Paper’s Former Office Transformed Into A Home For Artists
In the Cypress Avenue building that was the original home of the Ridgewood Times, a group of tenants have partnered with a nonprofit youth group to bring a little slice of the art world to their new home.
Resident Bridgette Vidunas invited fellow tenants and civic leaders to a brunch last Saturday, May 19 to view the beginning of work on a mural to adorn the staircase of the now-residential building, located at 853 Cypress Ave., and to talk about the neighborhood’s relationship to the art community.
The mural, to have a “stairway to heaven” design, is being painted by the participants of Paint Straight, a program run by former graffiti vandal Rafael Perez that seeks to channel young graffiti practicioners away from a life of crime and toward legally plying the craft.
For Virdunas, her friend Renee Turman and Tim Jenkins, who runs the condominium board, the project is the culmination of an effort since February to bring the arts into the building.
“Our building screams gentrification,” Virdunas said. “We thought ‘what could we do to just give back and participate?'”
Many creative types now live in the building, they noted, including Turman herself (an interior designer), an architect, a photographer, a jazz musician and even a well-known celebrity photographer. The site’s two developers, Noah Smith and Ted Haber, even plan to adorn the hallways of the building with photos including archive photos of the building when it used to house the Ridgewood Times before the newspaper moved across the street in the 1970s.
“The vision is we want to have this building be an anchor in the art community in Ridgewood,” noted Jenkins.
Paul Kerzner of the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association agreed with his assessment, stating that he had watched the influx of artists heading eastward from Williamsburg to Bushwick and waited for the wave to come across the borough border.
Kerzner said he knew something was happening when he heard that local shops such as Rudy’s Pastry Shop and Ridgewood Eats were having increased businesses on weekends, and then stumbled onto an art show on Flushing Avenue and Evergreen Street in a former hardware rental store while on his way home from work.
“It hit me over the head like a 2- by-4,” Kerzner said.
He expressed hope that the influx would revitalize the south Ridgewood area, bringing it back to the 1960s, and added that he hoped it may re-spark interest in the historic Ridgewood Theatre, which currently sits empty.
For Perez, however, the project is another step in his Paint Straight program.
He told residents at the brunch that the program was borne out of his own experience as a graffiti vandal who started at 12 years old. As he continued, he founded a “crew” that targeted city properties with tags in an attempt to “stick it to the man.”
“We kind of went crazy and destroyed the city, in a sense,” he admitted.
Perez called graffiti “a gateway crime,” noting that for him, it led to a pattern of drug selling and using. “That was part of growing up in the hood in the ’80.”
He stopped in 1987, went clean and built a successful business in New Jersey. An attack by two pitbulls on a New Jersey street, which led to facial injuries and subsequent reconstruction, led Perez to seek help for post-traumatic depression. Spurred by a suggestion to return to the arts as a form of therapy, he learned that his “crew” was still in operation.
“Something told me I had to work with these kids,” he stated.
Instead of returning to his previous life as a vandal, Perez began to channel his pursuit into helping young teens avoid the troubles he went through, starting what would become Paint Straight. After a 10- week trial with first-time offenders proved successful, with only one teen returning to a life of crime out of 60 participants, Perez took a leap of faith and began working on the program full-time with a grant from the city Department of Probation.
“Now,” he said, “I have the city behind me.”
For one of the four teens in Paint Straight, the program, which encourages former vandals to move their work from buildings and subway cars and onto canvas, was a no-brainer.
“It’s way easier to do it with permission,” he stated.
At the conclusion of the program, each participant will get an opportunity to have their work displayed as part of an art show.
The finished product will be shown at a gathering at 10 a.m. on June 1, the morning of Bushwick Open Studios. The building will also host rooftop shows that weekend in conjunction with the festival.