From the November 25, 1985 issue of New York Magazine.
When Becky London was growing up in Philadelphia, she dreamed of becoming an actress and moving to New York. “I wanted to have a place like Marlo Thomas had in That Girl,” says London, 27. “I knew I’d have to struggle, and that maybe I wouldn’t find my ‘dream’ apartment. But I figured, how bad could it be?”
London quickly found out. “It’s hell out here,” she says. After graduating from the Yale School of Drama in 1982, London found an apartment through a roommate service in Manhattan. “I wanted to live alone,” she says. “But considering I couldn’t afford more than $375 a month, that wasn’t even a remote possibility.” So London moved to an apartment on West 82nd Street, where there were so many roommates coming and going that the place seemed like a “transient hotel.” Whenever London went out of town, the woman who held the lease would sublet her room, even though London was still paying rent. “I put up with this for about a year,” she says, “and then I couldn’t take it anymore.”
London went back to the roommate service. This time, she was paired with a fabric designer on the Upper East Side. “The place was clean,” says London, “and the woman seemed nice. Then, on the third day, as I was unpacking my clothes, she walked into my room and muttered something about a mental hospital.
“From then on, it was like a nightmare,” she says. “My roommate hardly left her room. Every morning at 3 A.M., she’d open the windows and shout obscenities. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have the money for another security deposit, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” Finally, it became too much. “One night, I woke up and she was standing over my bed, staring at me,” London says. “I said to myself, ‘Tomorrow night she may have a kitchen knife,’ so I fled.” London moved in temporarily with a man she had been casually dating. “We certainly weren’t ready for a live-in relationship,” she says, “but this is what Manhattan does to you.”
Within a month, London was back at the roommate service. She says she threatened to sue unless they found her someone “more compatible than a psychotic.” Her next roommate was a 35-year-old Vietnam veteran. “The only thing we had in common,” says London, “was that I needed a place to live and he had an apartment.” Soon after London moved in, she had a shot at a part in a touring Shakespeare company. “I told him I’d pay the rent while I was gone,” she says, “but he wouldn’t hold on to my room. ‘I can’t make that kind of commitment,’ he said. I told him, ‘Look, I don’t want to marry you. I just want a place to live.’ But maybe that’s too much to ask.”
Last year, London moved to a small studio in Park Slope. “I was heartbroken,” she says. “I felt haunted by the fact that I hadn’t ‘made it.’ But if making it means having an apartment in Manhattan, well, that’s not a realistic goal anymore.”
In the past few years, a growing number of people have come to the same conclusion—that living in Manhattan is impossible or, at best, improbable. Many are involved in theater, dance, the visual arts, and publishing—fields that rarely pay well, especially for those still on the way up. Without the high salaries of banking, law, medicine, and the like, they can’t afford to live here. And if housing costs continue to rise, these people may never be able to afford to come back. “Unless you have a trust fund or a wealthy spouse, you might as well head straight to the boroughs,” says Kate Busch, director of development and marketing at A.R.T./New York, a service organization for nonprofit theater.
The city has always lost young couples to the suburbs once they began to think about raising a family, and that is still happening today. But experts say the current exodus is different. Along with the people who have traditionally headed to suburbia, a new group of deserters is composed of single people or childless-couples, many of whom are moving to Brooklyn, Queens, Hoboken, or Jersey City. “We’re not looking for a two-car garage and a backyard barbecue,” says a 32-year-old screenwriter. “We’re looking to survive.”
The high cost of housing is the main reason for the new migration. Apartment prices have gone up 25 percent in the past three years, and the trend toward co-op and condominium conversions has made rentals harder to find. The neighborhoods that once offered inexpensive housing—Chelsea, Clinton, the Upper West Side, the East Village—are now prohibitively chic. “When David’s Cookies appeared,” says furniture designer John Jacobus, who lived on the Lower East Side, “I knew it was time to get out.” Jacobus moved to Williamsburg.
