Veronica Geist took the stairs a half step at a time during a reporter's visit to the Women's Interart Center in June. Lately, she's been taking the stairs a lot. Geist, who goes by Ronnie, has been involved in the center since shortly after it began as a feminist art collective in 1969. Since 1971, it has operated mostly out of several upper floors of a city-owned ten-story building in Hell's Kitchen, or Clinton, as some locals call it.

Over the last decade and a half, the building has deteriorated dramatically and the women of the arts center have been locked in litigation with the city and a nonprofit developer over the center's fate. In the process, Geist's job as director of special projects has become cataloging the calamities of a decaying century-old building, and trying to beat back dust and water that forced the center's retreat from whole floors of their space. Women's Interart lost its battle against eviction this spring, but as part of a settlement got six months to move out. Lacking a readily accessible elevator as the end approached, Geist walked up and down the stairs, trying to sort the center's files into some semblance of order for a move to...somewhere.

“If we’re compelled to leave, I think the Women's Interart Center will have taken its last breath,” said Margot Lewitin, the center's director and Geist's partner, in an interview in January. “We certainly do not have the resources to pick up and go somewhere else."

One lawsuit remains alive in a state appeals court, but on Monday the eviction became final. The arts center's stacks of flyers, film reels, and slide film, traces of performances and screenings by the likes of Eve Ensler, Shirley Clark, and Adrienne Kennedy are being stored in a studio space in the Brooklyn Navy Yard awaiting an archive to take them. Lewitin, an ardent advocate for the group through its existence, objected late last week to the mild suggestion that the center is on hold.

“The Studio that we’re sharing in the Navy Yard is NOT a storage space, it is where we are preparing the files for the Library for the Performing Arts, but it is also where we will be working until we determine how we want to move forward,” she wrote.

Still, the Women's Interart Center, as it existed for nearly half a century, is dead.

The former Women's Interart Center building at 549 West 52nd Street. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

In the center's 45 years on 52nd Street, the neighborhood at large has gone from what Lewitin once described as “Berlin after the war” to a place where the median one-bedroom rent is $3,295 and glassy high-rises are continually poking skyward. The rise and fall of Women's Interart is more than just the story of an arts venue being priced out of a gentrifying neighborhood, though. The arts center's saga is inexorably intertwined with the history of the surrounding six-block area, which, if the city had not seized it in the middle of the 20th century at the tail end of its disastrous urban renewal program, would almost certainly be a wall of luxury residential towers by now. The blocks that comprise the former Clinton Urban Renewal Area offered those living and working in them a crash course in the evolution and contradictions of city housing policy, and depending on whom you talk to, a glimpse or a manifestation of what a determined group of everyday people can create in its place.

The city first took over the blocks from 50th to 56th streets between 10th and 11th avenues in 1969, in what would turn out to be one of the final acts of the urban renewal program. Begun in 1949 by the federal Urban Housing Act, urban renewal was the process by which cities nationwide undertook the wholesale demolition of poor neighborhoods with the stated intent of replaced them with new housing, highways, and civic centers. In New York City, famed wrecker of neighborhoods and builder of big things Robert Moses embraced the federal program with gusto, evicting 320,000 people by wrecking ball in 10 years, outspending all the rest of the cities in the country combined by two to one in the same period, and enriching politically connected contractors to cement his hold on power in the process.

Moses claimed to be relocating people displaced by the program into new public housing, but as the back-of-napkin math of watchdogs and later Power Broker author Robert Caro showed, only a tiny fraction of those displaced ended up in new housing, whereas elsewhere in the city other so-called slums were swelling with new arrivals.

In 1960, with urban renewal funding cuts coming and city employment rules restricting him from heading up the planning for the 1964 World's Fair, Moses quit the Mayor's Committee on Slum Clearance. The coming decade was the stage for growing public resistance to urban renewal. In 1963, James Baldwin famously decried urban renewal, which displaced more than 100,000 African American New Yorkers, as “negro removal.” Jane Jacobs published her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. In it, she advocated against the dominant brand of top-down urban planning that sees neighborhoods as made up of discreet building blocks rather than intricately interwoven swaths of urban fabric.

The blocks that make up the Clinton Urban Renewal Area were a mixture of brownstones and factory buildings. Just five years later, Richard Nixon ended the urban renewal program altogether. Instead of building housing, the city had created an expanse of newly abandoned buildings. In Clinton, some former building owners managed to stay on, renting space in the same structures that had been formally taken from them. Many buildings, though, sat empty. The city had a new kind of problem on its hands.

