Cheese It

by Peter Duffy
The Resident, June 18, 1997
Despite Vocal Opposition, Neile Weissman Pushes On With His Plan to Boycott Upstate Products if Rent Regs Expire

When the Resident spoke with Neile Weissman back in early May, he was flushed with excitement over his campaign to boycott upstate farm products if rent regulations expire on June 15.

The Lower East Side’s Community Board 3 had approved a resolution calling for the boycott and he was eager to pitch his ideas to other community boards throughout the city.

Since then, Weissman has learned a little bit about life in the public eye.

He has been attacked by the New York State Tenants and Neighbors Coalition as a "lonely computer programmer with an overabundance of energy, an excess of spare time, a fax machine and a statewide directory of newspaper editors."

Billy Easton, the organization’s executive director, said Weissman "probably couldn’t organize a block party" and wrote a letter to the Farm Bureau, which lobbies Albany legislators on behalf of farmers, pledging that city tenants would continue to eat New York farm products.

And, in a stunning blow, Community Board 3 rescinded its pro-boycott resolution. "In May we supported it," said Martha Danzinger, the board’s district manager. "In June we rescinded it. People from Tenants and Neighbors came to speak to us. The champion of the whole fight is obviously [Assembly] Speaker [Sheldon] Silver and [board members] talked to his office. So we voted to rescind it." Silver has said he opposes the boycott.

Tenants and Neighbors has written letters to all community boards urging them to reject the resolution.

"No good deed goes unpunished," Weissman noted wryly on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, the campaign has had some success. In all, 10 community boards out of 59 in the city have approved the resolution, which Weissman has expanded to include all upstate products.

And he is getting plenty of press north of the city. The Albany Times-Union has covered the story from the beginning, and featured it on its June 4 front page, with the headline "Tenants in NYC Vow to Get Even." The Troy Record, Schenectady Gazette and other papers have been following the boycott story.

"One of the most over-reported non-events is [this] boycott … by New York City tenants," wrote Vincent Wishrad, development coordinator for Tenants and Neighbors, in a June 3 letter to the editor of the Times-Union. "With upstate papers seeking to make rent control relevant to their readers, this inept boycott effort has received a lot of ink."

Undeterred, Weissman vows to push on with his plan.

"What I am calling for is direct action by voters," he said. "Take matters into your own hands. Communicate directly to upstate residents. Take responsibility for your elected officials."

The resolution says upstate "legislators are accountable to businesses that derive much of their revenue from downstate consumers."

"Even if there was no boycott, upstate businesses and farmers would experience a dramatic loss in downstate sales," he continued. "Because every dollar paid in higher rents is a dollar that can’t be used to buy anything, including upstate goods."

An Apple computer salesman, Weissman has lived in a rent-regulated East Fifth Street apartment, paying below market-value rent, since 1978. He has said the end of rent laws would result in an "economic cleansing of all persons below a certain income level."

The boycott idea came to Weissman when he visited the Met Supermarket on Second Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets and bought a block of New York State cheddar cheese. He stopped by the supermarket on Wednesday to stock up on state farm products in anticipation of the end of rent laws – and the beginning of his boycott.

He discovered cheese packages without the New York State sticker that is usually placed on them. It was as if the store owners had caught wind of the boycott and decided that they didn’t want to be associated with New York cheese, Weissman said.

Michael Schumacher, manager of the store, wasn’t quite buying it.

"Why would I want to take the label off the cheese?" he said. "I want to sell them. I have enough problems in this business."