“THE FBI WERE AT MY APARTMENT YESTERDAY.”
We’re sitting in a bar, perched on a rough wooden bench, when Saskia tells me this. Someone is banging on a drum in the back room and the bartenders are slinging $1 beers in the front. It’s supposed to have a rough, divey, frontier kind of vibe, but with an all-vegan menu the place can only muster so much swagger. The crowd is young, attractive, and hipster (whatever that means). People cast glances at one another, size each other up, try to determine who is an authentic local from the nearby lofts, and who is a poser, visiting for the night from (shudder) Manhattan or even (double shudder) the suburbs.
Given the kind of mischief that goes down in the lofts, the presence of the FBI could mean just about anything. In this case, though, a couple of guys that used to live in Saskia’s apartment were arrested down in Texas.
“Which guys?” she turns to ask her housemate.
“It was the French guys.”
“Which French guys? They’re all French guys.”
“You know.. the ones that pissed in the sink.”
“Oh those guys…”
I spent my first weeks in Brooklyn on a friend’s couch, weathering an earthquake that the Californians said wasn’t a real earthquake and a hurricane that the Cubans said wasn’t a real hurricane, and wondering all the while what had possessed me to move to this catastrophe-ridden city.
Every time a decent (read: affordable) room for rent came up on Craigslist, I would go out in search of it, getting lost on the subway and caught in late summer storms that reduced my scribbled maps to dripping, illegible pulp. Whenever I did actually make it to an apartment, it was usually incredibly small, incredibly dull, and already rented-out.
Eventually I followed an apartment listing out to Morgan Av. The listing had warned that it was a weird neighbourhood, heavy on graffiti and light on greenery. I could cope with that. I was lured on by one little four-letter word: LOFT.
A no man’s land of warehouses and spent smokestacks caught between Williamsburg, Bushwick, and the toxic trickle of Newton Creek, Morgan Av. wasn’t exactly welcoming. Most of this area was still part of the East Williamsburg Industrial Park, but a few blocks around Morgan Av. had been dezoned, occupying a grey area between legally habitable and not-fit-for-habitation (which basically meant that landlords could rent buildings out as apartments without having to build fire escapes).
On my way to the Craigslisted loft, I was struck by how unlike other hot Brooklyn neighbourhoods the area felt. This definitely wasn’t Williamsburg. It wasn’t even Greenpoint and certainly wasn’t Park Slope. The street art all looked new; the only vegetation was the smiling, anthropomorphic daisies painted onto the side of a building. The streets were a dusty grid of cinderblocks and padlocks.
The occasional truck shouldered its way along the narrow streets, disappearing through huge roller doors stencilled with Chinese characters. As empty as the area felt, there were people — trendy folk with asymmetrical hair, prominent tattoos and clothes whose colours clashed strategically — loitering about a couple of cafes. Something was definitely afoot.
I found the loft, knocked and entered, then was handed a glass of wine and given a tour. The place was a playground of nooks, mezzanines, alcoves, and crannies. The built-in bookshelves spoke of limitless possibility. Huge, greasy windows filled one end of the place, allowing sunlight to fall poignantly on a random assemblage of vintage furniture.
Pipes snaked their way across the ceiling far overhead. An asthmatic cat wheezed and snuffled away on the couch. There were two housemates; one provided most of the wine, the other did a lot of baking. It was perfect. When the next person arrived to see the place I stuck around, just to intimidate him.
As soon as the hurricane — or whatever that was — had blown over, I moved in. On the first of the month there were moving vans lined up outside all of the loft buildings. While most of our loft had a subtle, don’t-forget-this-used-to-be-a-big-empty-warehouse vibe, my room was partitioned up by curtains and rails and painted in every primary colour, plus a few others.
It looked more like a kindergarten than a loft. I spent my first days there disassembling and removing all the extraneous clutter, and then painted the walls the blankest shade of grey that I could find. Then I told myself to sit down and start writing.
In the mid-17th century, Brooklyn was founded as a series of isolated, mostly-Dutch colonies. Less than 20 years after the first of these were founded the English kicked the Dutch out; Breuckelen became Brooklyn, New Amsterdam became New York, and Boswjick — which had been settled only three years earlier — became Bushwick.
The towns grew, running out of space and annexing one another, but there remained pockets of inhospitable waste, occupied only by barren soils and hostile species. The area separating Bushwick from the river and the sea was this kind of a place, a blighted marsh of salt and thistle, good for nothing except to pass quickly over on the way to the Bushwick Shore and access the outside world. They called it Cripplebush.
