James and I were at 475 Kent yesterday with others at a protest / vigil as the tenants removed belongings before the building was padlocked. My flickr slideshow of other images is here.
City Councilmember David Yassky was the only elected official I saw in the hour or so we were there. He was good, saying "this is crazy!" and pointing out that the idea of throwing thousands of people in similar situations out of their homes is not an appropriate approach. [Update: In the comments below I am told that "Our State Senator, Assemblyman, a community board member and another community board member were also there. They all spoke at the press conference off to the side of the lockdown."]
Here is the press release from several days ago, and there is a website with a message board too, called 475kent.com.
JANUARY 24, 2008 PRESS RELEASE:
FROM: 475 Kent Tenants Association
NEW YORK CITY'S ARTISTIC COMMUNITY UNDER ATTACK
The live-work building located at 475 Kent Ave in Brooklyn's coveted waterfront neighborhood of Williamsburg was issued a Vacate Order by the NYC Fire Department on Sunday, January 20th at 7:30PM, the day before Martin Luther King day. Tenants were given until 1:30 in the morning to leave the building on a frigid January night.
475 Kent is a microcosm of New York City's cultural and economic activity with creative professionals generating an estimated $15 million in annual revenue. The vibrant community of 200 working artists - photographers, architects, writers, musicians, sculptors, filmmakers, designers, painters, printmakers, etc. is under attack.
It seems that the D.O B. is intent on making sure people will never be able to return to their spaces until all repairs are made and the building has a residential C of O, a prospect that could take years and millions of dollars. This renders 200 inhabitants most of whom are self-employed, small business entrepreneurs, both homeless and out of work. This building has been consistently and viably supporting creative professionals lives and businesses for ten years. The illegal eviction at 475 Kent comes on the heels of the evacuation of 17-17 Troutman in Ridgewood. That people's livelihoods and homes are being put in complete jeopardy makes one wonder if this is a trend and begs the phrase follow the money.
The events on Sunday night were precipitated when the FDNY inspected the basement of 475 Kent Ave. and discovered two 10' diameter metal canisters containing grain used for making Matzo. The Matzo bakery has been in the building for more than ten years. The DOB and fire department have inspected 475 Kent Avenue regularly for the past ten years and would have had to be blind if they were not fully aware of the existence of a Matzo bakery and the grain. The presence of the grain resulted in a so-called hazardous emergency situation that gave FDNY and DOB license to vacate the building. When some residents and the landlord offered to alleviate the problem and remove the grain from the building on Sunday night the FDNY replied you are not qualified to move the grain. They then issued the vacate order.
What ensued was unmitigated chaos under the direction of our friends at the OFFICE OF EMERGENCY MANGEMENT starring the New York City Fire Department, Department of Buildings, NYPD, Health Department, Department of Agriculture and the Red Cross. Their only area of competence was at holding closed-door, inter-agency meetings, in which no tenant representative was allowed, every two hours in their brand new location trailer. How many City agencies does it take to unscrew a lightbulb? We'll let you know, we're still counting.
Upon the issue of the vacate order 200 people scrambled to rid 110 spaces of their most crucial belongings. The following day people were given 6 hours access to remove their belongings, tools and equipment, a scenario that for most people who had been in residence for 5 - 10 years with substantial equipment and installations was completely untenable. From there the scene snowballed. On Tuesday January 22, tenants arrived with moving trucks at 10am having been told they would have another 6 hours access to the building. They found all entrances blocked by NYPD and FDNY and no one was allowed upstairs. Finally, at 1pm the leaders of each agency stood on the staircase and delivered their plan to the crowd:
- residents would be allowed into the building six people at a time for one hour, followed by another group of six people each being granted one hour.
Do the math.
No, we'll do it for you. 200/6= 33.3 hours it would take to allow each person ONE hour access to collect their stuff. Then they shut down the elevators, insuring that the task was impossible. People, in a panic that this would be their last chance to save their belongings, began to carry equipment and valuables down ten flights of stairs, creating a real hazard.
As of Wednesday, January 23, the grain has been removed from the basement of 475 Kent Avenue, alleviating the immediate hazardous condition. Now the tenants have been allowed a final four days, six hours a day, to access the building. On Sunday night, January 27, the building will be padlocked prohibiting all further access for the foreseeable future. Why the building is safe enough to access for four days, but suddenly deemed unsafe again on Monday is a mystery to which DOB, OEM, FDNY has not provided an answer. Although requested repeatedly the DOB has never provided a complete list of the violations on the building. We know one of these violations is an inoperable sprinkler system, a problem that can mitigated with the presence of fire-guards while the system is repaired, allowing continued occupancy of the building.
Since the 1960's New York City's tacit urban renewal policy has been reliant on artist's moving into derelict buildings in less desirable neighborhoods. The city does nothing to bolster or support economic activity in these down and out areas, nor do they do anything to create affordable, legal, usable space for live/work entrepreneurs. 475 Kent is a prime example of this kind of turn-a-blind-eye urban renewal that has been a boon to the City of New York. A decade ago South Williamsburg was a dangerous neighborhood. Once artists take the initiative to live on the edge and restore and renew unused real estate in what were marginal areas the City becomes predatory. The transformation of Williamsburg by the artist community into one of New York City's most desirable neighborhoods encourages the city to move artists out as they calculate the tax revenue of luxury condo developers moving in. No one in any city agency cared about our health and safety ten years ago. Now that our building has become hot property the City is ready to muster all the powers of its many agencies to assist in the muscling of the property from the owners and the tenants. The tenants of 475 Kent Avenue call into question the hypocritical policies being put forth by the agencies of the City of New York. We cannot help but wonder what forces are driving this vacate and why the agencies are suddenly so concerned for out health and safety.475 Kent Tenant's Association