As the city’s young creative talents get pushed farther away from Manhattan, the effects are being felt by more-established artists. Writer Jerzy Kosinski, who recently rented an apartment in New Haven, says, “Manhattan used to be inspirational; it has become profiteering. It used to be freethinking; it has become freewheeling. People used to talk spiritual shop; now all they talk is real estate and money. This is still a vibrant town—this time the vibes come from a pacemaker, not from the heart.”
Playwright and actor David Babcock sums it up this way: “In the sixties, we had Greenwich Village. In the seventies, there was SoHo. What do we have for the eighties? Columbus Avenue!”
Along with the housing crunch, the city also faces a critical shortage of rehearsal and performance space. According to a recent study by A.R.T./New York and INTAR, an Off Broadway theater company, 29 nonprofit performance spaces either have lost their leases in the last few years or will lose them within the year. These include the Light Opera of Manhattan, the Collective for Living Cinema, the City Arts Workshop, the Theatre Off Park, and the W.P.A. Theatre.
Dance is suffering, too. At least a dozen schools have been forced to close, including the highly regarded New York School of Ballet. “How can New York retain its status as the dance center of the world if there’s no place to dance?” says ballet teacher David Howard, whose building on the West Side is being torn down to make room for a high rise.
“I look at it this way,” says a novelist in her late forties. “By 1990, the only people left in Manhattan will be wealthy Europeans avoiding terrorists, yuppies facing mid-life crises, and maybe Woody Allen.”
“People would say, ‘You expect me to go to Brooklyn for dinner?’ Now it’s ‘Where can I get an apartment?’ “
Patricia Blair, 28, is reminiscing about Manhattan in “the old days.” That was only ten years ago, but a lot has changed. She was a student at the Harkness Center and lived on the Upper East Side with four roommates. “There was such a camaraderie,” she says. “After class we’d all get together at this little Greek coffee shop and talk nonstop about dance.” Harkness will be closing, the coffee shop has disappeared, and Blair is now living in Brooklyn Heights with her husband, Stephen Harding, a dance administrator.
For a long time, the couple resisted moving out. Harding grew up on the East Side, and he says that it never occurred to him that people lived anywhere else. It also didn’t occur to him that he’d wind up on East 83rd Street in a tiny one-bedroom that on occasion lacked heat or hot water. “After one particularly grueling winter, the landlord asked for a $100 rent increase,” says Harding. “After that, we said, ‘Enough.’ “
After five years of “living like a student,” Passanante decided that “Manhattan was out of reach.” So she moved to Hoboken, where she now lives with her husband, a writer. “At first, it was a great emotional disappointment,” she says. “In My Sister Eileen, Rosalind Russell lived in Greenwich Village—not in New Jersey. But sometimes you just have to forget your childhood dreams and become an adult.”
Although the decision to leave Manhattan is nearly always painful, it’s particularly wrenching for people who grew up here. Before the era of downward mobility, some of them lived in townhouses and ten-room apartments. Now they find themselves exiled from their hometown.
Edward Baum, a staff writer for M magazine, was raised in a four-bedroom duplex penthouse on Park Avenue. Today, he and his wife, Lise, an assistant buyer at Bonwit’s, live in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. Before that, they rented a small studio in Tudor City. “It was big enough for a double bed and a coffee table,” Baum says. The dog slept in the tub.
Baum didn’t want to leave Manhattan, but he also wanted space for his Steinway baby-grand piano. For over a decade, it has been “waiting for him” at his parents’ house. “I figured I’d pick it up when I had a larger apartment,” he says. “Then I realized there might never be a larger apartment. And if I couldn’t fit a piano, how could I ever fit kids?”
But Baum says he loves Brooklyn, which is why he and his wife took the plunge and bought a two-bedroom co-op there. “It’s a great area,” he says. “Like the Upper West Side before it was destroyed.”
The current exodus has drastically revised attitudes about living “over the bridge.” “The stigma is gone,” says Daniel Swee, casting director for the Theatre Communications Group. “In the past, people would say, ‘You expect me to go to Brooklyn for dinner?’ Now they’re saying, ‘Dinner, sure! And where can I get an apartment?’”
