Limited-Equity Co-op in Eight-Unit 1872 Building

 You'd been living here 13 years before Smokey moved in with his coriander from the East. But let's go back to 1969 when . . . [Sally] I drove here in a BMW—BMWs then were only $200 more than a Volkswagen Bug. I had an avocado tree in the back. I came to go to the NYU graduate film program and live with my boyfriend, Josh, who had moved to New York first. He was in some cousin's apartment in Washington Heights, giant buildings, derelict parks. We were paying $66 a month. Then I met Mark . . .

What happened to Josh? We split up. Mark fixed cars on 7th Street, where I was going to school. He was very active at the Metropolitan Council on Housing. They had a storefront. People came in with their problems. By then I was living at 70th and Central Park West, $125 a month—I've always paid very little rent in New York—and I moved into Mark's teeny apartment on 11th near Second, $53 a month. Mark had been there since the mid '60s. I was also renting a space at 41 Union Square to make my films. A lot of artists had studios there for $80. So I was paying a total of a hundred something for a work space and a home. Then in the late '70s, Mark and I moved to a former Civil War tent factory. It's that loft building on Bleecker and Elizabeth, 2500 square feet, 18 windows facing east, south, and west. The windows were really leaky. But we were paying $167 a month.

Someone should have put an implant in you and tracked you over the past 30 years. You're a historical specimen—all that low-cost housing. I wanted to live so I could make my films. We were in the tent factory three or four years. We went on rent strike for a couple of years because there was no water. But then a neighbor saw an abandoned building near First Avenue. She said, Let's get permission from the city to renovate it. People were doing that back then. The city had acquired thousands of abandoned buildings.

East villagers Smokey Forester and Sally Heckel
photo: Sylvia Plachy
East villagers Smokey Forester and Sally Heckel

Yes—4907 by '81. They wanted to keep them viable, on the tax rolls. You had to show you were of modest income. The city put in a boiler, you did the rest. You bought your floor for $330. It was the Urban Homesteading Program—382 units were homesteaded citywide until '96, when the program was discontinued. I've realized it's not really a solution for low-income people. We figured it cost $75,000 per floor to renovate, bring the building up to code. All that was left from 1872 were brick walls, pine subflooring—no pipes. We had to rewire everything, lay out sleepers. We had to get every piece of wood shimmed. For hours and hours, I was crying, I can't do this. Mark was working for the sanitation department. He was a great mechanic, carpenter. The ceilings had curved. He totally leveled everything. While we worked on the apartment, we lived with dear friends for two years, and we're still friends. They were cab drivers because they wanted a job where they could spend more time raising their children. We moved in in '83 . . .

Now Smokey lives here. What happened to Mark? He moved upstate, became a veterinarian—large animals.

Smokey comes from Corpus Christi, Texas, by way of Indonesia and Morocco and all the places he made documentaries about, and then he lived for five years in that building in the West Village that looks like the one near Versailles where Marie Antoinette played milkmaid, but it's where Walt Disney reportedly lived as a young man—there are cartoons of dolphins on the wall. Errol Flynn, they say, used to practice rope moves on the top floor. I'd forgotten it was dolphins.

 
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