Sunday, August 9, 2015

192. Westbeth: Artists and Transistors

     Westbeth, like the former Village Nursing Home, is one of several old buildings that loom up in the West Village, massive and squat, buildings that don’t soar but have a history to tell.  A nonprofit housing complex offering affordable living and working space to artists and arts organizations, Westbeth occupies a whole city block bounded by West, Bethune, Washington, and Bank Streets near the Hudson River, and derives its name from the first two.  I have often visited there, for a sculptor friend of mine named Marion had a spacious apartment and studio on the second floor. 

Westbeth, as seen from West Street.

     Like so many residents, Marion, the daughter of a kosher butcher in Rockaway, was a dedicated artist who couldn’t make a living from her work, and was grateful to be living in Westbeth when Village rents kept going up, and to have finally obtained Medicaid, and maybe a reduced rent from the city, without which she couldn’t have survived financially.  I loved visiting her apartment/studio and seeing her sculpture on display, much of it semiabstract with motifs suggesting vegetation; two of her pieces, small columns about a foot high showing stylized buds opening, stand on the mantel in my bedroom/desk area.  A friend of mine once glanced at them and dismissed them as vaguely vaginal and distasteful.  Vaguely vaginal, perhaps, but not distasteful; all her work suggests organic life and growth, the irrepressible Big Mama that I have celebrated elsewhere and hope to celebrate again.  (See post #59: “Earth Goddesses: Big Mama.”)

     Life in Westbeth, despite the reasonable rents, was not idyllic.  Marion complained of having to fight for access to a kiln in the basement; about scaffolding for construction work that the city erected outside her window and left there for months on end, blocking her light; and about her trouble getting a social worker to visit her as she aged.  She was full of stories about friendly and unfriendly neighbors, about residents who had somehow snuck in and continued to reside there, even though they were clearly not artists  and therefore not entitled to a Westbeth apartment.  But there were amenities too: free movies once a week, and an exhibition in another part of Westbeth where she displayed her work and actually made some sales.  The cash from those sales, a rare boost to her meager income, she then stashed away in her apartment, fearful of losing Medicaid money and a reduced rent if she put it in a bank.  Alas, she then forgot where she had stashed it and fretted endlessly until, as I recall, it finally turned up.

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Bell Labs in 1936, with the West Side Line running right through it,
above Washington Street.

     Such was the Westbeth that I came to know, but Westbeth hadn’t always been Westbeth.  It had originally been built in the years following 1880 as a complex of thirteen buildings ranging from 3 to 13 stories that served from 1898 to 1966 as the headquarters of what in 1925 became Bell Telephone Laboratories, an affiliate of AT&T and the largest industrial research center in the United States, a self-styled “idea factory” where some 4,000 scientists and engineers collaborated to explore areas of science likely to shape the future of the communications industry.  It was AT&T’s monopoly on the telephone industry, giving it immense power and wealth, that made possible this commitment to long-term research and development.  Freed from concerns about funding, teams of researchers – physicists interacting with mathematicians and chemists and engineers – worked on projects that took years to complete; what counted was the final result, and failure was not penalized.  From this hotbed of creativity came such wonders as these:

·      The vacuum tube, a basic component in early twentieth-century electronics
·      The first experimental talking movies
·      The condenser microphone
·      The first digital scrambled speech transmission system, used by the Allies in World War II
·      Radar, employed by the Allies in World War II to detect enemy ships and planes at great distances
·      An early version of television
·      The transistor, a device essential to modern electronics systems
·      The first electrical and digital computer

     If some of these creations baffle you, as they do me, don’t worry about it, just rest assured that, technologically, they make our life today possible.  And if a layman had peeked into the complex back then, what was there to see?  Engineers bent over tiny devices or contemplating massive machines.  Blackboards with formulas in chalk.  Men in shirtsleeves clustered around mysterious devices.  Everywhere, tubes, cables, dials, tangles of wires.  It would all have been complex, weird, baffling.  But these workers were inventing the future.  All in all, a tough act to follow.

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Bell Labs technicians with the first zone refining equipment, 1954.

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Inventors of the transistor, 1948.

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Replica of the first transistor, invented in December 1947.
So now we all know what a transistor is and what it does.

