THE START OF A COMMUNITY
It is 1997. Three artists priced out of Williamsburg’s Northside go in search of a new place to live and work. They head south of the Williamsburg Bridge. Continuing down Kent, they walk past the fancy Italian wedding spot, Giando’s on the Water and the hulking abandoned Schaffer Brewery. Just south is Domsey’s secondhand superstore (the largest thrift store in the world). They reach their destination, a "Daylight Factory", the former La Rosa Pasta building, seemingly derelict. 475 Kent Avenue sits on the northwest corner of a large, trapezoidal lot. The cast-concrete building rises 11 stories, across the street from Wallabout Channel on the East River. The neighborhood is not pretty. No trees, plenty of trash, the occasional carcass of a burned car.
The owner of the entire block is Nachman Brach. He and his partner, Morris, have been running their businesses out of the basement, 1st floor, and attached garage for years. Morris focuses on car stereo equipment direct from China. Nachman buys odd lots of odd lots and resells them, as well as overseeing his girls’ school housed in the southernmost building on the block, serving the neighborhood’s Hassidic community. Other than Nachman sorting the garbage on South 11th Street, neither of them focus on the building’s upkeep –– rarely venturing beyond the basement and first floor.
The artists tour through the building. Some floors are packed with outdated knitwear, Korean lampshades, expired vitamins and 1970s-era CB radios. Others are empty, save for pigeon carcasses and puddles of water from the leaky roof. To imagine functional livework spaces requires some vision. There are no utilities. Most of the large factory windows are sealed up with cinder block.
In the blackhole of their tiny office at the back of the garage, Nachman and Morris make an offer. The three friends make a counter-offer. A deal is struck. Plans are made. Through the grapevine, friends are enticed to take a look. After countless lumberyard runs, dumpsters of debris and thousands of hours of sweat-equity, in the spring of 1998, people begin to live and work at 475 Kent. On July 4th, the first party is thrown. Hundreds of people show up to watch the fireworks. A few abscond with outdated CB radios plucked from storage on the 11th floor.
LIFE ON THE SOUTH SIDE
By 2000, over 200 people are living and working in what is quickly becoming a vertical village. Living in the neighborhood is not without its struggles. There is little that is convenient or easily accessible. Everybody learns to contend with the single rickety passenger elevator’s mysterious grievances and its penchant for breaking on the Shabbos. Mail delivery is unreliable. The landlords are consistently cheap and negligent. But they mostly stay out of the tenants’ business, and are occasionally benevolent.
Every spring, hundreds of cords of firewood are delivered and 6 tons of wheat are pumped into the basement silos for the matzoh ovens that run non-stop for the two months leading up to Passover. During the High Holidays, a truck full of live chickens is parked by the girl’s school, ready for a chicken-swinging ritual that marks the Jewish New Year. The birds are slaughtered in the playground behind the school.
LIVEWORK + “THE KIBBUTZ”
Some people depart for greener pastures. But mostly people stay. A group of photo-journalists take up residence and rename the building “the kibbutz”. For a while life goes on and work gets done with only minor complications. Shows are hung, manuscripts finished, films are made, babies are born. Deb takes out the window of her 7th floor studio to crane out her 20-ton sculptures, destined for the international arrivals hall at JFK. Connie’s legendary jam sessions start up every Sunday. Performances are staged in the freight elevator. The same freight elevator carries up the first of Rob’s 5000 lb presses to start what will become Prints of Darkness. The Wallabout Oyster Theatre is founded. Flora does a Christmas eve reading of her TV script Morir Soñando –– or how I became an illegal alien and you can too. The show is set in a funky 11-story loft building on the Southside. The main character is a bumbling but sweet Hasidic landlord. In August 2001, the first wedding takes place on the roof. "The Kent" a film by Sergio Goes
And then comes September. A Tuesday. Like everyone in New York City with a view of the twin towers, 475 Kent wakes to a perfect cloudless sky and the sight of black smoke rising from lower Manhattan. The radio streams confused news. Carol yells “There’s another one!” Chris recognizes the situation instantly, “Oh my god, it happened again, it’s a suicide bombing”. People watch in silence as the towers fall. Thousands stream across the bridges out of Manhattan on foot. Friends heading to JFK are grounded. Friends from lower Manhattan take refuge at 475. The professional photographers in the building are crying. Two of them get on a motorcycle and manage to courier the footage back over the bridge to the midtown headquarters of CBS.
