Inside New York’s Last Remaining Artists’ Housing
Photographs by Frankie Alduino
When entering Westbeth Artists Housing, a sprawling, converted industrial complex located on the quiet and manicured Bethune Street in New York’s West Village, you’ll have to abandon all preconceived notions of what it means to “make it” as an artist. In the lobby, young students of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance and the New School for Drama, both housed in the building, zip between shuffling senior citizens sporting brightly dyed hair and artfully disheveled, hipsterish clothes. These bohemian elders are the original residents of Westbeth, a keen, active group of people who have spent a lifetime challenging convention.
When it opened in January 1970, Westbeth became the first and largest federally subsidized artists’ colony in the country. It was born during a moment of exceptionally liberal thinking in the late 1960s, when the National Endowment for the Arts and the J.M. Kaplan Fund tasked a young, up-and-coming architect named
Was the initiative a success? One need only look to the wealth of canonical works created inside Westbeth’s walls, and its roster of now-famous tenants. power couple
But the vast majority of residents, present and past, are not household names, or even vaguely familiar ones. Superstardom, they potently remind us, is a fate that awaits a disproportionately small number of writers, poets, musicians, actors, dancers, and visual artists. Westbeth makes it clear that it’s valuable to support artists, whether or not they achieve wealth and fame.
The project’s originators intended for artists to take advantage of the low-rent apartments for five years while they jump-started their careers, after which they would move on. But things didn’t happen that way. Today, Westbeth legally qualifies as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community; the first class of tenants, now in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, composes an estimated 60 percent of its current residents. It was profoundly naïve to assume that artists would give up the comfort and security that Westbeth provided, especially as New York gentrified around them.
These original occupants have witnessed the West Village transform from a derelict and crime-ridden manufacturing district to a flashy “Hollywood on the Hudson,” the neighborhood’s abandoned warehouses colonized by celebrity pieds-à-terre. Westbeth’s artists have raised families who now have children of their own, and in the course of their long, creative careers, some have achieved critical and commercial acclaim, or nearly did. But many never came close.
Westbeth makes it clear that it’s valuable to support artists, whether or not they achieve wealth and fame.
Westbeth celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020; in 2011, it was declared a New York City landmark. But in many ways, the inner workings of its hive-like interior remain a mystery. Frankie Alduino, a photographer and West Village local, first came across Westbeth in 2017 while walking to work at studio, where he was a producer. It was the beginning of a fruitful project: To date, he has captured over 60 residents in their apartment studios, an ongoing effort to document this unique community.
Intrigued by these portraits, I decided to interview a number of their subjects at their homes, and they offered reflections on Westbeth and their decades working as artists in New York City. What they told me revealed the multiplicity of factors that come to bear on any artist’s prosperity and productivity.
Meier envisaged his utopian project as an “integrated, self-sufficient community…a total environment in which artists could pursue their work, from conception to performance or display.” He repurposed the 13 utilitarian steel-and-concrete structures that comprised Bell Labs—at one time the biggest industrial research center in America—to include 383 loft spaces ranging from studios to three-bedrooms to duplexes. The facility also has galleries, theatrical spaces, and a limited number of studios for painting, printmaking, ceramics, film, photography, and dance.
Despite all this, “in the beginning,” said writer and painter Jack Dowling, 87, “we called it ‘Art Prison.’” The place was a mess, Dowling explained; the hallways were painted in dark colors and covered in graffiti, a far cry from the clean, well-kept corridors one walks through today.
The scene outside its walls was not much better. “Gritty” was a term many of its residents used to describe it, but that doesn’t quite capture what was playing out. Trans prostitutes populated the sidewalks, and in the mornings, they crossed paths with neighborhood children on their way to school. Crime was so prevalent that women carried police whistles, and the tenants chipped in for a neighborhood watch agency to patrol the streets. To the west, displaced gays found a dangerous and illicit hangout among the crumbling piers that dotted the Hudson. Writer and artist Alison Armstrong, 75, wryly recalls commonly seeing “men from New Jersey having sex in their cars on the street corner” as she went out for groceries in the morning.
While most of Westbeth’s original tenants embody a certain spirit of 1960s bohemianism, all of the people I spoke to found reasons to dislike the area—but the degree to which these blights affected their experience varied dramatically.
Jack Dowling was nearly 40, broke, and essentially homeless when the Department of Cultural Affairs told him about Westbeth in 1970.
