Some thoughts on the eviction of hundreds of tenants from 475 Kent (covered extensively elsewhere, see below). First, this is a building I know fairly well. I know (or knew) at least two of the master lease holders, and know (or knew) about half a dozen other tenants. Coincidentally, I rang in the new millennium from the penthouse of 475 Kent; just over a year and a half later, I watched tower 1 of the World Trade Center come down while standing on the roof of 475.
The floors and apartments I have seen in the building were not fire traps. They were, by and large, professionally constructed and divided into reasonable live/work spaces. In other words, they were not a rabbit warren of jerry built cubicles, nor were they large loft spaces shared by multiple tenants. Most of the tenants I know (knew) are working artists, actually living and working in the building. (And most of them are older artists, not what one would term “hipsters” – which should be beside the point, but apparently isn’t to some.)
That said, I don’t know if the building is up to code. And I do believe that some of the violations cited by the Fire Department are very serious. In particular, the lack of a working sprinkler system and the operation of a unlicensed bakery in the basement. The lack of sprinklers is a pretty obvious defect, particularly in a commercial building that has working artists. The bakery has a lot of people scratching their heads, but the key phrase in the articles is “grain silo” – it is reported that there were two grain silos, 10 feet in diameter and 15 feet hight. So a) this was not some small matzo operation, and b) the operators of the bakery were storing a lot of potentially very flammable material. Grain (or any other fine powder1) can spontaneously combust, either as a result of improper storage within the silos, or as a result of proximity of the fine dust to open flames (such as the coal and gas ovens on premises):
Grain dust is an extremely volatile substance that can explode without warning. One such explosion occurred in 1913 at the Husted Mill and Elevator. The explosion killed 33 people and injured 80 others. Exact causes of fires and explosions were very difficult to determine. Sparks from electrical equipment were blamed, so was static electricity built up on moving belts. Overheating or badly aligned machinery caused fires and there was always the problem of careless smoking. [Buffalo History Works]
There are reports that tenants in the building offered to remove the offending grain from the basement of 475 and volunteered to set up an around-the-clock fire watch. Not ideal, but given that the temperature last night was in the low teens, some accommodation should have been found. Longer term, the solution seems pretty straightforward – eliminate the major violations by getting rid of the bakery and repairing the sprinkler system. Then allow the tenants to return to the building while the less perilous issues are addressed. It appears that a number of the tenants and master lease holders are trying to do just that.
Finally, with regard to the motives for the eviction, on the face of it, this doesn’t look like an effort on the part of the building owner to clear the building. I don’t base this on any particular facts or knowledge, but note that in addition to a host of “illegal” residents, the bakery and a school and catering hall were also shut down (the latter two were in an adjacent building). So if the owner, Nachman Brach, did drop the dime on himself, he probably got more than he bargained for, and has lost his bakery in the process. (On the other hand, there is apparently a court case in the works that could give the existing tenants “rent-controlled” status.) Also arguing against the owner’s hand in this eviction is the fact that Brach is also the owner of 146 Leonard Street, the illegal loft where firefighter Daniel Pujdak died while fighting a fire in the building – so clearly NYFD had reason to closely inspect his buildings.
Bottom line: hopefully the tenants can return to their homes and places of work soon.
Some links –
…An Uncertain Future [Times]
Residents of Brooklyn Loft Evicted for Fire Code Violations [amNY]
A First-Person Account of an Eviction [amNY]
A Holdout Stays in Brooklyn Loft [Metro]
475 Kent Avenue Evacuated [Gothamist]
Dispatches From the Frigid Mass Eviction… [Gowanus Lounge]
City Evacuates 11-Story Building in Brooklyn [Times]
Illegal School, Matzo Factory Shut [Daily News]
Matzo Bawl at Building [Post]
Dear Senator Connor… [Albany Project]