Volume 20, Number 43 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | October 20 - 26, 2010
The Westbeth Artists Housing complex, with traffic rushing by on the West Side Highway in the foreground.
Secrets of surviving an art commune: Westbeth at 40
By Kate Walter
When I finally signed a lease for an affordable alcove studio in the West Village, I called my parents in New Jersey to shout the miraculous news. After 10 years on the waiting list for the well-known, inexpensive Westbeth Artists Housing, I landed a sunny space a block from the Hudson River. For a very low rent, I moved into a 400-square-foot loft with three large windows and high ceilings, located in the beautiful historic neighborhood.
That summer day in 1997, I sat in the courtyard and started scrawling in my journal. As I gazed up into a studio, I saw a woman standing at her easel, painting. I felt a creative flow, an energy that went back to the days when the buildings used to house Bell Labs and the inventors who dreamed up the transistor, television transmission, high-fidelity recording, the digital computer.
This inspiring legacy was handed down when Westbeth opened in 1970 as moderate-income housing for artists. Today, 1,200 people live in the 11-story, brick complex, a patchwork of buildings taking up the block at West and Bethune Sts. My friend Sue said the place looked like a penitentiary. Yet it’s packed with talent that inspires me daily. My next-door neighbor had work in the Whitney Biennial this year. The man upstairs is an award-winning Off Broadway actor.
Famous Westbethians include the jazz arranger Gil Evans, the poet Muriel Rukeyser and the actor Moses Gunn. The most well-known former living tenant would be the hunky action star Vin Diesel, a Westbeth kid who acted in plays in the community room.
When the residence first opened, the far West Village was a seedy, fringe neighborhood, an abandoned waterfront with sex and drugs on the piers at night. No one wanted to live here. But during the mid-’90s, the neighborhood gentrified, spurred by the construction of the fabulous new Hudson River Park. Celebrities, like Martha Stewart, moved into multimillion-dollar high-rises, and Marc Jacobs bought a townhouse across the street. These drastic changes worried tenants about the future of our aging complex, run by a nonprofit corporation.
I grew up in New Jersey in a century-old Victorian house filled with my extended Catholic family linked through blood. I landed up across the river from New Jersey in a century-old complex, whose residents were a dysfunctional family linked through art.
I quickly discovered Westbeth was its own world filled with creative geniuses, simmering feuds and conspiracy theories. A left-wing gay journalist, I crossed lines and socialized freely. I was glad I’d had a good career and social life in the East Village and that my partner at the time lived elsewhere. It was my escape hatch.
It took a while to get to know the players. I thought for sure this young guy who dug cans from the trash bins in the courtyard was homeless; then I saw him strolling through the lobby, smiling at the security guards. He lived with his mother, and had supposedly destroyed his mind from using angel dust. One man who looked like a garbage scavenger turned out to be a sculptor collecting material for art.
Singers sang in the hallways and everyone networked in the mailroom. No one cared about fashion, except the performers. Several guys had beards long enough to qualify for membership in ZZ Top. If I mumbled to myself, I wasn’t labeled crazy; I was an engrossed writer, reworking a tricky paragraph.
I learned to be careful about making small talk in the elevator. My banal greeting, “Really windy,” elicited a discourse about wind poetry and sea chants. I knew better than to get on the elevator with the “stinky man” as the kids called him.
I kept a low profile at first, letting my provocative personality emerge slowly. It was easy to get caught up in Westbeth’s insular existence, so it was healthy to have a life outside this colony. I didn’t want to become one of the resident yentas, obsessed with other people’s business. Similar to a small village, the place felt emotionally incestuous — not enough new blood — lots of weird history. I couldn’t keep track of who dissed whom. I heard tales and rumors involving sex, violence, stalking.
While there’s been a welcome infusion of younger families with kids recently, I’m not sure the place has calmed down. Four years ago, an emotionally disturbed tenant pummeled a neighbor as she sat in front of the building chatting. A hoarder, with a Collyer brothers apartment, accidentally set a fire that destroyed her place and damaged others. About four months ago, some sicko deliberately started a fire on my floor, setting alight The New York Times hanging from a doorknob. The Sixth Precinct has dubbed my home “West Bellevue.”
During my 13 years here, I have only heard of one person being evicted for antisocial behavior. He was an abusive drunk who urinated out the window and brought bedbugs and crackhead prostitutes into his apartment. Good riddance.
Thankfully, I missed the rash of Westbeth suicides in the ’70s (including Diane Arbus in 1971). Teenagers living here then dubbed the place “Deathbeth.” According to Westbeth lore, scientists working on atomic energy released “something” into the air that intensified the residents’ dark moods. For whatever reasons — the crazy artist syndrome or the psychos gone off their meds — it appears Westbeth has a disproportionate amount of unhinged people.
Or maybe it seems like that to me because I am a lightning rod for nuts. As an opinionated journalist with a local platform, people read my work and want to respond. Rather than sending a letter to the editor, Westbethians slip crazy, unsigned messages under my door, like “Precancerous lump and mental illness, you poor dear.” (This nonsense was a deranged misreading of my piece about getting a mammogram.)
After posting a statement on the bulletin board that my liberal church wrote about the mosque controversy, I woke up to an unsigned, bigoted note disrespecting my house of worship. I was accused of being a “dog hater” because I complained about an unattended mutt that barked for three hours at night and kept me awake.
Neighbors have routinely ripped up artwork or fliers posted on my door about readings. I’ve received notes informing me about other tenants’ misdoings and the alleged terrorists in Washington Square Park. Do these wack jobs think they are passing on story tips?
There was little point in going to management since I couldn’t prove anything. I just tossed the stupid notes into a big envelope and went about my business, spreading the gospel of good writing. I’ve put myself into a protective psychic bubble through yoga, meditation, chanting.
Despite the building’s inherent nuttiness, I feel grateful because I pay a quarter of the market value for my studio. Getting a coveted apartment in Westbeth’s cavernous halls was a blessing that has allowed me to develop my craft as an essayist, memoirist and teacher.
Unlike the pioneers whose arrival coincided with the Age of Aquarius, I didn’t have visions of a utopian community. I buried my love beads long before. Still, I found what I needed: a low-rent, Wall Street-free zone where everyone buzzed about editors, auditions, openings, galleries and readings — where I could afford an artistic life.
I’m thrilled to reside in the last outpost of Greenwich Village bohemia, a brilliant, contentious place, where the biggest insult is that someone “isn’t really an artist.”