Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Brontosaurus Realty

This morning my son forgot something on the way out to school. Like many Manhattan apartments, the bell is downstairs, not on the door. So, having turned around before he left the building, he was now smashing my front door for about 5 minutes before I noticed that the now-usual soundtrack of banging and hammering was coming in counterpoint.

There are endless public service alerts about diabetes, heart attacks, cancer—statistics that every single one of us will either contract or be affected by this or that disease. What they don’t tell you is that while you are either waiting for or undergoing the next health crisis, there is conservatively at least a 99 percent chance that you will be adversely affected by your neighbor’s apartment renovation. And if you are not sick, it will either make you sick or debilitate your immune system to maximum susceptibility. Or maybe, like the real estate conspiracy which is now Manhattan, it will force you to move and thus provide two new commission opportunities for the ever-eager agents who fill your mailbox every day with enough self-serving crap to fuel an average highrise and cut your building oil consumption in half. Which might bring on another war...but that is another column.

I live in a pre-war building. In fact pre-both wars. If you really want to own a piece of Manhattan, you want to own a real piece of the original Manhattan rock. Before they ruined it. From back when architecture and aesthetics meant something besides winning a contest. When quality of life and urban democracy were actual values, not phrases your kids pick up from Sparknotes history. The old, genuine New York billionaires still own townhouses, Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue homes. Renovated school buildings, carriage houses. Not the 21st century eyesores which are investments in developers, not the city.
These new buildings have not only not withstood the tests of time, but I often wonder, in an aerial moral mirror—the way that vampires don’t reflect...most of these would disappear. They don’t even count. The way real jazz fans know only vinyl really rocks, these new buildings are the architectural version of a download. Glass is not necessarily class.

I fell in love with my building. I loved the architecture, the soaring lobby space, the high ceilings and elegant bone structure of my home-to-be, despite the obtrusive pipes, the clanky radiators, the cracks and the sloping floors. I didn’t care that it had no view; like most New Yorkers I can’t remember ever having the downtime to sit around and look out of a window. Okay, not much light. But the price was oh-so-right, and my neighbors were old Democrats—journalists, writers, composers, intellectuals. Real New Yorkers. I bought a run-down wreck of a place, and I renovated. The old-fashioned way. Three days. I put up a wall, built in some bookshelves, plastered and painted, primed the floors and I was in. Maybe my neighbors downstairs had to experience the discomfort of the sanding machine I rented for a total of 4 hours during an afternoon.

One by one the old Democrats are dropping out. Our maintenance, which used to include one live-in-superintendant’s salary, was efficient, frugal. These days, the good old real estate agents, just to make their ill-deserved commission, tell prospective tenants we are in the process of hiring doormen, elevator men, putting in a Yoga studio. The new buyers who have paid up to one hundred times more than the older tenants? Well, they are angry. Vicious. They want these services. They will turn this old tenement into a white-glove full-service building no matter what. No matter how many times the maintenance doubles or triples because compared to their over-inflated salaries, this is Wall Street small change. Not so, for those on fixed social security, who were comparatively underpaid for brilliant and life-changing work. Not for the starving artists, the musicians who like myself are living on $10 a day. On a good day. And feel guilty, because some of my musical genius friends are living in a car. Without a motor.

Whatever. The poor old structure I bought into is being drilled, poked, sawed, re-trussed, undercut and humiliated. Walls are gone. Landmarked hallways are appropriated by investment bankers into private entrances, storage closets. They want a lobby that looks like a Plastic Surgeon's waiting room. Jacuzzis are installed, architecturally extravagant bathroom and laundry luxuries beyond the capacity of our poor old pipes which served so well for 100 years. My kitchen ceiling has fallen in so many times I have a monthly sheetrock allowance in my budget. Who pays for this? My insurance premiums are higher than anything I ever got back. Hard to document the damage when my camera was engulfed in the last flood.

And these people who spend millions on the space, then millions on the renovation-- whose architects are wearing Armani and carrying the plans in Gucci tubes-- do you know what happens when their workers poke a hole which fills your stove and refrigerator with 40 gallons of filthy water? They will sic their pitbull lawyers on you and claim that you caused them to lose 3 weeks of work by questioning the department of buildings. You will be looking at a personal lawsuit of 2 million dollars because you offended their contractor. Any excuse to get rid of you because you are to them like an ugly piece of exposed pipe. They want to obliterate every single sign of funk or humanity or soul. Total architectural and human whitewashing.

So 8 apartments to a floor became 4, 4 became 2….now they are looking to expand because 6000 square feet is not enough for a family of 4 with a staff of 6. One of my old rockstar friends asked me to show his massive townhouse which he is abandoning because he hates his bourgeois neighbors. People came in and asked ‘Wow, 13 bedrooms… he must have a lot of kids’. He had exactly 2 legally and maybe a few other tentatives, and maybe one of them spent an occasional holiday there. Average Manhattan people with 13 bedrooms have 1 or 2 kids, if that. Average families with 13 kids live in Harlem in 1 or 2-bedroom apartments. That is Manhattan real estate Math 101.

