Westbeth, a complex of 13 buildings with a main address of 55 Bethune Street (alternatively accessible at 463 West Street, facing the Hudson River, and hence its name “Westbeth”), has actually lived two different but equally creative lives: first, from 1898 to 1966, as the home of Bell Telephone Laboratories which witnessed a host of various electrical engineering innovations we take for granted today; and then, beginning with a conversion from 1965 to 1970 that saw an interior redesign by famed architect Richard Meier (of Getty Center fame in L.A.), as the home of Westbeth Artists Housing, reputedly the world’s largest subsidized community artist housing site.
During its first incarnation as the Bell Telephone Laboratories, it was responsible for electrical engineering advancements that impacted not only telephony (for example, direct long-distance dialing) but all sorts of other electronic mediums such as film/cinema (the first synchronous-sound motion picture system), radio (microwave radio, to be exact), computers (first electrical-relay digital computer), and the creation of transistors (for which three Bell Lab associates were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956: John Bardeen, William Shockley, and Walter H. Brattain.) For a period in the early 20th century, NYC’s Bell Telephone Labs were the largest industrial research complex in the world; early photographs of the building complex reveal that the West Side Line that ran along Tenth and Ninth Avenues and through the Meatpacking district just north of the site also ran right through the Bell Labs buildings, terminating just south of the buildings at what was St. John’s Park Terminal (that being said, Westbeth’s connection to the now very successful High Line Park was severed years ago in the 1960’s when all the tracks south of Gansevoort Street were demolished—except those that remain as part of the Westbeth complex and this remains closed to the public.) In 21st century NYC, it’s very easy to get the impression that this city was always and exclusively fueled by high finance, real estate, and entertainment/media but the Bell Labs (and the ghostly remnants of an industrial Hudson waterfront opposite it) are a stark reminder that this city was once a very industrial city that actually made tangible things from garments to transistors.
But, as with so many places throughout NYC, industry packed up and left by the 1960s and Bell Labs decamped to suburban New Jersey with so many others. At that point in 1965, the famed theater producer and then Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Roger Stevens, stepped in to bring together the funding necessary to renovate the complex into a 384 live-work space for artists and their families (today it houses just over 1,200 people.) In addition to the living spaces (complete with a distinctive courtyard that has semicircular egress balconies that double as innovate fire escape – if one unit has a fire in its fireproof walled area (this was Bell Labs, after all), you simply step out of your window and step through your neighbor’s window), there are communal work space, galleries, and commercially rented space that has housed such famous outfits as Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe up until his death in 2009 and, more recently, the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance.
It has, of course, enjoyed a roster of very famous and somewhat famous residents through the years; some of the names that popped out at me while I was doing some research on its history included: Vin Diesel, who lived here as a child running through the halls; the actor Robert De Niro Jr.’s father, De Niro Sr., who was an abstract painter (Jr. made a loving documentary about his father where he explores his father’s homosexuality and their relationship, among other things); and Muriel Rukeyser, the fire-brand socialist poet. There are two very famous photographers who called Westbeth home: Diane Arbus, who killed herself here in 1971; and Bob Gruen, who is perhaps best known for his iconic photographs of John Lennon in NYC (including the one with Lennon wearing the New York City t-shirt with its sleeves cut off.)
But, of course, most of the artists/writers/actors/dancers toil away at their work in relative obscurity even though sometimes their work can break through in unexpected ways that reach many more people than they had thought possible; such is the case with puppeteer Ralph Lee, who in 1974 created some large hand-held puppets for area residents to parade through Greenwich Village (starting and ending at Westbeth) for a Halloween parade. Since its origins, the parade has grown into an annual event that attracts thousands of masked participants and over a million spectators; in fact, the parade has grown so large that the city insisted the route not start or end at Westbeth but go down Sixth Avenue instead. Lee has since distanced himself from the parade thinking that it has morphed into something unwieldy; but art has a way of taking on a life of its own that transcends the intent of the artists and becomes meaningful for a community that may not have been the original audience. The Village Halloween Party is really larger than Westbeth or Greenwich Village—it is now the city’s parade to revel in that moment when the boundaries between this hectic living world and other worlds become very blurred; and there was a moment in the 2001 parade where Lee’s medium contributed to a very touching gesture for a wounded city after 9/11: a large hand-held puppet of a baby phoenix rising from the ashes….
At any rate, Westbeth has a continuing vibrant legacy that I hope all visitors to NYC might take a moment to go and visit for themselves; if you are interested in exploring other sites of incredibly creative NYC history and the arts, please consider taking one of my River-to-River walking tour of West Village/East Village – we might just stumble upon some creativity in the works. Happy Halloween!