Speak Easy


LOCATION Ridgewood

PRICE $420,000 in 2004

SQUARE FEET 3,000 [circa 1913 two-story building]

OCCUPANTS Seth Ely [artist]; Emily Woodburne [theatrical booking agent, Zeitgeist Films]; Joe Ballweg [artist and art handler]

I can’t wait to go to the speakeasy in the basement, but first, we’re on the second floor, the living space. Is all this Joe’s space? Boy, does Joe have it lucky. [Seth] This is Joe’s side. Emily and I have the other. Joe and I are dividing up the first floor into studios.

The deli on the corner, Polamia, sells maka and pomidorowy. So Joe used to live in Greenpoint, and frankly, this neighborhood with its little green and yellow plastic awnings looks like Greenpoint. [Ridgewood’s Polish population reportedly grew by 45 percent in the last decade.] Ridgewood’s also Ukrainian and Hispanic, though it was mostly German until the 1960s—they worked in the Brooklyn breweries. Did you all know right away that you would love this building? [Joe] No. [Seth] The upstairs was a rental. It was a little dingy. Yeah, we’re doing everything ourselves.

My friend said a sweatshop was on the first floor! Not a sweat shop. The former owners said their family had it as a knitting factory. They bought the building in the 1960s. They had machines here. There’s an existing knitting factory across the street. I had to go to get keys once, and only the owner was there and computers ran all the knitting machines.

You said it was NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement (1993), with Mexico and Canada, that made it possible for you to buy the building. The owner said he closed down his factory because of it. What did they make? [Emily] Socks. No, shoelaces. What did you do to your leg? [Seth, looking at the dried blood] I whacked it. They sold the building next door too. [Emily] It’s a woodshop. [We go down to the first floor, the former factory.]

Look at all the families, children outside laughing. What a nice neighborhood. [Joe] Our plumber liked the other side of Fresh Pond Road better.

Whoa, look at this old place—green tin walls and ceilings. The old front office is all dusty, with the big grimy window where the boss watched the workers. I’m going to rip it out.

No! You should make it an installation—with a blotter on the desk. Look, old file cabinets. Inside this drawer is . . . a 10 of clubs. And this . . . [we hold our breath] . . . [scream] old paper towel . . . oh, nothing. [Seth] The name of the company was needle spelled backward—Eldeen.

How would you describe the owners? Two brothers—like if you go to the hardware store. [Emily] Or a Mets game.

Let’s go down to the speakeasy. Did the men say it was a former speakeasy? How did they know? [Seth] They thought it was from Prohibition. [We go down narrow stairs to the basement.]

My God. Look at the bar and this mustard-colored mural. A red and green lagoon—it’s a Venetian palette.

A lot of early-century outsider artists were German immigrants who came out of the brooding romantic school of painting. Maybe this artist was one of them. Though it gets a little mixed up with the Asian imagery—the weeping trees. [We go over to the bar.] So Joe, I’ll have another one. [Joe is quiet.] What are you going to do with this room? [Joe] Storage. [Emily] A laundry room.

A laundry room—how could you? [Seth] We were thinking of maybe a social club.

Now you’re talking. Where do the rest of the passageways go? What’s that sound? Fluorescent lightbulbs.We need something older.

A bare lightbulb hanging, like if someone’s being beaten up. [Joe] They beat people up?

You don’t just sit around and talk about art in a social club. You make plans.