It’s even fashionable to display a certain reverse snobbery. Manhattan is now being dismissed as “too whitewashed,” “too homogeneous,” and, as Passanante puts it, “too much like one big trendy restaurant.” Today, people don’t joke about Brooklyn or Hoboken; they pick on Columbus Avenue—which has become a symbol for the evils of gentrification, a kind of yuppie version of Sodom and Gomorrah.
SoHo doesn’t come off much better. Former residents grow nostalgic about the way it was, making it sound like Camelot. “In the seventies, SoHo had a real magical quality,” says textile designer Janice Everett, 37, who now rents a loft in Brooklyn. “We were all living in illegal lofts, and there was a strong sense of community. It was almost like a private society of underground artists.”
Everett says she noticed the “beginning of the end” when Dean & Deluca opened in the late seventies. “Next, we got the fur-coat crowd on Saturdays,” she explains, “and we knew it wasn’t our neighborhood anymore.”
Creative people have always primed neighborhoods for gentrification; lawyers and doctors wouldn’t be living in lofts in SoHo if the artists hadn’t moved in first. So if the artists are leaving, it should come as no surprise that professionals are following. According to Real Estate Weekly, the spillover of young professionals into Brooklyn has been so strong that a “Manhattan-style apartment boom” is in evidence throughout Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Park Slope.
In Brooklyn Heights, co-op and condominium prices have gone up an average of 26 percent over the past twelve months, according to a survey by Bellmarc Realty. The average two-bedroom is now selling for $250,000, about 17 percent less than the equivalent apartment in Manhattan. Fifty percent of the apartments sold in 1984 went to professionals, the majority of them from the West Side.
Some of this spillover is even beginning to affect the more industrial areas of Brooklyn. Everett, who lost her loft, says she’s experiencing a “frightening sense of déja vu.” She rented an illegal loft in a manufacturing zone and has lived there quietly since 1979. Now the city is beginning to issue violations, and she’s worried that she’ll be forced out again. “I live between two yuppie areas,” she says, “so real-estate speculators are waiting in the wings.” Already, artists are being displaced in Hoboken and are heading for Jersey City, Maplewood, and South Orange. And who knows how long they’ll be able to stay there? “It’s frightening,” says Passanante about the pace of development in Hoboken. “Everything’s going condo—even a church. The other day I walked by it, and somebody had scrawled CONDOS FOR CHRIST on the wall.”
“The problem,” says Timothy Jensen, director of legal services for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, “is that New Yorkers are increasingly obsessed with space. All everybody ever does is talk about real estate. An apartment becomes a major goal—like a career. In this respect, we’re totally out of sync with the rest of the country.”
For artists and performers, the problem goes beyond wanting an extra room for the au pair. Without space, they can’t work. “It’s really having a negative effect on the creative process,” says choreographer Marta Renzi, who moved to Nyack with her husband, poet Daniel Wolff. “There’s such an overall sense of claustrophobia. Recently, I came into the city to see a dance concert. One of the pieces featured a woman in a box. She was like a caged animal. To me, that says it all.”
Though Westbeth and Manhattan Plaza, two federally subsidized housing projects, provide professional artists with apartments at reduced rents, there’s a long waiting list to get into them. (Westbeth may go co-op in order to raise a portion of the $2 million it still owes the federal government.) Mae Gamble, a Hunter College professor who was evicted from her loft near City Hall, moved to Westbeth in 1970 with her husband, a photographer, and their three children. If not for Westbeth, Gamble says, they’d be “long gone.”
Without that option, people like 33-year-old playwright Michael Weholt simply can’t live here. “A writer needs a certain amount of privacy,”says Weholt, whose play, The Custodian, opened last week at the Moving Target Theatre in Brooklyn Heights. “But I never thought much about it until I realized I might not get it.” Weholt, who moved from Iowa not long ago, wanted to live in the East Village—until he visited a friend’s apartment. “It was in this bombed-out area,” he explains, “and the tub was in the kitchen, and I said, ‘Okay, so much for privacy.’”
