Land of the Loft

A native New Yorker revisits a treasured childhood haunt, searching for a Brooklyn that no longer exists.

I accepted a long time ago that my hometown, the East Village, retains only traces of what it used to be. It’s like a woman who’s had so much plastic surgery that it’s unpleasant to look at her directly, but in whose face you can still catch occasional, fleeting moments of genuine beauty. I accept the new reality of the Village because I’m there every day. I can’t muster a tirade every time an organic salon for pets opens a pop-up shop in the lobby of a condo building. But certain corners of Brooklyn that are no longer part of my daily life remain unspoiled in my memory, still perfect in their filthy dilapidation, despite the reality that they’re following closely in over-polished footsteps of the East Village.

As I climb up the subway stairs I start to scan Metropolitan Avenue right away for things that don’t belong, squinting in the morning-after-a-storm sunlight.

I’ve heard enough stories about the time right before I was born, when my father first lived in “the loft” on Metropolitan. It’s almost as if I remember it myself. That time is clearer in my memory than moments I was actually present for. So in trying to piece together what those years were really like, I wondered if seeing the legendary loft for the first time in two decades might unlock some impossible memories, and solidify some real ones.

Though the time I lived there was very brief, and I was very young, a disproportionately large amount of my childhood memories are set in that cavernous artist’s dormitory/gallery/studio space, probably blended together with the stories my father told. Everyone who lived there had a personal live/work space at least twice the size of my present apartment, and displayed their recently completed work in the shared living room. They would sit around the long, splinter-covered kitchen table and talk about what they were working on; give criticism, praise and suggestions; and make jokes that I didn’t understand, laughing loudly and exposing teeth dotted with coffee grinds.

I don’t need or expect to go inside. I just want to confirm that the loft existed. Not just floating somewhere in the ether as a conflation of memory and fantasy, but in a real, tangible building—a building that might even still be standing, waiting for me, in Brooklyn.

1000 Metropolitan Avenue, at the corner of Morgan Avenue, was the home of Estey Brothers Co., a metalworking outfit, from 1909 until sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s. The business still existed on paper until 1991, but when my father dropped out of art school and moved to New York in 1982, the two-story red brick building was recently abandoned and waiting to be taken over.

In the first block I encounter, there is only one business that doesn’t fit with my memories—real or handed down—of the neighborhood, a hip-looking restaurant called Harefield Road. There’s an art supply store called Artist & Craftsman Supply. The sign out front says that it was established in 1985. I wonder if my father and his friends arrived in the neighborhood on the same wave that inspired the store’s owner to open there, or if, in their self-centered, exuberant youth, they thought it opened especially for them.

There’s only one shiny, new apartment building on the walk so far, and it rises a modest two stories above the squat brick buildings on either side. It doesn’t loom over them, drooling glass and steel down their necks like the ones in the East Village. This is 894 Metropolitan; I’m getting close to 1000.

The sidewalks look like they haven’t been repaired or replaced since the day, when I was four years old, that my father told me about how his father liked to take pictures of cracked sidewalk squares because they reminded him of spider webs. The air retains the industrial smell of spray paint and fumes from the auto-repair shop that still stands on its own little triangular block, formed by the intersection of two diagonal streets. Breathing in that bouquet, with the wet concrete smell of nature still trying to exist here—if only by dropping rain on the sidewalks that don’t need it—I could close my eyes and be back in 1991.

Though it’s warm out today, the smells trigger the feeling of cold air and foggy, icy breath. Since they lived there illegally, there was no heat. In the winter, on the nights that I stayed at the loft with my father, we shared an electric blanket. Our rescued stray, Cat Man, cuddled between us like a much friendlier creature than he was. Icy beads of condensation from my breath gathered on his fur.

With so much connected to it, I assume I’ll recognize the building when I see it. I pass 980 and I know I’m almost there. I look ahead a bit and see…a U-Haul rental lot. I stop walking, stop breathing. I was prepared to come back and see my childhood block completely changed; even ready for the loft to have been converted into a store or restaurant, or worse, expensive renovated apartments. But I was not ready for the building to be gone entirely. If it had been converted there would still be traces of the old loft, a glimmer in the eye beneath the Botox. A wink.

Then I notice the unmarked, windowless metal door of the building just past the U-Haul lot, with two crumbling concrete steps leading up to it, and I exhale. This is it.

I stare at the graffiti on the door for a minute, daydreaming about what New York would look like by now if everyone still left the job of painting over graffiti to other taggers instead of dispatching city workers to match paint colors. Then I go across the street to appraise the building from afar.

Sitting on the stoop of 999 Metropolitan, I can’t believe how small the loft building is. Remembering how exhilaratingly high up I felt at the rooftop barbecue we had for my fourth birthday—the very first in a vast catalog of memories from New York rooftops—I skeptically measure the two stories through a squint. The fact that the building takes up most of the block only adds to the appearance of it slouching. I picture the seemingly endless labyrinths, with ceilings fading into imperceptible heights, through which I used to ride my Fisher-Price tricycle, and I just can’t imagine them fitting into this unassuming little pile of bricks. Even the fact that I was a physically tiny child can’t account for the discrepancy. It must be the same magic as all of Narnia fitting into a wardrobe.

Even though it’s just past two p.m. on a Tuesday, I haven’t seen another person walk by in the half-hour that I’ve been pacing back and forth across the street, and up and down the building’s length. One bike delivery guy and two cars have passed; otherwise I’ve been more isolated than since the last time I went camping, three years ago. I imagine my mother, in 1987, twenty-one years old and brand new to the city, walking down this empty street late at night on her way to visit her older artist boyfriend, and I worry about her the way she worries about me now.

There’s a plaque on the outside of the building, about twenty feet to the left of the entrance. I cross the street again to look at it more closely. A perfect patina, the color of Lady Liberty herself, shows the rusted outlines of chipped-off letters: “Estey Bros. Co.” Now, standing next to them, I get on my tip-toes and try to see into the barred windows.

There’s no light inside and some of the windows are covered in cardboard. I can tell the building is empty again, and I have a brief fantasy of prying open the bars and moving back in. From what I can see it hasn’t been gutted. For all I know, the penny I glued to the kitchen floor twenty years ago is still there. This building is not only proof that my loft existed once upon a time, but that it still is my loft; a portal back in time.

I make plans to come back and break in at night when I’m sure nobody will see me, even though I could probably get away with it right here and now. But then I start to come down from my nostalgia high and I remember that though it’s amazingly untouched, this brick building is not actually a magic wardrobe containing the world of my childhood. Even if the physical loft building hasn’t changed at all, even if I could easily break in, even if I did and found my toys still scattered around inside, The Loft is a memory, not a place, and I won’t find it beyond those windows, or any others.

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Lilly O’Donnell (@lillyodonnell) is a freelance writer of personal essays, book reviews and feminist commentary. She works in a dive bar and is writing her first book.

Warren Craghead III lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA with his wife and two daughters.