The Monarch Luggage Factory
Finding a good apartment in New York City can be an enormous uphill battle. Finding a home you truly love and stay in for seven years...that's just magic.
This week's letter is from artist, Kelsey Knight Mohr, who recently got priced-out of her beloved home in Red Hook. Read her love letter to the Monarch Luggage Factory...
THE UNITS IN THE MONARCH LUGGAGE FACTORY are narrow one thousand square foot lofts with fifteen-foot ceilings. Units have been rented as live/work spaces since 2000. Creative tenants have built out these super raw spaces since the earliest tenancy. The view from the roof is magical. Nuanced celestial happenings are impossible to see anywhere near the five boroughs, but in Red Hook the sky opens up enough to get a good wide view of the big stuff.Once, I saw a full arching double rainbow at sunset as the full moon was rising. I have had keys to this building for twelve years. For half that time, it was my home. It has been a part of my life for longer than any other structure—including all of the homes I lived in growing up. Eight weeks ago, my husband and I moved out of our loft.
When I was 22 I had done especially well in a sculpture class in college. The following semester, I organized an independent study working in the home studio of my professor’s partner. It was a long trip from Washington Heights to Red Hook, but it felt at the time like a pilgrimage to learn how to be an artist—something special and other. That semester of work was so eye opening for me. Under the tutelage of these two friends and their comrades I discovered my skills were marketable and applicable in all these ways I hadn’t previously considered: they were sculpture-making skills. I worked for my professor, her partner, and eventually several other artists in the building. I would house, dog, plant, and bunny-sit for them when they were out of town. I had many opportunities for aspirational role-playing during these long apartment stays as an assistant.
AFTER GRADUATION, I moved to Brooklyn. In years that followed, I moved twice within the borough. The second move landed me with my then boyfriend (now husband) Bryan in our first home together—unit 3G of the Monarch Luggage Factory.
In 3G, a raised platform already existed for the bedroom. It had had a previous life as one end of a skating half-pipe that once spanned the length of the space, built by the original skater/stoner occupant. Bryan retrofitted inherited shoji screens for our bedroom walls. We papered them with player piano paper and it looked like a sweet hovering jewel box when finished. He hung dim-able overhead lights. Beyond our regular apartment door, we had a second screen door. On summer nights we’d have only our screen door closed to let the cross-breeze flow through our open windows. We salvaged a beautiful Viking stove from a building renovation in SoHo. My studio was closest to the windows; we kept the space pretty open so I could spill out into the living room during big projects.
Watching Bryan make home reaffirmed my attraction. He was strong and thoughtful; capable and clever. He could identify and solve problems. He could fix things when they broke. He wasn’t afraid of tall ladders and he had lots of really cool tools. Our home gave us a domestic stage for showing off for one another. We invented and modified our living space, and with it our life together. It helped me find us in the ornithology of couples: we are the kind of birds that make a nest like this.
3G made me feel held in a New York lineage of artists working from their homes. Our community had a fluidity of tools and machines between multiple studios. Any good micro-culture develops its own vocabulary. We called leaving the studio a mess without cleaning up your tools, ‘flintstoning’ or ‘fredding’ (a reference to the opening credits of the cartoon The Flintstones in which the protagonist, Fred Flinstone, hears the caw of the alarm bird at the end a work day in the rubble yard and leaves a load of rocks teetering on the head of his brontosaurus as he slides down the dinosaur’s back, flies off it’s tail and into the front seat of his foot propelled car). We talked about people in more traditional lives/careers—non-artists—as ‘civilians’ or ‘civvies’. An especially terrible task (or person) was ‘dregs’, but you’d have to tip your head back and hold the vowel sound, “dreeeeeeeeeegs”!
I would go to work in my professor’s studio in my slippers. She made a series of pieces exploring concepts that arise in live/work spaces. Reference material included Old World Dutch barns in which animals and humans live in the same space: hallenhuis. Everything under the same roof—the tools, the workplace, the supplies, the cooking fires, the livestock, the sleeping quarters, the farmers, the hired hands. She would talk about hardworking pioneers who sought to carve out lives for themselves in inhospitable environments, each night coming home to one shared room. The romance of that imagery enraptured me.
“Hallenhuis...everything under the same roof...”
TWO YEARS AFTER we moved into the Luggage Factory, Superstorm Sandy blew through New York and Red Hook was especially hard hit. First floor and basement apartments were rendered uninhabitable, and many local businesses were crippled. The Luggage Factory has no basement, so even though the waterline reached thigh-height outside the building, we didn’t lose power. In the weeks that followed, our less fortunate neighbors would stop by to charge phones, shower, take naps, and do laundry. Everyone pitched in to the recovery effort after the storm. The hardship bonded our community. That Thanksgiving we hosted 37 people for dinner in 3G.
Sandy also served to accelerate changes that had been afoot in the neighborhood for some time. The arrival of Fairway and Ikea had been the first harbingers of major development years prior. After the storm, lots of real estate opened up as devastated apartments and storefronts were vacated. New construction moved in to fill the void like opportunistic bacteria after a course of antibiotics.
