You Kent Go Home Again.

So the bucolic artist colony that is Williamsburg is under assault by the forces of… grain? Can that be right? Apparently. Lots of paranoid theorizing is going on, of the kind that you might expect of people who think parties where attendees dress up like Jesus in blackface is a cultural zeitgeist that sufficiently inherits the mantle of ‘artists community.’ Oddly, though, this time real artists are involved. This is useful, because the pull quote from the lawyers and bankers who ‘moved in last year’ is not going to generate the crocodile tears necessary to gird this story.

You can be forgiven if this elliptical opening generated a ‘hunh?’ response (less so if you just got all up in your drawers about my lack of love for the fixie-set). The back story is last week the FDNY got wind of an illegal conversion — one so underground everyone I know has attended at least one party there and even has its own name — and, like any actual exercise of bureaucratic authority, managed to remedy the situation in a way that pleased pleased no one: namely, evicting residents on one of the coldest nights this year with scant notice.

The building is question is 475 Kent Avenue, just south of the Williamsburg Bridge. The reasons for the evacuation were the usual litany of code violations associated with illegal conversion and the bonus of the storage of highly flammable raw materials for an illegal commercial bakery in the basement. Not since Witness has flour been so sexy. That apparently was the source of the urgency, not a rumored court case that would garner the tenants some legal foothold.

Now, to be clear, the city was in the right. Legally the tenants have little standing, and everyone living there knew that (I can say that since anyone who didn’t also doesn’t apparently have access to the Internet, so they can’t read this either). And I only have a limited amount of sympathy for anyone who willingly signs a lease they know to be nearly worthless — a fact compounded by the fact that anyone signing in the past five years not only had to contend with the usual uncertainty, but had to be aware that the rapidly increasing property values in the area made their situation even more tenuous.

On the other side, we have the vigilant tag team of the DOB and FDNY, who have such a finely-grained inspection sense that they managed to pinpoint, perhaps down to the minute, when the over 100 violations racked up in the past ten years came to a head, requiring immediate and unrelenting action on a Sunday night — with an outside temperature of less than 20 degrees.

As a consequence, most everyone involved doesn’t look all that upstanding, save those benighted artists. And the funny thing is, even though the ‘save the artists’ rallying cry seems like it is on everyone’s speed dial, there are at least a handful of real artists among the 200-odd residents. This in and of itself isn’t reason to rewrite commercial zoning regulations, but it is interesting some part of the retread script we’ve been seeing is authentic for once.

What rings hollow is the posturing that clutters up the discussion. The “Williamsburg is under attack” quotes must feel tired even to the most indignant arriviste. Most of the leases coming up for renewal date to 1997. If the golden years of Williamsburg are 1997, then I’m Picasso.

There have been established paths to legal conversion. They are time consuming, expensive (though that’s an exceedingly relative term), but mostly they are highly variable. Making the decision to commit can provide enviable real estate and a chance to either pursue one’s dreams (artistic or otherwise) or save a good deal of money. And if that fails, it can result in losing your home and possibly a large part of your personal possessions. That’s the sort of gamble that seems to be intrinsic to great New York stories – ones that can leave many of us who missed the boat seething with envy.

It can also lead to an artificial stasis in those lucky few: freedom from want (rent-wise) doesn’t always impel the artistically inclined to new heights. And it is these landed artisans that generates such revulsion at the concept — if this largess is wasted, why should it be restricted to the creative classes? Every frustrated writer, accountant or plumber might also believe a cheap loft is the only thing keeping them from complete self-actualization.

I haven’t delved into the message board (of course they have a message board), but I suspect at least some of the residents had started down the tortured path to legality. I lived for a while with a friend who was at the tail-end of a 20-year journey: boxes of litigation dating to the seventies, tales of phone and electrical lines cut by the owner, and a full-time attorney, and they were still living with a TCO (that’s a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy). It’s not a process for the faint-hearted, and bleating about saving artists is not germane, it just happens to be what you hear from the less considered willy-come-latelys every time a building is demolished so Karl Fischer can make us hate him more (if it helps, young’uns, the scourge of McCarron Park has found his way to my block).

Is there a way out of this mess? In a general sense, no. The Loft Law, which is what governs a lot of these situations, is a defunct mechanism (very few buildings left in the city qualify, and it is at the behest of the owners, not tenants) in practice, even though that was the model of occupancy for dozens of buildings in Williamsburg. Everyone has turned a blind eye to this: the city because it is the city, the owners because they are happy to collect rent with next to no investment until it is convenient to have your building evacuated, and tenants, well, because more and more of our ‘artists’ are the self-involved progeny of the affluent who fully expect a purchased apartment courtesy the ‘rents when they decide pushing out a couple kids and drinking at Union Hall instead of Union Pool is a better existence than Rubulad pot lucks.

In the specific sense, well, the people at 475 Kent aren’t acquitting themselves very well. Check out this thread. One person seems to have their head around the unfortunately unpleasant reality, and they were asked to stop posting.

There isn’t going to be a legislative solution anytime soon, and not just because of the convoluted city/state division in housing law and massive amount of influence exercised by REBNY and the four, five or whatever families who control so much of our real estate (not sure if we can still count Macklowe — ha ha!), because absent blanket rent regulation, we are talking about valuing residents in preference of property rights. The sounds pretty socialist (fine by me), upends the bedrock of American tax economics (ditto) but also gets into a murky pseudo-Malthusian process that, given how we run everything else, would devolve from meritocracy into the usual nepotistic favoritism in no time (not fine).

How’s that? Well, we keep hearing about how saving artists are necessary to keep a community vibrant, or something. But to riff on an very old Doonesbury comic about gentrification, what about the poor people who get displaced by the artists? If they weren’t devaluing the neighborhood to begin with, the ‘authentic’ grit and low rents wouldn’t inspire hordes of RISD and Brown grads to surrender their birthright to entirely unexceptional Midwest existences and decide that the world needs another DJ or performance artist in the first place. Circle of life indeed.

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