Westbeth comes of age: A unique artists’complex tries to stay afloat

By Bonnie Rosenstock 

Westbeth is the largest living and working facility for artists in the world. The 13-floor complex is located at the confluence of West, Washington, Bank and Bethune Sts. in the Far West Village within earshot of the West Side Highway, eyeshot of the Hudson River and on the flanks of the now-upscale Meat Market. Westbeth consists of 384 residential units ranging from 440 to 1,285 square feet — of which around 60 are duplexes — artists’ studios, the Westbeth Gallery, the Westbeth Community Room, a public courtyard and space for commercial rental tenants.

Westbeth was conceived in 1967 with the ambitious and innovative objective of creating affordable housing for artists — be they visual, media, performance or literary — and their families. To achieve this goal, the National Council on the Arts and the J.M. Kaplan Fund each contributed more than $1 million toward the purchase of the former Bell Laboratories from Western Electric for $2.5 million. A year later, a New York City Planning Commission resolution and zoning law amendment cleared the way for Westbeth’s creation.

Villager photos by Bonnie Rosenstock

John Silver in the Westbeth Gallery next to one of his paintings a few days before the holiday show opening in November 2008.

The interior of the 19th-century complex of interlinked buildings was designed by architect Richard Meier. Living spaces were open lofts without walls or partitions, so artists could divide them to serve their particular purposes. When Westbeth opened in 1971, the High Line — an elevated freight railway that ran through the building’s second story — had just recently stopped operating south of the Meat Market; the railroad tracks through Westbeth were removed in 1992. Back in 1971, the four-story Superior Ink factory (now replaced by a new, light-blocking high-rise) was Westbeth’s only significant neighbor.

“It was in the middle of nowhere. Some places you wouldn’t want to take your family to,” said Steven Neil, executive director of the Westbeth Center for the Arts, at 463 West St., the complex’s official name and address, though the main entrance is at 55 Bethune St. The original main entrance was reached through a long desolate stretch of concrete courtyard, but the tenants petitioned for it to be moved for safety reasons.

The first group of pioneering artists and their families trekked from points east (the Lower East Side/East Village), south (Soho) and farther afield to the city’s undiscovered western frontier. One such groundbreaker was painter, playwright and printmaker Christina Maile, now 63, who thought the place was fun when she moved in.

“It was very noir, very desolate,” she said. “No one knew where it was. It was very busy in the middle of the night,” she recalled, referring to the Meat Market’s former nocturnal trade in human flesh.

The building, too, was menacing and bewildering, with its endless, narrow, labyrinthine corridors and cul-de-sacs.

“They tried all kinds of configurations, but they had a mandate to squeeze in as many apartments as possible,” said Maile. “For this reason, there are no natural places to congregate. Lots of people wind up hanging out in the lobby late at night if they can’t sleep or feel lonely and talk to the guards.”

Before she moved to Westbeth in 1971 from Kew Gardens, Queens — where Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964 — Helen Duberstein, 82, writer and artist, remembered living in “slum buildings in slum neighborhoods because that’s all that artists could afford,” she said. “Westbeth has made living much easier. It’s the only way artists can stay and do art.”

Almost 38 years later, Westbeth is still home to original tenants like Maile and Duberstein, as well as other longtime residents. Neil reported that about 60 percent of the tenants are over age 60 and half of those are older than 70; therefore, out of about 750 residential occupants, 30 percent are more than 70 years old. Many of these tenants qualify for the Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) program through the city’s Department for the Aging, which keeps rents at a fixed rate for seniors over age 62 who have household income of $28,000 or less after taxes.

Because Westbeth’s population has been aging significantly, it legally qualifies as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, or NORC, defined as a specific community or housing not originally designed for seniors that has a significant proportion of older residents. The Caring Community, located in Greenwich Village, has been mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide an on-site, certified social worker at Westbeth. Debbie Simon, the social worker, frequently calls tenants to find out what their needs are.

“She helps with a lot of problems that arise for the older tenants, for example, SCRIE and DRIE [Disability Rent Increase Exemption] applications, getting information or documents they need, or making informal accommodations as the need arises,” stated Neil.

Duberstein is pleased with the doctor Simon recommended from St. Vincent’s Hospital who makes house calls, and she gets dogwalking services from the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged, without which she could not keep her dog.

