Courtesy of Greenstone
It takes a certain set of skills to make it in New York, and when Eitan Baron moved to the Big Apple in 2000, he definitely didn’t have it.
Picking up a suitcase and moving from Azor, Israel, to try his luck at selling oil paintings in Florida was not quite what Baron wanted to do with his life. Also, not knowing English made him a terrible salesman. So he relocated up to New York to try his luck at moving furniture for local Israeli companies. He even worked for Moishe’s Moving & Storage for a few days. He was determined to make it.
Then a Judaism seminar organized by Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York, turned his luck around. Baron, 36, went to yeshiva for 10 days in exchange for an opportunity to work for a construction company. He did everything from cleaning constructing sites to learning all there is to know about home improvement from Home Depot guidebooks.
One opportunity led to another, and before long Baron was buying up historic Brooklyn brownstones and renovating them with environmentally friendly materials and methods, paving the way for his development company, Greenstones. And the rest, as Baron says, is history.
The Forward’s Maia Efrem spoke with Baron about his humble beginnings and his long road toward the American dream.
Maia Efrem: Can you tell me about your entry into development and construction?
Eitan Baron: I got to America in the year 2000. I didn’t speak English and couldn’t find a job, so the quickest way to make money and find work was to use my hands. I was pretty handy, so I worked for someone in the construction industry for about six months, doing anything from cleaning to painting. Two years after that I met a person who was connected to large real estate developers who said let’s do something together. So in 2002 we opened a construction company together. Real estate was booming in New York.
I was living in Park Slope and I was into the environment, and I just saw a growing demand for family-friendly homes, and anyone who comes to Brooklyn hears about Brooklyn brownstones. And once you buy a brownstone, you realize it’s old with a lot of things to fix.
I saw Park Slope as a beautiful place to buy something small. I decided to turn one brownstone into three environmentally friendly units. So the name came: Greenstone.
What makes the construction of Greenstones different from regular methods of building?
The main thing is the structure of the building; we build the building with concrete floors in between, and that makes the building more insulated. The outside exterior walls, the insulation, the windows all make a difference. Traditionally, if you have 2,000 square feet of space and you sleep in 150 square feet in your bedroom, you’re still cooling and heating everything else. We use five zones for cooling and heating. If you go to sleep and you have a baby room, you can turn the heat or cooling in your room and baby room on and shut the rest of the house off; that’s super environmentally friendly. It’s called a split system, and it’s very popular in Europe.
Do you find there is high demand for eco-friendly construction?
I think people who have larger families pay more attention to that. Especially when the price of electricity is rising, they like the flexibility and see the value of it. Buyers today are much more educated, and heating and cooling will be in the top three questions they ask when looking for a house. It’s giving them the idea that this developer cares about the home they’re building.
What was it like going through the recession as a contractor?
For the first six months it was a shock, and it was, “How do I protect my money?” I was reading business magazines, and they all say when the market is low you buy. But how do you do that when you think the world is ending? You were thinking what’s the solution, how long will it last. So after a year you’re like okay, we know the size of the monster and we feel comfortable that we can beat it. So I started looking in the area, and I was lucky enough to get two properties with my partners.
We had two years of opportunity to buy stuff. After that, in 2012, forget about it — everyone was buying, and now the market is super hot.
What do you find is the biggest difference between Israeli and American development?
I know how to develop in New York, I don’t know how to do it in Israel. A lot of developers feel it is similar to New York, [but] in some ways it’s more complicated, because they don’t have a lot of land.
Where were you brought up?
My parents owned a store in Azor, which is a very quiet town close to Holon and Tel Aviv. They sold books and gift accessories and school supplies. We weren’t super religious, but I got some of my customs from my grandmother. She kept Shabbat, and holidays were very important. I remember holidays very clearly; I can still smell her cooking. My parents weren’t religious. we became religious on Yom Kippur.
What did your parents say when you told them you were leaving for New York?
They thought, okay, he doesn’t speak English, he doesn’t have money, he’ll be back. I’m sure they were excited for me; I was the only one in the family who said I’m taking a suitcase and I’m leaving and let’s see where it takes me. But it was hard for my parents. I remember my mom crying at the airport. Now that I have a son, I understand her pain.
How did you learn how to fix homes in the first place?
Honestly, I went to Home Depot and looked at books. Clients would say, “I want you to hang wallpaper,” I would say, “Great!” So I would go to Home Depot and look at wallpaper books. I had no choice, I had to figure it out or have no home. I love it here. It’s the land of opportunity, and I love every square inch of it.
This interview has been edited for style and length.
Maia Efrem is the former research editor and assistant to the editor and was also responsible for the Forward’s annual Salary Survey. Previously she served as the editor of Blognik Beat, a blog written by students who emigrated from or have ties to the Former Soviet Union. Maia is a graduate of Hunter College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Turning Brownstones Green: Interview with Eitan Baron