The FATE of 111 FIRST STREET
Artists, development, and the destiny of a city
Dust rises in clouds, bricks tumble into the giant pit. Pipes and cords extend like tentacles from the rubble, which smells musty, mixing with the tang of dirt and old timbers. Over seven months, artists who lived in the old factory would watch and—more important—document its demolition.
Known simply as 111 First, the building anchored an artist colony much like many others across the country. It was also a combat zone—an owner looking to capitalize on the pre-crash real estate boom pitted against artists looking to salvage the low-rent studios where they’d lived and worked for almost two decades.
In the late 1800s, 111 First St. was home to P. Lorillard and Company, the nation’s largest manufacturer of snuff, plug, and smoking tobacco. (For the record, snuff goes up the nose, plug in the cheek). By the 1950s, the railroads were gone and manufacturing had faded. But the factories remained.
Enter the artist class. Adventurous artists occupying cheap and copious space are as old as art itself—as soon as there was a cave there was a muralist. “Artists are the pioneers and gentrifiers of neighborhoods no one else wants to be in,” says former 111 First resident Cheryl Russo. “It’s no secret.” Indeed, it has long been the worst-kept secret of urban renewal.
In 1991 real estate owner Lloyd Goldman reportedly purchased 111 First and the adjacent property at 110 for some $3.4 million. A few artists were already living at 111, and a number of 111 alumni recall that Goldman had placed an ad in the Village Voice encouraging artists from New York to come on over.
By 1995, 111 First had become a magnet for artists from “the city,” Hudson County, and even abroad—Italy, Japan, Latvia, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. Bordered by Warren, Bay, Washington, and First Streets, in the shadow of Newport Mall, within spitting distance of the river, and eventually of the light rail, it was in the heart of the warehouse district and the hub for the increasingly popular Jersey City Artists’ Studio Tour. Art lovers wandered for hours down its wide wood corridors, ducking into studios from some of which was visible the building’s signature chimney. Music blared, the smell of grilled food rose from the fire escapes. It was fringe fantasy.
To an outsider, the whole setup could look too good to be true—spacious work areas at affordable prices for what is arguably one of society’s lowest paid work forces. Homemade bathrooms and kitchens told the true story. Artists were not meant to live there, but live they did. By nature handy and innovative, they (and professional trades people living in the building) did their own plumbing and outfitted their own kitchens.
“There were no permits for plumbing or kitchens, but everybody had clever hookups,” says music producer and former 111 resident Nicola Stemmer. “Everybody had a stove, but they were careful. They didn’t want anything to happen to the property, they loved it so much.”
Artist Charles Kessler did not live at 111 First but was a strong supporter. In 1996, seeing the writing on the wall, he proposed the WALDO Ordinance (Work and Live District Overlay) to protect artists from encroaching development. Legal wrangling between the city and the owner delayed its adoption until the spring of 2001. Relations between the tenants and landlord meanwhile had become so strained that the 111 First Street Tenants Association was formed, with sculptor Bill Rodwell serving as president.
By 2001, about 170 artists occupied the building. It was reportedly the second largest concentration of artists on the East Coast, second only to the east bank’s legendary Westbeth. Charles Chamot opened a gallery there. He handled 200 artists, selling pieces from $300 to $25,000 and taking home about $100,000 a year. Not bad for a gallery on the fourth floor of an old factory, away from street traffic.
During the next four years, 111 First would be caught in a web of legal—and even alleged illegal—maneuverings involving the tenants, the city, and an owner who wanted to convert the building into market-rate housing—reflecting those in neighboring Newport.
Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker in August 2004, called Newport’s “giant shopping mall” and “cluster of high-rise residential towers and some glass office buildings” a “dreary assemblage.” The story, “Shanghai on the Hudson,” carried the subtitle, “Jersey City wants to be like lower Manhattan, only neat and clean.”
Hardly a rallying cry for mavericks living in an old chaw factory.
In 2003, the rents were raised, which spurred the tenants to try and find someone who could retrofit the building, maintaining the architectural integrity of 111 and the district. But by August 2004, the first rumblings of what would become a piecemeal demolition—beginning with the 180-foot chimney that rose from the building’s inner courtyard—started to be felt.
The tenants’ association retained three lawyers. One was Jorge Aviles, a lifelong Jersey City resident whose Puerto Rican-born parents owned apartment buildings. Key to the tenants’ case, he says, was the owner’s knowledge that the tenants were living—not just working—there. “The managers of the building knew it, and the owner’s agents knew of the people’s residential status,” Aviles says. Rodwell tells of the owner visiting the property and seeing a woman in her bathrobe holding a toothbrush stumbling from her fifth floor studio to the hallway bathroom.
“New Jersey is a pro tenant state and provides a lot of protection for tenants,” Aviles says. But not enough for these tenants. “This was happening during the pre-subprime crash. Goldman could knock this building down, put up a monstrosity, and sell units for a million dollars a piece.”
Not lost on the tenants was the old factory’s historic significance. But there was a problem. While tenants rushed to secure landmark status, Goldman was making the case that the structure wasn’t safe. “It was a foot race,” Aviles says. “The historic issue is overridden when you can make an argument that the building is unsafe.”