For Shamit Chaikin, 77, who is housebound, Simon helps her navigate the dizzying array of bureaucracies, so she can get services to which she is entitled. Chaikin also gets a free flu shot, which is offered in Westbeth. Chaikin’s rent is regulated by HUD’s Section 8 Rental Voucher Program, in which low-income residents pay 30 percent of their household income. HUD generally pays the landlord the difference between the 30 percent and the HUD-determined payment standard of about 80 percent to 100 percent of the fair market value. As income rises, the subsidy goes down, and vice versa; if income goes up enough, tenants pay the full rent. Seventy-seven of Westbeth’s residential units, or 20 percent, are covered by Section 8, Neil said.

Chaikin, an actor who frequently worked with her brother Joseph, founder and director of the Open Theater, has been at Westbeth since it opened. Joseph lived down the hall from her until his death in 2003, and her 83-year-old writer sister Miriam lives a few floors down.

“I’ve always loved living here and felt secure, even though it was seedy and scary,” Chaikin said. “It housed a lot of poor, lost artists,” she laughed. “I hope it will still be here. In a word, it is a haven, a very special place.”

Maile joked that Westbeth is “naturally occurring old people,” aging and frequently dying and dead. She added more seriously, “It’s sad, every time I go down to the lobby, there’s a picture of someone I just saw who is gone. What is leaving us is an institutional memory of what it was like in those early days to wander down hallways and empty streets and the excitement of limitless possibilities of what you could do with your life.”

To preserve that memory, Maile has embarked on a video project of recording older artists in all fields in their apartments to see how they live.

“Right now it’s just important to get it down before they disappear from these long hallways,” she said.

Maile is also collaborating on a project with Francia, a printmaker, to conduct interviews by age groups. They are currently working on those in their 80s. Groups of four or five gather in Westbeth’s gallery and talk among themselves about people they knew, particularly women artists in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s when it was hard to be a woman artist.

“They all say, uniformly, consistently, without a doubt, that if it wasn’t for Westbeth — they would still be artists — but that the security of living here made their lives easier and more creative,” Maile said.

Neil prefers to call Westbeth “a getting-older community.”

“Collecting Social Security and being old doesn’t mean you’re not making art,” he said.

In fact, Duberstein has just completed a new novel, called “Skip to My Lou,” and still gives readings. Another Westbeth resident, 77-year-old composer Richard Hundley has just been commissioned by opera singer Marilyn Horne to create three new songs for her upcoming concert. Neil pointed out that choreographer Merce Cunningham, at 89 years of age and in a wheelchair, still comes here every day, gives classes and is very much involved with his company, a longtime commercial tenant at Westbeth.

“He is no longer dancing, but still practices the art of dance,” Neil noted.

Maile said that as they have aged, a lot of people in the building seem to have bloomed anew and put out incredible work, much different from how they worked in the past.

“Sure, some people have stopped, saying, ‘I can’t do it anymore. I have said all I have to say and now I’m going to make sure the work I’ve done is seen.’ They are diverting their energy into marketing their work,” she said.

Maile herself turned to printmaking only five years ago and has had two group shows, in which she sold well. She also designed the Westbeth Gallery banner and entrance canopy. There is an etching press and litho press in the building’s printmaking studio which she shares with about a dozen other printmakers. Group studios are free, while other artists rent individual studios where they work and store their art.

The original supposition of Westbeth was that young, starving artists would come here, become successful within five years and leave. Claire Rosenfeld, a self-described “mid-career artist” in her 60s who has been living in Westbeth since 1982, joked, “Anyone who says he lives off his art has a trust fund.”

Maile recalls that 1970s fantasy very vividly.

“Yeah, that sounded about right, five years,” she said. “We were all about the same age moving in, and there was a general air of optimism.

“But then life intruded, we started families, or had more hardship than we thought. Artists need security where they are, even if they talk a great game. Like a scuba diver, you need something to help you breathe,” she said.

Jack Dowling, the visual arts chair-person of the Westbeth Artists Residents Council and director of the Westbeth art gallery for the past 10 years, also remembers that pie-in-the-sky notion. He is 77 years old, a painter, writer and printmaker. When he moved here from Soho 30 years ago, it was the first time he had a real bathroom. He wonders where artists can go now for affordable living and working space.

“The loft market has dried up,” Dowling noted. “Soho is too expensive and commercial. This is the only place left for artists to live.

“In Soho, you would have to walk blocks before you came across another kid. Here people babysit for each other. Many of the children have grown up, become artists, left, put their name on the waiting list and came back in.”