So now Weholt is living in Fort Greene in a large house with three roommates. There’s a parlor where he can stage readings, as well as a laundry room, a garden, and three marble fireplaces. “I even have a room of my own,” he says.
Unfortunately, artists need more than that. For a while, the factory buildings in SoHo provided the ideal setup. The lofts, which were rented “raw,” didn’t have heaters, bathrooms, or stoves. But they did have plenty of space—often 3,000 square feet—and good light. Now many artists are trying to find the same thing in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and DUMBO (an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”). Others are restoring brownstones in such lower-middle-class communities as Clinton Hill.
“I had to be dragged kicking and screaming from SoHo,” says painter Donald Cole, who lives in Clinton Hill with his wife, a graphic designer, and their two children. “But the landlord kept raising our rent, and we had to go.” So Cole went to Brooklyn, where he bought a large garage building for $42,500. “My life has totally opened up,” he says. “I’ve discovered new places in Brooklyn, and I’ve made new friends. We all miss SoHo, but the days of sitting around Fanelli’s bar are gone. The community has disappeared, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
For sculptor Jim Huntington, space has always been more important than location. When he lost his loft near City Hall, he bought a factory building in Williamsburg. “Living in a factory was always my dream,” he says. “I work with stone and granite, and I needed industrial handling equipment. The factory came equipped with overhead bridge cranes, so it was ideal.”
Huntington says that when he moved to Williamsburg in 1981, “it was like a war zone. There were drug supermarkets everywhere, and a lot of cabdrivers didn’t want to go there. Now half of the crime has been cleaned up, and even the cabdrivers are calling it ‘the artists’ neighborhood.’ “
But sometimes Huntington feels as if he had been “banished” from Manhattan. “I’m still angered by the 718 area code,” he says. And he’s also afraid that the geography of New York City is beginning to resemble that of Los Angeles. “A lot of L.A. artists used to complain about never meeting one another because everybody lived too far away,” he says. “Now that’s happening here. New York is getting to be one giant sprawl.”
“It’s inevitable,” says a city official. “We see artists’ moving to the boroughs as a positive thing.”
Long Island City, too, is fast becoming an important artists’ “suburb.” Though it has already been discovered, and real-estate prices have risen dramatically, many artists have been able to find cheap lofts there in run-down manufacturing buildings. “There are literally hundreds of artists here,” says painter Ken Bernstein, who owns Studio K, Long Island City’s first art gallery.
“Unlike SoHo, Long Island City isn’t a real art community—yet,” says Bernstein. “A lot of artists are living above one another in the same building and they don’t even know it.” Bernstein says that Studio K has helped bring a lot of them together. “They’d run into one another at the gallery and say, ‘Gee, I didn’t know you were here,’ ” he says.
But some artists like Long Island City because it’s not an art community. “It’s got a lot of working-class people, and there isn’t the kind of social pressure you had in SoHo,” says sculptor and painter Thom Cooney Crawford. “Here, there are no distractions, except the Manhattan skyline. In a very urban way, it’s peaceful.”
But it may not be fore long. A second art gallery—the Forefront—just opened, and TriBeCa’s Oil and Steel Gallery is scheduled to move in next year. Then there’s the newly opened International Design Center, and a planned luxury high-rise complex on the waterfront. “Will I still be here in five years?” Crawford asks. “Check back.”
Landscape painter Bart Gulley wouldn’t mind a few art galleries in his neighborhood. Gulley lives in the Ditmas Park section of Flatbush with his wife, Barbara, a lawyer for the Department of City Planning. They pay $925 a month for a nine-room house that’s “so big it’s hard to keep clean.” But sometimes Gulley feels cut off from what’s going on in Manhattan. “I’m just at the point where I’m ready to show people my work,” he says, “and it’s going to be harder to make contacts.” Also, life in Ditmas Park isn’t as stimulating as it might be in Manhattan. “I’d like to be around other artists,” he says, “but I don’t know where to find them.”