The piers and highway have long since been torn down, replaced by the exceptionally maintained Hudson River Park, frequented by residents of the area’s multi-million-dollar apartment buildings. But Gruen’s neighbor, 83-year-old puppeteer and theater artist Ralph Lee, has a different attitude toward what came before the chichi developments along the water: “There were abandoned warehouses open to the weather on the piers. You could go there and poke around and pick up all kinds of great stuff,” he lamented.
Despite the roughness of the neighborhood in the 1970s and ’80s, Westbeth had tremendously valuable offerings for artists facing an unrelenting series of struggles to make their work, even in an era where cheap loft spaces were plentiful and a part-time job could sustain you for months. This was especially true for artists with children. The initial wave into Westbeth came out of SoHo, where young families were being driven out by the surge of uptown money taking over the lofts for commercial use. At Westbeth they found space—families were offered larger apartments—and real bathrooms, as opposed to the makeshift toilets common in SoHo’s manufacturing buildings.
Lee, however, was 35, already living comfortably with his first wife and three children in a sprawling seven-room apartment on the Upper West Side when he heard about Westbeth from some friends at the Open Theater. Although he’d gotten a deal on the rent there, he found that the uptown place wasn’t always conducive to the production of his costumes and props. In the 1960s and ’70s, he was making elaborate masks and giant puppets for various theater companies in New York, as well as crafting props for Shari Lewis (“If Lamb Chop needed a snowsuit for a particular show, I’d make that”) while aligning with the nascent off-off-Broadway scene.
Above all, Lee had a desire to be downtown among other artists; he was “just itching for a different lifestyle,” to be more “in it,” he said. His first marriage ended not long after he moved into Westbeth, but Lee has retained the same apartment, a spacious suite inhabited by strange creatures on every surface. A fantastical, life-sized lobster costume created for Sam Shepard’s Back Bog Beast Bait (1974) and a “pig-beast” from Cowboy Mouth (1971), which Shepard co-wrote with
How did his kids—then 10, 9, and 4 years old—fare? Without daycare options in the building, residents made informal arrangements with one another. Lee’s son became friendly with the son of jazz musician Gil Evans. The children would hang out in Lee’s studio in the back of his apartment, where he gave them modeling clay to play with. On Saturday afternoons, he’d take all of them to the Elgin Theater (now the Joyce) to see old films. “It was just a great place, and a great place for kids,” he said.
Today, Lee shares the apartment with his second wife, Casey Compton (his children and grandchildren are frequent visitors). For the last 42 years, they’ve co-run the upstate Mettawee River Theater Company. But he became a local legend—and a Westbeth ICON awardee, an honor for senior artist residents who continue working beyond their eighties—when he created the annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade in 1974. Lee launched the “wandering neighborhood puppet show,” which begins at Westbeth, for his children and their friends. The parade became so popular, both among the residents who pitched in and the neighborhood at large, that in 1976, it became an official nonprofit organization. It still lives on, though Lee gave up directing the parade in 1985.
While Lee took advantage of the collaborative opportunities at Westbeth, Jack Dowling, who has also lived there since it opened, at first felt like an outsider in the community. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, Dowling is today a figure beloved by the residents; as the longest-serving visual arts director on the Westbeth Artists Residents Council (known as WARC), he’s organized countless exhibitions at the Westbeth Gallery, and he knows just about everyone. In 2017, he was named the first Westbeth ICON.
But Dowling was nearly 40, broke, and essentially homeless when the Department of Cultural Affairs told him about the newly-opened housing project in 1970. This low point followed what had seemed to be an upward career trajectory: For 12 years, Dowling had produced his abstract paintings in an 1,800-square-foot loft on 1st Avenue and East 24th Street, an out-of-the-way location that the artist cherished for its space and quiet. The legendary art dealer Ivan Karp, who worked at Leo Castelli Gallery, was championing his work. Then, suddenly, the city allowed New York University to raze Dowling’s apartment building for student housing. Despite a costly legal battle, he was evicted and forced to put his paintings in storage.
When a slot opened at Westbeth, Dowling moved into a modest, 400-square-foot space the tenants call the “starter apartment,” because “the first thing you do is put your name on the in-house move list to get out of it,” Dowling explained. Enterprising tenants took advantage of the frequent management turnover in those days, remodeling their spaces or ignoring the in-house move list, and grabbing bigger and better apartments or coveted studio spaces as they became available. Dowling has now upgraded to a tidy, gray-painted apartment nearly twice the size of the starter apartment, with a loft space he built to write and store his work. “I just moved into it, and then I went down to the office and said I moved. That would never have happened later,” he told me.
