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The Social Life of Artistic Property

30 Years at 135 Rivington

 Michael Mandiberg

On August 13, 2012, I sat down to talk to Hannah Alderfer, Marybeth Nelson and Andrew Tyndall about the history of 135 Rivington, their urban homestead in the Lower East Side of New York City. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in the late 1970s, the partners purchased the uninhabitable building in 1981 and spent five years rebuilding it before moving in.1

In 2003, the Real Estate section of the New York Times wrote about their project, with an eye to the social backstory that made possible the restaurants they opened: Clinton Fresh Food, Alias and aKa.2

When I met with them, I was specifically interested in the interrelationship of their creative practices and this decades long collective project: The partners met while studying at SVA, and of the six partners that completed the renovation, four of them were also founding members of the artist collective Group Material. I wanted to know how they came to their endeavor, whether it was or was not related to their creative lives, how they sustained the collaboration for so long, what their plans were for the future and what younger generations could learn from it.


Michael Mandiberg: I've always wanted to hear the story of this building firsthand. I have heard many stories about the building from Sherry Milner and Ernie Larsen.

Marybeth Nelson: Mostly from Sherry [laughs] about how they could have moved in at the very beginning.

MM: Yes, I've heard so many real estate stories from Sherry and Ernie, but I feel like there's something that is interesting with your story because, at the very least from the outside, it seems like one of the very few happy stories.

Marybeth: Well, for longevity at least. I do think we've lasted a lot longer than many other people that we've known... as an intact group, for the most part.

MM: I have questions, but I also really would love to make an oral history. Can you tell the story of the building?

Marybeth: Well, it was 1979, and we all needed a place to live. You [Hannah] had an apartment, Andrew had an apartment, were you guys living together at that point or no?

Hannah Alderfer: No, I lived in the East Village.

Marybeth: Actually, you know what I think really started us? We were doing Group Material, we were doing the gender show and we met Jenny Holzer, and she lived in a building on Ludlow Street.

Hannah: No. On Eldridge.

Marybeth: No, she bought on Eldridge, but at the time I think she may have lived on Ludlow, in that one next to Barramundi. They rented the entire building for like $600 a month or something insane. We were looking at lofts at the time, but from talking to Jenny we decided to find a place where we could all live. And then just went around walking the streets, finding empty buildings —

Hannah: Taking down addresses —

Marybeth: Writing to the city to find out who owned them and then writing them letters asking if they wanted to sell to us. [laughs] At the time, we were, like, what? Twenty-six?

Andrew Tyndall: Yeah, I think at that point, the conversion of commercial properties by artists into lofts, which happened in SoHo first and TriBeCa second, was over because, at that point, all the low hanging fruit had already been picked. So, this was actually very unusual at the time to be looking for residential buildings to move into rather than lofts.

Marybeth: Although, the squatter movement was out and about. We actually went to a couple of community meetings and looked into that, but they wouldn't guarantee they could keep us together. There were six of us who had met in art school. It was also more risky, I think.

Andrew: And certainly not a long-term proposition. Squatting is for short-term housing, not for long.

Marybeth: So. we ended up just looking at properties. I think we found this in the New York Times. We didn't get very far with the writing of the letters, this one came through an ad. It was in very bad shape, like many were, actually. Some context: There was a moratorium declared on the sale of New York City owned buildings at the time. These were buildings the city repossessed because the owner owed back taxes.

Andrew: The building was about to be repossessed, and we basically paid for it by paying off the back taxes that he owed.

Marybeth: I mean, we paid forty-six, he owed sixteen. We put down twenty and then he gave us a mortgage for ten, so —

Hannah: There were a number of fires.

Andrew: It could have been burned by the landlord, it could have been burned by junkies, it could have been burned by both.

Hannah: I mean there was no roof to speak of. The staircase was completely broken up. There was no plumbing, you know, no working plumbing.

MM: Were there floors?

Marybeth: There were the apartments. There were doors, there were old sinks, there were tubs, there were old refrigerators.

Andrew: If you were in the hallway downstairs you could see the sky.

Marybeth: When it rained, it rained from the first floor to the fifth. So, we looked into financing.

MM: Was this the kind of thing that everyone was just doing or talking about doing or thinking about doing, or was this an unusual venture to make at the time?