Before Dowling’s stewardship, the art gallery had a spotty exhibition schedule and was often vacant. Now the gallery presents a new show every month. Every August they have a popular show in which selected West Village artists who work in the streets are invited to participate. In April 2009, Rosenfeld will curate an exhibit featuring five underrepresented artists — herself included, the only Westbeth resident. At the two recent holiday shows exclusively for Westbeth artists, more than 100 visual artists of all ages exhibited. Landscape artist Peter Ruta, in his 90s, may have been the oldest in those shows; ages ranged from mid 30s to upper 60s.

“People feel proud of the space and everyone shows,” Dowling said. “In today’s market, we have had surprisingly successful shows this past year. In terms of publicity, it’s not so successful, because the gallery is out of the way and not visible from the street.”

The art gallery’s entrance is through the inner courtyard or via the lobby.

Painter John Silver, a Westbeth denizen since 2001, admitted that they are not going to get Uptown galleries to look at the work, “but friends and other artists come and they are very encouraging. For a group show, we may pull in collectors, and we sell some,” he said.

If they had a well-known artist like Lucian Freud showing at the gallery, they would have people out the door, Neil commented.

“Many of the artists are not that commercial, but it has nothing to do with their age,” he stressed. “We in Westbeth are not in the business of judging artistic merit. Sometimes we are amazed at what gets done here. Our business is not art. Our business is providing spaces for art.”

Dowling considers Silver a successful artist. However, like many of those interviewed, sometimes Silver needs a supplementary source of income, so he teaches from time to time at The New School.

Marion Lane, a visual artist in her 70s, worked as an art therapist at Manhattan Psychiatric Center until her retirement.

Duberstein was a founding playwright with Circle Theater Repertory Company and onetime artistic director of Theater for the New City. She said that when rents began to escalate — she started off paying around $160 a month — she had to take various jobs, as a college adjunct and then in public schools.

“Even though I was exhausted from my job, I kept at it because I’m here as an artist,” Duberstein said.

Maile, who started out as a playwright with the Feminist Collective, worked as a landscape artist for the Parks Department for 20 years and has a pension. Her first rent was about $100; now she pays around $900.

“It was a perfect job,” Maile said, recalling working for Parks. “I came home early so I could do a lot of things, and I raised two kids.”

Carl Stein, who was on the Westbeth board of directors from 1988 to the end of 2001, called it “a double-edged situation.” He acknowledged that about three-quarters of the complex’s artists earn a living, “but not a spectacular living” from their art, so they have to turn to other sources of income. However, that is no reason to be evicted, he stated.

“Once you are in a HUD-sponsored apartment, if you are not violating the basic rules, you cannot be asked to leave,” Stein said. “There is some conceptual ambiguity about that. But even people who don’t need to be here for economic reasons choose to be here because it’s such a great place.”

Westbeth has two governing bodies. The Westbeth board of directors runs the Westbeth Housing Development Fund Corporation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that owns Westbeth. The board’s current president is Arnold Warwick. A local real estate agent and property manager, Warwick declined to be interviewed for this article but suggested other people to talk to. The board must receive approval from HUD for major capital projects, funding and rent increases, and is responsible for the legal and financial documentation for audits, tax returns and consultant and management contracts.

The board consists of 12 unpaid, elected members, three of whom are tenants. HUD requires that the majority, or controlling group, of board members must live outside the building. Since Westbeth is chartered as a “center for the arts,” not exclusively affordable artists’ housing, explained Stein, “the management of the project has to consider broader issues of its mission to serve the arts. If it’s run by tenants, it would be their larger interests.”

Stein stated that during his tenure as board president, there was a close, cooperative working relationship between the inside and outside board members, but he hasn’t been involved for six years. Those interviewed all praised Stein’s leadership.

“His expertise as an architect was invaluable, and he was a brilliant administrator,” said Maile. “It was sad when he left.”

The Westbeth Artists Residents Council, also a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, works the artistic side of the aisle. It is an all-volunteer body composed of and elected by tenants, whose members serve two-year terms. The current WARC president is one of the three residents who sit on the Westbeth board. Committee assignments include overseeing the use of the art gallery, community room and sculptors’ and graphics studios, as well as community relations, in-house moves, beautification, legal issues, maintenance, fundraising/publicity, security and evaluation of artistic references of people who want to move in.

“We do income limits and authenticate if they are working in the field, but we do not evaluate art,” stressed Maile, who served on the board and is now a member of the council.

Since there is a 10-to-12-year wait for an apartment, the wait list has been officially closed. Silver, 59, was 41 when he first applied and was waitlisted for 11 years. Peter Colquhoun, 53, also a painter, applied when he was 35 and waited 10 years, which he deems well worth it.