Still, in 1970, Dowling had “lost momentum,” and lost contacts, too. He felt the art world leaning toward
But mostly, he kept to himself. Dowling’s popularity at Westbeth is relatively recent; back then, he told me, he wasn’t much of a “mixer.” He avoided the many parties he later heard had been going on. As a single gay man, he felt more comfortable in nearby Village bars than with the families in his building, who he sensed “were not happy with some of the action that was going on in the neighborhood.” But while Dowling perceived Westbeth residents with families as somewhat prudish, other tenants told a far different story. During my week of interviews, I heard countless tales of intrigue: a tangled web of relationships shaped by rampant cheating or partner-swapping, estrangement, and divorce.
When John Lennon visited his personal photographer’s Westbeth apartment, he said “Man, you’ve got some weird neighbors!”
These knotty relationships have added to Westbeth’s complicated—and not totally fair—system of allotting apartments and workspaces. Sometimes a break-up meant that the artist who was originally granted the apartment was the one who had to move out, leaving behind the partner who was not an artist. There seems to have been some bitterness about how choice units were allocated, too. The largest spaces went to the families with the most children, but dynamics shifted—couples divorced or were widowed, and children grew up, yet “there are a number of single people, some of whom have stopped being productive, who nevertheless have a huge two-bedroom,” Armstrong said.
Decades after he had settled into Westbeth, sculptor Marcia Tucker. Despite his activities, Bauch wasn’t able to get his foot in the door of a commercial gallery and “wasn’t confident” about the work he was making at the time, so he quickly gave up on marketing it.
Bauch found refuge at Westbeth. “It was like a dream come true,” he said. “For the same amount of rent I was paying in the East Village, I tripled the space.” (When Westbeth opened in 1970, rents were $100 a month for single residents—a bit more than $650 today, factoring in inflation—and slightly more for families.) He told his girlfriend Barbara, a psychology student, about the housing complex. She immediately commanded him to “call the office and tell them you’re getting married.” Bauch demurred, but she cannily insisted. “Don’t worry about it,” she assured him. “If we don’t get married, we’ll still have a bigger apartment.” They moved in December 1969, a week before the new year, and got married not long after.
Bauch’s art practice resumed “big time,” and he was able to freelance as a graphic designer part-time to make ends meet. He found acceptance for his work at Westbeth’s co-op gallery, where he has exhibited since its second show, and was pleased to find that “everyone was young and full of piss and vinegar.” He was content there until 1990, when his marriage broke up. His lawyers advised him to leave the apartment to his wife—who still lives there today—and his daughter. So he moved to Brooklyn, where he could afford an apartment with an extra bedroom for his daughter to visit.
Bauch was down on his luck; the computer had phased him out of the graphic design field, which wasn’t as lucrative as it used to be, anyway. Instead, he said, “I compromised in order to have more time for art” by driving a taxi four days a week. A year after he moved, Bauch reapplied to Westbeth. He waited for 10 years, and in 2000, something amazing happened: He received a new apartment.
Today, Bauch shares a studio space in the building with another resident, where he has his own torches and plasma cutters. He works on his sculpture there five days per week, and his apartment is practically booby-trapped with spiky, metal configurations on the floor and walls. In 2010, he finally obtained representation, from Carter Burden Gallery. “There was chemistry,” he said. He’s had several solo shows there, which was “very exciting at first. Now it’s comfortable.” Bauch frequently visits his daughter, a choreographer, and her two children, ages five and four. They moved into Westbeth six months ago from Brooklyn after a 15-year wait for an apartment to open up.
Frankly, it’s a miracle that Bauch and his daughter were both able to return to Westbeth after leaving. The competition for these spaces is unduly fierce. Clearly, the artists at Westbeth require more than a short-term housing solution to build their careers, and as the city’s real estate prices soared in the 1980s and ’90s, artists clung to their Westbeth apartments evermore tightly (plus, there were no bylaws the board could use to evict them). Some artists have handed their apartments down to children and grandchildren (though subletting to non-artists has also been known to occur). By 2006, the waitlist was officially closed due to the incredible wait times and high demand, and between 2015 and 2018, only 20 new tenants and their families were admitted.