It was at this time that our landlords refinanced for $18 million. Rents began to climb precipitously—they had to prove their earning to the bank. For some, new leases demanded increases of up to 35%. Alarmed, and now more neighborly than ever, people started talking to one another. Leases were compared. Lawyer friends were consulted. We called a meeting. Our rights and code violations were reviewed. We formed a tenants association. Upon the advice of our newly appointed lawyer, as a united band of nearly 70 people in 33 units, we sued our landlords for rent stabilization. We were committed to keeping our homes and protecting each other.
We fought so hard to be able to stay. The lawsuit was a real education. We learned about the history of the building, New York City building code, the glacial movement of the court system, corruption of city agencies, the hierarchy of local representatives. As we clamored for attention and outrage, we came to the realization that our story wasn’t atrocious enough to be newsworthy. In New York, even injustice is competitive.
Over the course of four years, the Supreme Court case marched forward to the Appellate Court, and is now being considered by the Court of Appeals (yup, those are two different places). In the meantime, as leases expired in waves, our landlords would perennially serve us retaliatory eviction proceedings. Many of our co-plaintiffs moved out and on with their lives. After years of slow-motion drama, anxiety, and innumerable Housing Court visits, we finally reached a max-out breaking point with our rental rate. Our community had been scattered by the process; our faith in the city’s system of justice flimsied.
Just after the New Year, I found an art studio I adored on a pier in the neighborhood. It had a view to the water and a fireplace in the common room. One more piece of medium-bad legal news had come down from the courts andquite suddenly I was inspired towards movement after years of rooting in, hunkering down—shoring up my grip and resolve to die defiantly in 3G. The house we had worked to build and strengthen with our bodies had become restrictive. It was too tight! Immobilizing financial, emotional, and legal constraints. I felt like a lobster when she readies to shed her shell. In this process, the abdomen breaks apart from the carapace; the body hinges open. The animal writhes, pulling its antennae, mouthparts, legs, and claws out of the old shell and finally rockets backwards in a dramatic finale.
If the decision to move happened like a final wooshing shed of old shell, the actual move itself happened in exhausting, slow stages. We have a little pickup truck and each night for a month we’d make progress: load by load, stair by stair, stack by stack. Repeat—repeat—repeat.
“The lawsuit was a real education. We learned about the history of the building, New York City building code, the glacial movement of the court system...”
Initially, these waves of packing and shuttling felt like a very thorough spring-cleaning. Later it felt like camping, living out of backpacks with one fork and one plate each. Eventually the loft was really hollowed out to the rind; a wallboard, glass, and wooden cave where dust bunnies tumbled freely. It echoed. All the soft stuff, all the us stuff was gone. I remember feeling especially startled one night to realize it had lost Our Smell. Exhaustion, relief, sorrow, anxiety, expectation, impatience, and frustration came and I felt ill equipped to soothe them or sit with them in this untethered transitional space. I cried a lot.
There are lots of ways that place gets into our bodies. The fumes, pollen, and dust we breathe, the spiders we swallow in the night, the water we drink, the chemicals we absorb through our skin. Repeated behaviors get into or bodies. We wear patterns into our teeth, develop the muscles of our dominant side, damage our eardrums, lock our knees, callous our hands. The relationship is reciprocal: our bodies get into our places.
“The loft had lost Our Smell.”
By the end of January, I was ready to move. Our story held the bittersweetness of any good Bildungsroman, but the time had come! Now in our new home, my body is still catching up to the change. The drying rack for the dishes is on the opposite side of the sink, the toilet paper roll on the left, rather than the right of the toilet. The medicine cabinet swings open the other way. These reversals leave me with a phantom-limb feeling. I reach for things that aren’t there, struggle against hinges, feel clumsy. Each autopilot error feels like an incoming body text from 3G imploring me not to forget our chapter together.
In our first couple of months in the loft, Bryan sprouted a tangerine seed from a fruit we ate. He planted it, read up on citrus trees, and babied it. The tree is now seven years old and six feet tall. I think of it as our love tree and watching it grow has been a reliable delight for many years. The leaves smell heavenly, and it is our dear wish that it may someday flower. From what we’ve read it may take 10 years or more.
Our new apartment is a charming one bedroom on Linden Boulevard in Flatbush. It’s a real civilian apartment—arched doorways and a really great tub. It doesn’t smell like us yet. We live on the third floor of a six-floor building. The elevator works: comes to you on any floor when you press the call button, brings you and your groceries to any other floor you want. We were allowed to bring our stove with us (I know!). There is a superb donut shop around the corner and the train is two blocks away. If I get close to the window, I can see a sliver of sky. Bryan bought a grow light for the tangerine tree straight away to augment the apartment’s low light. It clicks on for an 8h cycle at 7:00 every morning and we say, “Sun’s up!” when it does. She’s thriving, growing faster than ever before, and lives in the kitchen now.
Thank you Kelsey -- good luck to all our readers settling into new environments, physical or perhaps just emotional.