Marybeth: In addition to the squatters, there were some people doing it. There were artists doing it. Remember Jim Krell's friend was doing it out in Brooklyn and Krell was doing it on —

Andrew: And the concept of "sweat equity" existed. People would get to own a portion of the building, by working it off. But it certainly was not what everyone was doing. First of all, people were not moving down to this neighborhood. People were moving out of this neighborhood, they weren't moving into it.3

Hannah: There were major buildings on this street that were empty. I mean right across the street, that building right on the corner, that building was deserted.

Marybeth: Of the people who we knew were doing it, there was a group of artists around the corner on Suffolk Street I forget that guy's name. Baby Jane Holzer, the Warhol person developed a property on Suffolk between Rivington and Delancy and eventually turned it into co-ops. So, this is all in the '80s. We buy in 1981. And we moved in in '84, so there was a smattering of it. I think Kiki Smith lived down here and then Jenny Holzer's building—those were a group of people. People banded together to be able to afford to create that kind of situation.

Andrew: But it wouldn't have been called an art thing.

Marybeth: No, not at all.

MM: Even though almost everyone you're talking about are artists?

Marybeth: Yes, because that's who we knew.

Andrew: There was a pre-existing population that was dwindling and moving out. Hanging on despite high crime, lots of drugs, and a lot of arson. A lot of fires.

Marybeth: But, you know, was it as bad as other places? There were certain parts of the East Village that were more decimated than this. The commercial strip of Ludlow and Orchard never totally went under. It sort of survived. Before we bought the building, there were these two old ladies who used to sit outside the building next door and they were complaining about when they built the school across the street, which was in the early '70s, and how they ruined the neighborhood when they did that, there were good people living in those places.

Andrew: But if you look around this block now, half of the buildings just in this three-block area were built in the last fifteen years. When we moved in it was parking lots and derelict lots. The fact that this building at least had the outside walls reasonably still standing was pretty unusual because a lot of the time when a building got condemned, it would just be razed to the ground.

Marybeth: Well, both of the buildings on either side were occupied.

Andrew: The building behind us was burnt out and it got torn down.

MM: If that wasn't the normal thing to do, where did the inspiration come from, what prompted it?

Marybeth: Well, a desire for a community for sure. We needed a place to live.

Hannah: Everyone needed a place to live. Inexpensive apartments were hard to find. Everyone was kind of doubling up because you didn't have any inexpensive places.

Marybeth: And, frankly, we all came out of some kind of collaborative tradition. You know, we [indicates Hannah] were working on Heresies, Andrew was a filmmaker who did collaborative projects. Hannah, Beth, Peter and I worked with Group Material. So we were friends, but we were also involved in projects that involved collaboration. Also, it was financial. None of us could afford to do this on our own, so this was our idea of how we would be able to do it. We were young and very naïve, also, so we thought this would take about six months. So, for years, people would ask us, "When are you gonna move into that building?" And we'd say, "Oh, in about six months." We were lucky, we eventually got one of the last Housing Preservation and Development loans. We had done the project for four years out of sweat equity, and we were pretty exhausted, and had pretty much exhausted out funds, so we were lucky enough to find someone in the city administration who gave us a loan.

Hannah: Because we had done so much work already.

Marybeth: He could only loan $200,000. Nobody could renovate a building for $200,000. We had already put in so much work that we actually could complete the renovation for that amount.

Hannah: We decided to renovate the building to create two apartments on each floor, making a total of ten apartments. So we had an apartment for each one of the original six partners and four rentals. Under the HPD loan, they had to be rent stabilized.

Andrew: The interesting thing about the loan was that it was a loan taken out through the city during the Reagan Administration, but it was actually a leftover loan from the Carter Administration and if it were any later, the money would have run out. It was the last vestiges of the pre-Reagan era urban housing planning.

MM: What is the chronology of the partners? Who was involved at the beginning? Who left and who joined?

Marybeth: Hannah Alderfer, Marybeth Nelson, Beth Jaker, Peter Szypula, Tony DiCiaccio, Effie Serlis, Jim Krell and Alex Hay. Those were the originals.

MM: And then two people left.

Andrew: Alex and Jim left before the building got fully renovated.

Marybeth: Alex and Tony were working full days [on the construction]. Tony had a night job as a waiter. Tony would fall asleep in his soup at night because he was working two jobs. That was kind of how we did it and that's why it took so long and never got finished without the loan [laughs]. And we had monthly dues. We each paid... $100? Do you guys remember? Hannah, you kept the books.

