Flophouse of the (Future) Stars

Melissa Cooperman

Walk along Warren Street near the Bergen Street subway stop in Brooklyn, New York, and you're liable to notice a particularly dilapidated house among the neat rows of brownstones. The tree in the postage-stamp yard is almost overshadowed by an impressive pile of rubbish, empty laundry-detergent bottles, and jagged clumps of drywall--the usual urban biosystem of decay. But this is no forsaken dump: The heavy foot traffic suggests this place is neither neglected nor underappreciated. The mess is merely a necessary step in the construction of something better and unknown. In this respect, the Brooklyn brownstone has much in common with the 15 or so Minnesotans who take turns sharing an apartment here. Both the house and its occupants are in the middle of the process of building and remodeling.

Jeff Bailey, the 26-year-old jazz musician who dreamt up and created Artists of Minnesota New York Apartment Collective (AMNAC) talks much like you might imagine a jazz musician would. His gravely voice drifts in and out of conversation and most of his enthusiasm is reserved for talking about "cool cats," "jams," and "gigs." And while he enjoys playing bass in Minnesota, Bailey believes that "the coolest" of these jams, cats, and gigs can only be found in New York.

In the movies, this realization ends with the plucky artist gathering his things together in a satchel and heading off for the Great White Way. And while Bailey would love to do just that, necessity dictates that he stay in Minnesota--at least until he can scrape up a meal ticket in New York. "As is the case with almost all freelance work," explains Bailey, "you're centered around the people you've been working with. I know people here [in Minnesota] and can work here." While conceding that artists and writers move out to New York by the busload every year, Bailey notes that they are usually invited to wait tables and work at mind-numbing data-entry jobs. "And I prefer to play music," he says.

And this is where the Brooklyn apartment fits in. Bailey's friend--a former Minnesota musician himself--recently bought the building and agreed to lease out the top floor to Bailey and AMNAC. Through word of mouth, Bailey was able to find a dozen other artists from Minnesota who, like him, were seeking a chance to "make it" in New York without putting everything they've worked for in Minnesota on the line.

With 15 people signed up as tenants in the apartment, the rent works out to be around $65 each per month. It's an attractive cost regardless of the renters' intentions, whether they plan to come once a month or every other month or once a year. According to Bailey, no bickering over scheduling has occurred and everyone seems more than happy to share connections, toothpaste, and tips on navigating the New York subways.

James, a musician from the Minnesota-based jazz band the Motion Poets, was recently using the apartment as a home base during his band's East Coast tour. Balancing a plate of spaghetti carefully between his knee and a miniature bookshelf, James was quick to point out that the lack of certain creature comforts--say a kitchen table, a couch, or a television--ensures that AMNAC members do little more than eat, sleep, and pound the pavement. This means that precious little time--time that could be used on hustling one's art--is wasted watching reruns of America's Funniest Home Videos.

And it's true--in terms of distractions, the apartment doesn't offer much. Scan the small two-bedroom pad for traces of its occupants and you'll come up with few identifying items: a few old newspapers, a mop, a magazine or two. The refrigerator is the sad home to a few cans of beer and a bottle of Tabasco sauce. No one stays long enough to make much of a mess, and no one stays long enough to donate more than a few rolls of toilet paper and a spare light bulb. But AMNAC members are happy enough to catch a piece of floor, which, with the heavy traffic that the apartment occasionally sees, is sometimes all they get.

Part of the AMNAC blend that includes drummers, performance artists, jazz singers, magicians, and sax players, 26-year-old Latin and jazz piano player Nicki Craighead tries to keep her expectations simple. "If you're going after the performance aspect, especially in jazz and Latin music, New York is the place to be. Period. It's where you must be to meet other top musicians." In a recent phone interview from her large (and quite affordable) two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis, Craighead acknowledged, "It's different here. If someone in Minnesota is self-employed, that is to say without a steady income, well, that person can live decently and find a community that is supportive. If you are going to be in New York without a stable source of income, you have to really want to live there, and I'm not sure that I do yet."

Nodding in deference to those New York artists who do manage to put up the struggle, Craighead says that these folks tend to be more dedicated to their art. Or maybe not. Before she hangs up, Craighead dismisses such psycho-geographic differences with a shrug: "A lot of people from NY are from the Midwest anyway."

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