Brooklyn continued to grow, consuming the land around it. Eventually Cripplebush was cleared, its gnarled shrubs and thickets becoming fuel for the British during the Revolutionary War. In the 19th century the Bushwick Shore became the village of Williamsburgh (the H was dropped later), but Cripplebush remained a no man’s land. Some called it Bushwick, some called it Williamsburg or East Williamsburg; most had no reason to give it any name at all.
There are two versions of why I came to New York. One has it that I came here to better myself in a vague masters program at a fancy university. This is the version that helped me get a student visa. The other has it that I came to New York to live in Brooklyn with all the artists, and to traipse about the streets of New York, playing at being a struggling writer. This is the version that was attracted to Cripplebush.
A lot of aspiring artists, many of whom were masquerading as starving students (or was it the other way around?), had felt the same lure of the loft and were moving to Morgan Av. The big, abandoned garment warehouses out here attracted them as desolate spaces with cheap rent always do, and they had set up a kind of outpost in the post-industrial wasteland. The same phenomenon has been repeating itself all over New York for decades. Before Prada and Louis Vuitton moved in, this is what SOHO would have looked and felt like.
They also found in the emptiness of the area some faint promise of a utopia-in-the-making. Sure, there were no bodegas or delis or laundromats or really any stores or services, and definitely none of the rich cultural layers that had been forming in adjacent neighbourhoods, but there were a handful of divey bars, a couple of cafes, and one 24-hour organic mini-mart stocking kale chips, red quinoa, spicy vegan chorizo, and other indispensable artist staples.
Certain rites and ceremonies are demanded of anyone hoping to make it in New York. The old you — always from somewhere else, whether another state or another continent, somewhere backward — must be cast off before you can be initiated into this higher realm. The aspiring artists of Morgan Av. shaved or dyed their hair, got pierced or tattooed, pawned their wardrobe, and bought someone else’s pawned wardrobe.
They emptied themselves out, preparing for re-invention, preparing to re-create themselves as something more than they had ever been before: a New York artist. Those not quite brave enough for such acts of devotion painted their rooms a blank, receptive grey, ready to be invested with significance.
Late summer was a great time to move into this fledgling utopia. Very little art was being made, but everyone was out enjoying the long, free evenings. There was always someone smoking or drinking on the rooftop, looking with ambivalence out across the Manhattan skyline. Vendors set up tables outside the lofts selling handmade jewellery and vintage Playboys.
The local dives and speakeasies had flung up their shutters, roller-doors, and awnings, and their patios babbled with earnest talk of planned projects. King’s County — aka that dive bar so dark you can barely see your local lager — hosted its riotous women’s arm wrestling showdown while around the corner, at Roberta’s, classic 90s movies were being played on an outdoor screen.
On Sundays a crowd surged up out of the Morgan Av. subway and joined the line outside Roberta’s, hoping to be admitted to the biweekly Tiki Disco. The locals sneered that the place was impossible to get into since the Times did a piece on it, and then took their places in line.
There just weren’t that many regular Sunday yard parties in Brooklyn where you could be sure of cheap booze, good music, and an attractive crowd. Behind the fence, in a space that looked like a cross between a veggie patch and a junkyard, tents were rigged, speakers were stacked, and a thick layer of crumpled cans spread underfoot as people pulled out their most ironic dance moves.
It was sometime during the final days of summer that I met Saskia. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and loud-mouthed, she’d traded cheerleading for backpacking and spent the past year wandering across Europe, returning just in time for grad school. We’d been sitting opposite one another in an evening stats class for weeks without realising that we were fellow Morgan Av. loft dwellers.
She’d heard about the lofts while working in Italy, where they were spoken of as a fantastic utopia of art and free love. We were both finding that the rigours of higher education were a poor (and yet prohibitively expensive) substitute for the wild freedom of life on the road.
Whenever I would tell myself to sit down and write, Saskia could be relied upon to interrupt with a call to coffee at Swallow. The local kids couldn’t mention Swallow without recounting that it was way cooler when it was known as Archive and was a total dive. Reincarnated as Swallow, it was still channelling the dive vibe, but in a very controlled, arranged way.
The walls were exposed brick, the floor scuffed wood. Tables were made from old wooden crates (or designed to look like they were); a few of them were mounted on rusted wheels. A metal dolly leaned uselessly against the wall, just to enforce the railyards-of-yore ambience. Exposed bulbs hung from the ceiling.
