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'Last Sun Umbrella Factory' in NYC Wants Williamsburg Artists Out

By Gwynne Hogan | April 18, 2016 3:44pm
 722 Metropolitan Ave.
722 Metropolitan Ave.
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WILLIAMSBURG — Artists who live and work in a warehouse on Metropolitan Avenue are in the midst of a costly legal battle in an effort to preserve their studio and living space from a landlord they say wants them gone.

In a last-ditch attempt to pay their mounting legal fees, tenants at 722 Metropolitan Ave. who run the gallery/theater/artists workshop spaces Standard ToyKraft and Let's Play at Her House are turning to the public for help.

They recently launched a crowdfunding campaign and are plotting a weekend of benefit performances, food and art auctions coming up in early June.

Beyond providing cheap live-in studios for artists, 722 Metropolitan Ave. has a large a workshop with storage space for artwork, a black box theater that gets rented out on a sliding scale and a screen-printing shop.

"It would be an incredible loss," if the building were vacated, said Melanie Paterson-Fay, 30, who's lived at 722 Metropolitan Ave. for four years and before that had a studio in the building dating back to 2008.

Beyond a handful of artists losing their homes and workspaces, the studios are used by nearly 100 people a week between performances, rehearsals, classes and audience members, she said.

"To me, it's about New York City," she said. "Do you want this?"

Paterson-Fay, her husband Daniel Fay and another tenant Jeremy Schlangen, are leading the effort to preserve the loft spaces. They are hoping to defray the $30,000 in legal fees their lawyer estimates it will cost to fight out their petition with the New York City Loft Board to be granted coverage from Loft Law, which would protect their tenancy and grant them rent-stabilized status — but can take years. 

The funds will also go towards eviction cases, they said.

But in the interim, the landlord of their building is itching to get them out, they said, though it's not your typical case of a new landlord looking to make a buck.

The Brickner family, who own the building, have been making umbrellas from their ground floor factory since 1933 and are the last surviving umbrella makers in the city, the New York Post reported in 2011.

Embee Sunshade Company Inc. started out mainly supplying sun umbrellas for lifeguards on New York City beaches but over the years expanded to fabricate sun awnings for cafes, backyard decks and food trucks.

Barnett Brickner, who declined to comment for this story, inherited the building, along with two other family members, when his father Max passed away in 1983, property records show.

About a dozen artists, along with the nonprofit bookstore and workspace Wendy's Subway that now has a space at 379 Bushwick Ave., moved at Brickner's request after he said he would be selling the building, according to property records.

But the sale never went through and Brickner later claimed, in a $25,000 lawsuit, that Paterson-Fay, Fay and Schlangen caused the $24.8 million deal to go south when the would-be buyer found out they were trying to get loft law coverage, the Real Deal earlier reported.

Brickner's lawyer also argued that the building won't qualify for loft law coverage for a number of other technical reasons, according to the lawsuit.

“This is just a vengeful suit against them,” said Michael Kozek, the attorney representing the three artists. “I guess he’s angry that they would dare to say that they have a right to stay.”

For more than a decade, 722 Metropolitan Ave. has seen a revolving door of artists, galleries, performers and projects, residents said.

The black box theater is rented out at a sliding scale, and they offer artists the chance to barter in exchange for the use of their facilities, according to Paterson-Fay.

"It doesn't really matter if I think it's important. It matters if people think it's important," Paterson-Fay said. "Do we want to have a New York City [where] artists are doing work from the ground up?" 

"We are really founded on making art possible for people."