I first heard of the East 11th Street windmill in hushed voices, over cafe con leches at a Cuban restaurant on Avenue C.
It was the summer of 2010, and I had picked up a string of lunch shifts at my waitressing job. The long sweltering days were slow, and filled with gossip. Some of my older regulars had taken it upon themselves to educate me about Alphabet City, a place I knew only as another neighborhood I couldn’t afford.
I’d heard the beginning of this story before: “Back in the day when someone like you couldn’t come here, when the neighborhood was destroyed and dangerous…”
But instead of tales of burning buildings and drug wars, they told me about a windmill. It was built by hand and lifted by over 35 men, mounted on a building that was saved by the community. During the looting and chaos that accompanied the 1977 blackout, legend has it that the windmill generated electricity.
On my way home that night, I walked with my head up, scanning the rooftops for proof. A breeze ran through the street; if that wind pushed any propellers up above my head, they were invisible to me.
(Courtesy Travis Price)
The story of the windmill is largely invisible now, as is most of the East Village’s grittier past, once you get below a certain age bracket. In the 1970s the city was acquiring tax delinquent apartment buildings by the dozens in neighborhoods like Alphabet City, East Harlem and the South Bronx.
In Bill Moyers's documentary The Fire Next Door he estimates that a building an hour was being burned to the ground, either by landlords or hired arsons to collect insurance. If you managed to still live in these neighborhoods, conditions were atrocious. Tenant groups like the Interfaith Adopt-A-Building, headed by Robert “Rabbit” Nazario, sprouted up to fight for basic tenant’s rights: keep the utilities on, and the boilers running.
(Courtesy Travis Price)
Two Yale students, Michael Freedberg and Phil St.George had success with a self-help housing program in New Haven, where students could renovate buildings and then live in them. After graduating and moving to New York, St.George founded the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) and began working for Bob Schur, who was a deputy commissioner and running the Division of Alternative Management Program (DAMP), which had a similar philosophy.
“The theory of DAMP was to turn over some of those properties to neighborhood residents, to fix up and eventually own,” Freedberg said. “This was a radical proposition at the time. It had not been done before.”
In 1974, they went searching for a building, and found Interfaith involved with the tenants of 517 East 11th Street, who suggested the building next door, which was completely abandoned and torched. When Freedberg first walked in 519, he found a stripped car in the front hallway. Nazario said that the block used to be called “Strippers Row”: as many as 20 cars would be stripped there each night.
They bought 519 East 11th Street from the city for $100 a unit, $1,600 total.
“The argument was that the city would make more than that back, once we got the property back on the tax rolls,” Freedberg said. “Right now, it was not an asset at all.”
They also got the last low-interest housing loan from the city, before that program was cut due to impending bankruptcy. Now they owned the building, and received a $177,000 loan to do a complete gut renovation.
The money wasn’t enough to pay for labor and materials, so building 519 received federal funding from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). CETA paid a low wage for the unskilled laborers who also received training in construction, plumbing and contracting. They worked a 40 hour work week, but only got paid for 32 of them, at $3 an hour. The remaining work was on a sweat equity basis: they worked for free, and if they put in the hours, they would be part of the co-op that owned the building afterwards. To buy an apartment cost $500, or equivalent time in sweat equity.
At the beginning of 1976, a man named Travis Price arrived in New York in a cowboy hat and his working jeans. He had come from New Mexico, where he was finishing his studies and working with a radical solar group, building solar collectors and wind generators in the desert.
Price had been contracted to work on a government paper on energy conservation for the Nixon administration, which was still reeling from the 1973 oil embargo and increasing fuel costs. Price had a temporary room on the Upper East Side, and a paycheck in his pocket. That’s when he decided to go downtown.
“I just thought, I’ve got the contract so I can eat,” Price said. “So I started looking around for low-income housing projects, to see if I could help the least, last and lost with solar energy.”
Price walked the streets until he saw a sign that said, “No Heat, No Rent.” He walked into the building, which was 519 East 11th Street. The construction had already begun with basic flooring and framework, but they hadn’t sealed the walls yet. Price saw they had only $300 in their budget for insulation.
