Home Is Where the Art Is: Westbeth Opens Its Doors To Literary Looky-Loos

The courtyard at Westbeth.

The courtyard at Westbeth.

The sun was setting when we arrived at Westbeth, and as soon as we entered the labyrinthine corridors of the artists’ housing complex, we found ourselves dreaming about living here, in what a friend described as “a Hotel Chelsea that never dies.”

As far as impossible dreams go, gaining residence in the rent-stabilized complex, which sprawls across an entire city block in the West Village and offers studios with rent that starts around $600 a month, is one of the most heart-wrenching. The waiting list is not only seven to 10 years long but has been closed since 2007. (As if the rent weren’t appealing enough, Richard Meier was the architect who oversaw the building’s 1970 factory conversion.)

But at least visitors got a peek on a recent Friday evening, when residents in 20 of the complex’s 383 apartments opened their doors for the PEN World Voices Festival’s “Literary Safari”—a somewhat surreal pairing of the literary and the domestic. 

Tea Obreht reads in one of the Westbeth apartments.

Ms. Obreht reads in one of the Westbeth apartments.

In event organizer George Cominske’s spacious studio on the 11th floor, which had painfully pretty views of the Hudson, we encountered a writer who seemed just as, if not more, charmed by the cozy setup as The Observer was.

“This is a very disorienting experience, but it’s very cool,” declared novelist Téa Obreht as she turned to face a group of attendees perched on the sleeping platform overlooking the living room. The crowd’s eyes stopped roaming as Ms. Obreht, named by The New Yorker as one of the 20 best American fiction writers under 40, began to read from her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife. 

(Though she published the book at the enviably young age of 26, Ms. Obreht’s literary career has not been without a few hiccups—three other books with “tiger” in the title came out the same year as hers, leading to constant confusion, particularly between her and the “tiger mom.” “People would be like, ‘Oh, you’re that cruel lady,’ and I was like, ‘No, no, I’m the other one,’” Ms. Obreht recounted.)

Writer

Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz reads from one of his books.

When she had finished, Ms. Obreht reflected on the importance of one’s setting to the creative process, explaining how her novel had grown out of a National Geographic binge brought on by feeling “terribly depressed” by the snow and the cold in Ithaca.

“It turns out my writing environment affects me tremendously. I moved to New York eight months ago and I haven’t written a word since,” Ms. Obreht said, then looked around in faux panic. “My editor’s not here, is he?”

Unnerved by the thought that her editor, or any editor, might be in the room (they seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to neglected stories and looming deadlines), The Observer retreated to the halls, where we found photographer Beowulf Sheehan. Mr. Sheehan recommended the ninth-floor apartment of collage artist Joan Hall. He didn’t remember who was reading there (it was novelist John Kenney), but he knew that it was the loveliest apartment he’d seen in the building.

And Ms. Hall’s apartment was indeed stunning, with huge, south-facing windows, comfortable-looking pillows scattered across the floor and art on every surface.

John Kenney

Novelist John Kenney speaks with an attendee in Joan Hall’s apartment.

“I got in early—1971. It was a blessing, the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Ms. Hall said. “It’s like being on a grant forever.”

Indeed, all the residents we spoke with said that they’d never be able to live in the neighborhood without Westbeth—Superior Ink, a condo where an apartment set a downtown record when it sold for $31.5 million in 2010, is across the street. Ms. Hall referred to Westbeth as “a naturalized senior citizen community. The idea in the beginning is that you would become successful and leave, but people never moved on.”

The complex does welcome new residents on occasion. Like Ken Aptekar and Eunice Lipton, who moved in just two months ago after 14 years on the waiting list. Eager to settle into the community, the couple had readily agreed to host literature fans and Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz in their first-floor apartment, which looks out onto the river, but also, at eye level, the cars zooming by on the West Side highway.

“It feels like a very distant thing, very unobtainable, as an international student,” said one of the event volunteers, Chuck Kuan, whom we found hauling around a sketchpad and pencils. “This seems like a dream come true—to be an artist in this residence.”