In the middle of the night in early November 2012, Karen Santry dressed in a wetsuit and skulked down the stairs of her West Village apartment building, hoping not to wake anyone. Hurricane Sandy had just struck the East Coast, battering much of New York City. Santry’s home had been without power, heat, and water for days. In the week following the storm, she and her fellow residents of Westbeth Artists Housing used flashlights to navigate darkened corridors. The more intrepid shuttled water in buckets up the stairs of her 13-story building.
But Santry, a painter and fashion illustrator now in her early seventies, wasn’t thinking about getting water. She wanted to take a swim.
Deep in Westbeth’s basement, Santry’s life’s work was submerged in 20 feet of water. When the storm surge from the Hudson River poured across West Street and into Westbeth’s basement late in the day on October 29, the water shattered windows and broke through cinder block walls. In other buildings, basement damage might be relatively innocuous. But no building is quite like Westbeth. One of the last rent-stabilized complexes in the West Village, the three-building complex is also home to around 400 artists, including writers, sculptors, painters, dancers, and musicians. Around 60 of these artists shared studio space in the basement, where they stored artwork, recording equipment, and other vital materials.
Westbeth is unusual in one other respect. It’s what’s known as a NORC, or a naturally occurring retirement community. Prospective residents must apply for limited apartments, ending up on a waitlist that spans decades; as a result, they tend to move in later in life. That means that most of its residents, like Santry, are senior citizens.
Fearing that older residents might be injured, Westbeth management forbade artists from going down to the basement to retrieve their work. It was too dangerous, they said. The floodwaters needed to recede first.
But Santry—a sprightly woman who once trained as an Olympic swimmer—didn’t have time to waste. With her friend Richard Holly, who’d been forced by Sandy to extend his visit to the city, Santry ventured out to one of the only businesses in Manhattan that had reopened, a sporting goods store, and purchased two wetsuits. At 2 a.m., the two made their way into the basement, slipping past a sleeping security guard, and waded into what had once been Santry’s painting studio.
The water rose quickly. As they paddled through it, trying to scoop up canvases close to the surface, Santry heard an ominous crackling sound and paused. Then came a voice around the corner.
“Get out of there, Santry, goddammit!”
The guard had awakened, and waved his hands to warn her. Unbeknownst to Santry, the electricity in the building had been switched back on.
“It’s going to hit the oil,” Santry yelled. The basement floor was slick with oil from a tank that the storm had dislodged and shattered. The pair fought their way back out of the water and returned, dripping and out of breath, to Santry’s apartment on the tenth floor. There, Holly, a gargantuan actor who once played a troll in The Lord of the Rings, made a startling revelation. He didn’t actually know how to swim.
“Kiddo, I’m from the Bronx,” he told Santry, panting.
Eight years later, in the era of COVID-19, Hurricane Sandy might seem like a hiccup, and Santry’s story an amusing anecdote with little relevance to the crisis we face today. In November 2012, New York City shuttered businesses and schools for less than a week; in 2020, closures have lasted for months. Around 40 people in New York City died during Sandy, while over 25,000 have died from the coronavirus. But for Santry and other Westbeth artists who lost work in the flooding, Sandy was the most devastating moment of their careers. It was also a portent of challenges to come. If Westbeth could not protect its residents and their priceless art during Sandy, community members feared they would fare even worse during the pandemic—a disaster that has wreaked havoc in other retirement communities in New York City.
Even before COVID-19 and Sandy, Westbeth, which turns 50 this year, had fallen into disarray: a result of financial difficulties and the harmful effects of gentrification, but failures of planning, too, and community strife. It has survived—not thrived—in a city that has grown inhospitable to artists and the working class; Westbeth’s residents sit squarely at the intersection of those two categories. It is a microcosm of a New York City that is easy to forget, and soon to disappear.
As the tumultuous events of the spring began to unfold, a silence settled over this usually bustling community. Gone were the long conversations in the hallways, the readings and shows in the Community Room. Sequestered in their apartments, Westbeth’s residents fretted about a future that seemed far from assured. They wondered if there was a glimmer of hope left for them.
Westbeth once had high hopes for itself, and a noble mission in mind: to provide a space for artists to live and work affordably, and to promote a nascent downtown art scene. Neither of these goals have quite worked out as planned. Westbeth only accepts practicing artists, but many of its oldest residents can no longer work. After decades of pernicious real estate development, the West Village’s vibrant art scene is long gone, and unlikely to be revived.