Neighbors gather in each other’s spaces listening to staticky news, making large pots of pasta for whoever cannot leave or does not want to be alone. By the third day, Chris says, “I think I might go outside today”. It takes months for life to get back to normal (for some it never does). The sound of 18-wheelers hitting the steel plates on Kent Avenue is mistaken for bombs.
5 CITY AGENCIES [or how do you spell FDNY?]
The inhabitants of 475 have learned to roll with the punches, but it still comes as a shock when the next blow comes from the City itself.
On the bitter night of January 21st, 2008, officials from five city agencies appear at the building led by the Fire Department, the Department of Buildings and the New York Police Department. They all behave frantically, in spite of the fact that there is no discernable emergency. There is no fire, no gas leak, no one has died, the elevator is even working.
Their mission is to vacate the tenants of 475 Kent due to “dangerous conditions”. Pleads and rational arguments fall on deaf ears. Everyone is out in the cold by midnight. The Office of Emergency Management appears and gives each resident a $50 Red Cross credit card.
Soon, a tangled tale of city agencies and public safety departments is unspooled. Rather than Nachman’s once-a-year-Passover matzo factory being the true cause of the vacate, it seems that the tenants are victims of a turf war –– “example setting” on the part of aggrieved City bureaucrats. Meetings with the mayor’s office, press conferences, and many ill-digested meals of bar-food follow. Those who don’t have the stomach for it clear out all together. Most stay hunkered down in various nooks and crannies throughout the city. Over the course of months, a core group of tenants collaborate with their semi-functional landlord to meet the Fire Department and Department of Buildings’ ever changing demands. The absurdity of the situation is not lost on the tenants, as the goal posts keep shifting. Tenants get certified as fire guards so they can access the building and trade off shifts keeping “fire watch” over their cast-concrete fireproof home. The FDNY and DOB insist a new sprinkler system be installed. Tenants demolish the old one. In April, a sprinkler company is finally called in.
In May, 2008, 14 weeks after the vacate, and almost exactly 10 years after the first tenants of 475 took up residence, people are allowed to return. This homecoming brings with it another transition; the first of the long-term leases has expired. In spite of the help the tenants gave the landlord to resolve the vacate, he jacks up the rents. He gives most people another five years.
Things quiet down for a while. Then in 2010, two completely unrelated events take place.
The first is familiar: the building is raided again, this time by even more city agencies than during the vacate. In addition to FDNY, DOB, NYPD, MOO and OEM, the District Attorney’s Office is involved. Warrants are produced, doors are broken down, Nachman’s filing cabinets and computers are hauled away. Rumors fly. There seems to be a frantic search for incriminating evidence. In the end, nothing transpires. No charges are made. Nachman continues to sort garbage on South 11th Street. The mystery of this episode is never unraveled.
HELL FREEZES OVER
The second event is life changing. Early on the morning of June 22nd, 2010, Rob gets a call from the New York Times. “Do you have any comments on the passage of the Loft Law?” the reporter asks. He listens in stunned silence. “What?” is all he can manage. “An updated Loft Law was signed by the governor last night. Do you have any comments?”
The original law, passed in 1982, had its greatest impact on loft-dwellers in lower Manhattan. Although tenants at 475 Kent had helped found the Brooklyn Livework Coalition in 2000 to promote an update to the law, the organization petered out after a few years with the realization that it would take a cold day in hell to pass new legislation under a Republican-controlled State Senate. The legislative session of 2010 is an anomaly. For six months, there is one extra democrat in the State Senate –– enough to get a bill passed that had been killed for 23 previous years. In June 2010, hell momentarily freezes over.
The inhabitants of 475 Kent, who had been watching the clock count down to their lease expirations, are in shock. They can apply for protection. They can stay in their homes. It will not be easy. It will require lawyers and architects and more endless meetings….but they can stay.
VIVA 475! [THIS IS NOT AN EPILOGUE]
In February of 2017 Nachman Brach sells 475 Kent to a Tel-Aviv based real estate investment company for 56 million dollars.
Spring 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the first livework tenants taking up residency at 475. Twenty years on, the community is still here and still strong. 475 KENT LIVES!