried through the news articles. “It helped me to feel a little better,” she says. “It wasn’t just this creepy story that happened. It was a real person who lived here.”

Emma Grady shared a room with her sister in apartment 2C at 63 Bank Street in the West Village for about six months beginning in November 2008. One of her neighbors informed her that the apartment was where punk rocker Sid Vicious was discovered dead on February 2, 1979.

Vicious is believed to have overdosed on heroin in the apartment, which belonged to his girlfriend at the time. Grady seems indifferent. “I didn’t know who Sid Vicious was, so I didn’t care,” she says. “He was a member of the Sex Pistols, I guess. I couldn’t name one of their songs.”

Grady says she never felt a “presence” in 2C, even though she says she has felt one elsewhere. Living at 63 Bank Street did impress people at parties. “I’m not that badass, but I definitely thought I was more badass when I lived in that apartment,” Grady says.

Julia Dahl moved into 16 Ocean Parkway in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn with her, boyfriend (now her husband) on the day after Halloween in 2007, knowing that the previous tenant had committed suicide there. Neighbors told her about David, an Orthodox Jewish man who had been married with children before realizing he was gay. David’s life began to unravel in apartment D20.

“I somehow want to learn about that pain or feel that pain a little bit, because I’m curious about it,” Dahl says. She is a crime reporter for CBS News and has a natural curiosity about events like this, but with David she wanted none of the details. “If he killed himself in the bathtub and laid there for a week, it would have been hard for me to take a shower,” she says. “We used to talk about our mission to cleanse the apartment of its sad energy.”

Dahl has moved out, but “I definitely always think of him,” she says. “I wish I knew who he was.” She kept the mail that arrived for him all four years she lived in D20, but ultimately opted against finding his family. David partly inspired a novel Dahl wrote about a crime in the Orthodox community in Borough Park. “He and his plight have always sort of piqued my imagination,” she says. “Who knows how his family remembered him, what legacy he had?”