Photo: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times. Simon Lee, an artist, helped turn the building at 475 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn into a haven for artists, but the Fire Department now says it is unsafe.
Re: petition to save our homes/work spaces at 475 Kent. pls forward to all ...
Dear Friends - New York, national and international arts community
we are trying to save the building where more than 200 artists, my
neighbors & lived and worked from for 10 years!
for more information:
please sign our online petition to Mayor Bloomberg
please do so now. And PLEASE forward this to your friends.
We are trying to get thousands of signatures on his desk asap.
After Evacuation, Artists Begin an Effort to Save Their Haven
By CARA BUCKLEY
Published: February 10, 2008
The tale of the warehouse-turned-loft building by the banks of the East River in Brooklyn seemed a familiar one, at first.
Artists move into a decrepit building, quietly rehabilitate it, live and work there. The city eventually catches on and issues a flurry of violations, forcing the artists into the streets. Developers circle, landlords yield and sell. Condos ensue.
The roughly 200 residents of 475 Kent Avenue in South Williamsburg were determined that their story have a happier ending. After all, the landlords were on their side -- an unusual alliance. So the residents tackled every violation they could at the building, an 11-story warehouse that had been home to artists, photographers and musicians for more than a decade.
But they have not been able to move back in, leaving 200 lives, and scores of livelihoods, in limbo. And one reason for the delay is a lesson learned from the deadly fire in the former Deutsche Bank building last year.
Three weeks ago, after a routine inspection, firefighters found the building's standpipes broken, the sprinkler system inoperable and heaps of matzo wheat in the basement. One of the landlords, Nachman Brach, operated a two-oven artisan bakery there seasonally, for the Jewish High Holy Days. Not only were the ovens a fire threat, the firefighters concluded, but dust from the grain could explode.
Within hours, the city evacuated the building, forcing hundreds of people out on one of the winter’s iciest nights, scrambling to find places to sleep. The oldest resident was an artist in her 60s; the youngest was a newborn.
Those who had to leave included Eve Sussman, whose video "89 Seconds at Alcázar" was the toast of the Whitney Biennial in 2004, and David Alan Harvey, the photographer. Melvin Gibbs, who played bass with the Rollins Band, lived there, as did Connie Crothers, the jazz pianist, and Vic Thrill, the lead singer of the 1990s indie punk group the Bogmen. So did Deborah Masters, whose relief mural, as long as a football field and filled with vignettes of street life in New York, is installed at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
"I have thousands of tons of sculpture in there. I would need tractor-trailers to house this stuff. And where am I supposed to get money for this in today's economy?" Ms. Masters asked at a heated meeting on Monday evening between residents and city officials. "This is a not a bunch of hipsters. These are people who do real stuff."
Stories like these rarely end well for artists. Dozens of residents were ousted from lofts in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn after the city found violations in 2000. The tenants fought bitterly with their landlord, Joshua Guttman, accusing him in a lawsuit of harassment and trashing their homes, which he denied. They eventually settled, but they had to leave. Tenants evicted in October from a warehouse at 17-17 Troutman Street in Ridgewood, Queens, have not been allowed back.
But things have gone differently at 475 Kent, as the building is known. Granted access during the day, the residents have tackled some violations: clearing debris, fixing fire alarms, replacing light bulbs in exit signs. They say the landlords have helped as well, removing the matzo wheat and having the standpipes fixed.
"The intentions have always been good on the part of the landlords," said Lillian Maurer, a sculptor and a longtime tenant who lived on the eighth floor and is now temporarily living upstate. "I don’t believe they are trying to put people out of the building."
The building does not have a residential certificate of occupancy, but that is not the immediate problem. The immediate problem that stands between residents and their homes is the broken sprinkler system, city officials said. The repair and partial installation, the city said, could take three months. So residents resolved to hasten the process. Twenty people got together and updated plans for each 12,500-square-foot floor. An architect from the sixth floor, Bart Javier, digitally compiled the data to send to the landlords' engineer, for review for the city, a crucial step in getting the sprinkler in.
The hope was that the city would allow residents back in as the system was repaired. After all, the building's floors were concrete and fireproof, and the standpipes worked again. Local politicians urged the city to bend.
But the Fire Department stood firm. In the wake of the fire in August at the former Deutsche Bank building in Lower Manhattan, where a standpipe was not working and two firefighters died, a fire official said it was too risky to let people in while the sprinkler system was being fixed. [read on...]