Casimir Nozkowski has made a lovely short film about life at 70 Hester Street, a building that was once a synagogue, a whiskey still, and a raincoat factory before it became a home and a studio for Nozkowski's artist parents in the 1960s.
It was recently sold and re-sold for millions and the Nozkowskis were forced to leave.
You can watch the entire film here and on Vimeo. I chatted with Casimir about old buildings in the city.
70 Hester Street from Casimir Nozkowski on Vimeo.
Q: What is the value of old buildings to the city and its people?
A: In my opinion, having grown up in a 130-year-old (plus) building, there is an enormous value to maintaining spaces constructed in long-ago eras or event recent eras. The personalities of cities are going to change over time, of course, and lots of new buildings and new spaces will be built. But being able to see and feel a connection to the past is a reminder that we occupy land that many souls have lived and breathed on.
I think seeing an older building is a way to inspire more empathy, to know that you're part of a continuum of people who have made the city into what it is. I know growing up at 70 Hester Street, I often thought about the congregants and factory workers and other residents of the building who had all left their marks on the infrastructure. I'm thinking of the little bits of prayer book that would just kind of appear in the corner, or fixtures that had once shone light on the shower curtains and raincoats that were produced there, or a sliding door with a peephole that had guarded the whiskey still running during prohibition. I was incredibly lucky to be able to see all those marks, and I think it made me more aware of the history we all share and that we're all a part of together.
Also it might just be my personal bias, or an oversimplification, but a lot of the new buildings have a lot less personality and detail than the old buildings I'm used to seeing on the Lower East Side. Is it me or all the new ones all about glass and steel and using a lot of the same silver, blue, shiny color palettes? The old buildings have more character.
Q: Your family home has a rare beauty that today seems only accessible to the very wealthy. (I'm going to assume that your family was not wealthy--I may be wrong about that.) What are your thoughts on what happens when only the rich of a city are permitted to live in beautiful, open, well-lighted spaces?
A: My parents moved into 70 Hester right out of college (they went to Cooper Union) and cleaned it out in exchange for a tidy rent of $100 a month in 1967. They weren't wealthy and were looking for space to pursue their art. Finding something that beautiful was a bonus. Once they cleaned it out I think that beauty became something that inspired them and may have informed the work they made (that's just my speculation though).
I think it's a shame when beautiful spaces are only available to the wealthy. But I guess I think it's a shame when anything is ONLY available to the wealthy.
When my parents moved into 70 Hester Street in the 60s, the Lower East Side was a kind of tough neighborhood. So it didn't matter how beautiful or well-lit a space was, there weren't any rich people (not the ones we're talking about) who were coming down to the neighborhood anyway. But then, of course, gentrification happens and neighborhoods get safer, relatively speaking, and more perks and franchises move in, and people with money scoop up all the beautiful, well-lit spaces and think they've discovered them.
I don't know what the policy looks like--is it rent control? Is it regulations that temper buying or flipping properties strictly for investment purposes? It's some combination of that, which we need, so that the people who want to be inspired, want space, want to live in a building with a shared, long history don't always have to have absurd means to do so.
My parents did not move into 70 Hester as any kind of financial investment. They wanted to have a place to work and live that didn't bankrupt them. That seems reasonable to me and I'd certainly prefer a city where a maximum number of people could choose where they live for similar reasons.
Q: So, the top 2 floors, where your family lived, is now renting to a gallery for $14,500 per month? I have to ask that very New York question: what was the rent before that?
A: Actually I think the building's owners couldn't find someone who would pay that $14K rent (I guess there are some limits to rent even on the LES?) and they sold the building again just this year for $5.9 million I believe (up from $3.5 million in 2012!).
Like I mentioned above, when my parents moved in, the rent was $100 a month. That was 1967. Their landlady and then her daughter kept the rent very low for many years. I think when my parents moved out in 2012, the rent was $1,200 or $1,400 a month. I'm not positive, but it was something well below market.
My parents were always very conscious of the deal that they were getting and put a fair amount of their own money and time into building upkeep (including literally building walls and making it at all habitable when they moved in). And the same goes for the family that lived below us on the first floor and the artists who worked in the studio below that. Everyone contributed in making the building livable.
But no one has to shed any tears for us. My parents and I had a lucky run in a space like this for many years at a great rent. It came to an end very abruptly, but I think we all feel very grateful for getting to live and work in a building like this for 45 years. That ability to live in one place--especially a place as special as 70 Hester Street--for so long feels more and more impossible in New York City every year.