At Westbeth, rents remain shockingly low: $900 for a studio apartment, $2,400 for a three-bedroom. (Single applicants to Westbeth must make under $70,000 a year.) But in this part of the city, living costs are sky-high. According to an analysis by Amast, Westbeth’s zip code is the most expensive in New York City. For its working-class residents, Westbeth has become “an island of affordability in a sea of wealth,” said George Cominskie, who served as president of the Westbeth Residents Council from 1989 to 2017. The question is: how long can that island remain afloat?
Westbeth’s deterioration and outsider status are apparent at a glance. Parts of the building, the former home of Bell Telephone Laboratories, are over 100 years old, and they look it. Westbeth has never had a cushion or an endowment to cover the cost of major capital improvements, which could have prevented the damages incurred during Sandy. And in the wake of the storm, which cost the building $5 million in repairs, it is perpetually cash-strapped. In contrast to the sleek glass buildings and brownstones on West and Bethune Streets, Westbeth is dingy and fragile. The roof leaks. The hallways are narrow and poorly lit, asylum-like. Across the street, lithe West Villagers recline on rooftops with swimming pools and barbecues.
“The neighborhood has flipped,” Cominskie said. “Now we have restaurants most of our tenants can’t afford.”
The neighborhood was not always this way. When Westbeth opened its doors in May 1970, this waterfront area of the West Village was a hotbed for drug dealing and illicit sex. Still, the building, and all that it represented, was too promising to pass up. In 1970, Westbeth—named for West and Bethune Streets—was the largest artists’ housing facility in the world. The rents were cheap, the opportunities second to none.
But trouble dogged Westbeth from its inception. Jack Dowling, 88, a painter who secured a studio apartment in Westbeth in 1971, recalls those early years as chaotic. Tall and prepossessing, Dowling sports an eye patch and gives off a languid air. In reality, he’s one of Westbeth’s powerhouses. As a long-time member of the Residents Council, Dowling, like Cominskie, has a hand in helping to preserve Westbeth. He’s also a unique witness to Westbeth’s long record of failures and conflicts.
On a late September afternoon, Dowling is sitting cross-legged on a concrete block in the Westbeth courtyard on Bank Street. When asked what Westbeth was like when he first moved in, he chuckles faintly. “A lot of graffiti,” he says. “It would have been a challenge for any management company to take on,” owing to a perfect storm of issues: a gritty neighborhood, insufficient funding, and tempestuous residents.
The building is calmer now, Dowling acknowledges. But Westbeth is still prone to conflict, and burdened with unique problems—hardly the “utopian” space it is often described as. Older residents regularly get into spats with younger residents and their children, who use Westbeth’s labyrinthine corridors as a playground. Residents complain about noise from ongoing construction and the dance studio on the eleventh floor, where the Martha Graham Dance Company rehearses. (They tend to jump and stomp.)
“People don’t get into the negative aspects of Westbeth very much,” says Dowling. Hulking sculptures made by Westbeth residents stand guard in corners of the courtyard, and the gallery—closed for COVID-19—is situated nearby, vacant. A gaggle of elderly residents with canes and walkers approach, nodding at Dowling. “Everyone wants to know about how glorious it is, and how wonderful it is for the artists.”
It is, and it isn’t. No apartment building in New York City is without its snags, but Westbeth was specifically designed with harmony in mind. Its architects imagined the complex as an arts incubator of sorts in which generations of New York artists would thrive and collaborate. To that end, they planned to impose a five-year limit on rentals, a restriction that hasn’t been upheld.
“The problem with Westbeth is that nobody moves,” said Kate Walter, a writer who moved into Westbeth in 1997. “There’s not a lot of new blood.” The result is a somewhat stagnant community, with little emphasis on career development. A handful of Westbeth artists have made it big, but most have maintained modest, or even marginal, careers.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Westbeth was already a community on the brink. Residents felt anxious about making ends meet, about feuding neighbors, about keeping their apartments in the event a developer purchased the building.
Westbeth may have fulfilled one of its goals: to house a portion of New York City’s artists. But the building could not save their art during Sandy. It could not shield them from the rising costs of life in New York City. It has not even helped them to build sustainable careers. In the end, Westbeth has failed to protect its residents from many hardships.
That is, until March, when everything changed—and not, as might be expected, for the worse.
Suddenly, the hope Westbeth’s residents have been looking for has arrived. Something strange has happened to this tense, fractious community: in the middle of one of the greatest public health disasters to strike New York City, it is preternaturally calm. A small town composed of aging people who meet often, usually in close proximity, has the potential to become something of a petri dish. But as far as residents know, there have been no significant COVID-19 outbreaks in the building, and miraculously, no one has died from the disease. Westbeth management tends to keep a tight lid on deaths in the building, but residents say that they’re confident they would have been informed if someone had passed away from COVID-19, given the severity of the crisis.