As a society, we have an urgent, moral obligation to address how artists can live safely and thrive creatively.
Alison Armstrong, who teaches several days a week at the School of Visual Arts, briefly served on the admissions committee for visual arts residents, a harrowing task that included vetting the seriousness of an applicant’s need and artistic aspirations. WARC committees, separated by discipline—from music and performance to visual arts and writing—verify that applicants were indeed artists, a denomination determined by the portion of income derived from the sale of their work. Their rent is determined by income.
“We had a lot of people up in years who were trying to get in,” Armstrong said, “or we had people who had been on the list for 25 years and they weren’t even painting anymore,” and so were no longer eligible. “It was hard for the younger people to get on the list,” she explained, “because they were all blocked by these people who had put themselves on the list years ago and were still waiting.”
Armstrong was a relatively late addition to Westbeth—she moved in when she was almost 40 years old, in 1981—but the unfolding events of her life allowed her to circumvent waitlist purgatory. She was working towards a master of literature degree at Oxford University when her cousin
Soon after, she married an architectural historian who lived down the hall and moved into his small, one-bedroom apartment, even though, as a mother with a child of the opposite sex, she was entitled to a much bigger place. After she left her husband in the late 1980s, Armstrong squatted in her windowless basement studio for two years while he retained his space upstairs. She spent over 30 years on the in-house waitlist, biding her time on the noisy and dirty ground floor before her current one-bedroom apartment on the eighth floor became available while she was serving on the tenants’ council.
As the city’s real estate prices soared in the 1980s and ’90s, artists clung to their Westbeth apartments ever more tightly.
As someone who has spent years living in some of the most inhospitable spaces Westbeth has to offer, Armstrong has carefully considered some of the deficiencies of young Richard Meier’s design. Because he included so few studio spaces in the building, Meier conceived of the apartments as dual live-work spaces. But he didn’t account for the often hazardous realities of artmaking.
If you’re a potter or a painter living next to your cans of turpentine, Armstrong said, “you could die of toxic fumes, which has happened.” The apartments are not equipped with utility sinks, so “we have to wash our equipment where we cook our food.” She also feels that the act of writing is misunderstood by the general Westbeth population: “Some painters say, ‘You’re a writer, you don’t need any space at all,’” she griped. “But you need bookshelves, file cabinets, desks—plural—where you can have a clear mind.” Although she’s published a wide range of books and is now at work on a collection of nonfiction essays, Armstrong’s current setup sometimes makes it difficult to concentrate. “As you can see, I have things all over the place,” she gestured, her cat Felix stirring on her lap. “I write behind the bookcase.” Still, she admits that she’s been the “happiest living here than any other time in New York City.”
Each resident has radically different thoughts about the nature of success, ideas that have shifted as they’ve aged. Bob Gruen, a pioneer of rock photography, is a self-proclaimed “Westbeth legend,” and agrees that he’s “a success story.” That’s a bit of an understatement. In the ’70s, Gruen cut his teeth capturing performances by Bob Dylan, the Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Blondie, Led Zeppelin, the Who, David Bowie, and anyone else who wandered through downtown New York. He also served as John Lennon’s personal photographer while the former Beatle lived around the corner, on Bank Street, with his shot of Lennon wearing a New York City T-shirt has become iconic (one of his portraits of Lennon was recently turned into a commemorative postage stamp). Okay, so Gruen’s a big, important artist—but despite his notoriety, he never made a lot of money from his work, and still relies on the rent-controlled apartment he’s lived in for almost 50 years.
Gruen applied for a Westbeth space in 1967. “There were fewer than 400 apartments, and 1,000 names on the list,” he remembered. He found out he got one on Christmas Eve in 1969 and moved in with his first wife—also an artist—and his son in January 1970, right when the building opened. Even so, there were only four units left, and none of the eight photography studios remained. He took the only one with a window, retrofitting a darkroom in the 800-square-foot apartment, which cost only $125 per month.
Although he lacked space, Gruen’s acceptance to Westbeth offered the up-and-coming artist something far more valuable: “You’re certified by the U.S. government as an artist when you sign the lease,” he explained. That confirmation “gave me the confidence and freedom to be an artist.” But it’s really the circumstances of Westbeth that allowed him to have the career he ultimately built for himself. When he first started out, Gruen paid the bills by taking baby pictures. Moving into Westbeth enabled him to quit his day job and build up his music contacts, which “took about four or five years,” he said, certainly a longer timeframe than Westbeth’s creators would have thought necessary. (He laughed thinking about a recent chance encounter with Richard Meier, who joked, “You were supposed to move out!”)
