In 1949, Wil Buckery’s mother fled her sour marriage in South Carolina and moved with her seven children into a one-bedroom apartment in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. While his mother worked three jobs as a domestic and studied to become a nurse, Wil, the baby of the brood, got busy learning how to survive.
By the time he was 4 years old, he was selling newspapers on the street – the World-Telegram, the Journal-American, the Amsterdam News – for 3 cents a copy. He realized that if he walked into bars, the merry patrons would probably give a cute little newsboy a whole nickel for a paper. An entrepreneur was born.
“I never felt poor for one day,” says Buckery, now 72 and recently retired from his co-op board at 302 Convent Avenue, just a few blocks from that crowded one-bedroom apartment where he got his New York City baptism. “It was a rough neighborhood back in the day – there were dealers pushing drugs outside the schools. My mother kept us away from that, and we always had breakfast, meat at every dinner, dessert on Sundays. And she saw to it that we all got at least one present at Christmastime, a new suit from A.J. Lester at Easter, and shoes from Buster Brown.”
Those boyhood years gave Buckery something besides a work ethic and an entrepreneurial streak. They also gave him an appreciation for the importance of family and home ownership, which goes a long way toward explaining what happened after he moved into 302 Convent Avenue in 1976, when the 42-unit, pre-World War I building was a seen-better-days rental property. The city announced in 1981 that it was turning the neglected building into an affordable Housing Development Fund Corporation co-op, and renters could become shareholders for just $250. Buckery was all the way in. By then he had worked as a clerk on Wall Street, attended Brooklyn College, worked as a letter carrier, started an extermination business, and served in the U.S. Army in Germany. He and his wife, Helen Hunt, had two young children, and they wanted to own a secure home to raise their family. So Buckery joined the fledgling co-op board and, with the help of the Urban Homestead Assistance Board, worked to turn the crumbling building into a thriving cooperative.
“It was in deplorable condition,” Buckery recalls. “The city was abnegating these buildings, just dumping them. There were drug dealers living here. There were deadbeats who didn’t want to pay maintenance. The building owed $23,000 in back taxes and unpaid water bills.”
But slowly, through elbow grease, a $500 assessment per apartment, and a 25 percent flip tax, the board managed to right the ship and avoid foreclosure. “We dodged a bullet,” says Buckery, who brought something from his day job to his work on the co-op board. At the time he was employed setting up exhibitions in the African wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was like getting paid to go to school.
“I was learning that the museum is like an iceberg,” he says. “There’s a giant store of art under the museum, and I learned a lot about African art and history. Credit for the artworks was given to the village or the tribe, not to the artist. That made me appreciate the importance of working together as a group, rather than as an individual. In my board work, I wrote a million memos and letters, and people noticed that I always used ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’”
Among the board’s many accomplishments – beyond securing the survival of the co-op – are impressive improvements to the building’s physical plant. Decorative terra cotta on the facade, once in danger of crashing to the street, has been restored and secured. There are storage lockers and a laundry room in the basement, electric submeters, a slickly refurbished elevator, and a snug new roof. The building – like Hamilton Heights and the rest of New York City – has changed in unimaginable ways since eight refugees from South Carolina arrived seven decades ago. But for Wil and Helen Buckery and their four children, their 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, one thing has remained constant: the three-bedroom Apt. 41 at 302 Convent Avenue, now immaculately restored, belongs to them.
“We wanted to be true to the HDFC mission of affordable housing,” Buckery says of his fellow board members. “There are a lot of us in this building who came from a history of paying rent. We wanted more for our children, and we see home ownership as something that’s going to be transformative in their lives. The majority of the people in this neighborhood are middle-class working people who want their home to stay in the family.”
Apt. 41, with its labyrinth of rooms full of books, musical instruments, artworks and other signs of generations of shared life, has the distinct feel of a home that’s destined to stay in the Buckery family for a good long while.