Revol Web

    Running right through the complex’s east (Washington Street) side was the New York Central Railroad’s West Side Line, an elevated rail line that moved freight, including that of Bell Laboratories, to and from factories and warehouses without disturbing the West Side’s ground-level traffic.  With the growth of interstate trucking in the 1950s, rail traffic declined throughout the nation, rendering the West Side Line obsolete.  The southern section, including the part running through Bell Labs, was demolished by 1960, though the abandoned tracks remained.  I know, because they were visible right outside Marion’s second-floor windows.  In another marvelous transformation, in recent years those weedy tracks have been turned into the much-visited High Line park.

     When Bell Labs, needing more space and more modern facilities,  relocated to New Jersey in 1966, the complex remained empty for two years until the philanthropic J.W. Kaplan Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts conceived a novel idea: not to demolish this huge pile of brick and granite and then build something strikingly new, as most developers would have done, but to convert the existing structures into a low- to moderate-income rental housing project, the biggest of its kind in the world, to provide living and work space to people involved in the arts.   

     Since the project was without precedent, it had to be explained to numerous agencies in order to enlist their support.  Complicated negotiations followed with AT&T, the owner, which had no intention of selling the complex for a song; with the city to get a tax abatement and create a special zoning district for living and work space in an industrial zone; and with the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) in Washington to obtain a subsidized mortgage.  Slowly over a two-year period, under the supervision of Richard Meier, then relatively unknown but in time an acclaimed award-winning architect, the novel idea became reality.  It was hoped that the project would serve as a model for the conversion of other urban industrial buildings into housing for artists.

     Westbeth opened in 1970. To be admitted, applicants had to undergo rigorous review by a selection committee determined to eliminate students and weekend dabblers, and to accept only professionals of proven full-time commitment.  At the same time, the greatest possible diversity was desired: artists, dancers, composers, musicians, choreographers, actors, writers, photographers, and filmmakers.  What awaited the lucky chosen ones were 383 loftlike units that were unpartitioned, so the occupants could decide how to divide their unit between living space and studio.  Because of the undesirable neighborhood, commercial tenants were harder to find, but right from the start the Merce Cunningham Dance Company rented a top-floor space for its studio and has been there ever since.

     The Far West Village at that time was desolate and deserted, and some found it even scary, with plenty of drugs and promiscuous gay sex on the abandoned old piers of the nearby riverfront at night.  Many of those moving in found the building itself, with its long, labyrinthine corridors, also a bit scary, and depressing and seedy as well, with the appearance of a penitentiary, but since when had struggling artists known anything better? 

     The novel idea of rehabilitating old industrial buildings, instead of tearing them down and putting up new ones, was generally greeted with approval.  Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times architecture critic, was especially positive, hailing Westbeth’s open apartment plans as “a first step out of the steel trap of FHA rules.”  And the pioneering example of Westbeth facilitated  the subsequent mass conversion of lofts and cast-iron buildings in Soho and elsewhere into artists’ studios and galleries.

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A Westbeth inner courtyard, 2012.  A part of
Westbeth I have never seen.

     Westbeth is owned and operated by the Westbeth Corporation Housing Development Fund, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation governed by an unpaid board of twelve directors, three of whom are tenants.  New applicants for admission are now accepted only after review by a committee of residential tenants in their field, and must meet certain income requirements as well.  (Though some others slip in, as Marion’s stories attest.)  It was originally thought that creative people would reside there at the beginning of their career; then, as they became better known and prospered, they would move out.  But as the Village underwent gentrification and rents continued to rise, few residents wanted to leave.  Over the years the population aged, waiting lists grew longer, and finally, in 2007, the lists were closed; those already on them face a 10- to 15-year wait.  Westbeth is now a retirement community where residents exit only feet first.  It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, and in 2011 was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

     Landmark or not, Westbeth has experienced vicissitudes, some of them distinctly unpleasant.  In 1971 a woman was raped there, and another woman who was not a resident walked in, went up to the roof, and jumped off, landing with a smash in the courtyard, her mangled remains lying there under a sheet for hours, until the authorities finally removed them.  Then a Westbeth resident likewise went up to the roof and jumped.  “Deathbeth” and “Westdeath” some of the residents began to call it, and several with children who had just moved in moved right back out.  Finally, on the heels of these events, photographer Diane Arbus was found by a friend in her bathtub, wrists slit, her body already decomposing.  Definitely not a good year for a bastion of creativity.  But did the old residents move out?  Are you kidding?  In New York City a reasonable rent trumps all.