“A number of properties were taken through the old urban renewal program in the '50s and '60s, and the money was never there to redevelop, and the real estate market was collapsing in the ‘70s,” said Joseph Shuldiner, a deputy commissioner at the Housing Department in the 1980s, and now head of Yonkers's public housing authority. “There was no money to redevelop the property.”

The Women's Interart Center formed in 1969 as more of an idea than a venue, one of many women's collectives formed amid the heady ferment of feminist activism in New York City at the time. As Lewitin recalls, the group, founded as a non-hierarchical collective, was meeting in members' homes when a painter named Rose mentioned the buildings in Hell's Kitchen that were just sitting there, and proposed trying to move into one.

A call to Housing found a sympathetic audience with the man in charge of commercial leasing, and that summer the center established its first brick-and-mortar location on the 10th floor of 549 West 52nd. The rent: $50 a month.

The women got to work clearing cobwebs and building out the space, and by 1976 they had expanded to five floors of the building, plus a floor of a building down the block.

“Because we were a multi-arts organization, we really needed a lot of space,” Lewitin said. Their compound included workshops for silk-screening, ceramics, painting, film, and a new technology called video. On the 10th floor, with the help of an architect donating her time, they built a theater space and a gallery.

“We had a whole array of programs because the idea was that artists should not feel stuck in their area of concentration...The whole concept of multimedia work was not what it is today. People were concerned, if they were painters and they tried, say, video, they were concerned about being seen not as an artist but as a craftsperson.”

Lewitin shies away from applying the label "feminist" to the enterprise, saying instead that the center operated on the principle “that women artists need a place to experiment, to produce work, to get that work out before the public.” Men could participate, but women were the focus, she explained.

With these ideas in mind, and an eerie wasteland outside their many windows, the more than 100 members of the arts center worked through the 1970s. The center served as an Off Off Broadway launchpad for performers including Eve Ensler, who would go on to write The Vagina Monologues, and Joyce Aaron, who won an Obie in 1976 for her play at the center that year, Acrobatics.

Playwright, actor, and director Joyce Aaron won an Obie for her play Acrobatics, staged at the Women's Interart Center. (Courtesy of WIC)

They worked without much help from the city, Lewitin said.

“The building at its best was not in great condition, and it got worse,” she said. Mayor Lindsay left office in 1974, and with him, any semblance of a functional landlord relationship with the city. “When the administrations changed, subsequent mayors were not the least bit interested in maintaining the building for what we were doing,” she said.

Nearby in the renewal area footprint, others carried on, too. Downstairs in 549 West 52nd, the Ensemble Studio Theater joined WIC in the building and built a name around its one-act play festival. Soundscape, a jazz and world-music concert production company, followed too, organizing shows and renting space to sculptors. A block over, on 51st Street, the Irish Arts Center developed its programming, which included dance, theater, comedy, and music performances; film screenings; and Irish language classes. Downtown, artists with organizations such as the experimental theater La MaMa and other hearty souls were clinging to similar arrangements in an urban renewal area around East Fourth Street.

The workaday businesses carried on too, including a tire shop, lumber store, auto body shop, and a taxi meter repair shop.

The period wasn't entirely quiet on the development front. Using what meager funds were left from the feds, the city razed dozens of homes and built three projects by 1980, two towers under the Mitchel-Lama program for middle-income families, and a public housing complex.

The first development proposal to galvanize the neighborhood in opposition was one proposed under Mayor Ed Koch in the early 1980s. The plan called for building luxury towers at 10th Avenue and 52nd Street. The development would contain more than 600 apartments, 20 percent of the units set aside as below-market-rate. It also called for demolishing the arts building near 11th Avenue to make way for commercial tenants displaced by the development. Koch even had specific developers lined up. All he needed was to make it through the city's review process.

Through a vigorous, organized showing at public meetings, in the press, and in calls to people with lines to power, locals made sure that didn't happen. Lewitin said that left an impression on city housing commissioners.

“We defeated that plan, and it presented a real danger to the way in which development is done in the city,” she said.

