Live/Work Tenant, Go Homeless
Three summers ago, when I first came to Williamsburg, “yuppie go home” was spray-painted on what seemed to be a vacant building on Bedford between N. 4th and N. 5th Street. Shortly thereafter these signs were deftly altered to read “yuppie go homeless.” Now that same block sports a mini-mall with options including soy chai lattes, yoga, thick art monographs, and designer clothing. Regardless of whether the latest influx of college-educated throngs of artists, fashion designers, small business owners, or bohemian types would identify themselves as yuppies (even with an economic boom, the term “upwardly-mobile artist” sounds sort of like an oxymoron), everybody living in the neighborhoods between DUMBO and Greenpoint does seem especially fixated on the price of real estate.
Yet if those of us fitting the above aren’t exactly “yuppies,” who are we? Why do we value these areas? And why should these neighborhoods care about our presence? Such questions are particularly salient here and now, given the December evictions in DUMBO as well as the recently publicized list of over one hundred illegal conversions (i.e. grounds for more potential evictions) published by the Fire Department of New York.
On my first trip to investigate a long-term living situation in Brooklyn, I looked at four or five places in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I did so all with one broker, until she finally threw up her hands in the midst of another refusal on my part and sputtered, “It has shag carpeting, cozy bedrooms, a new eat-in-kitchen, and it’s so cheap. What else could you want?” She didn’t really believe me when I said that I was a painter and preferred space and light without carpets. Still, she clearly thought I was part of a trend because she tried to hire me as her “assistant.” My job would consist of going around the neighborhood with other brokers, then giving her the addresses of any places they showed me that I thought were okay by either of our standards. At the time I still didn’t know exactly how to explain the sort of place that I was looking for, but I soon learned the term “live/work.” Though my roommate and I saw dozens of industrial-looking buildings with “For Rent” signs on them, we quickly found that it was almost impossible to find an affordable live/work space, either in the Village Voice or elsewhere.
Little did I know that, three years later, I would be sitting in exactly the kind of sparsely furnished, spacious loft I had hoped to find, but this time as part of a meeting with the press committee of the Brooklyn Live/Work Coalition (BLWC). The group was founded in response to the recent publication of a Fire Department report listing some 121 illegally converted live/work spaces, the majority of which are in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and DUMBO; it gained steam in reaction to the late December eviction of 60 tenants from buildings at 247 and 251 Water Street. Though committee members professed to being tired after long days of work at careers in photojournalism, filmmaking, teaching, or art, they vigorously discussed ways to unite and organize their neighborhoods to attend a February 15 public hearing. At the hearing, state Assembly members listened to what their constituents had to say regarding the possibility of new legislation to protect live/work tenants in Brooklyn. The BLWC hopes to rally political support to expand the existing loft law to cover Brooklyn. Since that law is up for renewal in Albany on March 31, the next few months are critical.
Among the top priorities for the BLWC is also a change in the zoning policy of the loft areas of North Brooklyn, from industrial to mixed-use. When I first looked for a place, I had no idea about the importance of such a designation. After weeks of seeing places that wouldn’t be ready soon enough (they seemed to lack plumbing or electricity or both), a broker showed us a dim but spacious basement area that was littered with what turned out to be three to four dumpsters worth of used photography equipment and garbage. The only plumbing was a sink and toilet clogged with an unidentified black chemical substance, which might be explained by the fact that this bathroom doubled as a darkroom. Our broker told us that he had just rented a place like this to two other young girls like us, and they were also going to fix the place up themselves. Desperate, we signed the lease atop the two abandoned industrial spools, by the light of a lamp plugged into one of two outlets in the 1,200 square foot space. For his part, the broker assured us that it was “just a typical crockpot lease.” But was it?
We wondered about “crocks” as a licensed plumber quotes us 2,000 dollars for the installation of sufficient plumbing beneath the concrete floor for a bathtub and kitchen sink. The landlord had given us the first month of rent off to make up for any expenses we might encounter while converting the space. He hadn’t mentioned the necessity of jackhammers. Upon further investigation, we found that our neighbors down the hall had been showering from buckets for eight months. Still, we figured we would find a way to have full plumbing in place by the time we needed to start the job interview process a couple weeks later. We began to comprehend our naïveté as, weeks after our gloriously dirty month of living rent-free, our extremely generous neighbors were still helping us install such glamorous extras as an elevated bathtub (no jackhammers required) and a kitchen sink, in addition to wiring for our newly purchased stove, refrigerator, and hot water heater. The neighbors seemed a little bit surprised that any artist living in New York wouldn’t have the skills necessary to convert a concrete factory basement into a living space.