As one of the few cafes in the colony, Swallow was always busy. This was where people came when they needed to escape their six housemates so they could edit a video, update their blog, or read some experimental fiction. While the bars were for talking up your next big project, Swallow was where you came to think about maybe working on it. More often than not, though, housemates trying to escape one another ended up sitting at adjacent tables and bitching about each other on Twitter while talking up their latest artistic endeavour on Facebook.
Our animated what-the-hell-are-we-doing-here conversations were not appreciated in the studious environment. The bearded boys and horn-rimmed girls at nearby tables clutched their coffees, hunched over their Macbooks, and tried to ignore us. Again and again we calculated just how much further our rent money would have gone on the backpacker trails we had left behind. Neither one of us could shake the growing fear that this Brooklyn loft dream was slowly crushing the life out of every other dream, or that we had unwittingly traded the freedom and inspiration of a nomadic lifestyle for the ennui of endless, identical mornings at Swallow.
There was always at least one person from Saskia’s loft seeking refuge in Swallow. This was how I met Bianca and Annali — both from Italy, both dancers, and both coming to the end of their student visas after a year in Cripplebush. Bianca was into hip hop, her wrists criss-crossed by heavy jewellery and tattoos, always dressed in carefully dishevelled layers of stressed leather, torn denim, and vintage flannel. She could usually be found in a corner of Swallow, enormous headphones cupped over her ears, trying to figure out how to stay longer in the US.
Annali, her hair permanently arranged into an elegant, blonde tussle, was into ballroom and came to Swallow mostly to read through huge volumes of classic literature. She spoke with a prim, Beatrix Potter accent inherited from her father’s family, and seemed to belong more in a cottage than a loft.
I was delighted to discover that among the loft-dwellers there were other international kids also clinging to student visas; if I was going to burn money, sacrifice time, and beat my head against bureaucratic brick walls for the sake of being here, then it was a relief to find other people who also believed that doing so was ultimately worthwhile.
Saskia’s loft was nothing like my humble, 3-bedroom, 1-cat abode. The whole cavernous space had been divided into two levels. Shoes — many of them ownerless — were piled by the door. The floor was painted in long curving bars of colour that lead away from the shoes and past a couple of fridges, a breakfast bar, and a kitchen stacked high with dishes to an immense, open living area. To one side mismatched couches, shelves full of ignored books, and a hammock clustered around a huge TV. On the other side tall windows ran the length of the wall; desks and benches were placed at intervals below the windows.
One was piled with paint-pots, another with homemade jewellery, a third with charging phones and laptops. Light flooded in through the windows, illuminating parasols, lanterns, and elegant fans. The walls were covered with drapes, New York Times clippings, vintage glamour prints, sultry photos of housemates posed against chain link fences, Bob Marley images, and a series of black and white paintings of shoes left behind by some past resident. The bricks, where visible, had been painted a luminous green.
At the far end of the loft was the dance studio, the floor a chessboard of black and white, a mini-trampoline kicked to one side. Mirrors covered one wall, windows that looked out over a forlorn and forgotten patio filled the other two. Every available corner or cranny of the loft was occupied by unnecessary furniture. It was a Willie Wonka version of Ikea.
If the downstairs was a kind of bohemian fantasy, the upstairs was the dark, dingy flipside to this. The loft was big, but not big enough to accommodate two complete levels; all the vibrant space of downstairs had come at the expense of the upstairs. Eight rooms ranged along a narrow hallway that could only be negotiated bent double or on hands and knees. The rooms along one side had windows, but no glass had ever been put in, so these were permanently covered to keep the noise and smells of downstairs out.
The rooms on the other side got no natural light. Like the hallway, the rooms were tall enough only to kneel in; each room was half-filled by a mattress, with the remaining space given over to whatever storage (cinderblock shelves, wooden fruit crates) could be made to fit. The occupants taped up photos of friends and family and whatever art would fit, but amidst the twisted bedclothes, skeins of electrical wiring, and mounds of damp clothing these did little to mask the fact that each bedroom was only marginally more welcoming than the shipping crates that must once have filled the space.
There was only one bathroom.
Every time I came to the loft, I met new housemates. Annali and Bianca were regular fixtures — Bianca was the leasee and had accumulated most of the stuff in the place — as were two behemoth cats that took an immediate shine to whichever couchsurfer was currently established on one of the futons. It was never entirely clear who actually lived in the loft; the answer to “how many people do you live with?” was a range, never a specific number.
On a chalkboard over the shoes by the door was scrawled “the lost kids from the loft that doesn’t exist.”