Joe Restuccia, director of the nonprofit housing developer Clinton Housing Development Company and another Hell's Kitchen fixture who has, as he put it, "gotten old with the project," said after Koch's plan was defeated he, like Lindsay before him, shunned the neighborhood. "Koch was like, 'Fuck you' to the neighborhood, and he wouldn’t do anything. All these buildings just hung around forever."

The Clinton Master Plan won a National AIA Award and set the tone for the next quarter century of development in the neighborhood. (Peterson Littenberg)

Newly organized under the banner of the Clinton Preservation Local Development Company, part of the Clinton locals' strategy for fending off newly adamant calls for development was to create a plan to counter Koch's, a tactic that echoed that of the downtown Cooper Square Committee, which prevailed in a similar battle a decade prior. The Clinton community plan would include affordable housing, but in contrast to the city's clean sweep approach, it would preserve much of the existing building stock, and keep the tenants where they were, more or less.

If there was a time to get organized to preserve the neighborhood, the mid-1980s was it. The economic desperation of the 1970s was beginning to fade, and development was moving in. Donald Trump first proposed building the complex that would become Riverside South on a former railyard between 59th and 72nd streets in 1974. He floundered without financing, and tried again starting in 1982. (His finances in peril, Trump sold part of the project to a group of Hong Kong and Chinese investors in 1994.) Meanwhile, the city and developers were plotting ways to dislodge the sex industry from the Theater District.

“We knew Trump was coming down from the north, and 42nd Street was coming up from the south, and eventually 11th Avenue was gonna become an important street,” said architect Barbara Littenberg.

The group retained the services of Littenberg and partner Steven Peterson and came up with a detailed, utopian vision for the neighborhood, wherein the low-rise buildings would remain intact with a mixture of uses closest to the street and housing towers would be built behind, with room left for elaborate courtyards and parks in the center of the blocks. The plan also called on the city to sell the buildings to qualifying long-time tenants, and proposed a scheme for pricing the sales in such a way that committed commercial owners would subsidize the construction of housing. This was supposed to make it possible to build towers with just 40 percent market-rate apartment and 60 percent permanently below-market, and to keep arts tenants at modest rents, according to Lewitin.

The Women's Interart Center attached a plan of their own to this one, proposing gut-renovating the entire 10-story building it occupied, and expanding into three vacant lots, ultimately adding a 499-seat theater, an eight-story addition to the existing building—to house rehearsal studios—and a cafe.

The process of developing the plan was transcendent, according to Littenberg.

“It was the most incredible experience because you have these blue-collar people, and you have these arty people, and they all got on the same page,” she said. “We had this huge model, and we said, 'You go here. You go here'...Everyone got the sense that this was possible.”

That isn't to say that everyone involved in the plan was working from a precisely shared vision. Littenberg recalled having to be careful with her plan displays around Lewitin.

“I remember the community was so anti-high-rise, I would bring the model over in sections,” Littenberg said. “If Margot came by and saw it she'd say, 'Nope, that's too tall. That has got to go.' She would take the tops off of my towers.”

The plan would go on to win an American Institute of Architects Award, but at the city level, it wasn't an easy sell. The city's Department of Housing Preservation and Development dismissed the community plan as impractical. In 1984, the same year the Clinton tenants came out with their plan, the department tried to raise their rents dramatically—by as much as 2,000 percent.

“It was a recognition by the city that they had for 20 years kept up the fiction they were going to redevelop the property,” said Shuldiner, the '80s-era deputy HPD commissioner who broke the news of the proposed increases. When the tenants balked, Shuldiner and his colleagues negotiated a settlement that was meant to more fairly compensate the city for managing the thousands of buildings it was the reluctant landlord of, without driving the tenants out.

“Mr. Koch was famous for saying, 'No free lunch,'” Shuldiner said. “Some people within HPD thought we were giving free lunch.”

Nevertheless, Koch signed off on the settlement. By 1985, WIC was paying $1,300 a month for four and a half floors. Geist estimates they had put $100,000 into the space by that point. Lewitin was also several years into a pitch to the city to buy the building for $400,000, and though the housing commissioner at the time reportedly expressed interest, the agency got cold feet over a philosophical difference: HPD, the housing agency, is focused on housing, rather than neighborhoods in all their complexity.

''I don't think we're ready to do it with them,'' assistant HPD Commissioner Charles Perkins told the Times in 1985. ''With the need for housing that there is, we believe the site is better used for housing.''