Hannah: Well, Tony first kept the books and then when we all moved in, I took over.

Andrew: That was a version of sweat equity, wasn't it? People who didn't have any money would have to put in extra hours.

Marybeth: Yeah, everyone was expected to put in hours.

Andrew: Tony put in the extra hours.

Marybeth & Hannah: [in unison] Tony got paid!

Marybeth: Alex Hay, who is 82.

Andrew: Now. He wasn't that old then!

Marybeth: [laughs] Now. But was older than everyone else. We met through our instructor Joseph Kosuth at SVA. He became a close personal friend, and Hannah and I travelled with him. That's how he got involved. But he also needed a place to live. And then Jim Krell was another downtown, East Village figure. I don't know how you would describe him. [laughs] Maybe his nickname "Frankenstein" [laughs].

Andrew: A man of letters.

Marybeth: A large man of many talents and intrigues. Yeah, he was sort of the least committed. He had another building on Third?

Andrew: Avenue C or something like that. He would just say "Oh, you guys." [laughs]

Marybeth: Yeah, somewhere over there [points north towards the East Village]. So, he had another project. So, those are the ones that left. There is one partner that never moved into the building. She's rented to a sub-tenant from day one. She still actually owns her apartment.

MM: Did she move out of the city? Why does she not live here?

Marybeth: No, as far as we know, she still lives a couple of blocks over.

Andrew: I know she lives on Eldridge. I send her tax returns to her [laughs].

MM: But you don't speak.

Andrew: No.

Marybeth: No.

MM: Was there a falling out, or did you just loose touch over the years?

Marybeth: No, it was a falling out.

MM: What happened during those four years? What was that like? What was a week in the life of the building?

Marybeth: Most of us were working five days and then working on the building on weekends.

Andrew: Yeah, basically, we just didn't have any weekends.

MM: Are there any stories that you want to tell from the construction or the designing of the spaces?

Marybeth: You mean, like, dropping refrigerators out the window for five stories? [laughs]

Hannah: You mean, like, three inches from my neck? [laughs] That was actually a door.

Marybeth: OK, just one. It was like the Pharaohs, we did the demolition ourselves, we carried it out in buckets by hand, primarily. Then in the front of the building we cut a hole in each floor and we just sort of dropped it down and then poured it out a shoot into the dumpster out front. We had a pulley on an arm, just a simple pulley that we put out onto the front of the building. To get the refrigerators and the doors and all the larger pieces out we would tie them up and hoist them out the window and then lower them down.

Hannah: To someone who's sitting in the dumpster, waiting.

Marybeth: Waiting to get the thing. Because dumpsters were expensive then. Now they're insane, but you wanted to pack it as absolutely tightly as you could.

Hannah: So, to extend the dumpsters we used to put the doors on the sides to make it that much higher. [All laugh.]

Marybeth: Something I've said they would never accept now. But we would buy the low ones and then put the doors all around. I think it was me and Peter who were up here and you had to tie the doors with the knots, and so I said, "Peter, have you tied that knot?" And he said, "Yeah, I tied that knot." "Have you got it good? Yeah? OK." And we lifted the doors and put them out and I watched the rope go —

Hannah: And then there were these two doors hammering down at me! [laughs] I didn't even have time to react I just happened to be in the right place. Because had I been anywhere else —

Andrew: Nowadays, Health and Safety would have come along and just closed it.

Marybeth: And people would say, "Hey, I haven't seen lady construction workers since..."

Andrew: Rosie the Riveter!

Marybeth: Rosie the Riveter! [All laugh.] They were very amused. Here's another one, there was a contractor or inspector who came over to look at the windows, and he was walking across the beams. He was a big guy and he stepped on one and disappeared to the floor below. He was so macho, like, "Oh, I'm all right, I'm all right!" We had no liability insurance. [All laugh.] Like, oh my God. But he was saying, "I'm fine, I'm fine."

MM: A whole floor?

Hannah: High ceilings! It was scary! I couldn't do it. You guys, Marybeth had to.

Marybeth: Buildings regularly fell down, and you take down the building next to you. We did redo the entire roof, so at one point we had it completely open with just the brick wall in the back and I remember Frankenstein, Jim Krell, was coming up the stairs once and we could see the whole back brick wall shaking.

Hannah: Because nothing was tying it together.