“They were going to spend as much per month on utility bills as they’re going to spend on the mortgage,” Price said. “So you’re trying to be independent here and at the same time, you have zero insulation in the construction budget. And not only that, I told them, ‘I can heat your hot water with this thing called solar energy.’ Which at the time, was like talking about nano technology to somebody who had never seen a Sci-Fi movie.”
Price thought the place was ripe for a solar experiment. So he wrote a grant proposal for insulation and solar collectors and sent it to Dick Saul, head of the Community Services Administration, the federal funding group for poverty and community development. Then he drove to New Haven to borrow a solar collector from friends at Yale and invited Congressman Richard Ottinger for a photo-op on the roof.
“So we get Ottinger on the roof, and the news networks are there and I say, ‘Hold on, I’ve got to get something else,’” Price said. “I run down the whole five flights, all the way to the bodega with the pay phone, and call Dick Saul up collect in Washington, 'cause I had no money—thank God for girlfriends who fed me—and I said, ‘I’m here with Dick Ottinger, and he thinks it’s great, and he wants to know when I’m going to build it… what should I tell him?’”
Saul laughed and said that they were funded. 519 East 11th Street had money to insulate and build solar collectors on the roof.
“That was my first lesson in spin tricks,” Price said.
(Courtesy Travis Price)
News of the solar collectors reached nearby architecture schools, and two students in their junior years began to spend their weekends in the Lower East Side. Chip Tabor, from MIT, and David Norris, from Yale came for the chance to build their own solar energy systems. Tabor arranged for a work study, and eventually wrote his thesis on 519.
“I didn’t know what a neighborhood like that was like,” Norris said. “It was a mess. And I mean that in almost every conceivable way. An enormous amount of visible bodies lying on the street, drug use and addiction was very serious. Very poorly maintained both by the landlords who owned most of the buildings on the street and by the city. Rampant, low-grade criminal activity. Mostly having to do with breaking and entering. Stealing cars. Almost daily building fires.”
Norris and Tabor lived on the first floor of 519 on mattresses in Price’s makeshift office. Tabor wrote in his thesis that if any of the community residents had been asked if the building would be finished, “the response would have been a unanimous ‘no.’”
“Community spectators thought that the crew, working sometimes in sub-freezing weather, was insane to make such attempts at rebuilding the ruined 519 tenement,” Tabor said.
The crew was doing major construction work without the help of cranes or Caterpillars. Tabor said the only motorized tool was a manually controlled winch to help lift heavy materials with cable wire.
Before any of the alternative energy experiments could happen, the building had to be completely rehabbed. Norris had some construction experience, and spent many of his days sweating pipes and making stud frames, not creating solar energy. Volunteers gave up and left the construction site, abandoning their shares in the co-op. One of the workers, Joe Barnes, slept in a Goodwill box filled with clothes at night and came out during the day to work.
“It was not as if the people who moved in there had all lived together, grown up together,” Norris said. “The ones who stayed became this sort of forced collective and organized to do a lot of hard, physical labor to get the building done. So it was an interesting group of people and what they held in common was the building. And that kept them together through not inconsiderable travails.”
Price said that at the beginning, the workers were unskilled not only in labor, but in organization. There were times when the co-op of 12 people would strike against itself for higher wages.
Price drove a beat-up Toyota jeep with a spare tire on the back, to transport construction materials. One day, he came outside and the spare tire was gone. He said to Nazario, “I need this tire, if we get a flat I need to get the stuff back.”
Within two hours, the tire was returned and the thief was apologizing to Price. Two nights later, Price was having dinner with his family, and they all laughed about it.
(Courtesy Travis Price)
Price said that 519 became a sort of a “sagrada familia”—the sacred family of the neighborhood.
“It suddenly became a place you don’t steal from,” Price said. “And over time, three more buildings got involved in homesteading and three more groups started to make their own self-housing. I think the neighborhood reaction was, what the heck… and then okay, we get it you’re around. And then it became, nobody touches this.”
