The entrance to 475 Kent, an eleven-story loft building in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looks very much like a door to a parallel reality. The first thing you notice is a huge panel of intercom buzzers with more than a hundred names—an initial clue that the building is home to an eclectic mix of established creatives—all drawn, at one time or another, by the vast industrial spaces within.
The building, a former warehouse built in the early 20th century, sits on a corner plot four blocks from the Hasidic Jewish enclave in South Williamsburg, five blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge, and within whispering distance of countless glass fronted new builds. It’s an energized part of the borough that, due to gentrification and continued demand for new (glossy rather than gritty) loft spaces means historic buildings such as 475 Kent will soon be no more.
Inside the cavernous space, which was once the La Rosa pasta factory (the owner noticed an increase demand for macaroni after the war and set about his empire, buying the building in 1934), is today divided into large studios. It’s been a home to many artists for 20 years—an eclectic mix of well known photographers and actors (yes, Bill Murray resided here a time), alongside established artists, musicians, and authors. 475 Kent has been described as a vertical village, New York’s last renegade building, and it became notorious for rooftop parties and a high profile evacuation in 2008. In 2010, after years of lobbying efforts by Brooklyn’s creative community to allow artists to continue living and working in such buildings, the city’s loft law was amended. However, with new protections came new worries, including potential eviction for those who used Airbnb, sublet without actually living in their lofts, or for those who owned a weekend home elsewhere or traveled for work too often. And over the years residents have protested to keep such sacred spaces available for artists.
Unfortunately, for this group of long-standing tenants, 475 Kent was sold in 2017 for $56 million to investors Shlomo Meichor and Assi Arev of the Israel-based firm Gaia Investment Group. Currently, and despite the loft law, they managed to clear the building of half of its tenants last year. With half of the tenants still occupying the space, we met with some of them to find out what life in such a close-knit community of creatives has been like, and how the building itself was integral to this dynamic.
Life inside 475 Kent
Soon after Guy moved in 1998, The New York Times called Williamsburg the chicest new neighborhood in New York. “I would just walk past a burnt-out power plant and an abandoned brewery and think ‘Oh, the most chic neighborhood in America,” he says, laughing. Soon German and Italian Vogue started doing photo shoots here.
“Tenants pretended that their spaces were used solely for work, but it was a fiction. And everyone involved turned a blind eye.”
Guy Lesser, an impeccably stylish writer and editor, inhabits a place that looks like a cabinet of curiosities on the ninth floor; his apartment is filled with ancient books, vintage handmade bikes, rugs from Afghanistan, and art pieces. Like in many other lofts, which lack storage space, one can see all the his possessions at a glance, a perfect portrait of an individual consisting of thousands of details.
Lesser moved into the building in 1998, making him one of the longest standing occupants. After living in Venice, he returned to NYC and started searching for an apartment. Once he met an old friend from Florence who told him that there was something for rent in 475 Kent, a former factory. “At the time, five groups of different entrepreneurial artists had separately taken this building in a state of utter empty abandon,” says Lesser. According to city records, investor Nachman Brach bought the building in 1982. “Those who took the very first leases said that he’d rented some floors for cold storage,” adds Lesser. For many years artists sought to rent the building in whole or part. But instead he rented it only for cold storage and the building was neglected. Then in 1998, he changed his mind and let five floors on the condition that they’d make the repairs and capital investment in infrastructure that he had not. But how could these new tenants take “commercial” leases in the first place? Like many others before them in SoHo, new inhabitants took this leases for work studios and made them habitable on the sly. “Tenants pretended that their spaces were used solely for work, but it was a fiction. And everyone involved turned a blind eye,” resumes Lesser.
“To me, it felt like I hadn’t left art school, where you have different majors, but at some point you all start to hang out over lunch or at parties and share your thoughts.”
Like many others after him, Lesser rented “just a cement box.” Most of the tenants share the same narrative; they took nearly nothing and converted it into something, a living and breathing space. “What I received upon moving into my unit was a rectangular shoebox, below-regulation thin drywall, some leftover two-by-fours and a large garbage can,” recounts typographer Ksenya Samarskaya, who moved into the building in 2008. She turned her apartment into a minimalist home filled with custom furniture and a studio where she can work on her projects (Samarskaya has collaborated with Apple, Google, WeWork, and many others). Johanna Burke, a set designer, turned her eighth floor apartment into what can be described as a beautiful greenhouse—a space full of plants that often inspire her works. Gregoire Abrial and Hang Pham created nearly all the furniture and artworks for their unit on the 11th floor themselves.
At 475 Kent it was easy to start a new project or collaboration. Gregoire Abrial recounts the time when he worked with his neighbor, CocoRosie’s Bianca Casady. He created wooden furniture for one of her exhibitions. Ksenya Samarskaya worked with web developer and neighbor Eric Jacobsen on several projects, including a building directory: 475kent.com. Johanna Burke also pointed out that often the community members were the first clients for small businesses conceived within the building. “To me, it felt like I hadn’t left art school, where you have different majors, but at some point you all start to hang out over lunch or at parties and share your thoughts,” says Abrial. Every year, Samarskaya would host a rooftop party for her friends and colleagues. There was also a small garden and a place for regular dinners and there was even a wedding on that same roof deck.