Marybeth: Nothing was holding it on and we were like, "OK, quickly. Let's get something holding this thing to the beam!"

Hannah: Before we lose the whole thing!

MM: Wow.

Andrew: Because if we'd lost that top masonry —

Marybeth: That whole wall could have gone.

MM: How did you make the group work together cohesively?

Marybeth: There was an incredible amount of trust. Tony got a small inheritance and he bought the building essentially himself before we even formed a partnership, so basically he owned it for months when we were working on it, and finally a lawyer said to us, "You know, if he dies, his family gets this building." So, there was trust and naiveté. That was a huge element of why it survived so long.

MM: The trust between the partners: These were mostly friends from SVA, right? Did you just have incredible friends or are you just really lucky or could you tell who was going to be trustworthy or not trustworthy, because it seems to have mostly worked out? How did that happen? Was there intentionality to the selection? How did you pick your partners?

Hannah: We were all friends. For the most part.

Andrew: But I think you weren't just friends. You collaborated on projects so you were used to working with one another.

Hannah: Yeah, Marybeth and I did our projects together and with Group Material. There were four of us from the original six who were in Group Material.

Andrew: You can call it friends, but to collaborate is more than friends. Friends and collaborators. Now, if it had just been friends, people who were just used to drinking together, you'd never have done it. You have to have the history of working together.

Hannah: We had to struggle to work together, too.

Marybeth: Which meant kind of a history of knowing how to divide labor, what one another's skills were.

MM: Could you talk more about what you learned working with one another in Group Material or Heresies?

Marybeth: Group Material was more of a constant conflict. We learned in that how not to be toward one another. I would say that in any kind of collaborative project, you have to learn that your focus has to be the project and not your ego. There has to be a way to assert yourself but also be able to hear what other people say; to not have such a thin skin, to not get so easily insulted, and to bounce back when something doesn't quite go your way.

Hannah: And also, as far as the work level, we put an awful lot of work into it. We put enough investment into it that we all felt we were all putting in generally the same amount of work. No one really felt like they were doing way more work than somebody else, which sometimes happens.

Marybeth: It wasn't that equal. There were the four primary people who did most of the work. There's one partner who never actually moved in.... We don't ever bug her and she doesn't bug us. We don't turn around and charge her exorbitant amounts when she's not living here and she doesn't call us. It's a laissez-faire thing. It's not worth creating huge firestorms over something if really what you just want is place to coexist.

Hannah: And have it work. And function, and to pay your bills.

Marybeth: The other aspect of it is that we moved in and invited some very close friends and, in my case, family to move into the building, as well. If you looked at our original partnership, it was full of all kinds of idealism. I think we wrote in that you couldn't make a certain amount of profit and the project was designed for people to live here. I think we may have rewritten it with our lawyer Marilyn Go and included things that you actually needed to include in a partnership, as opposed to some kind of treatise. But we were very focused on how we were going to create community. We've never run it for profit, and it's allowed us to live comfortably and cheaply, and that was our goal.

Andrew: If there is a profit from it, it means being able to survive in a neighborhood that's become violently gentrified and upscale, and maintain the same cost of living as if it hadn't.

Marybeth: I mean, we didn't raise our rents for ourselves for, like, fifteen years? It was fifteen years. We didn't raise the rents on our tenants for many, many years.

Andrew: We raised them once in thirty years. Meanwhile, the neighborhood was completely and utterly transformed.

Marybeth: And it's a little awkward for us now, because our taxes are just skyrocketing every year and now we've had to raise their rents. They're still very, very reasonable, but you know, it's like every time you do it, you feel a little bad about it.

MM: What are the rents in the building?

Marybeth: Well they started at $650 in 1985.

Marybeth: The one that actually had the most turnover was Rachel's and so her rent is about $1250?

MM: And how many square feet are these?

Marybeth: The back ones are about $780, and the front are a little bigger.

Andrew: The market rent would be three grand.

Marybeth: Well, we do have one apartment, one partner who passed away and we bought that from her family. That apartment we rent at market rate, essentially. So, right now we rent that for $2800.

Marybeth: It is maybe a little below market rate, but not significantly below, I don't think.

Hannah: I think it's below.

Andrew: But still, we're not giving it away.

Marybeth: No. We're not giving it away at all. But again it's more important to have people that get along.

Andrew: And, again, we rented it to a close friend.

Marybeth: An old friend, yeah.