The building management was also exceptionally accommodating. They understood that many artists couldn’t rely on a weekly paycheck, and were lenient about rent being late. “The only way to get kicked out of Westbeth is feet first,” Gruen said. The building’s residents also appreciated the unconventionality of an artists’ lifestyle. During the day, Gruen worked in the darkroom he built in his current apartment, which he moved into in 1975 and shares with his second wife,
Living at Westbeth is “a completely different life from the American standard, which is you get a job, and then you retire, and you play golf or something like that,” Dowling said. Most of the artists I spoke with agreed that being an artist can be taxing. It’s a “feast and famine situation,” Gruen said; a job that requires “sacrifice” in order to “love something enough to lose money,” according to Bauch. Yet every person I spoke with also cited Westbeth as a savior, especially as they age.
Today, the sense of community has never been stronger. These days, Westbeth offers free senior wellness classes like yoga, singing, sound healing, and improvisational acting. In the elevator, posters advertise Westbeth Movie Night and seminars on how to digitize your archives. But the greatest change is among the tenants. “I think people begin to relax a bit as they age,” Dowling opined. “The competitive thing isn’t necessary anymore.” That’s not to say residents are resting on their laurels: “No matter how old they are, everybody in this building is creative right up to the end,” he continued. “People are still working the day before they die.”
What are young artists lured by the dream of the New York art world to do without similar opportunities? While steadfastly managed by a public board of directors, this radical housing initiative remains a unique bastion, promising affordable live-work spaces to artists in perpetuity. But while Westbeth may have started as a leg-up for aspiring artists, in many ways, it now seems to be a life raft for older people in a hyper-gentrifying city. While rents are no longer as bargain-bin as they were in the 1970s, relative to the area, they remain a steal; since 2011, units are not rent-controlled, but rather rent-stabilized, and prices today range from $700 to $4,000 per month.
The failure of the board to enforce the five-year limit on Westbeth residencies has effectively squeezed a new generation out of the same kind of support. The board, however, has plans to reopen the waitlist in the near future, this time with an eye toward diversity—they’re working with organizations like the Harlem Arts Alliance—and a cap on rental periods. (Westbeth, surprisingly, does not track the demographics of its residents, but it’s safe to say that the community is not reflective of New York City’s population.)
“No matter how old they are, everybody in this building is creative right up to the end. People are still working the day before they die.”
In the meantime, it seems foolish to rely on additional solutions from the American government, which generally has never much seen the point in putting dollars behind the arts; in fact, as soon as the Nixon administration assumed office in 1968, the National Endowment of the Arts halted all financial support after the renovation was completed, and Westbeth only continued through the generosity of the Kaplan Fund. Westbeth could easily be a one-off utopian project, considered starry-eyed and impractical, at least in the limited imaginations of our politicians.
As a society, we have an urgent, moral obligation to address how artists can live safely and thrive creatively in cities that have become increasingly hostile to their survival. The deadly 2016 Ghost Ship fire—in which an Oakland warehouse co-opted by artists went up in flames, killing 36 people—was a horrific reminder that when artists can’t find affordable housing, they turn to dangerous solutions. It’s a comforting reminder that Westbeth, with its thick concrete walls, is fireproof. There’s a dedicated staff on call, and a grant-funded social worker who comes in several days a week. In times of disaster, like when elderly tenants were stranded during Hurricane Sandy, residents and staff pulled together to bring them supplies.
Ultimately, Westbeth forces us to consider why it’s so difficult to value the function of artists in society. The work of an artist isn’t always about productivity, and we don’t always see the results of this creative labor. “Imagining is something you do,” Gruen clarified, “not something that happens. It’s the job of the artist to daydream.” This might seem quaint, but Gruen knows that “being successful doesn’t necessarily mean fame or gallery representation. It is simply having the time and space to work.”
Julia Wolkoff is Artsy’s Editor, Art History.
Header image: Known as the “Poet of Bleecker Street,” Ilsa Gilbert, 85, is the founder and director of the PEN Women’s Literary Workshop. She moved to Westbeth in 2002, after spending eight years on the waitlist. Photo by Frankie Alduino.