The building became somewhat habitable. Though unfurnished, the tenants began to stay in their apartments. 519 was starting to look like a home. Freedberg’s girlfriend, Gibby Edwards, began to build community gardens in the neighborhood where muralists painted scenes from the neighborhood.
Tabor spent his Friday nights roaming the neighborhood with his guitar, playing music at street parties with locals, including a song that he wrote called ‘The River’s Rushing,” about the sound of the East River.
“The music was different, the language was different, the street culture was different,” Norris said. “This was like, you go to NYC and you would go to Central America or something like that. And that was always a wonderful kind of combination. Sometimes threatening. Once people knew what you were up to, they were incredibly friendly and receptive. And the neighborhood, for all this shit that rained down on them, it was a lot of fun. They really knew how to have a good time.”
They received 30 Sunworks solar collectors, and painted each panel a different bright color. Tabor’s thesis said that solar heating of the building's water began on March 16, 1976, shortly after people began to live at 519. After one year, the heating fuel bill was $48 per room, per year. Comparable buildings paid $110 per room, per year.
A recent graduate name Ted Finch joined 519. Finch had interests in wind power, and got Price’s connections at the CSA involved. Wind generators weren’t mass produced for any purpose back then, but Finch located an old, inoperable wind machine “somewhere in the Midwest,” Norris said. He left New York to retrieve it, and fixed it up to put on top of 519.
It was an old Jacobs brand wind machine with a 12 foot diameter. It could generate two kilowatts of electricity, and was enough to power the solar collectors, and to light all of the common space in the hallways and the gardens. It sat on top of a 45 foot steel base that had to be lifted in the air by the whole crew, plus additional helpers. Price said they bought some cases of beer and rallied as many people as they could from the street.
“It was crazy, it was just crazy,” Norris said. “You had to have faith in the other people holding on to the ropes. Not only did we have to tilt it up, we had to raise it up and then drop it down onto these four anchor bolts. Once it was up there, you had four ropes that were trying to keep the top in one place and a bunch of guys down at the bottom lifting it up, hoping that it didn’t topple over.”
They didn’t get building permits or permission to install the windmill, they just put it up. There wasn’t any precedent for a wind machine, or tower of that kind in 20th century New York. The feather tail on the windmill had the logo, “El Movimiento de la Calle Once,” on it: The 11th Street movement.
“The wind machine was kind of an iconic moment,” Price said. “It became kind of the new church steeple for the neighborhood. Everybody was proud of it. It was kind of a symbol of something extraordinary, as small as it was. In a neighborhood where all hope is gone, everything is burnt out, suddenly someone is rebuilding.”
The wind machine worked by the propeller turning a turbine behind the nose, which is coiled wire that then generates electricity. It goes through wires into the building, gets converted from Direct Current to AC, and then can be used throughout the buildling. Any excess energy, which there wasn’t a lot of, they stored on ConEd’s grid. Norris said people loved to watch the ConEd meter run backwards as the surplus entered the system. The ConEd factory, looming two blocks away on Avenue C, was visible the whole time they were installing the wind machine.
“We just couldn’t have been happier,” he said. “We went over to Umberto’s Clam House to celebrate, over in Little Italy. Suddenly we were all over the news, we thought we were cool beans. And then of course, a week later we’re being sued by Con Ed.”
(Courtesy Travis Price)
The next week, Price was sitting in his office on the first floor of 519 thinking, “What the hell are we going to do now,” when a man came in. He told Price that this case was the biggest thing since the civil rights movement, and that he would defend them. It was Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General for the United States.
ConEd's lawsuit claimed that the windmill's electricity would interfere with ConEd's frequencies. The suit eventually became about the issue of co-generation, and whether an independent building could generate its own electricity and force ConEd to purchase it when it fed it back through the meter.
Perhaps the longest lasting impact of the East 11th Street windmill is that the Public Service Commissioner ruled in favor of building 519, and the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) was passed nationwide, allowing non-utility generators to exist. It is one of the first deregulating acts against the monopolized energy companies. If you want to build a windmill today, you can thank 519.