That seems to be the universal Catch-22. Though Marta Renzi loves her house in Nyack, she misses Manhattan’s creative energy. “Since I moved away, the pace of my career has slowed down,” she says. “I’m not as driven as I used to be. Sometimes I miss the impromptu feeling of dance. In the past, a group of us would get together and rehearse, and something wonderful would happen. It’s harder to do that in Nyack.”
“There’s something about Manhattan, about people living in close proximity to one another, that stimulates the creative process,” says David White, executive director of Dance Theatre Workshop. “It would be a tragedy if that were destroyed.”
If the artists have to be outside Manhattan, at least they can commute into the city. But what happens when the places they rehearse or perform in can no longer afford to stay in Manhattan? Why bother to commute at all? Why not just move—as some are doing—to Minneapolis, or Los Angeles, or Seattle?
A lot of people fear a full-scale exodus if the city doesn’t do something soon. “Arts are an endangered industry,” says White. “Artists may have to adapt to living and working in different places, but you can’t move your audience with you. Art is a public process. A work is never completed until it’s seen by the public. And we need space for that process.”
But that kind of space is getting harder to find. The Cultural Assistance Center recently completed a study of the real-estate needs of arts groups; the results will be released later this month. “It’s a relatively new problem,” says Philip Aarons, a private real-estate developer who worked on the project. According to Aarons, inexpensive real estate was available in the “valley” between lower Manhattan and midtown, particularly in SoHo, TriBeCa, and Chelsea. “But rising rents in midtown and lower Manhattan have caused many businesses to relocate there,” he says, “and they’ve driven prices up.”
That’s bad news for the arts organizations. When leases expire, these groups face rent increases of 300 percent or more. Take the case of Dance Theatre Workshop on West 19th Street, which saw its rent climb from $15,000 to $65,000 in one year. Or TriBeCa’s Franklin Furnace, whose building was offered a new lease that included an increase of 580 percent per year. Or the Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble, whose new lease included 50 pages of riders, giving the landlord the right, for instance, to discontinue water service with no prior notice.
The SoHo Repertory Theatre, evicted from its theater in 1984, was so desperate that it moved into a city-owned space at Bellevue Hospital. After the group spent $70,000 on renovations, it was told the building was scheduled for demolition. It is now in a temporary home in Greenwich House, on Barrow Street.
“The city is killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” says Harvey Seifter, development director of the Theatre for the New City. In 1984, its rent was increased by 350 percent, and Seifter spent the next year “looking at 2,500 different properties.” “We really want to stay in the East Village,” he says. “We’ve won a Pulitzer and 30 Obies, and I think we’re an asset to the community.” He is now negotiating with the Sanitation Department for a building on East 10th Street.
Perhaps the most nightmarish story involves the theaters at 549 West 52nd Street—Interart Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Soundscape. For the past three years, Margot Lewitin, artistic director of Women’s Interart Center, has tried to buy the building from the city for $400,000 and establish it as a nonprofit arts center. According to Lewitin, the city agreed to sell. Then, in July, she was told the property would be bulldozed. The theaters are now facing possible eviction as part of a city plan to sell off the area to two developers, Glick Associates and Siegel-Brodsky, who plan to construct high-rise apartment buildings.
“The whole thing stinks,” says Lewitin, who is now suing the city. “We moved into the Clinton area when it was burned-out rubble. We put a lot of time, money, and energy into improving the community. To be pushed out now because the city wants to create market-rate housing—it’s outrageous!”
“Pretty soon, the only thing you’re going to see in Manhattan is high rises and restaurants,” says Mitch McGuire of Manhattan Punchline. “Already there’s very little developmental theater being done, because people can’t afford to pay their rent unless they put on a hit. A play won’t get produced unless it’s got glitz. And you know what’s going to happen? New York is going to lose theater to Los Angeles the same way it lost television. Right now, theater is having a big revival out there, because the arts aren’t being crippled by real-estate development.”