Andrew: An old, close friend. Someone we've known for thirty years. Forty years. Thirty-five years. [All laugh.] There are not many strangers in this building!

MM: It does allow you to create your own community.

All: Yeah.

Andrew: People joke that it's like living in a post-grad dorm.

Marybeth: Very post.

Andrew: Post-post.

Hannah: And there's so little turnover.

MM: How long do the tenants typically do they live there?

Hannah: Forever.

MM: Forever?

Andrew: Correct.

Marybeth: We've only had one apartment that's really had turnover. Well, and the partner who doesn't live here has gone through three or four tenants.

Andrew: The one that's just left had been here for ten years.

Andrew: And it was like, "Tyson, why are you leaving?"

Hannah: He said to me, "I never thought I would meet anybody that would have a better apartment than me. My girlfriend [laughs] has an apartment in one of the projects down over on Grand Street."

Andrew: He said, "So, I have to move out."

Hannah: "I have to move out; the apartment is actually better than mine." [laughs]

Marybeth: The funny thing is the two apartments that have had the same turnover are actually on the same floor. They face one another. One of them is above Hannah and Andrew and that was the breeder apartment because everyone, well, not everyone but —

Andrew: They got pregnant while they were there.

Marybeth: People who lived there were having babies. [All laugh.]

Hannah: Because we never leave, and only one couple in the building had a child. There was a gay couple and various others.

Andrew: There have been other children in the building.

Marybeth: They've come and gone.

Andrew: They've come and gone, but I think that's what it is. People, when they have children, they don't live on the Lower East Side. You get to school age and then you go someplace where there's a school. You go to North Carolina or you go to... where did Arvid go?

Hannah: Arvid went downtown to TriBeCa.

Marybeth: And also you guys [indicates Hannah and Andrew] never had kids, I never had kids, Susan never had kids.

Hannah: We've just never had kids.

Marybeth: We were selfish. [laughs]

MM: I wanted to talk about the partnership as a legal form. Was the partnership an intentional decision or was it just something that happened?

Marybeth: It was both. The choices were a partnership or a co-op, and you had to actually go through the state attorney general to get a co-op, which costs a lot more money, legally. And then also, since we were all independent contractors and self employed, from a financial point of view a partnership worked for us, tax-wise. It's actually a very impractical legal structure for us.

Andrew: Financially. Legally it's practical. Financially it's impractical.

Marybeth: Financially, yes. For us to go to a bank to mortgage our individual share—we can't do that. So, as we age and start looking for those other opportunities, we'll probably regroup as a condo.

Andrew: Yeah, what the partnership does because of those financial constraints, is it really retards the turnover. There are people who would have had a greater incentive to have cashed out and left. But because it's impractical, it actually tends to make it more cohesive.

Marybeth: Now, you know, we're torn about cashing out and it being our retirement fund. Eventually, we'll have to cash out.

Hannah: I'm not going to. I have no plans to move anywhere.

Marybeth: Neither do I.

Andrew: The point is you either get the benefit of the initial investment, financially speaking, you either get it one way or the other. You either get it by cashing out and getting a lump sum or by living there indefinitely at very, very low rent. Either way.

Marybeth: You can mortgage it and borrow four or five hundred thousand dollars and still live here, you know, the way people do with their houses.

Hannah: Sure.

Andrew: Nobody does that.

Marybeth: So far none of us have reached that. But, you know, as New York changes, the neighborhood still has redeeming qualities but having grown up here, and seeing the direction it's taken, particularly Manhattan —

Andrew: She's speaking for herself.

Marybeth: Yeah, you're still happy in Manhattan. [laughs] But frankly, it still feels like a neighborhood to me and I still know more people here than in any other place that I ever lived in New York, but it's tempting to look outside of the box.

Hannah: Hmm.

Marybeth: They're not moving. [laughs]

Hannah: I'm not moving! [laughs] I mean, I'm not moving; I guess I get a little wanderlust by traveling, but I like to travel to foreign places and then come back and be in my borough. Yeah. I don't foresee living anywhere else for a very long time.

Marybeth: The first apartment I had in New York was on Twenty-Ninth, it was a five story walk-up and across from me lived this ninety year old Italian couple.

Hannah: Oh, that's going to be us! [All laugh.]

Marybeth: They would drag their bags up the stairs, talk to my dog through the door, "Hello, baby, hello, baby!" But they got up and down those stairs every day, so I figured if they could do it, I could do it.