“It exceeds my expectations,” Colquhoun said. “It’s good to be part of a community. And gallery shows bring people together.”

While very few people move out, another reason for the low turnover might be that children of tenants are allowed to take over apartments — even if they are not artists. Jane Klein, the daughter of actor Lauren Klein, however, is a working photographer. She grew up in Westbeth and lives in her mother’s apartment. She remembers Westbeth as being poorer, more depressed and prone to suicides — like Diane Arbus’s in July 1971.

“It didn’t seem as organized as now,” Klein said. “I think it’s more communal. Some of us who grew up here are starting to fill positions on some of the committees.”

Maile also views Westbeth as a naturally occurring young people’s place because as older people leave — either by dying, going to live with their families or moving to assisted-living facilities — young people move in.

“For purposes of getting social services, that’s only part of the story,” she said. “It’s a door that opens both ways.”

The widow and son of musician Gil Evans are still here and have continued his band. Some Westbeth-bred children who are famous in their own right but do not live here anymore include actor Vin Diesel, National Public Radio reporter Adam Davidson and Channel 4 news reporter Ida Siegal.

Actor Michelle Hurd, the daughter of late actor Hugh L. Hurd and former actor Merlyn Hurd, who is now a psychologist, also grew up in Westbeth. She recently stopped by the gallery to pick up a cityscape of Perry St. she had purchased from Silver. Hurd, 42, who has been featured in “Gossip Girl,” and her husband, actor Garret Dillahunt, came upon Silver when he was out with his easel making a painting of their block. Hurd lived here until 1994 and still has friends here. For her, Westbeth was like an amusement park for kids. She got to see the gallery and attend shows at the three performing spaces — all gone now — which inspired her to become an actor.

“I grew up with a diversity innate to this city and to this building with all artists and economic and religious backgrounds,” Hurd said. “It was a great way to have a little world in one setting.”

But she bemoans the changes in the neighborhood.

“Westbeth still maintains its creative artistry, but the Village is different,” Hurd continued. “Some Europeans refer to it as Bobo — Bourgie Bohemian — because of Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren. It’s ridiculously expensive. Thank God for Westbeth, or these artists wouldn’t have anywhere to live.”

Silver concurred, saying, “For artists it’s difficult living here now with gentrification. I have to migrate back to the Lower East Side where I lived before to find inexpensive restaurants. You can eat only so much Chinese food.”

Maile is conflicted about the area’s new residents. New townhouses are currently under construction on the north side of Bethune St. across from Westbeth. Those who move into them won’t be starving artists.

“Which is worse — having empty buildings without people, although with the economy they may have trouble renting these now,” she said, referring to the under-construction townhouses, “or being surrounded by rich people who may come to the gallery and buy our art?” However, Maile acknowledged that she, too, goes to the East Village for restaurants and to buy groceries at Trader Joe’s on E. 14th St. “D’Agostino’s is just for emergencies,” she said.

Neil is hoping that the Whitney Museum will open its planned Downtown branch on Gansevoort St., so “Saturday mornings around here will change, too, and we will be in a good position to sell art.”

Dowling is more skeptical. In his opinion, the new-monied folks who moved into the nearby co-ops are not particularly art-minded the way the Village was 20 or 30 years ago.

“If they buy anything, they want a name artist,” he observed. “In my younger days as a painter, when young couples had a bit of money, they felt obligated to buy art from young painters. That’s changed. The generation today thinks in terms of business and is not interested in art.”

Concurrent with the issue of neighborhood affordability is the more pressing matter of keeping Westbeth affordable. On Dec. 1, 2008, residents received a memo from Warwick, informing them that the board is preparing a budget-based rent increase application for submission to HUD, a copy of which The Villager obtained from Neil. The memo reminds tenants that the last permanent rent increase was applied for in July 2006 and awarded in two parts, a 16.4 percent increase effective June 2007 and a 4.9 percent raise in January 2008. Westbeth’s board is now seeking a 40 percent-to-50 percent increase, which would result in rents going up by $275 to $525 a month in base-rent increases, depending on current rent. Neil explained that HUD normally cuts these requests substantially.

“The last time, we asked for an increase of about 49 percent, and we got about 21 percent,” he said.

