Thefiveeleven is a daily photo project devoted to Brooklyn Block 1783, lot 93. The address is 511 Lafayette Avenue.
This project began its life as a personal journal morphing slowly into a neighborhood history project. I post daily photos of the lot here and have started researching the people who have owned it, and who sold/ mortgaged it as it fell into disrepair.
My little photo project started as a private thing – This lot dominates the view from the front of my apartment, and the longer I lived here the more I noticed how much time I spent staring at it figuring out what had changed from day to day.
In the “about” section of the tumblr (written 5 years ago) I described watching a decaying building as a “metric for the passage of time”.
I think what I meant, what I mean, is that in a city where things move extremely quickly, and where I felt kind of out of control of my own future, this slowly decaying architecture helped me stay grounded. It became a routine to help me keep track. It was meditative. Like watching a forest grow.
I started researching the history of 511. Talking to people on the block about what they knew about it.
I liked the idea of building a timelapse file that theoretically would take years to complete. I considered making the world’s most boring desk calendar.
Then, around Christmastime 2015, a demolition crew showed up. By the time I came back from the holiday all of the windows were gone, and the interior was gutted. By February the lot was a hole in the ground. What had started as a fun little journaling project became a document of the last years and days of a building that had stood since the 1840s, housing a diverse range of humans and exemplifying the history of my neighborhood and my city.
According to city records, 511 Lafayette Avenue was built in 1915. The first digitized record I have for it is an occupancy certificate from 1940. Then nothing until a mortgage dated 1964. Some digging around has led me to archives indicating that the building was there in the 1840s, and possibly as early as the 1825 (I found an add about a lost terrier belonging to a tenant in a paper from that year).
The ownership history of 511 Lafayette follows the patterns of the neighborhood: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Seeming to change with the pacing and makeup of the place, even as it is now being turned into cheaply built loft-style condos.
The few early records I have found are kind of inconclusive, but I know that a family of Italian immigrants bought the building with cash in 1930 and lived there until the 60s. An African American family bought it in the 60s, taking a mortgage out in 1964. They owned it in various permutations until 1996. The building was bought by a small-scale landlord, shadily mortgaged in 2008, falling into disrepair by 2010. In 2014 it was foreclosed on, re-mortgaged by a large real estate group, and then slated for full demolition in 2015. I imagine that the new building will be completed by the summer of 2018. From what I can tell, the shady mortgager, the real estate group, and possibly the company constructing the new building are all the same people.
The recent history of the building is what I have the most details about:
IN 1985, a double murder (the guys on the block say drug-related, the New York Times says burglary) occurred there. The owner, her younger son, and a tenant are killed.
After some passing around of the deed, 511 goes to a man named Kamau Kambon – another son of the owner.
Kambon, incidentally, would go on to become semi famous in 2005 after giving a speech calling for the extermination of all white people. In that speech he also mentions having taken a decision to live completely off the grid.
But he remains basically the owner (there are some fun blips I’m skipping here), until 1996, when the building is sold. The mortgage is filed as $95,000.
By 2008, this owner takes out a second mortgage on 5 properties in and around Bedford Stuyvesant. Its for $1.3 million.
Meanwhile, in 2007, city violations start coming in. The largest one is for creating an illegal 3rd apartment in the cellar. The violations get bigger and bigger (reaching $24k for a single fine of failing to comply in 2010).
But by 2010, the building is abandoned. The first order to seal the vacant building is dated 6.27.2009.
On 3.26.14, the city files the following complaint: “Vacant bldg. for 2 years open front door, windows & fence down; occup by squatters”.
On 4.25.14 the property is foreclosed on. Bought out by a company called “Flushing Ave Plaza” (formerly the “Mendel Group”, who sold the original mortgage in 2008).
This is what the building looked like on that day.
Flushing Ave Plaza, would go on to mortgage the building, along with a second property, for $2.2 million, and submit demolition notices.
By Feb of 2016 it was gone. Totally gone.
Look, I’m not super sentimental about this stuff. The entire history of New York City is a tearing down of the old to replace it with newer, more profitable things. A land of opportunity. Its not particularly romantic, but in my opinion it is part of the culture of the city – inextricable from living here.
But this little project has become so much bigger than myself as I kept making it. People who lived in the building, who knew the families that lived there have reached out to me. This one comparatively tiny detail in the history of Brooklyn, is a node of so much information about the broader culture of the place, and the people who make their lives there.
Thefiveeleven continues as an instagram: @thefiveeleven . I am continuing researching and writing and thinking about it, so please feel free to reach out to me if you have information, or thoughts, or whatever.