MM: What were the friction points between that sort of idealism you were talking about with the partnership-as-manifesto and the brass tacks of engaging in this kind of legal process? Were there conflicts over that? Was that something that was an issue?

Marybeth: I would say it was more workload. Like who wasn't pulling their weight, who wasn't working as hard, who wasn't slingin' bricks on the roof with Hannah's sixty-five year old mother. Or who showed up to work late. Since we moved in, at a certain point, the partners who did the most work decided to pay ourselves a management fee, which is minimal. I also think that the partners who do that work are the ones who worry most about those kind of things. If it wasn't done, we [gesturing to the others in the room] would be uncomfortable.

Andrew: You could even say it the other way around: The shift from idealism to practicality actually didn't increase the friction, it actually removed it. Once the initial work had been done and the hump had been gotten over, being able to formalize it meant much less was done on principle. People did what they knew was expected of them.

Marybeth: The people who are the least happy are the ones who never reached that sort of practicality.

Andrew: Maybe the way to answer that question is to say that the idealism, and along with idealism, romanticism and impracticality, is really important when getting something off the ground, but it's not that important in terms of sustaining it.

Marybeth: Right, it doesn't need to be constantly changing or reinventing itself, like an art project or something. It's a home.

Andrew: Also, you two were able to continue your artistic projects and also your design projects. One of the reasons you were able to do it was you were living in the same place.

Marybeth & Hannah: [in unison] Yeah.

Andrew: You developed a studio together. And you couldn't and wouldn't have done that if you had been living crosstown from one another.

Marybeth: I think also when Bruno got a nine-to-five job, he was the first person who wasn't self-employed and working in the building. Some of the tenants maybe do, but that's maybe another way that we were able to deal with the conflict. We're here —

Marybeth & Hannah: [in unison] All the time. [laughs]

MM: Can you talk about what Andrew mentioned: that being in the space, and close to each other, and having a shared studio in your building, enabled your creative practices?

Marybeth: Absolutely it did.

Hannah: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, when we would get involved in small political things, for example, we were members of No More Nice Girls, and we would produce agit-props for protests.

Andrew: And WHAM!

Marybeth: WAC [Women's Art Coalition - Ed.].

Hannah: Yeah, it was WAC. We were proximate to each other, and had similar political interests.

Andrew: Don't ignore "Caught Looking." You did that when you were here.5

Marybeth: And the "Diary." That we actually did uptown and at Beth's. The way you do those projects on a shoestring budget is you basically spent twenty-four hours together. We would crash at your apartment or Beth's apartment, or we would go someplace to make it.6

Hannah: We're here all together, and we would just do our nine-to-five jobs, the pay-money jobs, and meet at six o'clock and do the same things we would do for our work, but do it for a good cause; for a project that we believed in; a political movement that we thought was important.

Marybeth: Hannah and I also shared an office for I don't know how many years now. So, you get used to the idea of being within earshot. Of being able to bounce ideas back and forth. So yeah, it did. Community breeds so many ties.

Hannah: And you just get used to each other's rhythms. Since we live together and we work together and we have the same space together, I think we know pretty much what is a good time to do things.

Marybeth: When we were involved with WAC we went down to Houston in '92 for the convention. It was a big WAC project. There we were, working with a bunch of women we didn't normally work that closely with. We were working with Sarah Charlesworth and Cindy Sherman and all these artists who had developed careers, or whatever, and we kind of came in as the designers who can come in and pull it all together. I remember when we went down there, it was kind of chaos. And at some point something needed to be done, and Hannah and I just said —

Marybeth & Hannah: [in unison] "Let's just do it!"

Hannah: [laughs]

Marybeth: Lets find the extension cords, put them in, and get this so it works... or whatever the problem was. It was a lot of handwringing. [pantomimes helplessness] "I don't how to do this."

Hannah: [laughs]

Marybeth: None of us had really worked in corporate situations in so long. I just don't know how people get things done in groups in other ways. Our experience has been primarily our own little kibbutz here, and feminist groups. And/or film groups. I mean even you [gestures to Andrew] you spend your days by yourself, making all of your decisions yourself.

Andrew: The next thing I think you have to say that has come out of here, out of this building, which doesn't actually have to do with you two is the next thing that happened chronologically is one of the major reasons why this neighborhood has changed over the years. One of the building blocks of the change, was changing it to be a restaurant row. And that is something that also got invented out of this building. The whole changing Clinton Street.