The application will contain provisions increasing funds for both operating and capital expenses. In the memo, Warwick pointed out that in a private building, funds are normally borrowed for long-term improvements, which can be paid back over time. However, HUD regulations require pay as you go. Westbeth’s board must collect funds and place them in a reserve account, controlled and operated by HUD, and dispense them only for agency-approved capital work. The board’s application also addresses the fact that Wesbeth’s property tax abatement with the city will expire in the middle of this year. The board has been in discussions about extending this tax abatement since spring 2008. Instead of paying real property taxes, Westbeth pays about $350,000 as a “shelter rent tax,” which would quadruple if it loses the abatement.

The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development “has been less than forthcoming,” Neil admitted. “We are hopeful, however, that they will come back to the table and continue negotiating with us. A big part of the [rent] increase is requested in case we lose our tax abatement. They have seemingly committed to extending it for at least 15 years and told us they will condition that grant on our agreeing to keep Westbeth ‘affordable housing,’ which is entirely acceptable to us. If we get the abatement, we will notify HUD and amend our application accordingly,” he stated.

The memo from Warwick further states that the complex’s rents are, on average, between 43 percent and 49 percent of what HUD deems “affordable” under the Below Market Interest Rate program. (Neil claimed that the average rent at Westbeth is $800 a month.) The one-quarter to one-third of Westbeth households whose rents are subsidized under either Section 8 or SCRIE would not be affected by the increase. More than half of the households have incomes that exceed HUD’s cap for admission to Westbeth and are paying less than they should. In between, there are about 40 households that, according to Warwick’s memo, will face “a significant burden in meeting any increase.” Warwick’s memo suggested that these tenants consult with social worker Simon to see if they qualify for SCRIE or Section 8; or, if not, that perhaps they could be moved into smaller, less expensive apartments within Westbeth, if feasible.

Part of Westbeth was never converted to residential, and in 2004, commercial rents accounted for 27 percent of total rental income. Despite the current poor economic climate, these commercial rents will also have to be increased. One entire building within the complex is rented out to The New School graduate acting program.

In the four-story building at 451 West St., the Brecht Forum, a progressive organization that focuses on social issues and activism, rents the first floor; a commercial photography studio is on the fourth floor; and the two middle floors are rented to Westbeth residents for use as studios.

Westbeth’s main building houses the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the gay and lesbian synagogue, which is reached via the Meier-designed ramp in the inner courtyard.

Westbeth resident George Cominskie doesn’t argue against the need for a tenant rent increase. He was on Westbeth’s board on several different occasions and then voted off and was president of WARC twice. He is now part of a Westbeth advisory committee composed of three members elected by residents and three members of the board, whose function is to work on tax-abatement and refinancing issues. The property’s mortgage is almost paid off after over 40 long years, but refinancing expires in 2011 and the abatement expires in six months.

“We’re not unreasonable,” Cominskie said. “Expenses are rising, a number of capital improvements need to be done. But until we see the numbers, we don’t want to say how much we need, but I can’t imagine it is more than 15 percent to 20 percent.”

Cominskie, 54, is an agent for photographers and lives with his partner, John Whittaker, 63, who is a photographer. People ask Cominskie, if he isn’t an artist, why is he so involved.

“My skill is organizing,” he answers them. “What the board decides now will be setting up Westbeth for the next two generations, or 40 years. It’s a critical time for artists. Are they going to be able to buy canvas or paint, or pay rent? We are fighting to make sure it remains what it was originally meant to be,” he asserted.

Cominskie said the tenants are in a “rough period” with the board, and that there are hard feelings on both sides. He also pointed out that the Bank Street Theater and artists who rented studios on the first floor feel they were forced out by the current board.

Maile agreed there is mistrust.

“Sometimes members of the board think all tenants care about are their apartment and the rent,” Maile said. “What they don’t realize is that people who live here, whether they just moved in or have been here for 30 years — even with fractious squabbling — recognize there is something so special about this institution that they want it to survive as a whole, not just for themselves but for future artists.”

The comment period on the proposed rent increase is a month long, after which the board will submit the application to HUD, together with resident comments and the board’s responses.

“From there, it’s anyone’s guess as to a time frame,” said Neil.

In approving Westbeth’s creation in 1968, the New York City Planning Commission noted that “the state of the arts and the way we treat our artists is an accurate index of the vitality of our culture and one of the many ‘intangibles’ which enliven our city.”

However, artists continue to be priced out of neighborhood after neighborhood in the city, and a rent increase is looming at Westbeth. One wonders about the future of Westbeth — and whether there will still be an “intangible” role for artists to enrich the vitality of the city.