The community spirit of the 1980s may have faded away, but the zoning created by the Clinton Master Plan has shaped the way the neighborhood has developed since 1994. (Littenberg Peterson)

Things remained much the same after Koch pulled out of the neighborhood. In 1994, faced with what to gadflies was the disaster of the city suddenly moving 60 sanitation trucks to Hell's Kitchen, the local community board reached a deal with the city: the neighborhood would temporarily house the trucks, which no other neighborhood wanted, in exchange for renovating six buildings in the urban renewal area and expediting WIC's ongoing quest to purchase its building, among other items.

Momentum was in the Clinton residents' favor that year. With Rudolph Giuliani in the mayor's office, a version of the community plan passed the final hurdle of the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the same process that felled Koch's luxury tower plan a decade earlier. The approval covered WIC's proposed expansion, and an amendment to the urban renewal area allowed for the sale of 549 and the neighboring lots.

The century-old tire shop Cybert Tire is getting a dedicated space in a massive new mixed-income development being built by Clinton Housing Development Company and for-profit developers Taconic Investment Partners and Ritterman Capital. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

What happened next was, Littenberg remembers, “a free-for-all.” It also laid the groundwork for the conflict that would cost Women's Interart its home.

Restuccia agitated alongside Lewitin to stop the city's wrecking balls and attain community control, but would later become Women's Interarts property manager and take part in the fight to push them out. On the surface, there is little obvious conflict between the visions of the two. Both want the urban renewal area to be a place for affordable housing, and to protect the arts organizations, longtime businesses and residents, and, where feasible, buildings. And yet, they have fought like crazy.

In Lewitin's telling, the years since 1994 have been an exercise in cynical collusion between various city agencies, local affordable housing developer Clinton Housing Development Company, and those in the neighborhood willing to go along with the official program, even though it ran counter to the goals of the community plan of that era.

Restuccia's group, meanwhile, has had a remarkable run, using government and investor money, and occasionally partnering with outside real estate firms to develop hundreds of units of low and moderate-income housing, and supportive housing for formerly homeless people in four developments. Other developers, too, have channeled government grants and private investment to, with the blessing of many in the urban renewal area but not an increasingly estranged Lewitin and Geist, senior and other low-income housing.

The flood of construction ended a quiet five years after the community plan became the law of the land.

After the victories of 1994, Restuccia said, "The community sat and could not get it together. They had developed a really good and creative plan for how to solve the problem. As for executing, they couldn’t do it." In 1999, many neighborhood stakeholders convened once more and agreed to, as Restuccia explains it, "take the concepts of the mega-plan and now make them into small, doable sections." The problem of the 1994 plan was, he said, that all of the financing, all of the functions, "Everything tied into the entire thing."

The building housing the Women's Interart Center, in blue, is the last undeveloped lot on that half of the block, surrounded by new projects that all include some portion of below-market housing. (Clinton Housing Development Company)

Some of the new towers had to get special city approval to break with the strictures of the community-created zoning, but Restuccia sees special considerations in new developments such as reserving space for the 100-year-old Cybert Tire in the ground floor of a new tower as proof that the spirit of the plan is alive and well. In a 27-story high-rise like the Avalon Clinton on WIC's block, 10s of thousands of square feet are set aside for nonprofit theater groups. Lewitin, though, is fixated on the 80 percent market-rate, 20 percent-below-market split in the building's apartments, a hallmark of the city's broader developer-driven approach to affordable housing.

"The Community Plan demonstrated how to redevelop WITHOUT gentrification, creating affordable apartments in a truly mixed-use community, with open spaces, gardens and cultural vibrancy,” Lewitin wrote in a wistful email early this year.

Dan Doctoroff, left, was Mayor Michael Bloomberg's deputy mayor for development. The Economic Development Corporation under Doctoroff terminated a contract that would have allowed WIC to expand. (Thomas Cooper/Getty)

Viewed another way, the demise of Women's Interart Center can be traced back to stubbornness, on the part of the city, and of the center.

“She’s an amazing woman,” Littenberg said of Lewitin. “She was very much a very active player, very articulate, very dynamic in getting the whole thing together, and she spoke very eloquently. ... She also made a lot of enemies in the process, so it doesn’t surprise me that they wouldn’t accommodate her. It’s sad.”

Lewitin regrets some of her past bluster, saying she reads old news stories and finds her comments “anything but prudent. At one point I described HPD as a criminal enterprise.”

