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Activists Win Right to Return to Loft, But Bikers and City Stand in Way

By Gwynne Hogan | June 15, 2016 11:56am
 Tenants of 13-15 Thames earned protected status more than four years since they got kicked out of their loft space. 
13-15 Thames Street
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EAST WILLIAMSBURG — An artist collective has won the right to return to a communal apartment it was forced out of by police four years ago — but it still has a city vacate order and a biker gang standing in its way.

The city's Loft Board granted protected tenant status to Vlad Teichberg, Jason Beckford and Nico Haupt, all former tenants of the ground-floor apartment at 13-15 Thames St. 

The Loft Board's May 27 decision comes after the trio of roommates, who once hosted anarchist film festivals in the space, used home videos of a resident reciting Shakespeare's Macbeth to bolster their argument.

“We still haven’t won,” said Teichberg, 44, who worked for a hedge fund for several years and helped run a group called the Glass Bead Collective

“But it’s a step in the right direction."

The now boarded-up loft space had been the site of music and art installations and fundraisers for international causes, former tenants said. 

Residents took in stray cats and dogs, salvaged food from dumpsters and prepared communal feasts and meals for the homeless, according to court papers and former residents.

But the alternative lifestyle came to a halt when residents were forced out at gunpoint in January 2012, they said. 

The landlord called police and claimed he'd been assaulted by Teichberg, according to court papers. All arrests from that day are sealed, according to police, and the District Attorney's office has no record of the assault.

"They came in with guns pointed at my head, 15 guns pointed at my head," said Jason Beckford, 34, a bike messenger who has been couch surfing with friends in Brooklyn and Manhattan since he was kicked out.

"It was the scariest moment of my life," he said. "I got arrested for trespassing in my own home."

That day, the Department of Buildings enforced two earlier vacate orders on the ground floor from 2011 that still condemn the space today, according to agency records.

Tenants were arrested and charged with trespassing and obstruction charges, court papers show.

"We didn't even move out. We vacated," Teichberg said. "Whatever was there when we got kicked out is still there. It looks like a time capsule.”

Beckford's cat Dr. Moto had also been locked in the space and he had no way of getting to him, he said. He later learned one of the upstairs neighbors had taken the kitty in.


Once residents left in 2012, the Forbidden One's biker gang, whose members have starred in the straight-to-video vampire movie series Vamp Bikers, took over the ground-floor garage as a clubhouse.

That section of the ground-floor was part of the space the anarchists had inhabited, and is not subject to the vacate order.

Later that year it and several other clubhouses run by the Forbidden Ones were raided by the FBI and investigators found 41 guns, including AK-47 assault rifles and numerous handguns.

The most shocking discovery was a functioning cannon that they recovered at the Thames Street location, authorities said.

The Forbidden Ones remain in the Thames Street space today and were documented by photographer Shadi K. Best of Bushwick Open Studios in 2014.

Several people entering and exiting the Thames Street clubhouse and a member of the Forbidden Ones declined to comment for this story.

A former landlord even tried to open up a bar in what would have been the tenants' living room, DNAinfo reported.

The original vacate order was put in place because a party was held at which building inspectors found an exit blocked, deeming it unsafe.

An inspector revisited the space in 2014, two years after it had been vacated, and saw that there were other serious violations, like lack of light and ventilation and dangerous electrical wiring, a report from the inspection shows. 

The landlord was supposed to fix outstanding violations so that the vacate order could be lifted and residents moved back in, but he hasn't budged in years, according to the artists' attorney Tom Hillgardner and the DOB.

"He doesn't want to play ball with us and we've never heard from him again," said Hillgardner, who'd met with representatives of the landlord two years back and hadn't seen him since.

But now that they have the Loft Board's decision in their favor, they have further ammunition in a stalled Supreme Court case alleging unlawful eviction, he said.

While three former tenants now have legal protections, four others were rejected by the Loft Board for not having sufficiently proved their tenancy. Hillgardner is considering an appeal, he said.

The building's current owners, Thames Street Lofts LLC, bought the building in 2013 for $475,000, property records show.

Joseph Brunner of Kajo Realty, who has a number of other North Brooklyn properties, according to the Real Deal, signed the deed as the building's buyer. His attorneys at Stein, Farkas and Schwartz LLC didn't respond to a request for comment.

If they finally do get back into 13-15 Thames St. Beckford and Teichberg plan to restore it to the communal arts and activism space that it once was.

"It kind of gave me some closure... All my stuff is there, I lost so much stuff: clothing, material, I had a printing press," said Beckford, who'd lived in the space for three years.

"This gives me an opportunity to get back in my space, to go home."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story described the tenants as "anarchists." Not all residents at 13-15 Thames ascribe to anarchist politics.