The wind machine began to generate fame. Mayor Ed Koch, who was running for Congress at the time, came to see it. Robert and Lola Redford paid a visit. The MacNeil/Lehrer news hour program shot a segment from the building itself, in a neighborhood most taxis wouldn’t drive to.
When Ted Kennedy flew into New York during the 1977 blackouts and looked down over lower Manhattan it was all dark, except for one twinkling light: 519 East 11th Street. He called it,”The little windmill that could.” (The Times reports, however, that the windmill "provided insufficient power.")
“The building wasn't a bright shiny object because of the building,” Norris said. “It was a construction site and pretty deteriorated. It was because of the energy of the people who are focused on it and the whole sort of imagined world that drove them.”
I stood outside of 519 East 11th Street waiting for a resident named Rafael Jaquez, who bought into the co-op in 1980. The windmill and solar collectors were still running at that time, but Price, Tabor and Norris had relocated. The building was completed, and they went on to energy jobs in different cities.
(Courtesy Travis Price)
I tried to imagine the street with nothing on it. No nail salon or laundromat across the street, no line for brunch at Westville on the corner. I was having trouble picturing this solid grey structure, with a garden and courtyard attached, as a burned out building filled with car parts.
Jaquez invited me into his home, with a spacious living room covered in family photos. The air smelled comforting, like homemade stew, and his wife offered me tea. Jaquez moved into 519 for $250, with a $150 per month maintenance fee. Before coming to 519, Jaquez had never been above Houston Street; he grew up below Delancey on Madison Street.
“Once I crossed Houston Street I said, ‘Oh my god what the hell is this?’” Jaquez recalled. “It looks the Berlin wall, which I’ve never been to Berlin, but I’ve seen it in pictures. I walked up Avenue C. And finally, when I got here, I remember it was drizzling, and I sat on the stoop in the garden. And I saw a garden. In the city. A yard. And I thought there was a possibility for me to live here.”
He said he started to meet people in the neighborhood, other homesteaders who were inspired by the successes of 519. There was great effort to cultivate more community gardens, and organize tenants to rehab buildings.
“I was imagining that this was how the pioneers back in the frontier felt,” he said. “This is going to be my plot of land and I’m going to settle myself here. The notion of value, and real estate was secondary to the idea of, if I fix this place, I can live here. “
Today, most of the original tenants of 519 have moved on, and only one remains from the original construction days: Joe Barnes. Jaquez and the co-op board took the windmill down five years ago, because it started to produce stress marks on the parapet walls. It hadn’t been functioning since the mid-80s, when the tenants weren’t able to maintain it. Without the wind machine to generate power for the solar collectors, those were taken off as well. They became too costly.
As an experiment in urban sustainability, Jaquez said it did succeed in igniting the spirit of the people. But the technology itself didn’t last. Norris used to come by every year, to check if the wind machine was still there. Since it came down, he doesn't visit.
“You know, the most lasting contribution that we made was what you don’t see,” Norris said. “Which is that we put an awful lot of insulation in the building. And it had very good windows. It’s far better than any building in most of the rest of the LES.”
Jaquez and I went down the stairwell, toward the basement. He said they do have good insulation, and have not had to replace it yet. In the basement, the brain of the solar collectors is still affixed to the wall of the boiler room. A rusted box that reads, “Sun Brain,” opens to a mess of wires and plugs. Across the way are the switches for the wind machine.
Vincent Barnes and Rafael Jaquez (Shayla Love)
Vincent Barnes, the co-op president, joined us, and had something to show me. Under a pile of scrap wood, and old chairs he pulled out a red dusty object: a propeller. It’s lighter than I thought it would be, almost soft, like styrofoam. I felt a rush holding this beat-up, dirty thing. I felt like it had been abandoned.
“It’s the last piece we have,” he said. Another propeller went with a moving tenant, the nose to someone in Queens. “I’m going to keep this one here,” he said.