On the most local level, WIC spent two decades trying to buy its building, and almost succeeded. The plan for a purchase and expansion was approved. In theory, all that the center had to do was come up with the money to finance the purchase and construction.

According to Lewitin, the first round of pledged state funding fell through when Governor George Pataki took office in 1995 and ordered a stop on development spending for projects that hadn't broken ground. Starting in 1988, WIC withheld rent on and off, complaining about unfixed leaks, broken boilers and radiators, and broken windows. Both sides took each other to court, and they repeatedly settled. Public criticisms of the direction the community plan was heading in did not help assuage the bad blood.

Proposed temporary relocation arrangements for their arts neighbors in the building didn't go over well, according to court filings, with the Ensemble Studio Theater proving particularly resistant to a temporary eviction for WIC's ends, and HPD refusing to formally evict them. The theater, which briefly tried to sue WIC and the city in the early 2000s, declined to comment. The EDC by all reports remained on board with the WIC plan through 2001.

Lewitin says her team again had funding lined up, this time in the form of $14 million in HUD loans and a $2 million grant from the city's Economic Development Corporation. A contract executed in August 2001 memorialized the plan for WIC to buy the building, for $2. The closing, Lewitin said, was delayed by the September 11th attacks, and according to court filings, by WIC continuing to line up funding. Lewitin claims that the incoming Bloomberg administration's general antipathy to community-based development, and WIC's opposition to a proposed West Side stadium and Olympic complex in particular soured Bloomberg's economic development czar Dan Doctoroff on the deal. An HPD spokeswoman said that WIC didn't have the additional $5 million it needed to put up to do the deal, but a federal judge's exhaustive timeline of the negotiations does not mention this.

Architectural drawings show WIC's planned expansion. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

In 2002, Doctoroff's EDC canceled the contract.

The collapse of the deal kicked off a series of legal battles that are still going on today. WIC sued in federal court for breach of contract.

In subsequent litigation, the EDC and HPD cited WIC's history of rent nonpayment as evidence that the center could not be trusted to fund the project on a federal grant alone, predicting the city would eventually have to cover the costs.

A March 2002 memo from EDC advisor Laurel Blatchford and deputy Roy Bahat to Deputy Mayor Doctoroff seems to undercut that claim. It reads:

As per our discussion last week about Women’s Interart Center:

While the current financing structure does entail some risk to the city should WIC
default on the $16M in CDBG loans, the financing package that WIC has
assembled meets the city’s criteria. Moreover, according to EDC, WIC has met
every requirement that they have set along the way to ensure that the financing is

At this point, it appears that the political cost of pulling the plug is quite high. In
addition, we could effectively pull the plug and ensure that WIC’s financing
collapsed by stalling, a path of action that would incur even greater political costs.

An independent audit commissioned by the EDC concluded that the complex "seem[ed] to meet current standards" and that the rehearsal spaces "should be in demand" enough to support the project financially.

The disparities between the internal communications and the reasons later stated for ending the contract “raise questions as to what occurred in the interim,” New York Supreme Court judge Karen Smith wrote in a 2010 decision.

Doctoroff declined to comment through a spokesman. CHDC did not respond to comment requests made by email and a message left with a receptionist.

After WIC lost in federal court, HPD brought in Restuccia's CHDC, to manage the building in 2007, and he brought eviction proceedings against them. WIC renewed the fight in civil court, adding Clinton Housing to the docket.

As the litigation got going, the building's problems, always an issue, were becoming dramatically more pronounced. Already, in 1996, the passenger elevator had broken on the opening night of one of Lewitin's plays in 549, forcing the center to hire elevator operators for the run. On the final night, she said, the freight elevator broke too, stranding lights and other borrowed heavy equipment on the 10th floor.

“I said, 'We're never doing another play on this floor until we own the building and have gutted it and renovated it,'” Lewitin recalled. They moved their plays to an auxiliary space in another building at the corner of 10th Avenue.

The collapse of the deal continued the drumbeat of misfortune and conflict with the city and Clinton Housing, which WIC has now for all practical purposes lost.

Slides from the WIC archives, for which the center's leaders are now seeking a home. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

In 2002, a water tower on the roof burst, sending water pouring through the skylight and any other permeable roof seam onto the 10th floor, and cascading down the stairs to the ninth, according to Geist. Whatever hope there had been of restoring the 10th floor theater was dashed long-term, and the gallery was destroyed. The space remains partially gutted and smells of decay. The water tower collapsed again in 2003, according to Geist.