For a while most of the inhabitants were Italians. Then came a wave of French guys, some of whom would go on to achieve notoriety in Texas. Then came a resurgence of Italians, and most recently an influx of Slovenians. Almost everyone was a dancer, but there was the odd film student about and some of the Slovenian guys were far more interested in beer than art. Almost everyone had, like Saskia, heard about the Loft that Doesn’t Exist from a friend of a friend who had stayed there for a while, and then moved back home to spread the word.
The kids on tourist visas had only three months in which to dance wherever they could with whomever they could, get photographed on as many rooftops as possible, and then maybe see LA or Chicago before flying home. The people on student visas, like Bianca or Annali, were here for grander, but usually less clearly defined reasons. They wanted to make something of New York by making something of themselves. Just like everyone else in the city, though, they were finding that they had to struggle to do that, and that a loft with a constantly changing cast of characters wasn’t the easiest place to get on with that struggle.
They danced, they photographed and were photographed, sometimes they painted or made jewellery, but more than anything they worried over their visa status. Having thrown everything into keeping this brief window of opportunity open for as long as possible, they were discovering that there still wasn’t nearly enough time to take full advantage of it, and that whether in weeks, months or years, the window would eventually snap shut upon them.
Two of the Slovenian guys had been working out at Yellowstone and had crossed the US from there. The America of their experience was all campgrounds and stadiums and theme parks and landmarks; they were living the dream, and they had the souvenir t-shirts to prove it. Above all they loved showing their photos of Six Flags, and re-enacting in detail every twist of the rollercoasters.
Their only lament was that their friends back home wouldn’t understand their experiences; how could they explain the hospitality they’d encountered, or the grand inclusiveness of this dream to people who just wanted to see pictures of the Statue of Liberty? They were spending their last nights in Brooklyn before returning home, and were still determined to sample as much local culture as possible with their remaining hours. We drank German and Belgian beer and ate Thai curry.
The FBI incident was already becoming the stuff of loft folklore; as we served up second helpings of curry, Saskia and Annali recounted the story for the benefit of the Slovenians. Bianca had (somehow) been the only one home when a couple of disinterested agents knocked at the door. They gave little account of themselves, but mentioned that the arrested Frenchmen had offered the Loft that Doesn’t Exist as their address. They asked Bianca a few questions, and then poked around the apartment, discretely informing her that there were quite a few illegal things happening in the loft. Then they left.
It took Bianca and Annali a few days to piece together the full story. The French guys who, on a morning when the line for the bathroom was already about eight deep, decided to piss in the sink. They were living their own American dream. They’d scraped together enough money to buy an old RV and were touring the country. When they needed cash they would break dance on the street. Down in San Antonio a couple of them had gotten drunk and, tempted by a low-hanging fire escape, had crept into a courthouse, stealing a gavel and carousing through the corridors. While wearing sombreros.
The media reported that foreign nationals had infiltrated a government site. After the police went through the RV and found photos of government buildings, dams and national monuments, a few inflammatory headlines reported that a terrorist network, which had been collecting information on strategic targets, had struck in Texas. Both guys were charged with burglary — the sombreros had come from the courthouse library — and spent the remaining time on their visas in prison (where they apparently continued to break dance). They were released in time to take their original flights home.
With so much ruckus unfolding around them, Saskia and Annali were finding it impossible to get anything done. Bianca was constantly worried about making rent, and so kept welcoming new housemates into the loft. Most months she turned a tidy profit from the superabundance of starry-eyed dancers desperate to stay. When her visa expired she’d have to go back to Italy to apply for an artist visa (unless she could get herself a spouse visa, but she wasn’t making any progress on that front).
The other official leasee had already had to return to Europe; they weren’t sure whether he’d be able to get a visa in time to move back into the loft before Bianca left. Bianca had more invested in the U.S. than anyone else in the loft. It was here that she’d found her sense of belonging, living the kind of life she’d always imagined, surrounded by people who dreamed the same dreams as her.
Saskia couldn’t function with so many people around. A new guy had turned up, an immense Frenchmen who spoke no English, ate only meat, and returned home from rehearsals so tired he could barely lumber up the stairs and into the room he shared with a friend. When he eventually did collapse onto his side of the mattress, his snores resounded through the entire loft. Saskia’s door had come off its hinges; there was no way to shut him out.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, one of the cats had shit on the couch again. The entire loft stank, and Bianca, who owned the cats and the couch, wasn’t coping. She stormed about the apartment, murmuring no no no no no no. Someone was supposed to be renting out that couch.
