As 2016 draws to a close, we're revisiting some of the best Gothamist stories from the past year. These are stories that illuminated the good, the bad, the infuriating, and exhilarating—in other words, what makes New York New York. Here they are, in no particular order.

'Slumlord' Matchmaker: Brooklyn Landlord Turns Desperate Strangers Into Sudden Roommates // By Emma Whitford

Liam O'Brien was crashing on his friend's couch last winter when he found a Craigslist post for a single room in a five-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, for $775. He responded quickly, and set up a viewing through the management company. Later that week, a man named Gary, who said he was the building manager, let O'Brien into 80 New York Avenue #5 to look around. Four of the bedrooms appeared lived in, though no one was home. Gary said O'Brien's credit history wouldn't be an issue so long as he could pay an extra month's security. "I took the first thing I could get, and this was it," he told Gothamist.

O'Brien, a 29-year-old ironworker, still hadn't met his future roommates when he went to property owners Mendel and Chananya Gold's Williamsburg office the next day to sign the lease. A copy of that lease shows his name written in pen over what appears to be whiteout. Instead of giving him a set of keys, someone in the office provided the code to a lock box that's clamped to the railing outside the four-story pre-war building. According to residents, the lockbox holds keys that prospective tenants, and sometimes brokers, use to enter their apartments unannounced.

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(Christian Hansen / Gothamist)

How Stuy Town Got A Tourniquet While Blackstone Gets Billions // By Kevin Sweeting

How has the city settled into such a low expectation of success in the preservation of affordable housing? How did Stuyvesant Town, which so recently stood as the paragon of affordable, middle class housing in Manhattan, fall so far? In a city that prioritizes affordable housing over every other issue, how is preserving the status quo in exchange for $221 million in taxpayer money and hundreds of millions more in development rights considered a victory?

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

Times Square 'Designated Activity Zones' Make Elmo 'Feel Like A Fucking Caged Animal' // By Nathan Tempey

Luis M. was sweating when he tilted up the head on his Elmo suit to get some air. When approached by a reporter and asked how the new Designated Activity Zones/freedom pens in Times Square were treating him, he didn't hesitate: "I feel like a fucking caged animal," he said. "Fuck the law. Fuck the system."

A passing tourist caught his eye and he broke off momentarily to call to her: "Hey, beautiful, come over here," he said. Normally, he would have followed her to try to convince the woman to pose for a picture and cough up a tip, but as of this week, police can ticket him if he plies his trade outside the confines of the white lines delineating the zone. A slender lane of teal paint within the box is the only place he's allowed to pose for a photo and take money.

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(Rebecca Fishbein/Gothamist)

Heeeere's Moshiach: My Surreal Trip In the Orthodox Jewish Mitzvah Tank // By Rebecca Fishbein

We run red lights in Chinatown and come dangerously close to pedestrians, none of whom seem particularly pleased about the train of orange RVs blocking traffic and blasting music (it's still the "Moshiach! Moshiach! Moshiach! song, and by this point I am ready for Moshiach to come and end it). "Ach, Manhattan!" Vorovitch keeps saying, as taxi drivers try to cut him off. "Happy Passover!" he yells at them cheerfully, and the screaming children behind me follow suit.

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(Erica Siudzinski / Gothamist)

Inside the Rise & Fall Of A 1970s Upper West Side Cult // By Jake Offenhartz

On the evening of July 29th, 1985, members of a mysterious group called the Sullivan Institute broke into and terrorized an apartment at 100th Street and Broadway. Dressed in dark colors and stocking caps, some beat the tenants with sticks, while others slit open mattresses and smashed the sink, toilet, and television set. It was a coordinated revenge attack, intended to send a message to the group's neighbors, who allegedly started the drama by spilling paint on the institute's wall.

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(Sai Mokhtari)

NSFW: How LUST Restored My Faith In NYC, Parties, And Hot Summer Nights // By Lauren Evans

“I feel like this is what Sex and the City promised me New York would be like,” said Ruthie, a photographer for Bushwick Daily. We were leaning against the bar, sipping champagne and watching a woman in glittering nipple tassles arrange a pile of fried quail wings on a man’s crotch. He was lying supine on a low table, naked but for a pair of flesh-colored underwear, a jeweled necklace, and the serene expression of a person totally at ease with his current place in time and space.

