I’m Back From a Crack House Bingefest

Okay. Sorry to all those people who were actually paying attention to what I was writing. If there is in fact anyone out there who reads these rants. If you are out there, please comment to encourage me to continue. I’d imagine there are people who don’t live in NYC who may be interested.

So one of the reasons I stopped writing was because I’ve had a major life change over the past 2 years. My partner and I, due to the nature of the real estate market and the crash of the economy, were able to rid ourselves of the overbearing coop environment, with their crazy rules and regulations, and purchase a burned out crack house in Harlem. The picture above is how it looked when we purchased it.

A townhouse in NYC was something that we always dreamed about, but was never within reach, given the booming real estate market of the new millenium. But when real estate crashed in 2008, I had a concurrent revelation that a weekend house outside the city meant mortgage payments and upkeep expenses with the added burden of guilt if it wasn’t being used frequently. Why not consolidate working and relaxing in one space if possible? And that is what we did…

So mixed in with my regular thoughts on art and design I will talk about what I learned during our 2 year process of selecting, purchasing, designing, and reconstructing our home.

So here is how the house next door looked back in the 1940s.  This photo was taken for tax purposes, and I was able to purchase it from the city. Our goal was to restore the appearance of the facade to as close to original as possible, budget allowing.

For those interested in some of the hidden gems in NYC, you must go and visit the building where I picked up the image.

The lobby of the city archives building at 31 Chambers St is exquisitely moody and overly ornate. They wouldn’t let me photograph in there, but maybe if I have time I’ll chance the offense and take a photo.

Our house is a typical brownstone rowhouse, built back in the 1890s, in a speculative housing boom. I won’t go into the entire history of Harlem here, because it is quite long and colorful for a single blogpost. It’s best to read Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History from Dutch Village to Capital of Black America by Jonathan Gill. I don’t know that it gets any more thorough.

Suffice it to say, that from the photos you may be able to tell that there wasn’t much left in the way of original detail, except for the facade.

By the time we had purchased it, it had been through years of neglect. Among some of its recent incarnations it was a Belizian flophouse for new immigrants, and a crack house in the days of the crack epidemic. There are still remnants of the old culture here in Harlem, but with the prolific gentrification that has been reignited over the past year, the criminal culture, I predict, will be something of the past, and resemble the rest of Manhattan in less than a decade.

The typical signs of gentrification here are the many gays who have moved into the area, bringing with them businesses and commerce (i.e., disposable income) and artists and those who support them. Even the likes of Gavin Brown and Elizabeth Dee now call Harlem their home. Our tenant is a successful dance producer and agent. And then there is Columbia University who took the neighborhood of Manhattanville thru eminent domain thereby securing the success of Central Harlem.

The one thing about the house is that it is very narrow and tall. 5 storeys. I was against the purchase completely, given the state of the building. My excuse to my partner was that he would never climb to the 5th floor and that it would be wasted space. When he offered the entire floor to me for an art studio and gallery space I couldn’t turn down the offer.

The beauty of the property at the time of purchase was the level of deterioration. It was almost impossible for the average person to imagine how it might look reconstructed. How do you design a house that is so narrow (15′ across/13′ interior) and 60′ deep? How do you get to the top of the building without being winded and your guests cursing? Do you design it traditional, transitional, or contemporary? How do you keep from going bankrupt (which we almost did) and how do you choose a contractor who doesn’t take your money and run?

Luckily we had smarts on our side, so the lack of a realistic slush fund was only a super, incredible inconvenience which kept us up at night when crisis arose, and we were sleeping in a house in the middle of winter, with no electricity, plumbing, or heat, because the burglars were promising to return after breaking in at least twice before.

Below is a view of the interior looking up to the roof.  This is what you saw when you entered the building. No stairs. No floors, plumbing, walls, rooms, or windows. Just rows of rotten, burnt joists, and a sliver of light where the skylight was. Pigeons lived in the rafters, and there was the smell of sewage on the dirt floor because the plumbing lines weren’t capped and sewage spilled into the house everytime there was a heavy rain.


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