Among New York’s many gifts to modern urban experience are neighborhoods famous for their colonization by artists, in whose wake eager, young, educated, art-loving connoisseurs followed, along with wealth, fashion, design and new cultural infrastructure. Displaced by the transformation of SoHo and Tribeca in the late 1970s, poorer artists crossed the river into Brooklyn, seeking refuge and affordability in its unreconstructed industrial fabric.
For a time, I lived in one such neighborhood, a few blocks east of what is now called Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), not far from the Navy Yard. My building sat on the northernmost and roughest edge of the remnants of Vinegar Hill, a nineteenth-century neighborhood with no relation to vinegar (its name is an anglicization of the Gaelic “Cnoc Fhiodh na gCaor,” meaning “hill of the berry-tree,” honoring the site of a famous battle during the 1798 Irish Rebellion). A few vestigial streets conserve its cobblestone and Federal and Greek Revival row houses, long since hemmed in by public housing and the Bronx Queens Expressway. I moved to this area after grad school when it was still hinterland, just as “Dumbo” emerged among the acronyms of New York developers, who soon took ownership.
I relocated to New York in a grim economy with the highest unemployment since the Great Depression. I owed a few more months’ work to an NEA grant, finishing the project in nonprofit publisher, not far from the Museum of Modern Art. In the recession of the early ‘80s, finding an apartment in Manhattan was much harder than finding a job in architecture, which was nearly impossible. If firms were hiring at all, they weren’t hiring interns, especially interns with no practical experience or drafting skills.
Even for the securely employed, an affordable apartment was hard to come by. Leases circulated in tight-knit social networks by word of mouth, people whispering addresses like smugglers.
The only contact I had was my brother, who lived with his wife in the top-floor loft of a ten-story concrete warehouse, surrounded by rhizomatous transformers from the Con Edison Hudson Avenue Generating Station, which sprawled across the block. This building otherwise housed diverse low-end businesses and light industry, which we loosely called schmatta. In appearance and location, 160 John Street was a hole in the wall. The roof leaked, rendering the top floor unsuitable for manufacturing or textile work; however, roof leaks posed no problem for an expatriate Manhattan installation artist, who secured the 10,000 square- foot space as his studio; he sublet half of the space to my brother and sister-in-law, who sublet 1,000 square-feet to me.
Strictly speaking, no one “lived” on the tenth floor, we just all worked nights.
Imagine a long, narrow, rectangular volume – 15 x 15 x 60-feet with a concrete floor – exposed concrete columns and ceiling, zero amenities. The leaseholder had slapped together the interior walls defining my corner, leaving vast untaped planes of poorly anchored plasterboard to bow and list in the throes of imminent collapse. I had an old fridge and a single gas-fired space heater suspended from the ceiling in one corner to offset nonfunctioning radiators but no sink or toilet.
I shared a kitchen and bathroom with the leaseholder on the other side of a hollow-core door I held closed with a spring and eyehook. Our “kitchen” featured a three-bay stainless-steel darkroom sink, a gas range and a freestanding, counter-height butcher-block table. Our toilet sat in an unheated closet against an exterior wall. Our shower was a 4 x 4 x 2-foot plywood box clad in stainless steel, perched on sawhorses, draining to a PVC pipe the leaseholder jacked into the waste line under the sink. He suspended a showerhead from the end of a six-foot length of three-quarter-inch pipe connected to a garden hose we’d attach to the sink faucet before turning on the water and clambering into the tub.
Whether or not my neighbor was home, I almost always showered in the dark, three feet off the floor, in a 5,000 square-foot room.
Life in the loft was raw but rewarding. Like the leaseholder, my brother and sister-in-law were artists who operated outside the illusory expectations of careerism. After months of living on potatoes and eggs, I finally found a temporary job that turned into full-time employment at McGraw-Hill. As the only tenant on our floor with steady income and a credit card, I filled my purpose.
I commuted to work on the F Line, York Street to Rockefeller Center. Weeknights I took advantage of Manhattan; weekends we drove over to Brooklyn Heights for groceries and laundry; Sundays we gathered for ritual brunch in my brother’s space, reading the Times and drinking strong coffee ground from whole beans and patiently filtered through the hour-glass of his Chemex coffee maker. In the summer, we repaired to a little deck on the roof where we basked in million-dollar views of lower Manhattan.
Winters were rough. The building’s only elevator jammed. My car was stolen (and quickly recovered in nearby Williamsburg, exactly where an ex-detective from McGraw- Hill’s security department told me I’d find it). Cockroaches nosed around with impunity.
After a couple of years, I left the city for a teaching position in upstate New York. I loaded everything I owned into a small trailer, which I towed 400 miles to the edge of the Niagara Frontier, depositing its contents into my department chair’s garage, which we sealed and fumigated.
I last visited Dumbo in December 2010, for a meeting with Alicia Cheng, founding principal at mgmt. design on Washington Street. I saw what you’d expect: city following culture.
Today, the building I lived in is a self-storage warehouse. If you Google this address and zoom in on the surrounding fabric, you’ll see a single, giant stack hovering above the one remaining Con Edison steam boiler. Nowadays this complex is a brownfield-in-waiting. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy has set its sights on the plant, hoping to extend its program of shoreline remediation further north.
Back in the ‘80s, the Hudson Avenue plant had four stacks, a huge tetrastyle portico on the river’s edge that made it easy to spot our loft from the air. On the verge of gentrification, not long after I moved out, a party of uncertain character purchased 160 John Street. Like many tenants in buildings bought for their promise of greater profit, my brother approached the new owner with an eye toward leveraging his sublease, to which the owner calmly replied, “Mr. Friedman, why should I pay you twenty-thousand dollars when a bullet only costs fifty-six cents?”