In the East Village, Waiting for the Wrecking Ball
The New York Times 7/15/2011
By CARA BUCKLEY
IN the beginning, there were two buildings.
Eleven Second Avenue was squat, ugly and three stories tall. Its neighbor, 9 Second Avenue, was a five-story tenement. They sat next to each other on the west side of Second Avenue, between Houston and East First Streets. Their walls were crumbling, their windows were gone, and squatters and addicts had strewn rotting garbage and filth everywhere. But Ellen Stewart, whose La MaMa Experimental Theater Club was on its way to making her a legend in New York, happened upon one of the buildings and saw home.
It was 1976. Ms. Stewart could never have forecast the waves of change that would first lap at the East Village and then overwhelm it, a steady march of restaurants and fancy apartment buildings that would come to colonize the neighborhood. Now, the buildings are in their last days, set to be torn down in August and replaced by the sort of glossy glass tower that has been sprouting up in the city in recent years.
With the buildings dies another piece of an older, messier New York, one made remarkable by the fact that it has existed for so long.
The buildings have long been the realm of artists, theater people and assorted urban pioneers who transformed the gutted forlorn spaces into homes, living under the radar, largely rent free or for a relative pittance, but not without costs. They poured thousands of dollars and hours into their lofts, breathing life into the spaces when few others wanted to.
The tale of the rise and demise of the buildings does not follow the well-worn arc of bohemians’ being evicted by the city or ousted by money-grubbing developers. A decade ago, the cash-tight residents of 11 Second Avenue sought a developer to help them buy the place, knowing full well that a replacement would likely be built. And when the developer, BFC Partners, also offered to buy and raze 9 Second Avenue, the residents there, long weary of rough conditions and struggling to manage the building themselves, agonized, and then agreed.
The buildings’ replacement, a 12-story, 65-unit tower, is projected to be finished in 2013. Nine households from both of the old buildings will be allowed to buy apartments there for the nominal fee of $10, though there will be strict resale restrictions. Four other units will be sold to low-income buyers, but the rest of the apartments will be rented out at market rates, starting at about $3,200 a month for a studio.
“We were all tired,” said Andrea Legge, an artist who moved into 9 Second Avenue 20 years ago and will move back when the tower is built. “Most people think we’re getting over for free. I invite them to come live like this.”
In the mid-1970s, when the neighborhood felt like a moonscape, 11 Second Avenue was a place that few people coveted, except for Ms. Stewart and some of her friends from La MaMa, which had found a permanent home around the corner on East Fourth Street. Part of the Second Avenue space was designed in 1913 as a “moving picture” theater called the Majestic, but its heyday had long passed.
The city had bought the building, along with the rest of the block, in 1970 as part of an urban renewal site. Ms. Stewart, who died this year at the age of 91, struck a deal with the city to rent the upper two floors of No. 11. She took a place on the top floor and offered the other half to Athena Voliotis, a Greek sculptor who worked at La MaMa with her then-husband. Half of the second floor went to John Vaccaro, a director whose productions for his company, Play-House of the Ridiculous, featured the Warhol stars Taylor Mead, Ondine and Ultra Violet and drew the likes of Marcel Duchamp.
The new residents set to work, removing roomfuls of rubble wheelbarrow by sweaty wheelbarrow, unspooling electrical wiring, laying pipes and installing a boiler, ceilings and walls. They hauled refrigerators and stoves up the rickety stairs, and Ms. Voliotis spent several nights peeling burnt linoleum off her floors. She painted her exposed-brick walls white to remind herself of Greece and strung up a hammock. Mr. Vaccaro’s rent was $294 a month, which he says has been unchanged since the ’70s.
Outside, the neighborhood festered — “like an abandoned city,” Ms. Voliotis recalled — with heroin laying waste to the human landscape. Cars with New Jersey license plates idled for hours along East First Street, after their drivers shot up and nodded off.
Inside 11 Second Avenue, a small community thrived.
In 1979, Ms. Stewart offered a stage manager from La MaMa, Gretchen Green, the other half of the second floor. Ms. Green, then 34, was from Connecticut and in the middle of a divorce. She moved in on New Year’s Eve with her 3-year-old daughter and was later joined by a Springer spaniel named Regis. At a sprawling 2,400 square feet, her loft was so frigid that Ms. Green hung plastic sheets to make little rooms and pathways that she warmed with space heaters. She and her daughter would lace on roller skates and circle the loft for hours, squealing and singing along to Blondie albums blasting from their turntable.