Marybeth: I would argue with that, but —

Andrew: Changing Clinton Street?

MM: Why don't you [Andrew] offer your version.

Andrew: 71 Fresh Foods was the first restaurant, which Marybeth's sister Janet ran and our upstairs neighbor's son Wylie Dufresne was the chef of, and I'm absolutely certain that wouldn't have come off if we hadn't been in this building.

Marybeth: Absolutely, that was definitely something that was born out of this situation. And that was something that was really radical in the restaurant world. And did have an enormous effect on it. On the whole concept of New York City restaurants.

Andrew: But it also had an effect on the neighborhood.

Marybeth: But it didn't radically change Clinton Street, because it still hasn't radically changed. They are one of the few restaurants that is successful. Its not like Ludlow Street or the bar scene or...

Andrew: Fair enough, but you would say that before 71 Fresh Food got opened, no one would have ever considered the Lower East Side to be a destination to come to.

Marybeth: No. It was almost insulting the way people were coming down and saying things like, "Wow, its like Siberia." Like it never existed.

Andrew: In the broad sense, I would say that it was one of the major factors to change the neighborhood.

Hannah: It was a similar project.

Marybeth: One other point. The other people who were coming down, after there was a certain amount of publicity, were people who had grown up here, but had moved away to the 'burbs. One old guy brought his old library card to prove it.

MM: To go to 71?

Marybeth: Yes, to go to 71. The Tenement Museum is part of that. [Opened in 1992 - Ed.] Also, people were rediscovering their roots, so it wasn't just trendies and foodies.

Andrew: Also, the revitalization of Essex Street Market. [Renovation began in 1995 - Ed.] There have been all sorts of things like that have happened in this neighborhood. It's not to say that this building created it, but I'm saying it was one of the places that incubated those changes.

Marybeth: Right.

MM: Hannah, you were going to say something about the way in which 71 Fresh Food was a project like this building

Hannah: Well, I was going to say 71 was a project, like taking an old useless fried chicken place and making it into this incredible restaurant that people would come to eat experimental food down in the Lower East Side. People said when we bought this building, "You're going to live there? You're kidding me!" Nobody thought it was a great location to buy anything.

Andrew: One thing that's interesting about the changes, when neighborhoods gentrify, often what happens in order to move along the gentrification is that art galleries come in. And one thing that is really interesting about this neighborhood is that people have tried, and at various stages people have the idea that next hot place for art galleries is going to be either the East Village or the Lower East Side. And its never really taken off, there have been attempts, but its never —

Hannah: Well...

Marybeth: Have you been down Orchard Street lately?

Andrew: And the art scene is more like a music scene than it is a fine art scene. Or an experimental theater scene, like Fringe. The traditional way in which art gets mixed up in gentrification which is through galleries, where galleries are the first step, and boutiques are the next.

Hannah: Or just artists moving in, and then there are galleries.

Andrew: It didn't really work like that in this neighborhood.

MM: But there are a lot of galleries and there are a lot of boutiques!

Marybeth & Hannah: [in unison] Yeah!

Andrew: But the thing is that the population density in this neighborhood was so low. Yes, it's true that you have luxury high rises and luxury hotels that have been built, and that sort of thing, but you've had all sorts of housing being built. Places that were empty lots and are now are housing. It's not only luxury condos that have been built, although they have, like Red Square [An early market rate rental at 250 East Houston Street built in 1981 - Ed.] or stuff like that, but there's also affordable housing that's being built. Its just the density of population is incredibly more than it was when we moved in.

Marybeth: But nowhere near what it was like in 1904.

Andrew: But its low point must have been in the '70s. When we first moved in here, you could take a cab downtown, but they would drop you off at Houston Street. They wouldn't go below Houston. It was just too dangerous.

Hannah: People used to come for dinner, and then you would walk them out.

Marybeth: Messengers didn't want to come down.

Hannah: Just having people over for dinner you didn't feel good about just saying, "Go out and find your cab," because there was never a cab on Rivington Street. And there was no one on the streets. So you were better the four of you walking together and finding a cab on Houston Street for them, and then walking back home.

MM: So, as the city gets more and more full of people, the question of population density gets more and more extreme and things are less and less affordable. My generation and those younger than me are in a way doing some of this over again in other places, like right now in Bushwick. I guess the question is, what can we learn from what you did, and can the situations even be compared? Are the situations different enough that it isn't the same, and certain things can't translate? Is there an opportunity to do what you did again now?