“Westbeth was very concerned about everything” related to COVID-19, said Walter, a sentiment echoed by many other residents. “People here are vulnerable, but I feel very taken care of.”
Residents still stop for conversations with each other, standing six feet apart, and banter with staff at the front desk. Younger Westbethers feel compassion for their older counterparts, and disputes have died down. Most of the building’s usual events have moved online, attracting a steady stream of participants. Cominskie says he feels optimistic about the current board’s ability to meet future challenges. Westbeth appointed a new CEO, Ellen Salpeter, in 2019, a change that even long-time residents, accustomed to administrative shuffling, find promising. These are hazy signs that Westbeth may continue to survive, not fade away, and that it may at last be doing something right.
If Westbeth has failed to nurture its artists, it has unintentionally—and overwhelmingly—succeeded in one arena. It has protected scores of elderly New Yorkers from a much harder life by allowing them to remain in their low-rent apartments, and in a community of their peers, long past retirement. A study by the New York State Health Foundation has shown that if nothing is done to house New York City’s geriatric homeless population, the number of homeless adults over 65 will triple by 2030, with nearly 7,000 seniors on the streets. Almost the same number of seniors died from COVID-19 in New York State nursing homes this spring, the result of disastrous outbreaks that facilities struggled to contain.
A different story played out at Westbeth. On March 15, three days before New York State announced its stay-at-home order, Westbeth management sprang into action, closing the building to visitors. Residents and staff members were tasked with supervising activity on each floor of the building, and dropping off meals and medicine for immunocompromised residents.
“There’s been a strong, strong sense of community during COVID. People look after me, and we look after each other,” Walter said.
Months into the pandemic, masks are now mandatory in every part of Westbeth, and volunteers have continued to help the building’s most vulnerable residents with errands. The work of people like Dowling and Cominskie—a coterie of advocates fiercely committed to Westbeth—has helped to bring this community back from the brink.
“The collective energy of the building has been phenomenal,” said Cominskie, reached over the phone in October. “You’re going through this horrible period, and then somebody does something incredibly sweet—and you want to cry, it’s that wonderful.”
Even in the midst of so much grief and fear, Westbeth’s artists are continuing to make art, channeling these emotions into new and compelling work. For some residents, like Charlie Seplowin, a sculptor who also lost his basement studio to Sandy, a slower pace of life has provided creative inspiration.
“I’ve realized for the first time in my life that I have multiple directions to go in,” said Seplowin. “It’s a new culture now—we may be on the cusp of an art explosion.” A wall in his apartment on the top floor of Westbeth is covered in mounted sculptures he created during lockdown, including one modeled after the COVID-19 virus: a dome covered in intricate red spikes, oddly mesmerizing.
Karen Santry retired from teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology this summer. Finally, she has the time to fix up the pieces a recovery team pulled out of the basement back in 2012, after her own unsuccessful attempt. She’s happy to spend time in her new studio, a mammoth space overlooking the Hudson River in one of the Westbeth buildings on West Street, which she calls a “blessing.” “Morning, noon, and night, I can paint, paint, paint—it’s a dream come true! Just don’t blow it and get sick,” she adds, grinning.
Westbeth has undoubtedly exacerbated the challenges Santry has faced as an artist. The Sandy disaster derailed her career, and she, Seplowin, and many other artists are still struggling to regain a measure of stability.
But what Westbeth has given Santry, and its other older residents, over the last several months is a sense of relief—something few elderly New Yorkers can take for granted, especially in this turbulent moment. For all its flaws and quirks, Westbeth is their shelter. This year, it has become their peace, too.
“Our artists are the most important thing,” said Cominskie. “Without them, it’s just another apartment complex.”
Standing in the middle of her studio on an uncommonly warm day in November, Santry cuts a diminutive but striking figure: petite, with shocking white hair and expressive eyebrows, arched over a bright green mask. She is agile and exceptionally energetic. A pacemaker, which she had put in after Sandy, has hardly slowed her down.
Santry is the kind of artist you tend to find in New York City, and in Westbeth: scrappy, resilient, and devoted to her craft—enough to risk her own life for it, as she did back in 2012. It’s hard to imagine artists like Santry disappearing altogether from New York City. Every atom of her seems to defy obsolescence.
Golden light filters in from the west, illuminating a line of paintings propped up against one of the walls of the studio. Santry darts back and forth between her canvases, peering at them closely, pointing out their imperfections. Then she stands back, momentarily lost in thought.
“I’m so grateful,” she says finally. “The best thing I can do is to be here all the time, working away.”
Correction, January 28: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that residents earning more than $70,000 risked losing their apartments.