In a way, this story is the story of thousands of buildings in New York: a relatively boring commercial space that functions effectively for decades â€“ until this becomes a city of eight million, and they all need somewhere to live.
It was an unassuming ad on craigslist, short and sweet: huge room in 8,000 square foot loft in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, $900, all utilities included, available June 1st.
In many ways, it was a fairy tale space: 8,000 square feet for $3,750 is unheard of for nearly any real estate in Brooklyn, let alone in â€œup and comingâ€ Clinton Hill. The rooftop has magnificent, unobstructed views of the Manhattan skyline. When I saw the room I was infatuated. Brick walls, wood floors, 20 foot ceilings, 300 square feet and a basketball hoop. The enormous potential sent me reeling. The lease was ending in April, which only made it more appealing â€“ I could be one of the very last people to experience this absurdity before gentrification came on full-force. Sure, it wasnâ€™t perfect. There was only one bathroom for eight people, and there wasnâ€™t really â€œheatâ€ per say, and there was the whole only-one-tiny-window-near-the-ceiling thing. But Iâ€™d never seen anything like this place before, and Iâ€™m a sucker for new adventures. Plus I was getting desperate.
It was my first experience with the last-minute rental market in New York City, and I was terrified that I wouldnâ€™t find somewhere to live before the lease on my student housing ended. Iâ€™d just finished graduate school and my friends had all moved back home. I wanted some built-in social interaction with roommates, some form of communal living, and I wanted to have fun.
So when the lease-holder Stephanie and her boyfriend John proposed to me there at the kitchen table over grainy iced coffee I said yes, yes; whom do I make the check out to?
I wasnâ€™t totally blinded by love. I knew that I was jumping headlong into a very murky situation. But behind my thick veneer of bitterness, Iâ€™m an idealist at heart; whatever problems might arise, I assured myself, I could solve them.
But none of this really ended up like I first expected.
When I told the editor of this magazine about where I lived, he first suggested I rent a studio in Queens instead; he then suggested I write about 206 Classon Avenue, from the beginning to the looming end.
The more time I invested in finding out about the buildingâ€™s history the more ambivalent I became about 206 Classon Avenue and Top Floor Productions, where I live with seven 30/40-somethings, four cats, four rats and two guinea pigs. While I fell deeper in love with the idea of the place, the initial romance of its actuality wore off quickly.
Yet arenâ€™t many places like this left in New York, and there will be even fewer next year, and the year after and the year after that. This is the story of a New York thatâ€™s quickly disappearing; itâ€™s the story of a city that existed 15 and 20 years ago, of commercial lofts gutted and renovated and rents quadrupled, of gentrification pushing hard and fast and people like these being priced out of the neighborhoods they made safe for the Ivy League grads whoâ€™re taking over their leases.
In many ways this story is the story of why this New York isnâ€™t the New York of 15 and 20 years ago, why this New York reflects the death of backwards slacker idealism and resourcefulness and a new generation of hyper-individualism, super-selfishness and tremendous waste.
Most Brooklynites (though not real estate agents) agree that Clinton Hill is bounded by Vanderbilt Avenue and Fort Greene on the west, Classon Avenue and Bedford-Stuyvesant on the east, the Navy Yard to the north and Fulton or Atlantic Avenue and Prospect Heights to the south. Itâ€™s only about four square miles big.
In the early 1900s, the 200 block on Classon Avenue was lined with well-to-do apartment buildings and private houses. But in the late teens, the area started to fray at the edges. While western Clinton Hill remained residential, the eastern section became increasingly industrial. The homes on Classon Avenue were razed. In 1912 Martin Renken of the M.H. Renken dairy company bought the whole block, and in 1923, constructed a bank of industrial loft buildings along Classon that became 202, 204, 206 and 208 respectively. The buildings havenâ€™t been fundamentally changed since they were first designed and built by Brooklyn architecture firm Koch and Wagner, all yellow brick and wood shutters and windows that donâ€™t open. While the upper floors were used for pasteurization and bottling, the ground floor of 206 was used as a stable for horse-drawn carriages; a few years later, the stable was converted into a loading dock. The Classon buildings were one section of a three-part complex that also included 131-137 Emerson Place, built in 1924, and the main office at 574 Myrtle Avenue, built in 1918.
Clinton Hill at this time was a booming center for industry; along with the dairy companyâ€™s block-large investment, the Brooklyn Navy Yard increased employment from 6,000 to 18,000 between 1914 and 1918. During World War II there were more than 71,000 employed workers at the Yard. But following the war, Clinton Hill suffered a grave recession coinciding with â€œwhite flightâ€ from the city to the suburbs. More and more businesses abandoned the floundering neighborhood. In 1962, the Renken company pulled out of Brooklyn and moved to Middlebury, Connecticut. They rented the bottom two floors of 206 Classon to a machine shop , and the third floor to now-defunct furrier, A.M Grekulinski. The downward spiral continued: in 1966, the Navy yard was closed; in 1969, the Myrtle El was closed and demolished, leaving the area newly isolated from mass transit. Crime rates climbed rapidly.
In 1974, real estate developers Pat J. Cara and Henry Santillo bought the blockâ€™s buildings from the Renken company for an undisclosed amount. Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy continued to slowly improve over the next two decades and the tenants at 206 remained relatively stable between the third floor furrier and the downstairs metal shop and stamping factory. Crime rates in the area spiked in the late 80s and early 90s. The furrier went under, and in 1995, Top Floor Productions moved in.