The Upper West Side, once known as the “dance belt,” is losing many of its ballet studios and schools. On a recent afternoon, ballet teacher David Howard sat in his studio on West 62nd Street and reeled off casualties, including Melissa Hayden, Robert Denvers, and Fancy Dancer. Perhaps the worst loss was the New York School of Ballet, a 25-year-old institution that was given 30 days to vacate its studio on Broadway. Though students staged a protest by doing bar exercises at the police barricades, it didn’t do any good. The school has closed down, and director Richard Thomas, one of the last of the old-style ballet masters, is without a home.
Howard is in trouble, too. His building, which also houses Luigi’s Jazz Center, will be torn down early next year. Howard, who has coached Natalia Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland, and Cynthia Harvey, is trying to raise money for a new studio on West 61st Street. But it’s not going to be easy. His rent will triple, and Howard says he can’t pass along the increase to his students. “They already have enough problems with housing,” he says. “Start raising the price of classes and you won’t get anybody except the very rich.”
The problem is even more serious with modern dance. “We’re not just talking about the schools,” says Charles Reinhart, director of the American Dance Festival. “We’re talking about wiping out the entire art form.” According to Reinhart, there are at least 200 modern-dance companies in New York City, and they’re all fighting for a limited amount of space. “Finally, we’ve come to the point where we’ve raised people’s consciousness about modern dance. We’ve got the audience. Now we don’t have the theaters.
“You know what’s going to happen?” Reinhart continues. “Pretty soon, a city like Dallas is going to say to some of these dance companies, ‘Hey, we’re building a huge arts complex. Why don’t you move to Texas?’ “
Some city officials think Brooklyn or Queens might be a better alternative. They point to the success of P.S. 1, a former public school in Long Island City that provides work spaces for artists. And then there’s the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is now considered the best showcase for experimental work in New York City. By organizing its highly successful “Next Wave” festival, and by spotlighting such innovative talents as Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Laurie Anderson, BAM is consistently attracting Manhattan audiences.
It’s also attracting a good deal of redevelopment to the area. One nearby city-owned theater is being converted into studio and administrative space for the performing arts, and another theater may follow. According to Edgar Lampert of the Georgetown Group, a real estate firm that’s serving as a consultant on the project, choreographer Laura Dean may be one of the first tenants.
“It’s inevitable,” says Richard Bruno, assistant commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. “Fifteen years ago, a lot of theaters didn’t want to move to Greenwich Village. They said it was too far from Broadway. Now they have the same reluctance about Brooklyn. But right now, there’s no undiscovered territory in Manhattan. Real estate is a force that no one can control. It’s like a juggernaut. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Frankly, we see artists’ moving to the boroughs as a positive thing.”
But a lot of the artists don’t see it that way. “Dancers’ professional lives are relatively short,” says Howard. “They don’t want to spend most of it on the subway.”
“Leave Manhattan?” says Lewitin. “That’s just great. Why doesn’t the city sweep the entire problem under the rug?”
Joe Papp believes that a better alternative would be to offer tax abatements for landlords who provide studios for the performing arts in new buildings in the theater district. “We need space for rehearsals, to showcase productions, places where people can make costumes—and these places should be close together. The notion of dispersing these endeavors dilutes the artistic concentration. Why destroy something that grows up naturally?”
But for people like Fritz Ertl, artistic director of the Moving Target Theatre Company in Brooklyn Heights, leaving Manhattan is no longer a debatable issue. “You have to be realistic,” he says. “Groaning about the situation isn’t going to make it better. After a while, you just have to pick up and leave.”
Ertl, who lives in Park Slope with his wife, an actress, is hoping to find “Manhattan-type audiences” in Brooklyn. “I’ve got theater space for only $750 a month, and I think I can make it work. The whole notion of having to live in Manhattan is getting very outdated.” These days, Ertl says, he rarely goes into the city, except to do temporary work as a word-processor operator.
If he had the money, would he move back to Manhattan? “Not the way things are going,” he says. “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t know anyone who lived there.”