In Ratner's Shadow: Karl Nussbaum, Part 1

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HOST: On Dean Street in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, there’s a six-story factory building from the turn of the last century. Its walls are brick and stone, the window frames are made of huge swathes of green metal. The building has been emptied now, by developer Forest City Ratner. Ratner wants to build a basketball arena here, and 16 high rise towers. WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein has been following the stories of the tenants who are being displaced. Here’s one of them.

» In Ratner's Shadow: Karl Nussbaum, Part 1
» In Ratner's Shadow: Karl Nussbaum, Part 2
» In Ratner's Shadow: Caroline Glemann

Reporter: Once, 475 Dean Street was a garment factory -- ladies furs. Generations of immigrants came, pressing needles to fabric, part of the beating heart of New York’s economy. But after World War II, manufacturing began a long decline. Factories emptied. Sewing machines were silenced. This building lay fallow. But around the time Ed Koch was first getting elected Mayor, new life came to 475 Dean Street.

Across the river, in Soho, lofts were filled up. And so, lured by cheap space in a building with light and high ceilings, the artists came. Their work became the engine of a new economy – the creative sector.

Now there’s a third economic wave – real estate. And 475 Dean Street is empty again.

I first visited this building in May 2005. When I arrived, I stood outside a giant chain link fence, festooned with names and apartment numbers. To get in, I had to call upstairs and wait for the fence to be unlocked. This is how I met avant garde filmmaker Karl Nussbaum.

Bernstein: Hi, how are you? Nussbaum: Hi. Are you recording? Okay c’mon in 475 Dean Street. Bernstein: So you’ve been here 17 years? Nussbaum, Seventeen and a half, since December 1987. It was a pretty different neighborhood back then. People wouldn’t come across Flatbush Avenue to see me.

Reporter: Nussbaum takes me up the gray staircase to the third floor, and out onto a small landing. This isn’t a very fancy building. The elevator needs to be sent from floor to floor, so most people just take the stairs. If you look closely at the floors, you can still find some needles embedded from the garment factory days.

Nussbaum: Okay, so 3C, you want a little tour? Bernstein: Sure, I’d love one. Nussbaum: One guy just left this space today, just moved out today because of the problems.

Reporter: By “problems” Nussbaum means the turmoil residents here have faced since Forest City Ratner announced plans to build a basketball arena and several high-rise towers on this block. To put the new buildings here, Forest City has had to argue, in effect, that the neighborhood isn’t worth saving. The legal term it uses is “blight.” If this is a blighted neighborhood, then the developer can invoke “eminent domain.” That means it can force people to sell.

Nussbaum: Two years now almost to the day, May 2003, I saw flyers. It said there’s an arena coming. And I freaked out, and ran out the door and I started putting up flyers for it. And I started telling all my neighbors. And I said “Man, we got to get together -- we got to fight this.”

Reporter: But little by little, Nussbaum says, people began to move out. Forest City didn’t exactly force people to leave. But it began offering property owners generous deals. As for tenants like Nussbaum who leased from the original owners of the building –some reached settlements. Others just became concerned about the uncertainty, and moved on.

In Nussbaum’s kitchen now, his one remaining roommate is making a smoothie. Over the cabinets, there’s an enormous brightly colored cereal box collection. There are stacks of vivid pink, yellow, and blue graphics on cartons from Thailand, Korea, France, Germany. There’s Spiderman cereal, and Batman.

Nussbaum: Count Chocula, Mr. T, Freaky Cereal, Kaboom, Barbie cereal. That’s Urkulos that’s kind of a special one. I have Quisp and Quake somewhere…

Reporter: Off the kitchen there’s a giant room, with 13 foot ceilings and windows that stretch almost the entire height of the room.

Nussbaum: This is where I’ve made all my films for the last, you know, 18 years. I worked a lot in here, yeah. It’s really hard for me to let go of it. This loft has allowed me to make my films. The flexibility of this house and the way it’s built allowed me to have my lifestyle as an artist.

Reporter: The room is enormous. Groaning shelves at one end contain thousands of LP’s. The rest of the space is filled with a jumble of props and old boxes of film and florid film sets. Nussbaum lives in the world of his films. His last one was an offbeat meditation on being the son of a Holocaust survivor. Beyond the body parts and mannequins there’s a makeshift wall. There’s a sort of boy’s wooden fort quality to it – as if it were thrown up to create a temporary shelter and never torn down. Over the doorway there’s a large white piece of paper.

Nussbaum: I guess I left a note up for myself. Bernstein: It says: “Every little bit helps, you rock.” Was that to motivate you to clean up?

Reporter: Moving out has caused Nussbaum to leave his abstract world, and impose discipline.

Nussbaum: That’s such an emotional thing for me, to get rid of stuff and sort it. It’s like I’m a real procrastinator so I always think I’m going to clean it up and now is that day we all think is never going to come. You have sort through your stuff,.

Reporter: Back in the kitchen, Nussbaum pours two very large cups of coffee. He says after eighteen months of opposing the project – and watching his friends and neighbors move out --

Nussbaum: I knew we really couldn’t fight the developers and I wanted to change my mind about being able to move I wanted to prepare for it. And it definitely was this huge time of grief. It was like ‘Oh my god what am I going to do? Where am I going to go? And right now we’re really trying to negotiate with them about being relocated.

Reporter: Forest City Ratner promised all the tenants who live in buildings that would be knocked down that it would re-locate them to what it calls “comparable apartments.” If they want, the developer says, the tenants can move back to forty, or sixty story towers and pay the same rent they do now. Ratner is required to do this for tenants who live in rent stabilized apartments, but Nussbaum does not.

Reporter: Pausing to take a sip of coffee, Nussbaum talks about facing the real estate world.

Nussbaum: I cannot imagine where I could find a space like this and be able to continue to work, sometimes I’ve thought I have to leave New York I don’t know how I can afford it any more. People tell me there are lofts in Bushwick that are still open, and that you can get big industrial spaces but it means pioneering all over again. And you reach a certain age and it’s really difficult to pioneer again.

Reporter: A month after we first met, I was back in Karl Nussbaum’s loft. He was heading out for the summer, to a couple of artists in residence program. For Nussbaum, this packing up was a prelude to moving out for good.

Nussbaum: I’m going to show you how much I cleaned it up I’m getting ready to leave next week so I’ve really organized my film studio and look at that. Bernstein: Holy Cow!

Reporter: Nussbaum’s tells me how his last film was about death, but his new film is about life – a tiny space ship traveling through the human body.

Nussbaum: I got rid of a lot of stuff, I had a huge yard sale, I’ll probably get rid of those prosthetic limbs too. So did I tell you, the Forest City Ratner lawyer came over here and also a broker came over here?

Reporter: He says the broker brought a measuring tape.

Nussbaum: And got measurements and so forth and they’re going to start looking for a place for me to move into and they’re going to find it for me. I couldn’t believe it.

Reporter: They said they’d help him pay the difference in his rent for a few years, and then move him back in to their proposed new towers. But Nussbaum says he doesn’t think he can do it.

Nussbaum: I told them I was really adamant I needed work space. So I couldn’t live in an apartment. I wasn’t interested in that kind of living.

Reporter: Just before the fourth of July, Nussbaum waves goodbye, promising to call when he returns, and begins the hunt for a new loft. For WNYC, I’m Andrea Bernstein

HOST TAG: Tune in tomorrow as 475 Dean Street is emptied, and Nussbaum moves on. Also, listen to All Things Considered tonight for the story of a jewelry designer who has been repeatedly displaced by rising real estate values.