< Return To News Archive
January 4, 2004
Gazing Out the Window, Green With Envy

by Bill Morris
WHEN word got out two years ago that a 400-bed homeless shelter was coming to the neighborhood, a shiver went through my building. The sentiment was unanimous and predictably dark. There goes the neighborhood.

I had to laugh. This corner of Brooklyn had nowhere to go but up. When I moved here from Manhattan nearly five years ago, the place was such a post-industrial purgatory that no one was even sure what to call it. Some said it was Williamsburg. Others said Bushwick. But everyone agreed it was a true urban frontier, a gritty world of garbage trucks, dying factories, snaggle-toothed hookers and scorched carcasses of stolen cars.

In short, the place was loaded with charm. And rents were surprisingly affordable.

For the past two years I have looked out my leaky windows and watched workers turn a drab, abandoned knitting factory into a gleaming homeless shelter with fresh paint, new windows and rooftop terraces. The building and the face-lift cost a stunning $23 million, a bit more than the $5,000 I spent turning my corner of a former doll factory into a livable loft. So when the grandly named Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity on Porter Avenue near Flushing Avenue held its grand opening the other day, with considerable press in attendance, I had to see for myself what sort of housing $23 million buys these days.

Quite a lot, it turns out. After passing through a state-of-the-art security checkpoint, I entered a building that newspaper reporters have likened, not entirely unfairly, to "a boutique hotel" and "a luxury high-rise in TriBeCa."

The place was crowded. People had come to applaud George McDonald, founder of the Doe Fund, the nonprofit corporation that raised the money to buy and renovate the building and will run the shelter for the next 22 years with $180 million of public money. Mr. McDonald is aware that a small army of politicians, business people, homeless advocates and local residents are less than thrilled by his project. Opponents tried unsuccessfully to block it in court, and they still grumble that all that money would have been better spent on low-income housing.

"It's the fear of the unknown," Mr. McDonald said the other day in response to his critics. "I understand that. But we've already been making friends by cleaning up the neighborhood and buying products in the neighborhood. We want to be good neighbors."

Thus reassured, I was ready for a tour of the city's newest and plushest homeless shelter. This one even had its own interior decorator, Harry Schnaper, who has a Madison Avenue address and doesn't usually work in the outer boroughs.

"I make life beautiful for the ugly rich," Mr. Schnaper told me as he pointed out the porcelain tiles in the hallways, the "fun and snappy" red vinyl furniture in the lounges, the pool tables, the stainless-steel shower stalls, the lockers and the 400 new beds in the air-conditioned quarters. Some rooms are blessed with views of my rotting building. Others get a massive garbage transfer station and, in the distance, the Manhattan skyline.

But it was the television sets that got to me most. I do my limited viewing, mostly rented movies, on an ancient box in which actors on the left half of the screen tend to look a little green. Some of the lounges at the Sharp Center, on the other hand, are equipped with state-of-the-art, wide-screen television sets. I reminded myself that I'm not supposed to covet my neighbor's goods, but I found myself turning as green as those actors on the left half of my old television screen.

"My goal," Mr. Schnaper added as we continued on our tour of the shelter, "was to make it clean and bright and modern, not institutional. I think it will be very inspiring for the residents. Just because a man is homeless doesn't mean he can't appreciate it. It makes him proud to be here."

The amenities kept coming. There was a large mural in the front lobby that showed men in the Doe Fund's trademark blue jumpsuits, cleaning a city street. There was a four-station Nautilus machine and a pair of exercise bikes in a corner of the large dining room. There were 10 new I.B.M. computers in the computer room. And there was the library, with built-in shelves, wooden tables and French doors that led to a bluestone-floored courtyard. The library was closer in spirit to the Yale Club than to the Bowery, and its shelves were stocked with everything from Tom Clancy to Dostoyevsky.

As someone who scrambles to pay the rent every month, I wasn't thinking, There goes the neighborhood. I was thinking that I should be so homeless.

I had moved to New York in the summer of 1997 because I'd fallen in love with an intrepid woman who had spent the previous 10 years living on the fringe of the meatpacking district. When she settled there in the late 80's, rents were affordable; few people wanted to live in a place where the streets were taken over at night by swinging sides of beef, men in bloody smocks and six-foot-tall working "girls.'

BUT the place got discovered, and very soon we were Brooklyn-bound. No hard feelings. Anyone who has lived in New York for more than a week understands that life here begins and ends with two deadly little words: real estate. And the first rule of New York real estate is that as soon as a place gets discovered, it gets anointed with a name - TriBeCa, East Village, Dumbo - immediately after which rents go up and the pioneers who settled the place get shown the door. It's Darwinism New York style; only a fool would try to fight it.

Which brings us back to my neighborhood. Now, thanks in no small part to the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity, news reports routinely refer to this area as East Williamsburg. During the past five years I've developed a love-hate relationship with the place. Its main cash crop, garbage, even became my muse, and I've just finished writing a novel set in these perfumed streets. I'm calling it "Garbage: A Love Story."

But East Williamsburg is on the map now, and though it features a 400-bed homeless shelter and a sprawling garbage transfer station, more people are coming every day. My rent is sure to go up when my lease expires in February. So I'm already shopping for bargains, and I'm finding them in the unlikeliest places. Now I'm trying to get my mouth around three words I never thought I would hear myself utter: Upper East Side.

< Return To News Archive ^ back to top