Martha Graham, Diane Arbus, and Merce Cunningham once worked in Westbeth, a creative housing complex and the subject of photographer’s new book
Every week day for a little over three years, photographer and producer Frankie Alduino passed 55 Bethune Street on his walk from his West Village apartment to his job at Annie Leibovitz Studio. Alduino walked by the building hundreds of times, intrigued by the sign that read Westbeth Artists’ Housing below the address. “It’s a very out of place building in a glossy pristine neighborhood,” explained Alduino. “It was built between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, and it’s a giant industrial complex of these 13 different interconnected buildings.”
55 Bethune Street was established as Westbeth Artists’ Housing in 1970 to provide affordable housing for artists and their families. Back then prostitutes walked the piers in search of johns, and blood from the nearby Meatpacking District would run down the streets and into gutters. The building was home to a few New York legends: Martha Graham’s dance studio was once housed there, choreographer Merce Cunningham also spent time there, and photographer Diane Arbus had lived there. In more recent years, producer Dante Ross had his recording studio in Westbeth’s basement, where he wrote tracks for MF Doom, Busta Rhymes, Macy Gray, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, as well as “Put Your Lights On” by Santana and Everlast, for which Ross won a 1999 Grammy. Now, it’s at the edge of one of New York’s most expensive neighborhoods; The new Whitney Museum is just two blocks away, and the High Line Park stands a few streets to the north.
In 2017 as Alduino was ending his stint working for Leibovitz, he finally wandered into Westbeth Artists’ Housing. “I just popped in and poked around, and ended up talking to some people,” he recalled. “It was a fascinating place.” Alduino wound up spending the next two years photographing the space and a number of Westbeth’s residents, many of whom have remained there since they moved in the building in 1970 because of its prime location and affordable rent. What Alduino thought was going to be a small project ended up taking up several years and becoming a book, Vertical Village: A book of photographs from Westbeth Artists Housing.
In 2020, Westbeth’s 50th anniversary, the residents had planned a celebratory exhibition of the housing complex and Alduino’s portraits. Covid-19 would put those plans on hold and, sadly, take the lives of one of the people Alduino photographed. By happenstance, as the rest of the nation protested for justice for George Floyd, Alduino ended up photographing Dr. Anthony Fauci for the July 2020 cover of InStyle in a socially distant shoot at his pool. Later that year, Alduino turned his portraits of Westbeth residents into Vertical Village and exhibited the photographs at Westbeth Gallery this spring. Alduino recalled the stories of 11 of his Westbeth subjects, from Karen Santry, the fashion illustrator who procured a couch from Chanel; to Vija Vētra, a dancer who has performed for Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth; to Ralph Lee, who founded the Village Halloween Parade; and painters Jenny Tango and Robert Bunkin, who had met when she was his high school art teacher.
Karen Santry, Fashion Illustrator and Fine Artist, 2017. Lived in Westbeth since 1990.
I have never met somebody as jazzed as her about absolutely everything. She was talking a mile a minute and her house was…It was just wild, the way she inhabited it. I think she was telling me [about] the giant couch she’s sitting on, she saw it in the Chanel store window. She walked in and she’s like, ‘I want this couch,’ and they’re like, ‘Okay well when we’re done with it, like, it’s just a prop, I guess you could buy it from us.’ So she bought the couch out of the window. She never cooked, so she would store shoes and clothes in her oven and her [other] kitchen appliances.
She [would say], ‘This is not a home. It is a set for my life.’ It very much was. She was a ball of energy and also she was a teacher at FIT. I think the hat she was wearing was something she designed. She had lots of fashion illustrations. She’s a very brilliant fashion illustrator. The giant dog cut-out, that’s one of her pieces, and she has some of them floating around the grounds of Westbeth, so you can see her stuff all over the place if you keep your eye out for it.
Helène Aylon, Multimedia and Ecofeminist Artist, 2018. Resident of Westbeth 1970-2020.
Helène had been there since the very beginning. She had lived such a long life and she was a very incredible artist. She was doing stuff in the ’60s and ’70s that was pretty cutting-edge in the way she talked about the intersection of feminism with religion. There’s another photograph in [Vertical Village] of her bookshelves. It was called The God Projects, and she went through the Torah extrapolating the misogynistic pieces of Judaism, and seeing how what feminists take from this work is reconciled. She did these huge land projects. She’s in the Whitney, she’s in the MoMA. She passed [from Covid] in spring or summer of 2020. She was very open and giving, which is not the case with a lot of people you photograph, but she was willing to be very vulnerable. It’s not that we talked about tons, but the experience—that’s what made the photograph for me, was the time I got to spend [with her].
Shelley and David Seccombe, Photographer and Sculptor, 2017. Residents of Westbeth since 1970.