              The Westbeth community, like any community, has known gossip, factions, and feuds.  Still, it is a very special community, unique.  A man scavenging the garbage cans in the courtyard may look like a homeless intruder, but he’s just an artist collecting items for his art.  A neighbor mumbling to herself isn’t crazy, simply a writer engrossed in her writing and working out a problematic paragraph.  And where but in Westbeth should Barton Benes live and work, filling his place with voodoo totems, a blackened human toe, and a squirt gun with HIV-infected blood, making art out of death?  (See post #33, November 11, 2012.)

              Even so, the place harbors more than its share of the unhinged.  An opinionated journalist got unsigned letters slipped under her door reacting to her published articles, as for example: “Precancerous lump and mental illness, you poor dear” – a complete misinterpretation of an article about getting a mammogram.  And after complaining about a barking dog that kept her awake at night: “Dog hater!”  But the biggest insult anyone can utter is simply, “You aren’t really an artist.”  Yet for all that, tolerance reigns; the rare tenant evicted for antisocial behavior was a drunk who urinated out his window and brought bedbugs and prostitutes on crack into his apartment.

     With the construction of the Hudson River Park in the 1990s, displacing the crumbling piers and the seedy wildness they invited, gentrification began creeping into the neighborhood, and now luxury housing surrounds Westbeth, and the Meatpacking District abounds in pricey coffee shops and trendy bars and restaurants.  Some tenants hope that the influx of new money will mean sales of their work at the complex’s monthly exhibits, while others evince skepticism, certain that their new moneyed neighbors, if they have any interest at all in art, will prefer costly items by big-name artists.  But all agree that Westbeth is the only place in today’s Village where artists can survive.

     When I last saw my friend Marion a few years ago, she was depressed; now in her early 80s, she had fallen once in her apartment and feared she would fall again.  But when I and a mutual friend began looking at her sculpture, she pulled herself out of her funk and explained in detail how each piece had come into being; her accounts were fascinating, and she glowed.

     Some time after that I learned that she had left Westbeth, but not feet first.  Having fallen again, she realized she couldn’t live there alone any more, and her godson got her into an assisted living facility upstate.  When I phoned her there once, she was depressed again, hating the food, feeling exiled and out of it (whatever “it” might be).  But when I phoned a second time, she was cheerful, for her godson had come to visit her.  Did she need anything?  No, not really, except an occasional phone call or a card.  And her art – that assemblage of sculpture that had so fascinated me in her studio at Westbeth?  Her godson has assured her that it’s in safe keeping, though what this implies she didn’t seem to know or want to know.  Gone, I suspect, though I don’t know where or how.  But some earlier pieces signed by her can be found on the Internet, selling for $6,000 an item.  One thing is certain: Marion herself won’t see any of the proceeds, if proceeds there should be.

     As the longtime Westbeth residents age, there will be more stories like Marion’s, few of them with happy endings.  Yet my partner Bob’s doctor, who sees a number of patients in Westbeth, most of them in their nineties, assures me that they are a very special breed, more intellectual than most people their age, and probably were so back when they moved in.

     On Monday, October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy sent a four-foot tidal wave rolling up Bethune Street from the river, flooding the basement of Westbeth with nine feet of water and knocking out all electrical equipment, boilers, and pumps, leaving the entire complex without electricity, heat, or water.  At the same time the telephone lines went down, and even cell phones for a while didn’t work.  No one had expected anything like this; advised by management, residents had filled their bathtubs with water, but it wasn’t enough for a crisis that lasted for days.  Plunged into darkness and with all the elevators out, tenants had to climb up and down many flights of stairs to fetch food and water.  The whole building soon smelled of unflushed toilets, rotting food and, rising from the basement, a stench of flood water, paints, solvents, and detergents.  In their flooded basement studios some artists lost a lifetime of work, and musicians, precious equipment and instruments; Martha Graham’s dance company suffered a $4 million loss of sets and costumes. 

     As the outage continued, some tenants left to find shelter with friends or relatives; others, unable to manage the stairs, could only wait in a cold, darkened room, hoping someone would come to their aid.  Crowning the disaster was the arrival of tourists who out of curiosity barged in and wandered about, gawking, but never offering to assist in any way.  But Westbeth is a caring community, and residents did check in with their elderly or disabled neighbors.  Those who waited in a darkened room did at last get help, when a someone with a flashlight arrived with food, water, and warm clothing.

     Only after four days did management let tenants back into the basement, where everything was contaminated by filthy water, and it was a week before half the complex had its power restored, and another week for the rest, and even then the elevators didn’t work.  But through the worst of it a wonderful camaraderie prevailed, and people who barely knew each other exchanged warm greetings and shared tales of woe.

