Tom DeMott, a longtime tenant organizer in West Harlem and Morningside Heights, died suddenly Oct. 23, in the midst of fighting a major-capital-improvement rent increase in his building. He was 66.
“He was modest about his own role in uptown resistance to gentrification,” his brother Benj wrote in a tribute on the FirstOfTheMonth blog. “For what it’s worth, though, the tenants’ group Tom helped found surely belongs in someone’s grand narrative. Back in the day, after years of struggle against a series of owners (aided by wannabe co-opers) out to quash rent strikes in three buildings, the ‘Tenants’ Alliance’ won one of the largest settlements ever paid by a landlord to tenants in New York State.”
“Tom gave me some of the best advice ever during our struggle with Jewish Theological Seminary,” said longtime Met Council activist Vajra Kilgour, whose building in the neighborhood fought off the attempted mass eviction of more than 20 households, calling him a “heroic tenant organizer.” “I worked closely with Tom when I got back involved in the Columbia fight over the Manhattanville expansion,” added Kenny Schaeffer. “Tom was a real fighter,” said Michael McKee.
DeMott, who lived in the neighborhood between Columbia University and Harlem for decades, came of age in its intellectual-political counterculture, “a neighborhood that would morph into an undeniable community thanks to his indispensable will,” his brother said.
DeMott made a living working at the Post Office on 125th Street for 30 years. A serious amateur musician, he “was lost in black music” from the moment he heard the Rolling Stones cover it in the early ’60s, his brother wrote, and named his son James after James Brown and his daughter Billie after Billie Holiday.
He approached politics with a touch of the poet and solid practicality. “West Harlem facing university invasions… gone dominoes and long gone James Brown blarings… and go look at these condos with Trump name on them looking-over over-seeing the Hudson at night, five of them with their apartments darkened cause they’re global investments… not housing, not housing,” he wrote in June.
“Landlord harassment on the rise, yeah,” he told neighbors in May. “I certainly am getting many more people consulting me about apartment conditions, and their lease renewals—the care needed to fill them out the right way, as basic as that is. More BS about security deposits too, and leases getting sent back concerning all those added in forms that have to be signed (in the end they are mostly forms that inform tenants and protect them, but not all and you have to be careful of the preferential rent tricks).”
“My brother Tom’s crazy early death,” his brother wrote, “made everyone who’d walked with him wonder about personal costs of deep politics.” But he added, “Tom tried to ensure his immediate family didn’t pay for his strenuous life. His wife, Maria, was his camarada. There was no such thing as women’s work in Tom and Maria’s household. He did the laundry and most food prep.”
“The ‘obstacle’ to anyone being an ‘effective leader,’” DeMott wrote in June, “is that we are mostly all made to feel like losers and to feel it everyday in part from the real estate history we’ve lived through and feel daily in our homes and hoods watching the weak and lovely fall.”