A couple kneeled on the pillows beside him, dipping their wings into an orange sauce smeared across his thighs. I wondered if he was ticklish.

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(Scott Heins/Gothamist)

This Is How NYC Schools Teach Kids About 9/11 // By Julia Glum

When [Robert] Sandler, or any educator in New York City, teaches his students about 9/11, he faces a unique challenge: How do you teach such an intensely emotional, local event to a generation of kids who don't have any first-hand frame of reference for it? Teachers across grade levels described the difficulty of making 9/11 relevant to their students, most of whom were born after the attacks took place.

"It takes a lot to punch through to a teenager and make them emotional," said Sandler, who was honored by the 9/11 Tribute Center for the unit he teaches about 9/11. "When they have my class they really walk away with something, I think, significant."

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(Getty Images)

Brooklyn College Students: NYPD Illegally Spied On Us & Lied About It // By Aviva Stahl

A female undercover NYPD detective “converted” to Islam to spy on Muslim students at Brooklyn College, none of whom were ever accused of a crime. The spying continued for years, long after Mayor de Blasio vowed to end the NYPD's blanket surveillance of the Muslim community. While the NYPD didn’t respond to Gothamist’s calls or emails when we published the account, they later claimed that the story was bogus.

"There's truth in the Gothamist story, if you pick out certain facts you can say, 'Well, this is true,' or 'That's true,’” NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller, told WNYC in November. “But it's wrapped around this narrative that there was this overarching blanket surveillance, which is not the case."

Jethro Eisenstein, an attorney who has been part of the lawsuit challenging the city’s investigations into political and religious groups since 1971—Handschu v. Special Services Division—wasn’t so sure.

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

How Massive Gang Sweeps Make Growing Up In The Projects A Crime // By Ben Hattem

I ask Mike Rivera if the crews are still fighting as much as they were before the raid. "No," he says, shrugging. "But it was never really a gang. MHB, the Make It Happen Boys, whatever. It was just Manhattanville. We didn't have no colors or no one in charge. It was just us. It was just living in the projects."

Should The Brooklyn Cop Convicted Of Killing An Innocent Man Be Spared Prison? // By Max Rivlin-Nadler

"The DA's decision sends the message across the country that officers can continue to kill without being held accountable," said Cathy Deng, the Executive Director of CAAAV, an organization that has supported the Gurley family throughout the trial. "I know this case is uniquely different from a lot of others, but not so much that it's still the story of an officer walking away free from killing another black person in the United States."

Remembering The Crown Heights Riots, 25 Years Later // By Raphael Pope-Sussman

"All of us who lived in the neighborhood and had some claim to leadership were convinced beyond any doubt that we had to do things differently. It was a horrible, horrible indictment of all of us. We couldn't pretend to be running our little organizations and running our candidates and pretending that we were making something good happen if something like those riots could happen again. It was international infamy."

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

Inside NYC's Social Club For The Formerly Devout // By Emma Whitford

Last Christmas, a 51-year-old woman from the Upper West Side walked into a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan and introduced herself to twelve strangers.

A victim of a highly-publicized rabbinical scandal, she'd recently shed the daily routines of Modern Orthodox Judaism for good. There to greet her was a group of former Mormons, Hasidic Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Muslims. "There's a bazillion different appetizers and there are 12 people at the table, so I go around the table and say, 'Who eats treif? Who eats vegetarian? Who eats meat but not treif?'" she recalled. "Because when you leave, your what-kind-of-Chinese-appetizer cues are no longer defined by the system."

For the members of Formerly Fundamentalist NYC, a meetup group for New Yorkers who have left strict religious communities, perusing a menu is an exercise in post-religious decision making.