Ms. Stewart lived most of the time in an apartment above La MaMa, Ms. Green said, but used 11 Second Avenue as a weekend getaway.
In the 1980s, Frank Allen, a young qigong student, moved into the adjoining building with a group of friends to start a martial arts studio on the third floor. Six of them slept on makeshift wooden platforms they had hammered into place, and ripped away cinderblocks that had been sealing the windows and replaced them with glass.
The people in Mr. Allen’s building did not call themselves squatters, not with the time, money and sweat they poured into their homes. They were homesteaders. The building was officially known as No. 9. But at the time, they christened it 7 ½ Second Avenue because 7 was the building next door, and 9 was taken by a raffish community group named Cuando that occupied the Church of All Nations behind the building yet had its entrance on Second Avenue.
At night, homeless people and bag ladies lighted garbage-can fires on the sidewalks out front, and Ms. Green watched the light flicker across her walls. A moving company rented the storefront beneath her loft, and one of its employees, she said, was a drunkard who every now and then would lock women inside. Ms. Green would hear the stricken women’s screams and call the police, who would free them but would generally ignore a popular van parked nearby. In the back of that van, a pimp’s prostitutes serviced their customers, Ms. Green said, though the pimp left after young men slashed his tires.
East First Street became a crack market. From her fire escape, Ms. Green watched packs of addicts light their pipes, the embers glowing by the dozens and reminding her of fireflies.
Yet she never felt unsafe. “This was a very benevolent neighborhood,” she said. “It looked bad, but you knew everyone.”
Mr. Vaccaro began to lose so many friends and people in his company to AIDS that his passion for theater flew out of him like a ghost.
In the mid-’80s, Hank Penza, a native of Queens, opened a dive called Mars Bar in the storefront space beneath Ms. Green’s loft in No. 11. Patrons carved their names into the bar, coated the ceilings and walls with graffiti and snorted heroin in the grim bathroom. Whenever it got too loud for Ms. Green’s daughter to sleep, she would call Mr. Penza and he would crank down the jukebox’s blare, telling the patrons to shut up.
Mr. Allen, the martial arts teacher, fell in love with a jewelry maker named Lana McArthur, and they, along with a few cats, moved into an apartment one floor up from his studio in No. 9. In 1991, Ms. Legge, a young Canadian artist, moved into the building, too. She was part of the Rivington School and was committed to living on the cheap so she could dedicate her life to art.
Ms. Legge was entranced by the space. It felt like an undiscovered country that she could shape and explore. She installed windows, a ceiling and a wall to block her bed from prospective buyers who came by to check out her work. Junkies squatted in the basement, and after they left, Ms. Legge pulled on thick rubber gloves and boots to painstakingly pick up the castoff needles and syringes.
She and her fellow residents fought at least one eviction attempt and feared more would come.
Outside, the neighborhood’s art-meets-anarchy reputation drew the young, the rebellious, the creative and the hungry, along with their assorted hangers-on. Both in spite of and because of the nightlife and the crackdown on crime unleashed under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the scene thrived.
In 1999, Ms. McArthur died of breast cancer. A year later, Mr. Allen began dating Tina Zhang, a tai chi expert who moved in with him in August 2001. Together, they taught classes at the studio, which became the site of a wedding, a memorial service and several failed and successful courtships. In 2005, Ms. Zhang won the national Wu Style Tai Chi women’s championships.
Outside, bars, galleries and clubs gave way to cafes and bistros. Conditions at 9 Second Avenue grew worse. Ms. Legge watched rot from an adjoining building creep in a blossoming splotch across her walls. Her drain stopped working for a year. The roof leaked. Long cracks zigzagged through the brickwork. The staircase began listing dangerously.
Things shifted once more.
In 2002, a tenant advocacy group, Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, or UHAB., bought 9 Second Avenue from the city for a dollar, with the promise of rehabilitating it. Ms. Legge’s cantankerous neighbor across the hall moved out overnight, ripping out everything he had installed, including the electrical wiring, so that no one else could move in.
The city also wanted to sell 11 Second Avenue, but its residents could not afford the asking price, $650,000. So, with the backing of her fellow residents, Ms. Green approached BFC Partners, which had built affordable housing throughout the city, to help them buy the building. The developer could gut, rehabilitate or raze it, and build anew, so long as it protected the rights of the original residents. But the changes did not happen immediately, and that brought residents both strain and relief.