The only remaining fully usable floor was the seventh, according to WIC. Based on what they considered a denial of services, they again withheld rent. Lacking a theater, Lewitin says they took apart their shop and renovated the space to see if they could supplement their income, primarily from grants, by renting office space short-term to film companies shooting in New York. (HPD and Restuccia say WIC was using these and other subletters to simply pad their pockets while withholding the nominal rent. The subletting violated WIC's lease, according to a federal judge's decision. Lewitin maintains that the TV business was a test-run to see if it could help support the complex she still dreamed of.) Then, in October of 2010, she says “CHDC pulled all of our elevators out and that was that.”

She says the group, acting as a property manager for HPD, closed the passenger elevator instead of repairing it, then reduced the freight elevator, which requires a certified operator, to 40 hours a week, charging tenants $15 an hour for usage outside of those hours, making the TV industry side business impossible.

HPD filed to evict WIC from the corner outpost where its resident theater troupe Blessed Unrest was staging productions. That eviction went through first, this past winter, ending WIC's public-facing events.

“I got quite an education in our legal system,” Geist told me as we toured what was left of the arts center in June. “Not that I wanted one, but I got one.”

The litigation held up a project called Clinton Commons, a proposed 103-unit below-market condo development reserved for households making $38,016 to $130,680. The project was supposed to occupy the vacant lots Lewitin had her eye on for expansion, and the lawsuits put a cloud on the title.

Lewitin no longer gets out as much, but she's defiant and eternally optimistic about the next legal move, no matter how often her lawyers tell her they don't have a chance. Hence, after agreeing this March to an eviction settlement that gave them six months, or until August 31st to move out, WIC didn't leave without a fight. With that battle lost, the center has returned to yet another appeal.

Reached on the day of the eviction, Restuccia was reflective. "I just feel bad for them," he said of Geist and Lewitin. Restuccia said that his goal was not to drive them out but to get them to negotiate some more modest vision for the building's future, to be shared with the other arts institutions downstairs. He added that he studied theater as a young man and knew of and admired the work of Women's Interart. The '90s marked a turning point for the center's output and its leaders' sense of their place in the community, he said.

"When they got involved in this whole thing with making this building an arts center they lost their way," he said. "They just lost perspective on this project."

A waterlogged model of WIC's proposed expansion. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

At some moments, even Lewitin, ever the fighter, can't help but feel frustrated by all that's happened.

“I hate to acknowledge it, but I’m getting really old,” Lewitin said. “I was trying to get this damn thing up and built so I could turn it over to the next generation of leadership.”

CHDC has told the remaining arts tenants that there will be a home for them in whatever comes next. The sad irony, Restuccia said, is that the project he and others have in mind—an all-arts and cultural complex with added rehearsal space—is "in essence the vision that [WIC] had in a more reduced, modest version." He has no doubt the project will happen.

As I toured what was left of the space with Geist in June, the knicknacks hanging on the unfinished wall, the odor of wet wood, and the undone dishes around the ninth floor sink struck me as something that would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in a squat, or a collective art space in a formerly industrial building. Such spaces, for those without industrial tools of construction and access to the great fortunes they take to operate, are stubbornly temporary, their entropy constantly accelerating. This only becomes more apparent as time passes. The roofs leak. The walls and appliances drop soot on your precious belongings. Once-crisp boards sag beneath your feet.

In the painting studio, one last lively corner of the ninth floor along with the ceramics studio opposite, abstract painter Martin Mullin was at work, placing a layer of seal over freshly cracked gold leaf on a large canvas. Mullin modeled the red construction earmuffs he wears to block out the sound of construction on the surrounding lots of a two-building, block-through, Clinton Housing and Taconic Investment project containing 595 apartments, 414 of them market rate. “It's great,” Mullin said, voice rising as he donned the muffs. “You can't even hear your own body!”

I took a photo, then followed Geist into a nearby open area. Beyond stacks of film reels, sitting on a moving box, was a cardboard mockup of WIC's planned expansion.

“It's so water-damaged,” Geist said. “You shouldn't take a photo of it.”

“Isn't that kind of apt?” I asked.

“Be careful now,” she said. “You don't want to say anything that'd make me cry.”