John and four other recent NYU graduates wanted a cheap, raw space where they could have free reign to do anything they wanted. They were the neighborhoodâ€™s early adopters, pre-gentrifying artists and filmmakers â€“ not quite squatting but not living in a legitimate residential space, either. They built proper bedrooms with doors, installed a kitchen with electric stove and plumbing for a shower and half-assedly rewired the loft by running extension cords in loopy messes throughout the space. The old fur lockers became coat closets. They got two kittens and settled in. They named the loft Top Floor Productions, though they never actually produced anything together.
As the neighborhood rapidly improved over the next decade, Top Floor went from five residents to nine as Cara consistently increased the rent. The basketball court became a bedroom, as did part of the art studio/band practice space, with just a plastic tarp to separate it. Things that seemed fixable were added to a neglected to-do list years long. They never installed a call button for the freight elevator â€“ you still have to go to the roof and carefully hotwire the exposed controls to make it move. The piles of dusty, unused objects left by former tenants just kept growing.
In 1999, the second floor was turned into â€œthe Milk Factory,â€ a complex of affordable artist studios. Two years later, Cara bought Santilloâ€™s half of the Classon, Emerson and Myrtle complexes for $450,000.
Crime in the area is down significantly in the last few years, but itâ€™s still not particularly safe. In June, someone stole Johnâ€™s car, took it on a joyride and totaled it. In March, the two Chinese women who ran an Asian market on the ground floor were found stabbed to death in the building; their killers were never found. And the other day, on their way home from dinner on Myrtle Avenue, John and Stephanie walked by a large, fresh pool of blood.
Like most things in life, it breaks down into costs and benefits. For me, the space and the nonchalant lifestyle was incredibly appealing at first. A graduate school student, I lived with a 27-year-old devout Catholic Republican on a husband search. Top Floor Productions, I thought, was exactly what I needed to recuperate.
Since 1995, thirty-five different people have lived at Top Floor, many of them staying only a couple months and leaving when they realized, like I finally did, that nothing could be changed or improved because no one was interested in change or improvement. No one wants to grow up. When I invited one of my friends over to witness the scene for himself, he was slightly horrified. â€œItâ€™s like Never-Never Land,â€ he said, laughing nervously. Theyâ€™d rather paint the floor red than mop it, eat off paper towels than do the dishes and amass mountains of dusty, useless junk than give or throw anything away.
Cara has made it abundantly clear that when the lease ends in April, it will not be renewed. They wonâ€™t discuss their plans for the building, but their renovation next door at 574 Myrtle leaves little to the imagination: the once-main office of the M.H. Renken dairy company is now luxury loft apartments, two bedrooms renting for almostÂ $2,000.
Under other circumstances, this would make me sad. I very much want for this New York to still exist, and I want to like John and Stephanie and the other people at Top Floor because I like their cause. But I donâ€™t believe in it anymore. Itâ€™s not the loft laws or the real estate market or even gentrification â€“ itâ€™s the people. This is a compromised dream, massive potential wasted. Itâ€™s a sad delusion that from the outside is a revealing, detailed portrait of the post-college pre-adulthood â€œtwixterâ€ stage lasting longer than ever; from the inside, itâ€™s stagnant and depressing.
When most people think of loft living like this, they think of artists using home as studio space, like Top Floor was in the beginning; now itâ€™s become a conglomeration of mostly 9-5ers who work at direct mail companies to pay for their liquor and cigarettes. The eccentricities of this countercultural gritty lifestyle are somehow set off when thereâ€™s art involved, but thereâ€™s no more art here â€“ itâ€™s all grit.
The roommates know nothing about the neighborhood and arenâ€™t interested in learning. Theyâ€™re the kind of people who want to be cool, creative and revolutionary in their lifestyle; they want the cache of living communally in a commercial loft and the marginally cheaper rent. Itâ€™s like Lord of the Flies in the city, children playing adults; as time wears on and Top Floor nears the end, the social order breaks down, the interactions becoming increasingly desperate and brutal. The roommates take their frustrations of being single misfits out on each other, and being the baby of the house and the newest arrival, Iâ€™m the easiest target for communal angst: everyone wants to act like my parent. I became increasingly aware of the power dynamic as the summer wore on. My efforts to clean were rebuffed and my ideas for a garden were rejected outright. But they still drank my beer.
By the time you read this article Iâ€™ll have moved out of 206 to more desirable living quarters â€“ with windows, say, and heat. And fewer rats.
By the time you read this article I hope Iâ€™ll still be sane.
My 206 Classon experience reminded me of my living experiences in college. One of my favorite courses was literary and social â€œTheory,â€ in which we read Terry Eagletonâ€™s â€œAfter Theory.â€ The book argues for communism, a political and social system I once dreamed of but am no longer sure I believe in. This is a paragraph from the paper I wrote in response to the book.
But what of the capacity of people? Eagleton seems to assume them far better than I believe they prove themselves. While itâ€™s true that abstract principles like â€œcompassionâ€ are usually things people agree are abstractly â€œgood,â€ this doesnâ€™t mean people actually practice them, or that they have any desire to do so. What about those people who are just assholes? Eagleton might explain away their personality as extreme individualism. These tragedies of capitalism cannot be incorporated into a socialist community.
My professorâ€™s note next to this paragraph says â€œexactly,â€ underlined twice.
[For the accompanying illustration, please check out Syncopated V. 3!]