When residents of 17-17 Troutman St. woke Thursday morning, most were not aware that they would be homeless by the end of the day. The day before, notices were posted that city inspectors would be arriving to look the building over for violations at 9:30 a.m. It didn't take long Thursday for the Dept. of Buildings to designate the building as imminently perilous to residents and demand an almost-immediate evacuation. Residents had until 8 p.m. that same day to gather what belongings they could and find someplace else to live.
The New York Times has a collection of horror stories from residents, who describe firemen knocking open their doors with sledgehammers and possessions left vulnerable to looters. Yesterday we spoke with Alex Echeverria, who was one of the first people to move into the industrial building's third floor when landlord David Steinberg began attracting artists with large high-ceilinged spaces that were priced at about $1 a square foot in monthly rent. Renters subdivided their spaces into lofts where they worked and lived. Eventually, the second floor was also opened to renters, albeit with smaller spaces and higher rents. Echeverria said that as the neighborhood improved, the demographics of the tenants was shifting and that it was about 50% artists and 50% young professionals at the time of eviction.
Most of the blame seems to be falling at the feet of landlord David Steinberg, whose spokesman claims that he knows nothing about any violation notices that were delivered concerning the building. In the Times article, his spokesman also claims that Steinberg had no idea that 220 people were living in 60-70 lofts in the building. That seems hard to believe, because Echeverria told us last night that Steinberg was a daily fixture at the building and kept an office there for several years until about a year ago, when he became conspicuously absent for months at a time.
The story of 17-17 Troutman St. is unfortunately a common one of artists and gentrification; and Echeverria seemed fairly sanguine about the matter, although he admitted that he was extremely fortunate in having someplace to go. Since 2003, he said that cafés and coffee shops have opened in the area and neighboring warehouse buildings have been converted to condos. Even within the now-condemned building, some early renters were sub-letting their lofts that they signed leases for at dirt cheap prices years ago for small fortunes today. He said that one tenant shamelessly marketed his loft as being in Williamsburg East and found a gullible out-of-towner who was willing to pay a lot of money to sublet it. One thing that Echeverria found particularly galling was that Steinberg continued to let people sign leases and move in even as the inspection deadline and certain eviction approached. There was a rumor going around among displaced tenants that one renter had just moved in last weekend.