Bushwick is THE NEW SoHo
“Bushwick is just like Greenpoint except the people are, you know, of color instead of Polish,” says a Greenpoint artist cheerfully, after a sunny midday trip to look at a raw loft space with a friend who was evicted from his Chelsea loft, given 60 days to clear out. The coffee shop burger break left lingering distress. The space was unsuitable for his friend, who instead now plans to embark on a three-month journey to “think” and regroup, to plot his next move.
Artists in mid-career who could be in the prime of their professional and family lives are now being forced instead to take a break, following an itinerary of worry driven by the threat of homelessness, without services and utilities necessary to sustain life and work. Northside artist Bill Norton has had to spend a year away from his studio dealing with the problems in his building. His son is coming to live with him and he hopes that things will turn out all right. Norton’s situation recalls a sense of freewheeling experienced at 20, when travel, camping out, roughing it, and living in dangerous neighborhoods provided coffee table stories.
Despite the different characters of the neighborhoods here in Bushwick, Greenpoint, the north, south, and east sides of Williamsburg, each is becoming part of a familiar pattern whereby an influx of relative wealth pushes out low and moderate-income families in areas undergoing change. Artists in commercial buildings are reliving the problems of the ‘70s in SoHo. Change is the key here and property owners and realtors welcome artists for the spirit of creativity and care which can enhance buildings and neighborhoods—yet the “revival” quickly turns into somebody else’s profits and unwittingly displaces the poor and the very artisans of the change.
Artists finding difficulty competing for shelter and workspace with the likes of Sprint PCS can keep in mind that the scale begins here with longtime southside and Bushwick welfare families.
Los Sures, an organization started in the early ‘70s, began as a housing corporation formed in response to widespread abandonment of buildings by landlords. “One hundred buildings were abandoned,” says Kathy Harriman, Director of Planning and Development. Los Sures helped organize tenants to take over buildings and cooperatively manage them as rental properties. Social work, welfare to work, computer centers, job fairs, and senior lunches are some of the services Los Sures provides in its continuing endeavor to provide low and moderate income housing to keep people in the neighborhood.
Leaseholders in residential buildings are served by Los Sures. When problems occur for tenants, such as lack of services, they are guided to the channels where help can be found and enabled to take court action against substandard living conditions. They are encouraged to organize.
Los Sures will serve anyone who comes for help, but, says Harriman, “Artists in commercial buildings in general have the resources to deal with the problems we help people with…they have displaced tenants, maybe not themselves, but they’ve created a situation because they have at least greater resources than the families on welfare who’ve lived in the area a bit longer.” Harriman could not talk to me for long, however, because she was in the middle of relocating six tenants to emergency housing.
The climate here in much of Greenpoint and Williamsburg now is not so much one of burned out buildings but of nice neighborhoods that artists want to live in. “I like the changes in the neighborhood but I hate to see my friends losing their homes,” observes photographer Meredith Allen. Painter Bill Norton is also appreciative. “The last neighborhood I lived in I had to walk around with brass knuckles…I’m pushing 50, I don’t want to do that anymore.”
Traditionally, artists have been pioneers, braving harsh situations for space to live and work. Probably we will continue to migrate to housing in un-gentrified terrain, as could be found here in the north side of Williamsburg only four years ago. “When we came here landlords couldn’t even find a commercial tenant,” Norton says.
Norton moved in four years ago. With the owner’s permission he built a residential space in the loft. Two years later the building was sold to a powerful local landlord, owner of 16 buildings and an upscale north side restaurant.
The landlord claimed he didn’t know people were living in the nearby loft building he recently purchased, according to Norton; he told people he would honor their leases. Instead, the landlord is now trying to break the leases and get the tenants out. Norton has organized the seven tenants to defend the building. They have spent over $25,000 so far.
Norton takes it in stride. “It’s part of the life cycle of any artist…I had no choice. It’s the only place where an artist can have enough space to live and work. It hurts the arts because with the insane rents we can’t afford to make work.” Norton has been evicted from lofts in SoHo and Chelsea. “The developers have moved into Williamsburg,” he laments.
The need for the services of organizations like Los Sures has grown due to the fact that “rents keep going up,” says Jerry Urbaez, a tenant organizer. Because of the speed of this escalation, artists fear that it is also unlikely that loft laws will be extended to Brooklyn in time to preserve the housing and workspaces that artists have built in commercial spaces.
“The present political climate is not ripe for this legislation to move forward,” says lawyer Richard Altman. “There is no political will to do it this time. Pataki doesn’t care, look what he did with the rent stabilization law, everyone’s rent is going crazy…it’s a very ugly business.” Altman fought in 1992 in the state Supreme Court against government’s right to depreciate the value of tenants’ improvements (fixture fees) charged to the landlord when the tenant leaves. “It was a serious deprivation of people’s property. A long, unpleasant court battle was lost.”
An earlier loft law existed in a 20-month period beginning in April of 1980, Altman notes. “It already applies to Brooklyn except that there were very few lofts in Brooklyn converted within that window.” Meanwhile, “these conversions have all happened relatively recently in a political climate when legislation is not pro-tenant. It’s still a risky business to move in and take over commercial space. This has already been done [in SoHo et. al.]…it’s like déjà vu,” says Altman. Yet if “a group of tenants got together and tried to fight something like this,” there would be hope of extending the loft law to fully cover Brooklyn. Creative legal theories are also needed to defend “de facto multiple dwellings,” Altman adds.