Normally a figure of calm and poise within the storm, Annali was embroiled in the visa application process, too. She’d already dropped $4000 for a lawyer who could increase her chances but not guarantee a visa, and would probably have to pay more. She spent most of her time pretending the apartment didn’t smell of cat shit and trawling Craigslist, applying to every modelling job that came up. All of them, even free ones, helped her application.
She needed to prove she could work even though it was illegal to actually do so. It made no sense to her, but she didn’t ask questions; she was prepared to entertain whatever Kafkaesque logic helped her to stay longer in the US. For all the complications involved, there was nowhere she would rather have been. And anyway, a few of the modelling jobs did pay, chipping away, hundred by hundred, at the massive lawyer’s fee.
By the time Halloween came around, the only other person Saskia and Annali knew in the apartment was Bianca, and she wasn’t talking to them. Everyone else in the apartment was new; people were camped out on the couches, hoping a room would free up for them. Most of them hadn’t even realised that it was Halloween; those that had took one look at the chocolate zombie blood that I’d whipped up during a prolonged procrastination period and decided that they wanted to be shuffling undead historical figures too. My artistic integrity felt compromised; my only successful project was already hackneyed.
While we flung blood over ourselves (and the rest of the loft), a hoarse rasping was coming from the bathroom. The drain in the shower was blocked up and one of the new girls had been plunging it for what seemed like hours. Eventually the rasping stopped and the girl emerged; the drain was working again.
While my zombie minions finished applying their make-up, I got talking to this new girl, a Slovenian dancer still looking composed and bright-eyed even in her least-flattering plumber’s outfit. Despite having arrived the same day and already having plunged someone else’s hair out of the drain, and despite living out of her suitcase and sleeping on one of the lower-ranking couches (even the cats didn’t bother shitting on it), she was elated.
“There’s nothing like this in Europe,” she said, looking across the dance studio to the Bob Marley shrine. She didn’t know how long she’d be staying or when she’d be able to move into a room, but it didn’t matter. This was exactly the kind of artist enclave she’d dreamed of finding in New York.
After Halloween Saskia and Annali moved out. The line for the bathroom was longer than ever, the mound of dishes in the kitchen had been given up as unconquerable, and there were strangers on all the couches. No one had any idea how many people were living in the loft and, worst of all, said Saskia, despite so many hot, young dancers living in close proximity to each other, no one ever got laid.
On my last visit the Loft that Doesn’t Exist smelt like cat shit again. A cluster of unknown, attractive people wearing sweat pants with the kind of grace that only a dancer can muster waited by the bathroom door. When Saskia and Annali told Bianca they were leaving she’d made them share a room for the last nights so other people could move into one of their rooms. They didn’t care, they just wanted out. Bianca still didn’t know when she was leaving, or who would be in charge in her absence.
At its best the loft felt like a hive of creativity in the heart of an up and coming neighbourhood; at its worst it felt like a flophouse for self-absorbed artists. The turnover around Morgan Av. was high for a reason. Still the trashy glamour of the lofts kept drawing dreamers, posers, and procrastinators to the area, even though the same kind of rental price in a different neighbourhood would have brought them two housemates, a picturesque fire escape, and a bedroom door that closed properly, in a building that had a deli across the street and five restaurants on the same block.
More dreams withered than flourished in the wasteland, but there was never any shortage of people convinced that they were different, and that for them the gamble would pay off.
On the first of the month there were again vans lined up around Morgan Av. A girl was standing in the doorway of Saskia’s building, looking flustered. She was moving into the neighbourhood, lured by the lofts, but the landlord hadn’t shown up to give her the keys and she didn’t know which apartment was to be hers. “This is overwhelming,” she said.
I’m staying put, even though by the time the girls moved out I’d still written nothing more substantial than a few artless university papers. As barren as this wasteland is and as constant as the distractions are, there is still this great but uncertain potential. Hip, new venues open; established hot spots are renovated and celebrate their anniversaries.
Every week new flyers appear in the subway station and on café walls advertising a raft of new initiatives and projects, some of them hackneyed, some of them brilliant. The art on the chipped cinderblock walls changes. Layers are starting to accumulate; the void is slowly filling with the elements of neighbourhood — a navel-gazing neighbourhood, but a neighbourhood none the less. I tell myself to sit down and start writing.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]
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Philip Johnson grew up in suburban Sydney, surrounded by religion, marsupials, and formidable Australian accents. His first serious journey was an around-the-world trip that started in South America. Since then, he has visited six continents and lived on five. He blogs at philiad.wordpress.com.