Four decades ago, the big industrial buildings of the far West Village were emptying out, and one of the biggest and emptiest was the old Bell Laboratories at West and Bethune Streets. The buzzword of the day was “adaptive reuse,” and it was an avant-garde idea, back then, to turn the hulking structure into artists’ housing. Richard Meier and Tod Williams, then up-and-coming architects, did the job, adding distinctive semicircular balconies in the courtyard, and the complex took the name Westbeth. Rents would be kept low by its nonprofit-foundation owners. In Westbeth’s first years, the poet Muriel Rukeyser and the photographer Diane Arbus moved in, and Merce Cunningham kept a dance studio here. It was a fabulous deal, and the waiting list for apartments grew daunting.
Forty years on, downtown is a different place. Lofts nearby sell for more than Westbeth’s entire annual rent roll. The term “adaptive reuse” has all but disappeared, because it’s just the way we live. Yet the Westbeth experiment remains frozen in 1970. The admission rules have barely changed: working artists only, with three references. Right now, studios at the 383-unit complex go for $650; one-bedrooms, around $800; two-bedrooms for $950; and three-bedrooms, $1,100. There are modest surcharges added if a tenant is making big money, but rates fall back to the base level if someone’s finances go south. “It’s very helpful not to have to worry,” says Isabel Borgata, a sculptor and 25-year resident. Plus “it’s emotional support. Everyone here has common interests, common goals.”
And common concerns. The buildings are nearly 120 years old, and the late-sixties rebuild is aging. Brick is crumbling, the plumbing is ancient, and a charming shabbiness prevails. The complex is likely to gain city-landmark status next year, but that won’t fix the roof. “Because we have the rent so low, we don’t have a capital-reserve account,” says Steve Neil, executive director of Westbeth Center for the Arts, which runs the complex.
A big question mark looms over next June, when Westbeth will pay off its mortgage. “Under our tax abatement, if we do not enter into another regulatory agreement, we must then enter rent stabilization,” says George Cominskie, president of the Westbeth Artists Residents’ Council, a tenants’ group. “It is better than having no protections, but there are serious concerns … For 40 years, our rents have been tied to income.” Under stabilization’s more rigid rules, rents would likely start to creep up. Some residents worry that the artists-only rule would be in jeopardy, though Neil maintains that Westbeth absolutely will “remain affordable housing for artists.” After the anniversary fêtes of 2010, an unease is settling over 2011. “The board is going to make decisions which could affect the rest of our lives,” Cominskie says. “We are all wondering what’s going to happen.”
That uncertainty particularly affects the old-timers—and there are many. Westbeth is heavily stocked with longtime tenants, some fantastically talented, some less so. “The original hope was there would be continuing groups of new people, and after a reasonable amount of time they would move on,” says Joan Kaplan Davidson, whose father’s foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, helped establish Westbeth. “But when it opened, it was the best deal in town, and I believe it still is.”
Which brings up an awkward question. Is Westbeth’s stasis a sign of success, because its mission has been to preserve artists’ presence in the neighborhood? Or is this building a retirement home for people who never quite got to the top? “The city is full of people not named Meryl Streep or Merce Cunningham,” says Neil. “It’s for [those] who get up every day and do their art. They don’t have to be monetarily successful. If we get a Diane Arbus, that’s a bonus.” Fame, or potential fame, is not part of the ethos of Westbeth, and the lack of it is not a barrier to entry.
That said, fresh talent does come off the wait list now and then. The mixed-media artist Claudia Vargas is the newest resident; she and her two children arrived in September, after a decade of annual applications. Now, she says, she can see to the business side of being an artist—like getting gallerists to visit her studio, which is far more difficult when you live in Washington Heights, as she did. “Forget about it,” she says. “They never go out there.”