Aviles and many 111 alumni charge that Goldman was abetting the safety problem, alleging that he installed scaffolding as a garish display of protection. “Some debris fell from the roof, a brick or something,” says Rodwell. “He overreacted. He was also not careful with a backhoe that was being used in the courtyard.” Kessler says the landlord claimed the chimney was ready to collapse but when it came time to dismantle it, it was so sturdy, “the bricks were locked together.” And everyone mentions the fire. According to published reports, fire inspectors determined that it was arson. (Goldman did not return phone calls.)
But some former tenants are reluctant to fault a developer for wanting to make money. “It was the city,” says Nicola Stemmer. Under Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s watch—in 2007—111 First was finally demolished. “An engineering study showed serious structural problems with the foundation,” Healy said in a phone interview. “It was decided that it was architecturally not sustainable, and there were code violations from here to Cape May.”
Healy also confirmed that the zoning was changed. A 50-story high rise could now go up—Lloyd Goldman’s ultimate trophy.
“Healy is pro-development,” Aviles says. “What’s artistry to somebody is garbage to somebody else. Jerry Healy is a street guy.” But artists are often simpatico with street guys. One Jersey City artist who did not live at 111 champions Healy for being “a man of the people who’d shake your hand, buy you a beer, help take the garbage out.”
Which brings us to what may be the elephant in the atelier—the thorny and ambiguous notion of class—uppity artists versus street guys who never took up art appreciation. Rocco Landesman, the new chairman of the national Endowment for the Arts (NEA), told the Times’ Robin Poegrebin, “The arts are a little bit of a target. The subtext is that it is elitist, left wing, maybe even a little gay.”
In 2004 the tenants association floated a new blueprint for the building that involved artists live/work spaces, studios for visiting foreign artists, a space for the Jersey City Museum, and a community gallery. A Goldman plan about the same time called for a garage, market rental tower, and work-only studios.
Rodwell says the tenant’s group was shocked when Jersey City’s first African American mayor, Glenn Cunningham—a former Marine, police officer, and U.S. Marshal—preferred Goldman’s plan to theirs. Kessler thinks the group’s reaction was naïve but acknowledges that Mark Munley, the city planner in the Cunningham administration, was a “very smart Harvard graduate,” who at first supported the arts district.
Goldman’s final plan for the new structure called for some 60 stories to be designed by world renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Still, says Kessler, “It was very lame.” Rodwell says, “It looked like three external hard drives, but Healy was gaga over it. He was overwhelmed by celebrity. He literally rolled out the red carpet for Trump. He loves Trump Plaza. He has no aesthetic.”
“Trump Tower is an aesthetically pleasing sight,” Healy counters. “It’s a good thing for Jersey City and gets us in the media. Goldman Sachs, the tallest building in New Jersey, is a beautiful building though some artists may think both are ugly.”
What’s ugly, he says, is that “100-foot tear drop. I consider that a hideous monstrosity in the same category of offensive as Xanadu.” The mayor refers to the 9/11 memorial created by a Russian artist that has found its final resting place on the Bayonne peninsula, and the multi-colored, benighted Meadowlands mall project.
Kessler charges that Healy “doesn’t understand Jane Jacobs and what makes a city.” Jacobs, whose landmark The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a bible for city lovers and planners, wrote in 1961, “Among the most admirable and enjoyable sights to be found along the sidewalks of big cities are the ingenious adaptations of old quarters to new uses.” Her litany of examples includes “a factory, a warehouse” that “is now a flourishing center of the arts.”
OK, so Healy has not read Jane Jacobs. “The city has gone vertical,” he says. “There are some people who don’t like that, and I am not among them. The economics of the situation demand going vertical.” He, too, credits a smart city planner. “Bob Cotter is the most experienced in the state of New Jersey. We rely on city planners to come up with something economically viable.”
The thing is, the arts are viable. Uber-urbanist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, cites a 2008 study, pegging the nationwide impact of the arts at $166 billion. The NEA’s Landesman told the Times, “When you bring artists into a town … it … renews the economics of a town … Every town has … landmark buildings or places that have a special emotional significance. The extent that art can address that pride will be great.”
The 111 site is part of the Power House Arts District. Healy has earmarked $3 million to “stabilize” the old powerhouse. He wants it developed like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which had its own powerhouse—“a huge ugly eyesore that was turned into a commercial and office center.” The Inner Harbor and New York’s South Street Seaport are both areas where artists once lived that have been developed…
“As tourists’ attractions,” says Rodwell. “Artists find interesting places and then get kicked out so that tourists can buy tchotkes. It’s all faux instead of artists and fishmongers doing real stuff.”
Nicola Stemmer has rented a new recording studio at 155 Van Wagenen Ave. It’s in an old factory that made ball bearings for ships. It has heavy metal doors and the same industrial, hopeful aura that 111 First once had. It’s in a dodgy area, a bit of a hike to the Journal Square PATH, and Stemmer says there are drug dealers on the street at night. From some windows you can see the tail of the Pulaski Skyway snaking over the Meadowlands: Go West, young man.
Bill Rodwell has taken that exhortation to heart. In late June he moved to Albuquerque because housing is cheaper there. He says he has about 6,500 photos documenting the life and death of 111 First. He remembers great tubes carrying debris from the upper floors to a Dumpster below. Some of the 400-year-old pine timbers were saved, he says, to renovate old homes in Europe—the same pine that Henry Hudson might have seen as he entered the harbor in the fall of 1609.
Today, saplings still sprout from the roof of the magnificent powerhouse. A huge mound of earth rises from the 111 site. It has a Life After People feel—weeds push up from the rubble and a blue plastic tarp flaps in the breeze. JCM