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Balzano at home with mustache on his 80th birthday. (John Del Signore)

Sunny Balzano Is Mourned & Celebrated In Red Hook // John Del Signore

Inside the bar, those who tried to pay for drinks were informed that "the first round was on Sunny." This was quintessential Sunny, generous (and indifferent to profit margins) to the end, and it reminded the bereaved that Sunny's generosity was bigger than any one person. It's physically impossible for Sunny to buy anyone a drink ever again, and yet, there we were, thanking the dead man for the beer and reflecting on the larger force of universal kindness, of which we are all instruments. Sunny, on his best days, was one such excellent instrument, whose soulful music inspired the rest of the orchestra to resonate with richer harmonies.

As I thought about how Sunny's ghost had just given me a buyback, I recalled the best and only time I'd been ordered to leave a bar (that I can recall, anyway). It was past four in the morning, and I was loitering in a back booth with a few others, taking our sweet time calling it a night. Sunny appeared at our table, smiled radiantly upon our motley crew, and threw us out of his bar by singing an improvised song that could have been lifted from a Lerner and Loewe musical. What I remember of it began, "It's time to go hoooome / It's time to get out of my hooouse..." We exited, laughing as we left what was, in fact, Sunny's house.

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(Rainer Turim)

The CBGB Awnings: Where Are They Now? // By Jen Carlson

"I had known Hilly from my time working with bands and I put in a call to Hilly. He told me that the awning currently in place was not the original and that the first one was stolen years ago by some punk band. Pressed further, he thought it was Jodie Foster's Army. I called a friend of mine who had been deep in the indie punk scene in the '80s and '90s and asked if he knew anybody in JFA. Fortunately, he knew them well. I called and they became measured with their answers. They never took my call again" — Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Curatorial Director Howard Kramer. One of the many people we talked to during our three part investigative series on the old CBGB awnings.


The Explosive History Of Kossar's, NYC's Most Famous Bialy Bakery // By Nell Casey

"The Lower East Side in Manhattan was bialy central for the world," explains Evan Giniger, the current owner of Kossar's who took over in 2013. "Morris Kossar thought that opening a bialy-only store would be a good idea. And you have to kinda think about what a concept that is, to open a single-product store that could sustain itself. It's unthinkable today that you could open up a store that only sold one thing."

Yet that's exactly what Kossar did, along with business partner Isadore Mirsky, opening Mirsky and Kossar's at 145 Clinton Street in 1936, nine years after arriving in the United States from Russia. Back in Bialystok, Poland—where the bread derives its name—and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, bialys were a daily part of life, something that Mirsky and Kossar's, and their competitors, wanted to recreate in the United States.

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(Getty Images)

Remembering David Bowie At The Speed Of Light // By Ben Yakas

As Bowie once sang, "You're not alone/give me your hand"—it only seems right to extend that kindness to friends, acquaintances, and, most of all, strangers across the world who are feeling this loss as acutely as I am. Grieving is weird and difficult enough when you refuse to leave your apartment, let alone when you try to interact with the real world and don't really know what to say.

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist).

Why Are Hundreds Of Affordable NYC Apartments Vacant? // By Emma Whitford

Spread across 155 buildings, the apartments in the TIL program are the unintended leftovers of a bad legislative decision made during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

Facing bankruptcy, the City Council passed a law in 1976 that empowered the city to seize buildings whose owners had not paid property taxes for one year. The goal was to pressure delinquent landlords and increase tax revenues. Instead, many landlords in the city's poorest neighborhoods simply abandoned their properties. Ultimately, NYC acquired more than 100,000 vacant and occupied apartments.

"The city ended up creating, inadvertently, the second largest public housing system in the country," explained Harry DeRienzo of the nonprofit housing development corporation Banana Kelly.

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

Robert Caro Wonders What New York Is Going To Become // By Christopher Robbins

"Moses had done something no one else had ever done. Everyone thought power comes from being elected. He wasn’t elected, he realizes he’s never going to get elected to anything, so he’s got to figure out a way to get all this power without getting elected, and he does it. I didn’t understand it, no one else understood it, even La Guardia says to him, 'Don’t tell me what to do,' or whatever the quote is, 'I’m the boss, you just work for me.'"

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(Scott Heins / Gothamist)

These Hideous Built-In Air Conditioners Are Spreading Across NYC Like A Virus // By Dan Nosowitz

In New York City, PTACs are also the standard climate-regulation method for new construction buildings. This sets New York apart—nowhere else does a resident of a brand-new condo have to share her home with one, or several, of these hulking metal monstrosities.

"Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles—none of the buildings there have these fucking glorified window units sticking through their walls," says Smith.

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(Jordan G. Teicher / Gothamist)

Life Without Internet In NYC // By Jordan Teicher

If Tyrone Youmans, 46, a chef from Queens, wants to read this article, he has a couple options. None are ideal.

He can travel 15 minutes from his apartment to his local library branch and log on to a desktop computer for up to 30 minutes. If it’s crowded, he’ll have to wait until one becomes available, and log off as soon as his session is over to make way for another patron.

If the library’s closed, he can travel more than an hour to use his girlfriend’s computer in Far Rockaway, or his sister’s in Flatbush. Or, he can use up some precious data from his monthly two gigabyte mobile data plan.

Youmans’s best bet, for now, is to use a computer after his class at The HOPE Program, where he’s enrolled in an eight-week work readiness training.

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(Bluejake/Sarah Bibi/Gothamist)

Ask A Native New Yorker: A Friend Has Bedbugs...Can I Exclude Her From My Party? // By Jake Dobkin

This is a good time to get real with her and ask why, for the love of all things holy, she hasn't yet called an exterminator. If you found out your roommate had ebola, would you just carry on for two weeks as if nothing was wrong? Bedbugs are the ebola of New York infestations. Her lackadaisicalness suggests a depressive tendency towards self-harm—a profound recklessness that should concern you as her friend.

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(Photo courtesy of WIC)

Urban Removal: How A Utopian Vision For Hell's Kitchen Burned Out // By Nathan Tempey

The Women's Interart Center formed in 1969 as more of an idea than a venue, one of many women's collectives formed amid the heady ferment of feminist activism in New York City at the time. As Lewitin recalls, the group, founded as a non-hierarchical collective, was meeting in members' homes when a painter named Rose mentioned the buildings in Hell's Kitchen that were just sitting there, and proposed trying to move into one.

A call to Housing found a sympathetic audience with the man in charge of commercial leasing, and that summer the center established its first brick-and-mortar location on the 10th floor of 549 West 52nd. The rent: $50 a month.

"It was the most incredible experience because you have these blue-collar people, and you have these arty people, and they all got on the same page," she said. "We had this huge model, and we said, 'You go here. You go here'...Everyone got the sense that this was possible."

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Santos "Frenchie" Ramos, 76, sits at the desk where he's overseen his Williamsburg gym for 40 years. (Scott Heins/Gothamist)

Longtime Williamsburg Gym Owner Hangs Tough In The Face Of GYM-trification // By Scott Heins

All day long, a community of very strong men walk through a dingy foyer and up a narrow staircase on Williamsburg's Southside. Dressed in sneakers and tank tops, most are sweating already as they twist their broad shoulders through a third floor doorway and set upon rusted dumbells. Even with the sunlight coming through the windows, the gym feels like a dungeon populated by medieval giants. They all seem to know each other. Above a stereo blasting rock music and the clanging of heavy plates the weightlifters cheer one another by name, and overseeing it all is a sinewy 76-year-old man with a knotted beard. He runs the place.

Santos "Frenchie" Ramos has managed his namesake gym at 303 Broadway for 40 years. He has no business partners, no shift schedule, and no staff. Instead, the former bodybuilder and professional wrestling referee still works 70 hour weeks to keep the doors open and membership fees low. "For me, it's been a struggle. I haven't become rich. I live in city housing," Ramos said. "I manage. I don't drink, I don't go out. The gym is my second home."

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(Gretchen Robinette / Gothamist)

How I Explained Trump's Win To My 6-Year-Old Daughter // By Jen Chung

"But why didn't she win?"
"Well, I think that while we and a lot of other people believed in her ideas, there were many people who thought Donald Trump had better ideas"—though not really—"so he is the president now. What we can do is hope that he can help everybody."
"This. Is. The. Worst. Day. Of. My. Life," she declared.
"Well, I hope this is the worst day of your life," I said.
"Why?"
"Because we're healthy—and we're all together. Think about how much worse it would be if someone you knew and loved died. So I hope this is the worst day of your life."