     Is Westbeth also threatened financially?  According to an article by Catherine Revland last May in the West View News, a free monthly newspaper covering the West Village, it could well be.  “Will Westbeth be the Next St. Vincent’s?” reads the caption, referring to the much lamented demise of the Village’s only full-service hospital, now demolished to make way for more luxury housing.  Ms. Revland’s article starts by quoting the website of Ramscale Productions, which announces, “Quintessential New York location!  Spectacular sunset views!”  The website further entices prospective clients with photos of a penthouse and adjoining terrace with elegant guests being served drinks and goodies by waiters in immaculate white far above the riverfront and the river – a site, Ramscale insists, that is ideal for wedding parties, product launches, fashion shows, and film and TV productions in the hottest neighborhood in town. 
Ramscale revels, high above West Street and the river.

     Is this Westbeth, the home of artists of limited means?  Yes, for Ramscale has a long-term lease on the Westbeth penthouse and terrace and sublets the space to clients.  Meanwhile Westbeth’s artist residents face staggering rent increases to pay more than $10 million in hurricane damage repairs and a major façade restoration, while Ramscale rents out its penthouse and terrace for as much as $10,000 a day, without having to pay a penny toward repairs.  What gives?

     Residents applying for admission to Westbeth must prove they have a low-to-modest income, but no such restrictions apply to commercial tenants.  Yes, there are commercial tenants too, Ramscale prominent among them, and the revenue from such tenants has always been much less than that from the artist residents.  The Westbeth board of directors once justified this by citing the undesirability of the neighborhood, but today, thanks to gentrification, the neighborhood is eminently desirable.  The Far West Village, now rid of the abandoned riverfront piers and the sleazy S-and-M bars of the Meatpacking District, and wonderfully enhanced by the High Line park, is, from a real-estate point of view, “hot.”  Indeed, it’s torrid.

     In spite of this, the Westbeth board refuses to reveal any information about the income from commercial rents, insists that such information is confidential, and has taken steps to block any legal action by residents to obtain it.  As for the complex’s finances, in response to Ms. Revland’s article Executive Director Steven A. Neil points out that Westbeth’s complete tax returns are available from the IRS and from Westbeth itself, as required by law.

     The tenants are sure that that Ramscale’s lease of the penthouse is remarkably undervalued – in effect, a “sweetheart” deal.  So Ms. Revland asks if Westbeth, like St. Vincent’s before it, will face a sudden financial collapse, after being assured for years by its board that everything is in order.  Past boards took Westbeth to the brink of bankruptcy twice; the current residents are determined to not let it happen again.  Again in response, Mr. Neil states that in 2008 Westbeth took legal action to evict Ramscale, and that, under the settlement finally reached in 2014, Ramscale has commercial leases for two units on the 13th floor at “reasonable” rents, and that it is not entitled to renew those leases when they expire.

     Let’s hope that Mr. Neil’s explanations are valid.  If Westbeth should go the way, not just of St. Vincent’s, but also the Archive Building and the Village Nursing Home – not to mention the Palazzo Chupi (see post #187) – and end up offering still more luxury housing in the West Village, it would be an unspeakable atrocity.  There’s no sign of that as yet, but the situation bears scrutiny.  Westbeth is, and must remain, unique.

     A note on AT&T:  In 1974 the Department of Justice initiated an antitrust suit against AT&T.  When the suit was settled in 1982, AT&T’s local operations were divided among seven regional companies christened “Baby Bells.”  The end of AT&T’s monopoly of the telephone business also meant the end of the golden age of Bell Labs, for AT&T, given its reduced revenues, felt it could no longer finance the long-term research and development that had characterized its laboratories.  Still, that was not the end of Bell Labs.  Recently, when I happened to glance at the print on the glue traps I use to fight the bugs invading my apartment, what did I find?  “Bell Laboratories, Inc.  Madison, WI.”  Not a product on the scale of radar or the transistor, but useful nonetheless.

     Coming soon:  Networking: to find out what it is, I invade the exclusive Princeton Club, play the ancient of days, commune with fellow Sagehens, meet a woman whose work takes her to Riker’s Island regularly, and another who isn’t put off by New York’s size, since she comes from a city of twenty million.  “But what is a Sagehen?” you ask.  All shall be revealed.

     ©  Clifford Browder  2015


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