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Carnegie Artist Tenants Fight Eviction


How do you get to Carnegie Hall, the old joke goes. Practice. Well, New York's Carnegie Hall has a plan to renovate the two red-brick towers above its concert hall, turning what are now studios and apartments into classrooms and rehearsal space to promote and expand music education. But the residents - some of whom have lived there for more than 50 years - are not leaving without a fight. They've gone to court.

NPR's Margo Adler reports.

(Soundbite of footsteps on creaky staircase)

MARGO ADLER: As you climb the creaky steps to photographer Josef Astor's studio, you could be - well, here is what he says.

Mr. JOSEF ASTOR (Photographer; Tenant, Carnegie Hall): It was exactly like a set from the opera of (unintelligible). It's got the pitch ceiling 20 feet up there and a northern-facing skylight with a beautiful light washing in. In fact, let me open it up for you.

ADLER: Oh, my. So you have these huge sort of skylight windows.

Mr. ASTOR: Isn't that terrific?

ADLER: The north and south tower of Carnegie Hall once had some 160 studios and apartments. Now, there are about 50, including seven rent-controlled tenants, some commercial studios and some residents who pay market rate. Many of the rooms have spectacular light and a number of them, like Josef Astor, sit right on top of Carnegie Hall's main concert hall.

There are quirky aspects to the building. You navigate a couple of steps and the 8th floor suddenly becomes the 6th floor, the 14th floor becomes the 12th.

Mr. DONALD SHIRLEY (Concert Pianist; Tenant, Carnegie Hall): Hello.

ADLER: Hello.

Mr. SHIRLEY: It's rather…

ADLER: Thank you.

Mr. SHIRLEY: Welcome here. It's a little messy. I'm sorry about that.

ADLER: It looks like an antique shop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADLER: I enter an apartment that looks like a museum with memorabilia, plaques, statues, paintings from floor to ceiling, and the ceiling is more than 30 feet high. In the middle of this glorious clutter is a grand piano.

Mr. SHIRLEY: I'm Donald Shirley. I'm a concert pianist. I have been residing here since about 1955. You see this picture of Duke Ellington and me and Lena Horne. That - this was in 1955, downstairs. That picture was taken in my dressing room.

ADLER: He points to pictures of him with Paul Robeson, a replica from the King Tut exhibit given to him, he says, by Madame Anwar Sadat, on and on. As a rent-controlled tenant, he says, he has to fight Carnegie Hall's plans to evict him.

Mr. SHIRLEY: It's the only home I've known, all of my adult life. And for many years, this was very much like an artist's colony. I think it's unconscionable that artists don't have a place anymore.

ADLER: Shirley is 80 and is in poor health and relies on his neighbors for help. His doctor wonders if he could even live independently in a different kind of place. And at 80, he still plays.

(Sounbite of piano playing)

ADLER: Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, says they will do everything they can for the seven rent-controlled tenants what they are required to do by law and even more.

Sir CLIVE GILLINSON (Executive and Artistic Director, Carnegie Hall): We will find them alternative accommodation that is at least as good, if not, better. We will guarantee to underwrite any difference in rent. Somehow, we have to balance what is Carnegie Hall's commitment to the society at large in which we live and how do we look after the individuals who are affected by that.

ADLER: As in any complicated legal fight, there are opposing stories. The tenants have heard there will be a gut renovation but Gillinson says some of the better studios will be saved. Tenants have received eviction notices. Gillinson says tenants don't have to leave the building until March 2008. But tenants say that guarantee is only if they don't take legal action.

Photographer Josef Astor.

Mr. ASTOR: A few tenants may have signed that to guarantee they had enough time. And the other tenants, like me, I'm hoping, with their feet firmly planted on this beautiful hardwood floors, are going to say we're not leaving. In fact, they've heard all their tenants say, they're going to have to carry me out of here.

ADLER: The tenants went to court and got a temporary restraining order, preventing Carnegie Hall from taking action until September 17th. The tenants argue that Carnegie Hall, which has leased the building from New York City since 1960, is required to rent space to artists. Carnegie Hall says the towers were built to create income to further the mission of Carnegie Hall and that they are legally in the clear.

Sir GILLINSON: There is no obligation to rent in the lease. The only issue is if we choose to rent, there are certain things about, you know, whether one offers it to artists first. Now, what we're talking about is totally the central mission of Carnegie Hall, which is how we serve our communities with music.

ADLER: At bottom, this is a war between opposing goods. Clive Gillinson says Carnegie Hall wants to create a space that will provide music education for the children of New York City, expanding programs that already serve 115,000 people. He says he understands the emotional difficulty. These are people's homes. Despite that, he says…

Sir GILLINSON: There actually is a wider mission about public service that we feel, in the end, has to be the thing that weighs more heavily.

ADLER: But for Architect Tod Williams who has lived here with his wife and son, the fight is not just about keeping his home, it's between two visions of the arts - one celebrates a mixed community, one is a single vision.

Mr. TOD WILLIAMS (Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects; Tenant, Carnegie Hall): The community is dedicated solely to music education, which is a noble cause but it also - will lose some of the rich texture that has always been part of the building. That character will be lost.

ADLER: Carnegie Hall says it wants to take the hall into the 21st century ensuring music and performance will be as important in the future as it has been in the past. But the tenants mentioned the ghost of Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, Isadora Duncan and the many who have lived here, saying the loss of an artistic community will be mourned.

Margo Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career