“We thought all of this would be done a long time ago,” Ms. Green said recently.
Outside, gentrification steadily reshaped the topography. In 2005, the Prohibition-era Church of All Nations was torn down and replaced by a glass-encased luxury apartment building.
Two years later, a behemoth Whole Foods, topped with hundreds of new apartments, rose to fill the south side of Houston Street, between Chrystie Street and the Bowery.
Ms. Legge grew accustomed to the personal battering the changes wrought. She worried herself sick when the condo development was built behind her building, fearing an old and weakened No. 9 would come tumbling down. But it didn’t. Then the developers painted the wall facing her back windows white, brightening her apartment.
“It wasn’t as bad as I imagined,” she said. “At first there was total shock and fear, and then I accepted it. And now I can’t remember what was there before.”
Changes marched on. The downtown performance artist and singer Justin Bond, who was part of the drag cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, moved into half of Ms. Green’s loft at No. 11, along with Pearl, a cat. The low rent allowed Justin, who identifies as neither male nor female, the untrammeled creativity to record an album while performing and writing a book.
Over at No. 9, the repairs that the new ownership had promised never took place, in part, a housing board worker said, because the amount of money that would have to be borrowed was more than the residents of the building could pay. Ms. Legge worried constantly about the building, and began having nightmares about managing it deep into her old age.
“I thought it was my only way,” she said of her life at No. 9. “I can’t say I would do it again.”
Ms. Green began visiting her daughter and sister, who both live in Florida. Every time Ms. Green returned to New York, the East Village seemed more alien. “I walked down Bond Street,” she recalled, “and I felt like the oldest, fattest, poorest person in the city.”
In 2008, the city rezoned the neighborhood, enabling BFC to use a city program to build a mixed-income building on the site of No. 11 while turning a profit. The developer approached UHAB with an offer to buy No. 9, tear it down and rebuild. The board asked the residents what they thought. The residents agonized and fought about it. But when BFC promised them each a brand-new apartment of comparable size for a nominal fee, they agreed.
The residents spent much of the past year or so in a tense limbo, not knowing exactly when they would have to move out. Ms. Legge first thought it would be last September. She traveled a lot and stopped cleaning her loft.
A sign appeared above Mars Bar’s grimy entryway: “Thanks for the memories.”
In mid-May, the residents were told they had 60 days to pack up and leave. They could temporarily relocate in the neighborhood at the developer’s expense, or accept a monthly stipend until the tower was ready.
Mr. Allen and Ms. Zhang began searching for a new place for their martial arts studio; thousands of students had trained with them at 9 Second Avenue over the years. “This place has an energy that can’t be replaced,” he said.
Ms. Voliotis did not know how to begin packing, and began having trouble sleeping. “I’m very anxious, really,” she said, wandering around her giant loft one afternoon last month.
Mr. Penza, of Mars Bar, spent his last afternoons as he always did: sitting on a wheeled office chair in front of the bar, clutching a plastic sippy cup filled with ice and his favorite concoction. He told passers-by and friends he would rent space in the new place.
“I can’t give this corner up,” he said in his whiskey-soaked voice.
Over gay pride weekend, Justin — who, not being an original resident, was not offered a new apartment — threw a large wrecking-ball party, which would be 11 Second Avenue’s last. Shirtless boys wearing fairy wings mingled with burlesque dancers and an old gay hippie with a rainbow-dyed beard.
The building’s impending fall was roundly lamented. “It’s going to be suburban people with babies and a Banana Republic and a Gap and one of those candle stores on street level,” grumbled the set designer and performer Machine Dazzle, who was wearing a homemade sheath and towered over other partygoers in Lucite heels that pushed him to 6 feet 8 inches.
Ms. Legge dealt with her bittersweet feelings by writing a blog called 7-and-a-half 2nd Ave, a “pre-demolition memorial,” she called it. “I would like to know something,” she mused one day amid packing. “What do I do after I don’t have this to do anymore?”
Ms. Green sent a farewell e-mail to her friends. “To everyone who has lived here with me, painted, exhibited, partied, crashed, worked, dined, drank, smoked, joked, toked and everything in between it is time to say goodbye to an incredible ride in an incredible space,” she wrote. “But hear this, I will be back.”