But back to my little corner of the rock. Besides the massive damage, the floods, the rude workmen who play bad music loud and usurp the elevators when you need to get your 40 pound amplifier down stairwells blocked with construction materials, apparently these people are entitled to use the courtyard just beneath me for cutting metal pipes, buzzsawing, anything that might cause damage to the brand new renovation. Apparently this is their right--their workroom. And the Carnegie Hall guy must have designed the acoustics of this courtyard, because you can actually hear what they are eating for lunch. That is, when your ears stop ringing.

I am a musician. I not only work nights and need to sleep occasionally during daytime hours, but I also compose music. Or used to. No way to record anything living when this kind of work is constant. Even locked in my bathroom with the shower running, the sawing, clanging and banging can cause hearing damage. I actually asked the owners how much longer their workmen would be…and the only reason the guy condescended to answer me is because he likes the Allman Brothers. Like we are on some kind of common ground here because I play in a rock band. Does he suspect, if I could ever afford a ticket to these same venues I actually play, that I would like to see the Allman brothers in 2007? Do I go even when I have been on their guest list? Time for me is money. Not the kind of money he is familar with; the one-step-above-welfare kind. First of all, it is the Allman brother. And second and third--- well, another column. Anyway, 'Maybe another year' was the guy's answer. A YEAR? An entire city with a complex subway system could be built in a year.

Last week the ante was upped. My books actually started falling from the shelves. The whole place was shaking. I can sleep through a Blue Cheer soundcheck when I’m really tired, but I literally panicked that the fictional urban earthquake had finally begun. Well, it seems the new owners decided they didn’t like the view out of their daughter’s bedroom, so they were making new windows. Drilling through 3 feet of old New York stone and brickwork in my landmarked building. This is MY COOP! MY CITY!!! I requested an engineer's inspection because when a building this solid shakes, it’s terrifying. But even city agencies back down in the face of the monumental dollar signs of my new neighbors. And of course I am waiting for the latest lawsuit which they will dole out as revenge, while my poor old neighbors—the ones who used to run the newspapers and institutions of this city, the old friends of Greta Garbo, Mingus, Andy Warhol—they are cowering in the elevator, waiting to be called badly dressed eyesores and building liabilities. Waiting for the next increase, the next lawsuit. Victims of the New York City real-estate Tsunami.

I can’t even wish for the deluge to swallow up the bad people, because they are my partners in this building. My share of the pie is tiny, but it is the same pie. Although, as we all know, sometimes the first bite is the best. It is about taste and palette and ingredients and aesthetics and art. By the fifth mouthful it is about greed and power and, okay, so I only got one bite but the rest will go straight to their butt. Which they have lipo-suctioned and personal-trained away anyway, because the real greedy fat-cats, the ones who can afford the great mass quantities of food, are all thin in inverse proportion to their super-sized living space. While the 13 children in Harlem are not anorexic but BIG children, living on foodstamp-quality meals without gym memberships in tiny apartments. Why are these thin people with the enormous bank accounts insisting on overpaying for massive empty space? To accommodate their 11 9-foot TV’s? Because the maximum viewing point is 50 feet back? They have country houses, too, so it can’t be recreational. Is it related to the expensive car/small genital syndrome? I call it Brontosaurus real estate. Occupying the largest space ever, owning the hugest stock portfolio, making the most noise when you walk, when you move….with the smallest brain. These dinosaurs were not even fighters—not even carnivores. Vegans. Just scaring the shit out of their larger-brained efficient little neighbors with their massive, useless size. Shaking the beds we sleep in with their Brontosaurean renovations and their Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum coop politics.

So let’s all hope Darwinian principles will prevail in Manhattan. With all due respect to Al Gore, let’s hope this recent April cold-spell signals a new Ice Age.


Billy said...

Good Stuff! Billy

Sandra said...

I feel I could have written this myself, the experience is so similar to my own. Living in a pre-WWI-II building and watching it continously under assault by the Great Renovation I wonder how long it will stand.
Working at home or trying to and not being own of that growing breed of smug and righteous souls who multiply in the night - SHAREHOLDERS - I am looked on as an anachronistic anomaly. Proud, poor and not afraid to speak out - but a renter nonetheless. We are becoming the new Mohigans - a tribe that will be spoken of but barely remembered.
The noise is endless. I've hung out of my back windows into the courtyard, phone in hand, yelling to the 311 lady, "can you hear this toture?" If a deaf man can hear it, they will come out. Otherwise, no.
To the writer of this article, rock on! The Park Avenue-ification of Manhattan will eventually quiet but not before many of the people who made major contributions to the city's character have fled or died from exhaustion or a broken heart. Keep writing "Brontosaurus..." and we'll know life still breathes among some of us and where there is life there is hope.
Rock On. Sandra