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After Another Artists’ Enclave in Williamsburg Is Sold, Tenants Live in Uncertainty

475 Kent’s charmingly ramshackle conditions fostered a close-knit community of artists — until they were notified that the building had been sold.

Tenant values on display at 475 Kent in 2008 (photo by Jami/Flickr)

David Alan Harvey was out of the country when he learned he was being evicted from his South Williamsburg apartment.

Harvey, 73, has lived and worked in his loft at 475 Kent Avenue for more than a decade. A member of venerable photo agency Magnum Photos, Harvey constantly travels the world shooting for magazines such as National Geographic, and has had his work shown in the Corcoran Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while lecturing budding shutterbugs about the trade.

When Harvey came back in May from Mexico, where he had been shooting for his next photo book about rustic beach settings, he found a notice taped to his door. The note indicated he had to leave the premises in the coming months because he spent less than half the year living there.

Harvey was not surprised about his eviction, since deep-pocketed developers bought the building for $56 million in February. “As soon as the building was sold I figured this was over,” he said. “The time was just up. They want to raise the rent.”

Tenants protesting being removed from the building in 2008 (photo by iheart475kent/Flickr)

Artist lofts often take the moniker of the business that occupied their space before them, but most are simply known by their addresses. For example, there is the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Industry City in Sunset Park, 1717 Troutman in Bushwick, 56 Bogart in Williamsburg, and 66 West in Greenpoint.

Some of these lofts take on mythic qualities.

Andy Warhol’s iconic studio, The Factory, which was at one point located on East 16th Street and Union Square West, doubled as a hangout for fellow artists and celebrities. The Gretsch Building, once a 10-story factory that made guitars and drums, housed scores of artists before developers Martin and Edward Wydra bought it in late 2001 and converted it to condos. The complex has become one of the most desirable locations in Williamsburg.

Four blocks away from the Gretsch, on the edge of a Hasidic Orthodox enclave sits an 11-story former pasta factory known as 475 Kent. The building’s cast concrete and rebar components were typical of many industrial warehouses built in the early 20th century. The first wave of artists priced out of Manhattan moved into the building in 1998, knocking cinderblocks out of the wall and installing casement windows themselves.

The building’s charmingly ramshackle conditions fostered a close-knit community of visual artists, photographers, musicians, authors, and other creative professionals.

475 Kent tenants moving back in 2008 (photo by Alison Dell/Flickr)

Sculptor Deborah Masters once used a crane to lift her work that would be installed at JFK’s Terminal 4 through an open window in her studio.

War photojournalist Tim Hetherington, whose documentary Restrepo was nominated for an Academy Award, lived there before he was killed while working in Libya in 2011.

Even Bill Murray rented a summer sublet in 2013 while he was shooting the film St. Vincent.

475 Kent (photo by David Gallagher/Flickr)

Life in a former factory meant regular visits from building inspectors to determine whether conditions were up to code. The city made tenants leave 475 Kent for four months in 2008 when the fire department found two silos of grain used to make matzoh in the basement.

But the rising property values of nearby lots attracted investors. The building’s Kent Avenue neighbors, which had been the Schaefer Brewery, the Domino Sugar Factory, and a bevy of smaller warehouses were converted one by one to luxury condo complexes with names like “The Oosten” and designed by renowned architects like ODA’s Eran Chen. And so investors Shlomo Meichor and Assi Arev of the Israel-based firm Gaia Investment Group purchased 475 Kent from Nachman Brach for $56 million in February.

Gaia, which has ties to Israeli billionaires Raz and Beny Steinmetz, has invested heavily in Kushner Companies, the real estate firm owned by President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, but their footprint in the city remains small. In this case, Gaia partnered with developer Copperline Partners run by the wealthy Miami-based Schlesinger family, to manage the property.

Moving sale (photo by Aaron Short)

Tenants began receiving certified letters in March notifying them that the building had been sold. Termination letters went out to some tenants on Memorial Day weekend while others received notices that their privileges were being revoked. “They were sending out notices to scare people and offer them some buyout number, around two years of rent equivalent for the rights to their apartment,” said Andrew Ohanesian, an artist who received a letter claiming that he could no longer park his truck in a parking space near the freight elevator.

However, many longtime residents should be safe from harassment.

Tenants applied and received coverage after the 2010 expansion of the loft law, which extended rental protections to residents living in warehouses for any consecutive twelve month period from January 1, 2008 through December 31, 2009. Their rent would remain stabilized regardless of who purchased the building in the future. The window to apply for protection closed on June 15 of this year.

But the state law has several loopholes.

Subtenants do not have the same rights as those on the unit’s lease, even if they live in the premises for several years. Tenants must be physically present in their apartment for more than half the year in order for it to be considered their primary residence. And those who rented out their units on Airbnb found themselves in hot water with their new landlord.

The new owners have already cleared out about 25 percent of the 475 Kent’s residents —  mostly subtenants — and are trying to remove others. About half the building is preparing to defend their rights to stay, tenants say. “What we have here is a vertical village that grew organically and that’s something worth holding onto,” said video artist Eve Sussman, one of the building’s earliest tenants. “This is about whether we care that artists stay in New York, and how hard we are going to fight about it.” Her husband, artist and fellow longtime tenant Simon Lee summarized the issues this way: “The cultural life of the city is being eroded and that is what is at stake here.”

Eve Sussman (right) and Lillian Maurer while Eve was working on repairing windows at 475 Kent in 1998 (courtesy Eve Sussman)

Other longtime residents worry the character of their loft and the neighborhood will change for the worse as the new owners refurbish empty units for affluent inhabitants. “What’s happened here is when artists moved out of 475 they were replaced by other artists moving in, and now when artists move out investment bankers will be moving in,” said writer and longtime tenant Guy Lesser.

Harvey wanted to remain at 475 Kent and contest the eviction but found he had little ground. “The loft law doesn’t protect me in this particular case, and I’ve looked at it from every legal standpoint,” he said. “I talked with different attorneys who said you have to prove you were there with credit card records, plane tickets, and restaurant receipts.”

Harvey will miss the building. He’s planning to move out by October. “It was always kind of a renegade building that doesn’t exist in New York anymore,” he said. “It was a really good atmosphere. If you’re there, it had a good vibe going.”

Future generations of photographers, painters, and video artists would be so lucky to find these kinds of places in New York. Harvey’s advice: set up shop elsewhere.

475 Kent at night (photo by Aaron Short)

“Where do the struggling young photographers go? Don’t go to New York. The minute it becomes a rich person’s town it’s all over anyway,” he said. “People are going to LA; Atlanta; Marfa, Texas; Richmond, Virginia; Sicily. You have to go out and shoot your pictures in other places anyway.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Jami Attenberg’s novel All Grown Up as connected to 475 Kent. That reference has been removed.

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