Loft in Five-Story Turn-of-the-Century Walk-Up


Location Greenwich Village

Rent $1257.38/mo. (rent-stabilized)

Square feet 1875

Occupants Hugh Gran (artist; teacher, Parsons); Ajay James (model; martial arts instructor); Sierra Winchester (marketing)

What a life—a big renovated loft near Bruno’s marzipan cherries and Señor Swanky’s, olé! But then, your family moved to the Village when it was cool. [Hugh] My mom got this loft in the ’50s, the golden age, the Village Gate! It was the worst run-down area then. She came from Virginia and got it with a fellow grad. All it had was a cold-water pipe. It was like $50 a month back then. Then my mom met my dad from the Bronx on a blind date. When they fell in love, he moved in here. He was running an antiquarian bookstore in midtown, El Cascajero, pretty well-known among the intelligentsia. The store burned down. My mom had him move it in the back. She was running a freelance editing business out of the front—a world-class editor and brilliant French translator. Everybody loved her. She had me when she was 39, my father was 59, 1971. I was conceived on a Portuguese freighter going to Europe. My mom was like the neighborhood mother. She was always taking in wayward kids, a really, really generous woman. My father grudgingly went along with it. As long as no one messed with his books, everything was fine. Here’s his picture, always with the long gray hair. My mom took in one kid whose mother was always traveling on business. He slept in my room and went to P.S. 3 with me, Sierra Winchester. Now he’s one of my roommates. Another kid was living on his own in the East Village. So my mother had him come in—Ajay. He’s still my roommate, too. This neighborhood used to be very poor, lot of kids from broken homes. My parents kind of lived by their ideals, never made a lot of money. In the ’80s, my mom fell very ill, battling cancer for at least 15 years. Finally she was diagnosed with terminal cancer; three days later she was hit by a truck. She didn’t die, but the hit severely weakened her body. My roommates stuck through the whole thing. They literally became an economic and social part of the household, helping me take care of my mom. Ajay used to sneak money into my mom’s purse. She’d see him and yell at him. My mom died in 1996. My dad was heartbroken and died a year and a half later. I succeeded him on the lease. In the old days, my mom and I walked over to the landlord’s house to pay the rent, cash. Grandma over there would give us cake. My mom helped her edit a book. Now I write a check to a business. My mom and her friends put in everything—doors, heating, electrical lines. She said if I ever had to move, the landlord would have to buy back the fixtures, $50,000 to $250,000, depending on the market. Then, in the early ’80s, the neighborhood went through a whole transition. The city recognized people were living in industrial spaces, lots of buildings were brought up to code, many were given rent-stabilized status.

This all had to do with passage of the Loft Law in ’82. Tenants like your mother had to pay for any improvements. Excuse the metaphor, but it’s as if your mother planted an oak tree 40 years ago. She is gone, but what she planted gives you shelter. In a way, her bohemian existence provided you with more stability than many who grew up in cozy suburbs but, to embrace the urban life here, have to live upside down like opossums in former asbestos-processing factories or whatever. And as long as your landlord doesn’t try to take over the apartment for his own use—the latest New York horror movie scenario—you have your shelter. Of course, it’s a little lonely under that oak tree. The only person left is my upstairs neighbor. I’ve known him since I was five. All the rest of the tenants are new. Upstairs is a CEO at Sony. He’s great, but I feel very disconnected from my art peers. All my friends are in Brooklyn and Queens now. That’s where it’s happening.

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