Skilled yes, but like us, they lived in their spaces without clearly defined leases, in a building and area not designated for habitation. In a recent ad in the Sunday New York Times, one local brokerage listed a number of buildings in Queens and Brooklyn as Commercial and Industrial Properties; sprinkled throughout were phrases such as “ready for conversion,” “ideal med-residential use,” “live/work possible,” and “multi-use possible.” In some such ads residential zoning is specified, which leads one to wonder why it isn’t in others. Given the events of this past December, we are reminded all too clearly just how relevant zoning legislation can be to maintaining a roof over one’s head.
In late December, 60 people, including families and small children, were given notice that they had a weekend to remove their belongings from two buildings at 247 and 251 Water Street. Even the building’s owner, the now notorious Joshua Gutman, was quoted in the Daily News as saying, “The people have been here for the last 18 years without any problem. We don’t believe that it’s just violations. We believe there are higher forces behind it.” That Mr. Gutman might know more about the identity of such “higher forces” than he implied above became clear when he turned off the sprinkler system in a third building with a vacate order issued from the Department of Buildings for 255 Water Street, thereby placing the building in violation of fire codes. Although he claimed that the heat in the building had been shut off and the sprinklers had been turned off to avoid frozen pipes, it was later found that the heat had not been turned off at all. In the end, the Department of Buildings chose not to enforce the vacate order on 255 Water Street when they arrived to find protesters, Councilman Ken Fisher, and five television stations waiting outside of the building. The question thus arises: even though people had been living in the building for the past 18 years, and it had been inspected by the fire department annually for at least the past 15, why had the tenants been given such short notice to evacuate now?
Given how quickly neighborhoods transform, the main question is whether those changes will occur in the form of gentrification or genuine neighborhood improvement. Organizations such as the Lower Manhattan Loft Tenants Association and the one-month old Brooklyn Live/Work Coalition have cited artists’ renovations of abandoned manufacturing buildings in neighborhoods like SoHo, TriBeCa, Chelsea, and various parts of Brooklyn as models for urban renewal. Even the 1996 Executive Summary of the Regional Plan Association of New York called for “creative planning, zoning, and expansion of arts and cultural activities that foster the kind of desirable mixed-use communities that will attract jobs and residents to the space.” Ellen Pearlman, an artist and live/work tenant in Williamsburg, describes tenant conversion of empty industrial spaces as “the largest non-federally, non-state, and non-city funded urban renewal project in the recent history of New York.”
Nevertheless, “We [live/work tenants] are getting thrown out of our homes for doing it,” Pearlman says regarding both the eviction of residents in DUMBO and the requests for inspection posted by the Department of Buildings on the doors of some 121 buildings. Why is this taking place? The desirability factor that live/work conversions have added to formerly industrial neighborhoods has quite clearly caused a substantial jump in real estate values in those areas. Not surprisingly, tenants in the threatened buildings almost unanimously see the fire code violations as a flimsy pretext for outright eviction.
Few question that regions of Williamsburg, DUMBO, and Greenpoint have indeed become more desirable places to live in the past five to ten years. Twenty-year-old Watson DeJesus grew up in South Williamsburg and works at the neighborhood-based community group El Puente, a community organization founded 20 years ago as an antidote to gang violence. He sees changes in the neighborhood as “overall for the good,” but adds, “some of the older people feel we’re getting kicked out.” According to DeJesus, the new climate has both drawbacks and virtues. “When I was a kid there used to be a lot more block parties—they used to close down the streets. There was music and food—everyone came. Back then there was a lot more violence, though—there was a crackhouse across the street from my house. It was kind of like the South Bronx—every other building was abandoned. Now a lot of things are up—small businesses, restaurants, it’s kind of like the new SoHo over here.” Katherine Martinex, also of El Puente, agrees that some changes have been for the better. She points out how “there were a lot of biker gangs which later became urban youth gangs, like Las Nietas. But in the last five years Las Nietas all got put back in prison, which makes a difference around here.” Both Martinez and DeJesus seem proud to be part of a community that they have worked so hard to build. Whether that community can withstand the onslaught of “upwardly mobile” co-op and condo dwellers remains to be seen, however.
