Volume 18 • Issue 49 | April 21 - 27, 2006

Downtown Express photos by Bob Arihood

Jim “Mosaic Man” Power packed up his artwork and possessions as he prepared to leave 120 St. Mark’s Pl.

Art commune’s final days on St. Marks

By Lincoln Anderson

The members of the Cave, a squatter artists collective on St. Mark’s Pl. near Avenue A, recently were compelled to vacate the building after a developer with an option to buy the dilapidated tenement bought them out. Before the developer, Ben Shaoul of Magnum Management, paid them to leave, however, his workers first came in with some heavy-handed tactics, brandishing sledgehammers and crowbars.

Jim “Mosaic Man” Power, whose work decorates the bases and poles of East Village streetlights, said he enjoyed the artistic environment of the Cave, but that there was also a lot of partying and fighting that distracted from making art. He said he’s O.K. with taking a $2,500 buyout and didn’t fight leaving.

“They did their thing. They came in hard and heavy,” Power, 59, said. “I think they were reasonable under the circumstances. I see it as a lucky break — I was able to live there and do my work. I’m floating around for the next month.

“This squatters stuff — I would be hijacking somebody — I didn’t want to do that by any means. I got what I needed out of there.”

He and his canine sidekick, Jessie Jane, were briefly homeless, but have found a temporary place to stay with an East Village artist who commissioned Power to do a mosaic around his bathtub.

Power said he plans to enlist the help of Crif Dogs hot dog shop across the street to relocate his two mosaic tile planters on St. Mark’s Pl. — moving one down to the World Trade Center site, where he angrily notes “nothing’s been done,” and the other to the Astor Pl. triangle by the cube sculpture.

Craig Lopez, owner of Accidental CD’s who had relocated his store from Avenue A into a storefront in 120 St. Mark’s Pl. not long ago, got the biggest buyout, $15,000. He said he won’t look for another storefront, since the neighborhood has become too expensive, and that his business will only be online from now on.

Eddy Menuau, another artist who lived in the building, also got cash to leave, and has relocated to Brooklyn and is currently concentrating on being a carpenter. Asked how much art got done in the building as opposed to drinking and fighting, he said it was about 40 percent art to 60 percent the rest. He and Power also occasionally clashed. He claims Power once wanted him out of the building so he could establish a mosaic museum in the Cave.

Meanwhile, Shaoul says the building is underbuilt. He plans to expand it into the backyard and possibly add some space on top. It will be a rental. There will be a community facility space, possibly for a business like a veterinarian, he said. But he said he doesn’t want restaurants or bars as tenants.

“I am just trying to save the building,” he said, “and get the weight off the floors. Maybe do some low-income housing if it’s feasible, and make some rentals. There are a lot of students in the area that need living space. It’s kind of small for an 80/20 building,” he said, referring to a tax-abatement program for buildings that have 20 percent low-income units.

As for why they had come wielding sledgehammers to knock down apartment doors inside before the squatters agreed to the terms of the buyouts, Shaoul said it’s common to knock out doors to keep drug users and other undesirables from occupying any rooms or bathrooms.

In fact, Shaoul and his men kicked in one door, to the apartment where Rachel Allen, Lopez’s girlfriend, was living, and pushed down another door, to Menuau’s apartment, which was just hanging on its hinges because the door jam was rotted. Lopez says Shaoul called Allen a “pig” and “bitch” when he found her in the room. Shaoul says Allen cursed at him. Shaoul feels Allen was trying to “extort” him to get a buyout of her own by adding a lock to the apartment’s door, while Lopez, who says Allen was shaken up by the incident, says she really had been living there, as witnessed by a month-old Con Ed bill for the apartment. Lopez had his own apartment in the building. Lopez also says that at one point Shaoul told him if he didn’t get out, he’d demolish the building around him. Menuau said that when they entered his apartment, Shaoul and his men just asked him if he had a lease.

However, while Shaoul said he’s trying to save the building, on Monday the Department of Buildings issued a stop-work order barring work on the old tenement. According to D.O.B., Shaoul has been doing unpermitted work, in which he has excavated down 10 feet in the backyard, creating a 20-foot-by-30-foot pit. Yet, he failed to shore up the sides of the earth, posing a danger to both the public and the workers, since the pit could cave in. Anything deeper than 5 feet must be shored up and braced, explained Jennifer Givner, a D.O.B. spokesperson. In addition, Shaoul’s workers caused a dangerous bulge in the building’s rear brick wall when they cut an 8-foot-by-8-foot hole through it to get a small earthmover into the backyard, Givner said. About 20 cubic yards of dirt have been removed from the rear yard, loaded into three dumpsters and carted off.

But Shaoul said the bulge was already there and that they were digging out trees in order to test for footings for the planned rear-yard extension of the building.

However, said Givner, “What happened was they were digging next to it and that caused the wall to be unsettled. To the best of our knowledge, there are no engineering plans. There are a number of problematic conditions at the site.”

In addition, Shaoul owns 515 E. Fifth St., though he denied this to The Villager. Yet, Jim Capalino, a Shaoul spokesperson, confirmed Shaoul does own the building. Shaoul tried to evict the tenants at 515 E. Fifth St. at the end of last year under the so-called demolition eviction clause, under which an owner can clear out tenants if he plans to do a gut renovation. But Shaoul dropped this plan in February when the issue came before Community Board 3 and there was public outcry. He also owns a building on E. 11th St. where tenants were permanently evacuated two years ago after his construction workers destabilized it, according to a former tenant who requested anonymity. But Capalino said it was heavy rains — not Shaoul’s workers — that destabilized the building’s foundation. Givner did not immediately have information about any tenants having been evacuated at the E. 11th St. building.

In addition, according to Michael Soleimani of Magnum Management, Shaoul and Magnum partners are building a new 92-unit, eight-story condo building with a pool on the roof at 13th St. and First Ave. on the site of a former lumberyard and a more pricey 110-unit, 13-story condo building on 22nd St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves.

Soleimani claimed that D.O.B. late Tuesday had rescinded the stop-work order at 120 St. Mark’s Pl. And he said their plans for the building are sound.

“We have architects and engineers that we rely on to do these things,” he said.


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