It seems a race to put political pressure on public officials before tenants, even those with leases still in effect, are given the boot. Ken Fisher and Howard Golden have shown sympathy. So anxious are landlords to be rid of the artist tenants that they claim ignorance of the existing living situations and cut necessary services and utilities. It is a silent scourge in the neighborhood.
A dark cloud hung low over a building connecting three addresses on a desolate industrial street off Marcy in perhaps the very navel of Williamsburg. I will refer to it by the fictitious name “the Triptych.” The truth is strange. I found among tenants anger, fear, a wish for anonymity, and the fragile beginning of negotiations to be left undisturbed.
Triptych tenants reported a break-in by the super; the lock to a floor where 15 tenants live illegally was blowtorched. “We had to put new locks on,” the super tells me. “Why?” I asked. “Because they’re not the legal tenants,” he replied. The super then asked if I wanted to rent an apartment. I told him that I was writing a story. “I don’t want to talk to you,” he said and walked away.
A commercial tenant knew something was going on but wasn’t sure what. One resident insisted, “Why did commercial tenants get new toilets and artist tenants on our floor get broken into?” Another resident who did not want to be named said that she received a letter only a month ago advising her to be out by October 1. “You don’t feel stable anymore, you don’t have security,” she said. She then deflected the conversation to other buildings. “I heard of three buildings where electricity has been cut off; a woman I know can no longer run her business. Landlords are just turning off electricity to get people out,” she stated.
Mery Lynn McCorkle holds periodic loft parties to enjoy her river view at the far end of Broadway with friends, a sort of liquidation gathering before the fan was splashed. Her elegant cocktail attire and the gourmet potluck spread seemed like a veil over the ugliness of her troubles in the building. Of the 30 original tenants, 22 are holding out without electricity. They have leases in effect through June. When they made a complaint about the lack of heat, they were told an inspector would be sent.
OWNER CUT POWER can now be seen in tall white letters painted on the black windowpanes of the top floor of the Gretch Building. Lawyer Arthur Rhine terms what is happening here “constructive eviction.” The owner of the building, Lawrence Drasne, told tenants that because their electric bill was not paid, service has been cut. The tenants had receipts. He would not comment but directed me to his lawyer, Merill Wenig, who says this is untrue. When asked why the tenants have no electricity, she said that after notices had been served and ignored, “the lease allows disconnection of electricity. Tenants are required to put in their own; they’ve chosen not to.”
Kranse wants tenants to bring electrical work up to code but reportedly refuses access to the basement for work and inspections. Wenig denies this as well. “Since the non-artist floors continue to have electricity, the goal is clear: evict the artists,” concludes McCorkle. Rumor has it that Sprint PCS will be renting a floor and paying 10 times the existing rent.
The tenants have been unable to work with the landlord to get electricity back into their homes or to negotiate new leases. The freight elevator goes unmanned, passenger elevators die on Friday, and the parking lot has been padlocked with tenants’ cars inside. For his show last month at Eyewash, Mark Masyga, another tenant in the building, could only work during the daylight. “I think they’re trying to keep it pretty cool to make it difficult for us too,” he believes. “I’m just wondering how far this guy will go.”
Calls to the heat hotline have resulted in a runaround, terminating in the office of Harold Shultz of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. “Until such time as the loft laws are extended to your building,” Shultz wrote to McCorkle, “there is no legal requirement that the owner provide services appropriate to a residential building. Unfortunately I do not see any way that we can be of assistance in your problem. You already appear to be in extensive litigation over the interpretation of your leases which is probably your only source of right in this situation.” Despite the fact that only about 10 buildings in Brooklyn were converted for residential use under the Loft Law, lawyer Arthur Rhine finds hope for artists’ loft dwellings in Brooklyn. The survival of renovated residential loft spaces, Rhine argues, rests in 1) educational and solidarity programs, 2) pressuring public officials like Ken Fisher and Howard Golden, and 3) legal strategy. If buildings consist of six or more residential units converted by tenants rather than the landlord, they are entitled to rent stabilized leases. According to Rhine, “It has been found to be true by the highest courts in the state that if tenants rehabilitate the unit, it is not exempt from rent stabilization protection.”
Rent stabilization may apply but it is the tenants’ burden to show that landlords agreed to let tenants live in the building. In the upcoming case involving the north side building, Rhine and tenants intend to show that the landlord was aware of residential units. Bill Norton is holding out, although the new owners just seem interested in “converting the building to some other use.” He has no choice, he says of his fight to keep his loft in SoHo, Chelsea, and now here in Brooklyn. “It’s the only place an artist can have enough space to live and work.” Similarly, a tenant in the Triptych building warns, “It’s impossible to find a reasonable rent so we’re going to fight it to the end. We have nothing to lose.” The fight for affordable housing for artists and low and moderate-income inhabitants has indeed become a tug of war, pitting the growth of an artistic community versus the pocketbooks of developers.
Artists may be tempted to gather wits and belongings, as in “Chin up, eastward ho!” but McCorkle holds on. “The problem is that we have no place to go,” she explains. “The New York Times has already proclaimed Bushwick the next Williamsburg.”