Marybeth: The ironic thing that I first thought of is that I think that we are all looking again right now at what we did: the idea of a collaborative effort, pooling resources and making yourself available to opportunities that you would not have been available to alone. But we're thinking of it in terms of retirement communities! [laughs] Like, where can we go buy a big piece of property and build ourselves a little community to end our days. But I do think that is the lesson. We were raised with the lefty notion that together you can accomplish more than you can individually, particularly around these kinds of issues about creating living situations and community. I'm not sure that answers it.

Andrew: That's one answer. The other answer is to think about this in terms of urban planning: Yes, there are always opportunities like this one here, in distressed downtowns of previously overpopulated populated urban centers.

Hannah: Like Detroit.

Andrew: But probably not in New York City. For instance, on the East coast, and you've done more research on this [indicating Marybeth], but I think that downtown Philadelphia and North Philadelphia are just like, dying. There's just row houses which have got boarded up and it's all within a subway stop of downtown. You could just move in and get a house like that with six people, and you could wait for it to come to you.

Marybeth: Detroit, fascinating place.

Andrew: Detroit absolutely, or Buffalo which has fantastic already existing housing. The point is that, if it works, then what's going to happen is going to be what happened here, which is you're going to have the first ten years of living in a rough and very sketchy neighborhood, and then ten years when everyone else notices, and then ten years when you're going to be basically slammed by people who are living much more expensively than you are, and they are the only people who can afford to move in.

Marybeth: That's when it becomes disappointing. We moved here because it was a neighborhood, because there were families and schools.

Andrew: So, the really good tip then would be, yes, choose a deserted under-populated downtown where there's housing stock that's still available, but choose it next to a stable population of poor people.

Marybeth: And that would be the recommendation for restaurants as well; it's really difficult to get a liquor license here. The CB3 SLA [State Liquor Authority - Ed.] Committee keeps saying, "Go someplace where there are none. Someplace where they need a bar and they don't have one." And the thing was, back in the '70s and '80s, you had to be in New York. You no longer have to be in New York, in so many ways.

Hannah: That's the total truth.

Andrew: No, look, in the '70s and '80s you had to be in Manhattan. You wouldn't even think of going to Brooklyn. The idea of anyone going to Brooklyn would have been just like, well.

Marybeth: Yeah.

Hannah: I did have a friend who was there.

Andrew: Yes, but they were totally senseless. [All laugh.]

Hannah: Over the bridge, for god's sake!

Andrew: Oh, for crying out loud! Brooklyn!

MM: This has ended up turning into, a conversation about American frontier-ism.

Marybeth and Hannah: [in unison] Yeah.

MM: Which is not unsurprising when the term to describe what you did was urban homesteading.

Andrew: Homesteading is a frontier term, right.

Marybeth: And you know, I've looked at those places; I went to Detroit late last summer, and Harrisburg, and whatever. You get that old thrill but then sometimes you walk past something and you're like, "Oh, I just can't, another bucket of plaster dust, I don't think I could take it!" Or junkies on my corner.... I'm sort of over that. I certainly don't need drugs. But, poor people? Yeah, no problem.

MM: So what does the future hold in store for you all and the building?

Marybeth: Well, we have our plots laid out in the back.

Andrew: Wheelchair access, I think! [All laugh.] We'll all have to live on the first floor!

Hannah: We're going to live a lot closer together! [More laughter]

 

  1. NYU Furman Center. Urban Homestead Program. http://furmancenter.org/institute/directory/entry/urban-homestead-program ^
  2. Greene, Penelope. (2003, June 15). Habitats/Rivington Street; Six Artists' Lower East Side Story. New York Times. Retrived from http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/15/realestate/habitats-rivington-street-six-artists-lower-east-side-story.html ^
  3. NYU Furman Center. Sweat Equity (HPD). http://furmancenter.org/institute/directory/entry/sweat-equity-hpd ^
  4. Caught Looking: Feminism, Pornography & Censorship, Real Comet Press, 1988. ^
  5. Alderfer, H., Jaker B., and Nelson, M. (1983). Diary of a Conference on Sexuality. Faculty Press. http://www.darkmatterarchives.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Diary-of-a-Conference-on-Sexuality.pdf ^

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