Though artists’ lofts—live-work spaces that could be found throughout neighborhoods like Soho and Tribeca before they became, well, modern-day Soho and Trineca—aren’t as common in New York these days, they do still exist. New York’s Loft Law, which was first enacted in the 1980s, has protected thousands of these space while affording rent protection to their tenants, though many now find themselves in jeopardy.
One of the most well-known examples of this is 475 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, a former pasta factory that has, for more than 20 years, been home to artists and other creatives (Bill Murray and the late photographer Tim Hetherington once called it home). In 2008, a fire in an illegal matzo factory in its basement led to many of its tenants being temporarily displaced, but in the decade since then, many folks have moved back in to the 11-story building.
How long those who remain will be able to stick around, though, is unclear; in 2017, its longtime owner sold the building to a consortium of Israeli investors for $56 million, with the Real Deal reporting at the time that it could be converted to market-rate rentals or some other use besides artists’ lofts.
The German website Feunde von Freunden went inside 475 Kent, talking to many of its current residents about what life is like in the artists’ community, and their fears about change. (“Currently, and despite the loft law, [the new owners] managed to clear the building of half of its tenants last year,” according to FVF.) Here’s what some of them had to say:
Shonquis Moreno, who left her apartment in the building in 2017, noted that the 2008 fire, and subsequent evictions helped bring residents together. “The whole neighborhood started gentrifying, and it felt like everyone was radicalized by this evacuation; it brought people together a lot more.” However, facing eviction last year, she decided it would be easier to leave than fight to stay.
One current resident, typographer Ksenya Samarskaya, notes that those evictions have changed the community. “On my floor, there are five occupied units and five that have been abandoned. It creates a very different feel, and my door isn’t sitting open anymore,” she explained. “Though the building has banded together to organize and catalyze in other ways—many of us are members of NYC Loft Tenants, advocating for better paths towards legalization.”
Guy Lesser, who has lived in the building since 1998, told FVF that when he originally moved to 475 Kent, his living space was little more than a “cement box.” Now, it’s “filled with ancient books, vintage handmade bikes, rugs from Afghanistan, and art pieces.”
As for 475 Kent’s future, Lesser is hopeful. “I don’t know any place that is so heterogeneous in terms of how many different things people come here to do, in terms of how many nationalities of people there are,” he said. “And as long as those two things remain, it will be an interesting place to live.”