Thoughts on Displacement by Deborah Masters

I heard former NAG member Deborah Masters give an amazing recollection of her life in Williamsburg at a recent conference and thought it would be interesting to share it on the blog.

I moved to NY in 1974 to go to art school. Since then I have been pushed out of 3 loft buildings despite the fact that I helped do the work on the Loft Law and Chapter 466, which covered Brooklyn. These buildings were supposed to be protected. There are no real protections for loft dwellers, even when they are within the law. When we were on Pearl Street in DUMBO, the city started sandblasting the Manhattan Bridge. It was a really hot summer and we had our windows open. We would sweep up huge piles of lead paint-covered metal blast every night, not realizing that we were both getting sick. No-one had given us residential notice of lead paint danger.

At 223 Water Street, we were breathing spray paint fumes and baking fumes when the steel lockers and cabinets were put in the baking ovens in the factory downstairs. From the lead paint, I had miscarriages, but from the toluene in the paint and lacquer spraying, I would wake up with temporary blindness and eventually suffered neurological damage. The 223 Water St. building was sold to Josh Gutman, the landlord of the famed Greenpoint Terminal Market fire, and then we knew what hell was.

Gutman cut all our water and sewage lines and the old wood-floor building leaked water and sewage to the basement (most of us lived on the top floors) where, within 6 months, very bad toxic mold covered the building walls. We tried to get the Health Department and the Police Dept. to protect us, but I came to realize that in our legal loft, we were living outside the law to them and that we wouldn’t be respected with normal protections. The judge in our court case awarded us health damages because we were all really sick (2 of the Mexican workers died from the mold) and he just wanted us to move out of there. So we moved to Williamsburg while Dumbo filled up with seriously wealthy people.

I had worked in Williamsburg/Greenpoint since 1990 doing environmental work for the Watchperson Project and NAG so I knew the community really well. We found a great concrete building on the Southside on Kent and Division that was perfect for making sculpture- strong floors and fire-proof. We had to put in water, electric, gas, windows, and walls. For this expense we got a 10-year lease. What choice? The City provides no legal living for artists. I knew life in Williamsburg was not going to be permanent because they were already working on the re-zoning in 1998. Schaeffer was the first district waterfront project and it’s right across from 475 Kent Ave. But I love this community: the different populations, the air and light the low buildings allow, the community context to everything. When my dog died Latino kids from Roberto Clemente ball field and the fire department came to help me carry him – that’s the kind of community this is.

Now that’s evaporating. There will be no artists, no ethnic varieties, no light, no air. Bloomberg already did away with a few fire stations, now some police are going. I see white women on Grand St. talking about how they’re going to pay Hispanic women to take their kids to another school. In Dumbo now, the only minorities are pushing white twins and triplets around in carriages.

I come here today from packing up a truck for 8 hours with my studio. After we were vacated from my building for 3-1/2 months this winter and I was instrumental in getting us back in, I’m losing my studio. My landlord raised my rent to $5000/month. Who makes that kind of money? For much less than that we bought some land upstate and built a barn for me to work in. I will really miss NYC. I worked hard on the environment in Williamsburg, was on the Community Board, and made sculpture that’s around the City. I got the Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention and the Best Public Art Prize for 2002. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with Café and all the Hassids against the Brooklyn Navy Yard Incinerator. I made art signs for Radiac, the NISA Electric Barge, TGE, and the Keyspan Tanks. I did more Vision Sessions in non-English communities than any other deliverer after 9-11.

I heard a program yesterday on the WPA. They talked about how the unemployed population was put to work after the depression building parks and trails and public lodges in the country, painting scenes in lobbies, making mosaics, and sculptures and building reliefs, making outdoor amphitheaters and sidewalks. This is what we need in this district, not a zoning for only rich people.

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