Time magazine (April 6) featured an article about Vin Diesel, who grew up in Westbeth, a conversion of the former headquarters of Bell Labs into the largest and most successful housing project for qualified low-income artists in the country. Vin Diesel was Mark Vincent then–an unusual kid, a philosopher-cum-body-builder who used to tell his friends, “My biceps are gonna make me millions.” No one believed him back then, but that didn’t matter. Residents of Westbeth have always been free to march to a different drummer. The article best describes what it was like to grow up in this “progressive and bohemian” environment in a quote from one of the Westbeth kids who went away to college and was “shocked to find that homosexuality was frowned on in some circles.”
When the complex opened in 1970 the West Village was a dangerous neighborhood. It lacked basic amenities like grocery stores, the air reeked of blood rotting in the gutters of the nearby meat-packing district, and its Hudson River view was blocked by an ugly elevated highway. Nevertheless, with what great joy the artists moved in! My family came in 1982, from a dark, illegal hovel on 22nd Street to a large raw space with high ceilings, flooded with light. My three daughters also grew up to be artists. The nourishing environment here breeds them.
During the brutally hot summer of 1984 I started working on a novel in my un-air-conditioned loft, writing on an old-fashioned typewriter, erasure tapes spilling on the floor. A few weeks ago I began revising the final version. Life is short, art is long, and low rent is a form of money that buys time, an artist’s most valuable commodity. But, I ask myself, how important is that value to the developers and financiers salivating over an entire city block of un-gentrified housing in what is now the wealthiest zip code in the nation? (For more information, click on my WestView article, “Will Westbeth Be the Next St. Vincent’s?”)
May 31, 2015