Life Among the Urban Pioneers

by KATHY DEACON

When Al “Peanuts Al,” a Philadelphia peanut vendor, heard we were moving to Williamsburg back in 1980, his face stopped what it was doing; clubbed fingers opened wide, he warned us we were making a mistake.

My husband knew better. He had discovered the area by chance after wandering across the Williamsburg Bridge.

“But I want to live in New York,” I said.

“Well, Brooklyn is New York. It’s made from one hundred percent, genuine New York–only the Manhattan has been removed.”

No way—in 1980–was Williamsburg ‘New York.’ Waiting to cross the bridge in a packed bus, dreading its mad dash in the outer lane with only a low railing between me and the water, was enervating, not energizing.

First winter: a neo-Renaissance bank building, but no bank . . . a furniture restorer in a cavernous ground-floor space that must once have been the lobby of the bank . . . a former dental lab filled with debris . . . a small room on the second floor designated by our landlords, the Finks, as their office . . ., . . . the entire sixth floor taken up by a photographer working on some kind of collage.

We’re living in a commercial building, heated only during business hours, and on my birthday I am lying on a high platform bed on a section of foam cut to size. My husband is stretched out on a worktable and we both have the flu; freezing and barely able to move, I am thinking that probably someone should come and take us to the hospital.

The Pipe Dope

Our plan is to suspend a gas space heater from the ceiling for use during the evenings.

Charlie has never done anything like this before but it’s a project he is eager to take on.

With the permission of the furniture restorer living directly below, Charlie drills a hole in the floor to tap into his gas line. He buys some black pipe and the pipe dope and invents a way to hang the heater from the 12-foot ceiling using two lengths of two-by-four each supported by large bolts suspended from four cleats lag-screwed into the ceiling joists. Two additional two-by-fours resting on these at 45 degrees—to face the room—in turn support the four metal rods attached to the heater. Then he runs the pipe to it, somehow devising a connection that reaches the thing.

It doesn’t vent properly from the west window, so he has to insert a plywood baffle in the south window facing the alleyway, drop a tissue in the end of the twelve-foot vent pipe to see if there is enough draft to draw it out, then attach the vent pipe to the heater.

The project progresses slowly. It’s like walking into a refrigerator every time we come home. Coworkers ask, “How’s the pipe dope?” (Charles?) A friend who takes his bike to the shop whenever the slightest trouble develops chides us for being “artistes.” He regards himself as thoroughly proletarian. But Charlie—fortunate to have been able to pursue his interests and spared the necessity of going to college for four years like other middle-class kids–will not let this stand–“Working-class people know or learn how to fix things,” he says. “I’d like to see him suspend a gas space heater.”

By early spring we finally have it installed and name it Horace because he has become a person to us.

We are well into the Ronald Reagan years. Exclusionary door policies in formerly public places now designated as private clubs help to codify “life’s unfairness.”

An unemployed artist who is living in a small office on the third floor of our building stops paying rent, gets evicted–and returns to his mother’s home in Canarsie.

Meanwhile the new tenants moving in are unlike anyone I have known. Young, world-weary, and ambitious—yet committed to maintaining a calculated marginality–they avoid socializing outside their clique. They are well-heeled and if not actually artists, seem to know some. They install washing machines in their lofts, throw large parties with hired DJs, and help to organize a humongous art exhibit in a vacant six-story factory building. Our stairwell is becoming a testing ground for experimental musical instruments. A Swiss dancer starts a women’s exercise group and then decides to open it to men as well–Charlie is delighted. He gets on well with our fellow tenants.

Nonetheless, he also goes to meetings of a community group, Los Sures, who later come into conflict with the artists. Poor Latino renters are being cleared out of the Southside of Williamsburg through illegal evictions and withdrawal of city services—a kind of ethnic cleansing. It’s thought that the influx of white middle-class artists is helping to prime the area for megamillion-dollar real estate development—and by taking up residence in commercial buildings they are preventing industry from ever returning (though the artists say they want mixed-use—not residential—buildings).

One weekend we are summoned to a meeting and summarily informed our fellow tenants are planning to buy the building. One of them will be converting our darkroom into his bathroom.  We are welcome to purchase half a floor. The furniture restorer, an older artisan, picks up and leaves soon afterward. I’m not delighted about being dragged into this either.

After sending out feelers to the Finks, we promptly discover they have no intention of selling the property.