Their place is like an archive of all of the work they’ve done throughout their whole lives. David, he’s got these huge sculptures. They’ve been there since [Westbeth] opened. If anyone walks the grounds, you’ll see his giant sculptures peppered throughout the grounds, and he has stuff in the courtyard. Shelly, she’s a really good documentary photographer. She documented the piers on the West Side Highway for all of the ’70s and ’80s. She’s got dynamic photographs as it changed and evolved into something completely new. Their apartment is very dynamic in terms of what was living and what was working because it seemed like the two were so symbiotic. They’re both very much within their practices still. They’re not the ones who have given up their work for living.
Gloria Miguel, Actress, 2017. Resident of Westbeth since 1970.
She is, I think, one of the only Native Americans in the building. The building’s a little homogenous. There aren’t a ton of people of color. It’s interesting when you do have these folks that [represent] diversity in a new perspective. She was pretty pivotal in the theater and art scenes, and how all the other actors and playwrights came together. Each piece is very meaningful to her by the way she inhabits her space and all the textiles within it and what it means to her lineage and her family. It was fascinating and beautiful and something that really rooted her to her past, but it was something that she carried through her whole career.
Carol Hebald, Writer, 2017. Resident of Westbeth since 1991.
The little artifacts throughout the photograph…a stuffed animal, the religious imagery of the crucifix on one end, the photograph above her head, and this writing pad—all of these symbols I feel represent her very well. She’s one of those artists [where] it wasn’t necessarily about the things we talked about, but the openness and willingness that she would exchange with me. She was very vulnerable and open and willing to sit and let me photograph what I saw and not control the situation, so it was special to be with her.
Jon D’Orazio, Painter, 2018. Resident of Westbith since 1970.
He was such a sweet man. He has been making these paintings for years. Out of the frame, if you look on the far left edge as if it continued—he’s a very devout Buddhist, and the symbolism of circles for him has been the centerpiece of his art practice for decades and decades. He has all of these circle paintings that he continues working on. It’s the symbols, like the pink in his house, or the rose-colored glasses. He’s one of the [artists] who has been a good historian for Westbeth, and kept all of these old press clippings he showed me. He was so excited to be part of this community in the 1970s that was alive and vibrant and crazy. He was very kind, sweet, and full of life. It’s reflected in his portrait, but also in his work. He’s not dwelling on depressing, heavy things.
Vija Vētra, Dancer, 2017. Resident of Westbeth since 1970.
Vija was 96 when I photographed her. She wouldn’t actually let me in, because she doesn’t let anybody into her apartment. She has a curtain drawn across this little entryway, which is where she let me photograph her. I couldn’t really see the rest of her home. She’s a stunning dancer who has been all over the world. She’s from Riga originally. She was displaced, and she ended up kind of bopping around. She was in England and then in Australia and had this wild life, dancing for the Queen and meeting Gandhi and touring all over the world, until she finally came to New York and she ended up settling in Westbeth. She’s lost pretty much every person in her life that she grew up with, and all of her family members. The illustrations as she has drawn on these on paper plates and on cam tops, and all this ephemera, she described them as personages for all of the people that she’s lost. This is what she’s left with, and this is what she holds dear, and what represents all of the people that have been in her life, which is kind of heartbreaking.
Jack Dowling, Writer and Painter, 2017. Resident of Westbeth since 1970.
He ended up losing his legal battle [in the 1960s over this large loft space on the east side] and NYU ended up coming in and taking his home away. He found himself homeless, and somebody that he knew was like, ‘Well, have you heard about Westbeth?’ They just saw an ad in the New York Times for it, and he was like, ‘Well, I have not.’ Jack walked over to Westbeth, and they gave him an apartment on the spot. He was doing tons of painting, and moved into creative writing. Everybody at Westbeth loves him for the curatorial job he did with the Westbeth Gallery. He was a kind, generous, sweet man. If you’re looking at the picture of him sitting on this stairwell, there’s a painting on the right edge—it’s an original Francis Bacon. He has unbelievable art in his apartment. He’s so cool. I loved him. He’s got excellent taste.
Ralph Lee, Puppeteer, 2017. Resident of Westbeth since 1970.
He was the guy who started the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. He’s a really incredible puppeteer, and did so much in theater. He started out as an actor, but really moved into all these spaces—like sculpture, performance, set design, puppeteering.
Jenny Tango and Robert Bunkin, Painters, 2019. Residents of Westbeth since 2015.
They were on the waiting list for 25 years. They were in Staten Island before this. You can look at the picture and tell there’s an age difference between them. I’m like, ‘How did you meet?’ and they both made this expression that’s in the photograph. They’re like, ‘Well, we met in school.’ I was like, ‘Oh, you went to school together?’ And she was like, ‘Well, I was Robert’s high school art teacher.’ It turned out she had an affair with him when she was a teacher and he was a student. She ended up divorcing her husband, and they moved in together after he graduated from high school, and they’ve been together ever since. They inform each other. The way that she paints clearly informed the way that he paints now, [he] is directly influenced by her. It’s actually a really beautiful creative relationship.
Vertical Village: A book of photographs from Westbeth Artists’ Housing is available at shop.frankiealduino.com.