The drama surrounding the rise and literal fall of 111 First St. is a well-documented chapter in recent Jersey City history.
A large and sprawling warehouse building blocks from the waterfront, 111 First St. provided about 130 studio and living space to dozens of Jersey City artists beginning in the 1980s when the city was decidedly less trendy than it is today, and when real estate was cheap. As developers began mining the waterfront in search of a Gold Coast, Lloyd Goldman, who owns the 111 site and another property at 110 First St., realized he was sitting on two of Jersey City’s most lucrative properties.
The artists at 111, who wanted to keep their homes and studio spaces, soon found themselves locked in a bitter fight with Goldman, who wanted to evict them, tear down the building, and redevelop his property for luxury housing. Goldman eventually won this battle and another one he fought with the city, which initially claimed the 111 First St. building had historical significance and could not be torn down.
‘I wanted to record what it meant for the artists to be living there, working there together…and the affect it had on their work.’ – Raul “Branko” Romero
But for filmmaker and photojournalist Raul “Branko” Romero, this story has overshadowed what should be the real story of 111 First St. – that is, the people who created an arts community in this space that fostered the development of several artists whose work, he believes, will one day be regarded as “significant.”
“I wanted to film something about 111 First St. that would be a historical document. I wanted to record what it meant for the artists to be living there, working there together,” said Branko. “I wanted to make a connection between living in that building, having so many artists concentrated there, and the affect it had on their work. I wanted to make that connection because everyone else was focusing on the politics of what was going on with 111. I wanted to focus on 111’s significance to the art that was being created there because no one else was talking about what it meant to have all these geniuses in one place.”
The result of this work is the new documentary film, “111 First Street: From Paris to Jersey City, They Showed No Love.” The title comes from a drawing by Jersey City painter and visual artist Nguyen Smith, and references the way society often treats undiscovered creative talent.
“The same thing that was happening to the artists at 111 had happened in Paris in the 1920s,” Branko stated. “You had people like [Pablo] Picasso and [Amedeo] Modigliani being treated the same way. Modigliani only had one solo show in his lifetime and when he died, he was poor. He had no money. It was only after he died that his talent was recognized. I think you will see the same kind of thing happen with a number of the artists at 111.”
In all, Branko estimates that he interviewed 10 to 15 artists from the 111 building for his documentary, including Jose Bardosa, Shandor Hassan, Ana Velazquez, Maria Benjumeda, and Faizulla Khamraev, among others.
‘Most definitely the artists are going to be evicted’
Branko said he initially learned about 111 First St. while working on a separate project on 9/11 and the World Trade Center. On Sept. 11, 2001, Branko was working as a photojournalist for the Associated Press and shot images of the World Trade Center’s Building No. 7, which was also destroyed that day, along with the Twin Towers. He later decided to film a documentary about the lesser-known Building No. 7 and enlisted the help of Silvana Wiltgen, who had assisted him with other film projects in the past.
A resident of 111 First St., Wiltgen mentioned to Branko that Goldman, who has a major stake in the World Trade Center, was also the owner of a live/work arts space across the Hudson River. (New York developer Larry Silverstein holds a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center. But Goldman provided Silverstein with the nearly $125 million in equity he needed to acquire this lease, and the two men are business partners in the World Trade Center rebuilding effort.)
The ironic symmetry between the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York and the impending destruction of 111 First St. in Jersey City intrigued Branko, who began spending time with the artists at 111.
“There was this connection between the World Trade Center and 111 and Silvana said to me, ‘Most definitely the artists are going to be evicted. You should go there and record what they are doing because after they’re evicted there won’t be a record, there will be no historical document,’” Branko recounted. “So, I followed her advice.”
Over the course of two years, from 2003 to 2004, he filmed interviews with several 111 artists in their studios and captured footage of them at work. There is even some footage of the Annual Artists’ Studio Tours, which grew out of the nexus of artists at 111 First St. The lest of the artists were finally forced out in 2005.
Branko’s film is long, just over two hours, but is an in-depth look at life in this community that has since been scattered and dispersed. While some of the artists who once lived and worked at 111 First St. remain in Jersey City, some have moved to other parts of Hudson County, and some have left the area entirely.
“When you go to a museum, you just see the end result. But you see art differently when you see people in the process of creating,” said Branko. “It is absolutely awesome.”
The Main Branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library will show a screening of “111 First Street: From Paris to Jersey City They Showed No Love” on Wednesday, December 12 at 5:30 p.m. in the Third Floor Biblioteca Criolla. The Main Branch is located at 472 Jersey Ave. The screening is free.
To see a 19-minute trailer for the film, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=WluWZBqEQMg.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.