When asked what she thought about the idea of artist activity in North Brooklyn as a form of urban renewal, local artist Jackie Chang was slightly skeptical of the terminology, pointing out that urban renewal is something done with a deliberate intent to benefit an existing neighborhood. The initial influx of artists to the community was “very organic, nobody came in and said, ‘this is what we want to do.’” Such a social agenda, Chang says, conflicts with the ideal of the “artist as heroic individual” that she and her peers were taught in art school. Speaking on behalf of El Puente, Ms. Chang states that, while it is hard to “point a finger at any one group—gentrification is a very complicated issue in terms of our mission as a community.” A rise in rents could very well displace much of the community that El Puente has worked to fortify.
Threatening as gentrification may be for some, there is one group that views the influx of small businesses and the new population of highly educated professionals, artists, and students as entirely positive. In 1999, Neil Dolgin, Vice President of Kalmon Dolgin, a large Greenpoint-based brokerage, gave the following praise to artists in a New York Times article: “God bless them because since the downturn in manufacturing in this area, they have taken up the surplus. Without them, there would be so much space on the market that it would have sent many more owners into tax arrears and possible foreclosure; they [artists] bring their boutiques, restaurants, craftsy-type stores, etc.” Omens that such artists might be nothing more than a temporary phase of speculative development of Brooklyn neighborhoods are more than latent as Mr. Dolgin envisions yet another shift in his market. “There are no condos or co-ops yet,” he said, “but, as rents increase and the city becomes more favorable to zoning changes, condos and co-ops could develop in the next 10 years.” Left unsaid is that, even in a time when the market for contemporary art is relatively good, and even as artists find they can earn enough income to live off of freelance or part-time work, most cannot afford the envisioned condos and co-ops as well as the rent of a separate workspace.
Anne Macdonald is a photographer and art dealer who came to the area six years ago and was one of the tenants evicted from 247 Water Street. She describes the DUMBO she came to in 1995 as a somewhat desolate neighborhood with so much garbage that it became famous as a place where people abandoned their dogs knowing that there would be plenty for them to eat. Before that there had even been packs of wild dogs, which must not have bothered too many people as the area was “totally abandoned, apart from row houses on Vinegar Hill and some residential buildings at the edges of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.” In spite of this, as far back as 1983, people had begun to move into the abandoned industrial spaces in DUMBO because of the view, open space, light, and even the possibility of roof gardens at an affordable rent. As the population of live/work tenants grew, Macdonald cites “the atmosphere of the neighborhood” as a draw, saying, “these are hard-working people—you get the feeling that you’re in a honest, hard-working neighborhood.” The neighborhood began to feel more secure four years ago, when the Giuliani crackdown on the Mafia-run garbage conglomerate necessitated a 24 hour police patrol in order to protect the new garbage contractors from death threats. As a result of the eclectic ministrations of live/work tenants and garbage-related police protection, what once was a one bar/one corner store neighborhood is now home to various restaurants and cafés as well as a grocery store, a gourmet chocolate company, a frame shop and galleries (though apparently still no laundromat). Last year, a plan for a 150 million dollar park was approved for DUMBO’s waterfront.
Three days after the plan was approved, Mr. Gutman applied for a zoning variance for his buildings on Water Street. Although they had been listed as residential and the owner had installed bathrooms and kitchens in the lofts, the buildings did not, in fact, have a certificate of occupancy. One month after the application was filed, residents were evicted. Among those tossed out were a publicist for a rap label, a magazine editor and writer, an artist/lecturer, a well-known musician, a professional dancer, an established sculptor, a portrait painter, fashion designers, and two families with small children. All are currently in a state of limbo. They live on the floors and couches of friends and family, without access to the studios, offices, and darkrooms that provide their livelihood. Families have been forced to live apart and thousands of dollars have been spent on the moving and storage of valuables. “Emotionally, your attitude changes with each piece of news,” observes Macdonald. “I have lost my home and my job. Things that used to be so easy are just impossible now.” Mr. Gutman, for his part, showed little willingness to bring the buildings up to code, missing two late January deadlines set by the Department of Buildings.
Macdonald lived on the floor of a friend’s studio while she waited to hear whether she would be allowed to return to her home. “My building is an amazing community and it would be very sad for New York City to lose this kind of place. It is really special and rare,” she says. On Feb. 16, one day after the Assembly hearing on live/work legislation, Gutman fixed the code violations at 247 Water Street, meaning that after seven weeks, the building’s 60 tenants can finally return.
ZOE ALSOP is a journalist residing in Kenya. She reported for the Associated Press in Bogota.