In Johanna’s view, “the world is crazy right now,” so she decided that, if the end of days comes, 475 Kent and NYC in general, are where she wants to witness it. She also sees more creative opportunities in NYC than in other places.
“The whole neighborhood started gentrifying, and it felt like everyone was radicalized by this evacuation; it brought people together a lot more.”
Hang Pham and Gregoire Abrial are a creative couple behind their own furniture and interiors studio. The duo’s philosophy can be described as ‘slow design’ because Hang and Gregoire are really invested in creating objects (mostly from reclaimed materials) with which their owners can form a lasting relationship.
Whenever trouble occurred, most of the tenants came together to protect what they had. In January 2008, the government ordered an evacuation of the building because the city fire department had found flammable materials in a makeshift matzo bakery that the building’s owner kept in the basement. After the evacuation, the officials said it would be possible for tenants to return on a case-by-case basis. At the time, it was legal to use 475 Kent for commercial purposes only.
Shonquis Moreno, a design writer who had to move out of the building in 2017, recounts: “I had a cat; the two men who were living in Burke’s apartment at this time had just adopted a baby, so it was really hard. During this winter, we all were scrambling for sofas in the city.” After getting permission to re-enter the building as a resident, the landlord started to be more organized, paying more attention to fire safety and other issues, but at the same time, he also tried to raise rents. “The whole neighborhood started gentrifying, and it felt like everyone was radicalized by this evacuation; it brought people together a lot more,” comments Moreno.
“It seemed to me that the new owners were determined to evict as many people as they could in order to charge more rent.”
“I moved in 2013, and soon after that, construction started everywhere near us. The owner of the lumberyard nearby released the plan for a high-rise residential which would effectively close the curtain between the waterfront and 475 Kent but that plan did not come through and the lot was put on the market,” says Hang Pham, a designer and Abrial’s partner who runs a studio together with him. While these new developments made this part of Williamsburg more convenient for its inhabitants with organic grocery stores and drug stores catering to the influx of former Manhattan residents, it also forced the closing of smaller independent stores as the rent prices for both commercial and residential spaces spiked. “The way to understand it is to look at what happened with SoHo when, after years of being chic, it became an expensive neighborhood, where investment bankers live in the buildings with a Cartier boutique on the ground floor,” remarks Lesser.
“It seemed to me that the new owners were determined to evict as many people as they could in order to charge more rent,” says Moreno. In the past years, she spent a lot of time in Istanbul but had to return to the United States in 2017 to support her mother. Soon after returning, she was informed that she should expect an eviction notice. “If you look at my accounts, it was clear that 475 Kent wasn’t my primary residence for a long time,” she recounts. “For me, the path of least resistance was just to leave.”
“For my routine, amidst the abundant window light (there’s a reason the building housed so many fellow photographers), I’d normally rise with the sun to be able to use the morning’s energy to attack whatever creative problem was laying in store for me,” reflects Ksenya.
“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.”
Since the evictions life at 475 Kent has changed dramatically for those who remain. “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,” says Samarskaya. “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,” she says. Existing tenants work with lawyers and advocate for their rights in Albany, the capital of New York. They also organized an art auction during Armory Week to benefit the 475 Kent Tenants Association (475 KTA). Artworks were donated by an international community of artists, friends and tenants: from a Laurie Simmons photograph, selected prints including ‘Peace Guard’ by Shepard Fairey to Magnum Photographer Christopher Anderson’s Obama portrait and a painting from Fred Tomaselli. All this effort goes into saving a place that supports the tenants. “I’ve been renewing my vows with the city, seeing as much as I can and appreciate my genius friends who live here,” explains Burke. “As long as we know each other—my lifestyle, my friends, and nearly everything fits in this building,” says Abrial. “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. And as long as those two things remain, it will be an interesting place to live,” adds Lesser. 475 Kent is a fascinating counterexample of any planned artist community. Lesser argues that New York is a city that top–down planners have always gotten wrong. The urban planner Robert Moses, known as “the master builder” of mid 20th century New York City, advocated for large-scale changes in the area. He was defeated by Jane Jacobs, an author and sociologist and one of the first people to oppose modernist ideas about urban planning. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities she wrote that an organic, complex life can’t be controlled. “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans,” argued Jacobs. She was certain that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Discover more about 475 Kent’s twenty-year history and some of the people who have shaped it here. Be sure to follow community activities and benefit initiatives via the 475 Kent Tenants Association(475 KTA). One such initiative was the SPRING/BREAK Art Show in support of affordable artist spaces in Williamsburg during the 2018 Armory Week, which you can read all about here. To explore the work of current tenants head over to the official 475 Kent directory.
One of the protagonists featured in this story has welcomed us into her studio before. For a 475 Kent throwback, check out our 2011 interview with set designer Johanna Burke. And read the New York interviews you’ve missed on FvF here.