Columbia University Flophouse – once visited by Sting – closes
Thankfully, evictions have been rare in New York for the past year and a half, in part thanks to moratoria by cities, states and the federal government that have kept people in place during the pandemic. But those protections couldn’t save Aubergine, a quaint flophouse, salon and community of culture enthusiasts at 546 West 113th Street. For half a century, a rotating troop of urban settlers – mostly young people, often artists or academics – took refuge in the five-story Beaux-Arts building, which is owned by Columbia University. Rent: five hundred and forty dollars per person. Earlier this year, citing security concerns, Columbia decided to repossess the building.
A few weeks before the movers arrived, a few roommates gathered for a walk around the premises. Emilyn Brodsky – 36, a physiotherapy student and musician, whose latest record is titled “Emilyn Brodsky’s Digestion” – stood in the moldy lobby. Having spent the last seventeen years at Aubergine, his was the longest tenure of the group. Tall, with bleached blonde hair, she had been out of town for most of the pandemic and looked around in wonder. “Everything is still there! she said.
Brodsky and company continued the tour. In one bedroom – high windows, double-height ceiling – Cassandra Long, a thirty-four-year-old painter and teacher, and a resident of Aubergine for two years, highlighted an elaborate original molding. “The plaster is falling,” she said. A song is said to have surrounded a guest in the mid-1970s, sending her to the hospital. Long said her own space once leaked so badly that the ceiling “looked like it was pregnant.”
The group moved downstairs, passing a bare mattress on a landing, a stereo and an LP called “Don Rickles Speaks” and into the basement, which was littered with old chalkboards and old chairs. ‘school. Prior to its days as an intellectual flophouse, the building housed Columbia’s Department of Slavic languages. “It’s actually a lot better than before! Long said brilliantly.
Aubergine, named not for a French eggplant but as a variation of French hostel (hostel), was started in 1973 by a group of young people, half of them students, who responded to an ad that the university placed in the Times. The city was in a fiscal crisis; two years later, President Gerald Ford told New York to drop dead.
During the visit, some parts of the house appeared to be uninhabited. The front living room only contained a Warholesque screenprint by Bill Clinton. A kitchen on the first floor was almost devoid of appliances. The back yard, sometimes used as a party space, was bare except for a medieval-style plow.
“We’ve never had rats,” said Siena Oristaglio. She is the founder of an arts organization and has been a tenant for nine years. “But there was one in the yard. His name was Frankie. He died during COVID. “
After the guided tour, the group sat in a large dining room, remembering under the gaze of a mounted mannequin head wearing a Viking helmet. The former roommates have been counted. There was the sculptor who, in the late 90s, filled the living room with giant wooden pylons. (“The big dicks,” Brodsky said.) There was the dominatrix who ran away with fifteen thousand dollars from the household pool account. (Brodsky said she spent part of her twenty-first birthday at a McDonald’s, preparing to face the culprit.) There was the tenant who started a sauerkraut business in the building. “They called it Brine and Dine,” someone recalls. Dinners and parties have been told. It is said that Sting came to one, Kathy Bates and Marina Abramović to others. Group meals varied greatly in terms of edibles; several people remembered a particularly awful crab curry.
The six tenants, who were among the last in residence, concluded that the vibe at Aubergine has become less common in recent years. Most of them seemed ready, if not quite impatient, to move on. “None of us was its custodian or creator,” Brodsky said. “If this is the end, it was a wonderful gift.”
Not everyone was going peacefully. A tenant, who had holed up in a room during the tour, refused to leave the building, preferring to wait alone for the end of the moratorium on evictions.
But it seemed the end was near. Upstairs, in the eccentric and subdivided bedrooms, the books had been emptied from the shelves, leaving their outlines in the dust. In the basement, an abandoned puppet theater was installed in a corner. “Does anyone want this? Brodsky asked. “I think I found him on the street like twelve years ago.” The group decided that the puppets should stay, a housewarming gift for the next inhabitants, whoever they are. ??
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