However we may be able to use the Loft Law as a wedge to get them to change their mind. If we are able to grandfather our spaces as residential units–and they can’t raise the rents or find new commercial tenants–they may find it’s in their best interest to sell us the building.

The Fink brothers are lawyers. We hire some of our own—a crippling expense that nearly matches the cost of fuel, which we’re billed for–to keep the entire building toasty-warm during business hours.

Unfortunately, we are located at ground zero of a crack epidemic. One evening entering the building, thinking I’d shut the front door behind me, I’m jumped in the lobby; a man I can’t see is gripping my mouth; I scream and scream. When I stop he says he’ll kill me; I continue to scream and finally, miraculously, he goes away, “What a wimp”—the other tenants can’t believe that he’d just walk away.

Our hearing before the Loft Board goes well and it looks as if we’ll be grandfathered.

But the Finks have other plans. They lease the fifth floor to a heavy metal band who repeatedly break the lock on the front door, careen into the lobby on their motorcycles, and wander around bare-chested. Graffiti denigrating “Eurotrash” appears on the side of the building: “Eurotrash in the Suites/ Americans in the Streets!”

The music of Angel Dust sounds pretty good to us down on the second floor but eventually it drives out the upper-floor tenants–who vacate their loft late one night after removing their fixtures. They are followed by most of the others, and then the band.

And a neon artist from Kansas arrives–he’s a cheerful, unassuming fellow who washes his dishes in the second-floor hallway bathroom every Tuesday while watching Roseann.

But we’ve pretty much had enough and I am able to convinced Charlie that for the entire sum of what we are paying we might as well live in Manhattan. The Finks want us to stay, but are also amenable to having us provide them with a fresh tenant (to whom we’ll sell our fixtures). We print up fliers and place them in some stores around the East Village but there are no takers.

Getting our security deposit back will require hours of work pulling out nails, taking down drywall partitions—and possibly wrecking the ceiling–hiring a dumpster, and hauling it all to the street. So we waive our claim to our security deposit and the Finks whack us for another $400 to let us go cleanly.

In our small apartment in Gramercy Park, the usual urban amenities are at hand and we no longer have that bus ride over the bridge twice a day. But for some reason as time passes I ask myself what the hell I’m doing here. Maybe it’s the cramped space—and of course my husband hasn’t given up his habit of rescuing usable objects from the street.

Once in a rare while, we’ll bike over to Williamsburg and stop for brunch somewhere if we can sit outside with our bikes. They say the neighborhood is changing—but it’s still a harsh place, and with vistas of urban abandonment juxtaposed to skyscrapers across the river, feels more like Chicago than Manhattan, a scenic version of the Bronx–a good place to create art or to practice an instrument. I’m glad we once had the fortitude to live here.

Another twenty years on, our old neighborhood near the bridge has yet to see the frenzied development of the Northside west of the L train, where vast new stretches of residential condominiums have sprung up. Ferries once again churn the water, and the new Brooklyn gentry can cross over to Manhattan in a delightful open-air excursion reminiscent of the early 20th century—if they choose not to chill out in the nabe. Chock full of restaurants, bars, and coffee places, it’s a lot like the East Village back in the ‘80s.

At the luxurious new Wythe Hotel, near McCarren Park, our high-ceiling room is elegantly designed, yet has an ascetic feel–with no soap in the bathroom except from a common pump bottle; no door or curtain to separate the shower from the bathroom; uncarpeted stone floors–and you could really get killed trying to ascend to the top of a bunk bed. The weight of your body pulls you backward and if you let go you’ll fall violently on your head (the desk clerk said there are impending lawsuits). Evolving into a preserve of the wealthy as predicted, the new Williamsburg takes on the character of a theme park.

By looking the other way—as did many other landlords–while tenants set up housekeeping in violation of their commercial leases, the Finks may have played a small part in turning the area into an arts enclave. In the 1970s, Pharaoh Sanders was their tenant, as were many painters and photographers. Every so often Mrs. Fink would appear at the office on our floor. “I want to see some art work,” she’d say. “I want to see some painting.”

But the enduring legacy of the Finks–134 Broadway has long since passed to other hands—is that while many deserted banks and factories on the old Broadway corridor have been turned into luxury living lofts, 134 to this day remains a commercial building—and the erstwhile bank we once called home now houses an investment firm.

Kathy Deacon is a free-lance writer living in New York.

 

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