The explosion cracked the summer evening. Light flash and then smoke rising. Another crack and flash, and another, four in all, shredding air and reverberating in the basin of the empty pool. The two camera people watched, transfixed as the sound claps faded and smoke billowed around them. From somewhere in the cloud, a voice emerged.
You guys shot all that? Great. Let’s get out of here.
The artist stepped out of the cloud.
Pack up your cameras, he said. Come on! We’ve got to move!
In 1990, a young filmmaker named Esther Bell made her first trip to Williamsburg. She’d been hired for a shoot by an artist named Stephen Bennett. All Bennett told her was that he had an art installation in the neighborhood, that it was at a local pool and that they’d need to be careful there. He also paid cash, half in advance. This was more than enough for Esther—for a twenty-year-old scraping by in New York City on odd (sometimes very odd) jobs, any chance to make money with her Super 8 was progress.
Esther had come to New York for the same reason we all did—to get away from somewhere else. For Esther those somewheres were Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina. Even though she’d spent most of her life in South Carolina, she never thought of herself as a Southerner. Her mother, Sharon, was an army brat who grew up at Mark Twain Village in Germany. Sharon was twenty-two and working as a window dresser in Heidelberg when she got pregnant on a romantic Paris trip that didn’t include prophylactics (her eighteen-year-old boyfriend was another window dresser). In a pre–sexual revolution romantic saga, Sharon’s high school sweetheart, Randy Bell, who’d also grown up on the base, found out that Sharon was pregnant. Randy returned to Germany from Harvard Law School and the three young people decided that Sharon should marry Randy and go to America. When Esther was born, Randy put his name on the birth certificate. Nineteen years would pass before she met her biological father, when he visited her in New York with his boyfriend.
Randy Bell’s career took him to South Carolina, where he became legal counsel for the governor and then, at age forty, a justice on the state supreme court. He also suffered from Fabry disease, which killed him at forty-nine. His social standing and his illness, along with his brimstone Southern Baptist heritage, made the household a stifling place. When Esther was fourteen her parents divorced and Sharon moved to Charleston. Esther lived a divided life over the next few years—sharing a rowdy adolescence with her mother in a condemned house in Folly Beach, Charleston, while in Columbia, Anglophile, seersucker-wearing Randy and his new wife tried to mold Esther into a belle.
Esther picked rebellion. Putting out a zine brought her into the indie rock world, and she got to know the bands that passed through Charleston (and managed to keep her cool when Mike Ness from Social Distortion started sucking his own dick during an interview). Music led her to feminism and a style of her own. In her senior year of high school, Judge Bell agreed to pay her college tuition, but there were caveats—it had to be a religious institution, less than $2,000 a year, not in a city, and he would select all her classes. Being a lawyer, he drew up a contract and Esther spent her freshman year at Iona College, a small Catholic school in the Westchester town of New Rochelle. (‘Idiots on North Avenue,’ Esther says. ‘They really were.’) When Randy didn’t hold up his side of the contract and pay the tuition, Esther was set free. She dropped out of Iona and enrolled in City College, smack in the middle of Harlem.
Williamsburg didn’t look anything like New York to Esther, as Bennett led her and a second photographer—this one shooting video—down Bedford Avenue, past a shabby park to a brick castle surrounded by razor wire. Brush brambled the fences and graffiti covered every span of brick. Bennett had carved a way through the obstacles. ‘What he’d done,’ Esther says, ‘was he’d taken a torch and made a hole in the fence.’
They crawled through and Bennett sealed the breach, then hurried them away from the eyes of the street. Inside the walls was a pool like no other Esther had ever seen before. Three regulation Olympic pools laid side by side would have sunk into the McCarren basin, which had a capacity for sixty-eight hundred dripping souls. Neglect had drained the pale blue interior. Debris and filth littered the cracked concrete and a copse grew out of the diving pool.
Six years earlier the Northside fathers had solved their integration woes by breaking the toy rather than sharing it. In Williamsburg, Poles and the Irish, Jews and Italians, could swim together, but when brown people wanted in, the water was drained and the pool closed for good.
This was pre–cell phones, Esther says. And I started thinking about how nobody in the world knew I was there with this strange artist guy.
As she waited near the deep end, she didn’t see anything that looked like an art installation. You couldn’t spook Esther easily—she was fit and brave and German solid, with a defiant mane of bright red hair. Still, she wondered what she would do if something went wrong.
Her anxieties didn’t ease when two disheveled men approached her and the video guy (Bennett had disappeared). They all started talking. The men told Esther that they were Vietnam vets and on their way home from work. Home? Home was under the pool, in a subterranean maze of corridors and pipes. And they weren’t the only people who found the catacombs useful. ‘Sure,’ the vets told Esther. ‘The Mafia dumps bodies down there.’ They claimed to have seen the corpses.
As the sun set the vets moved on and Bennett was still missing. Esther wondered if she would have enough light to shoot the art, whatever it was. She didn’t plan to stick around after dark.
Just then Bennett came running toward them, shouting, ‘Turn your cameras on! Turn your cameras on!’
Before he reached them, there was an explosion. And then another one. Four powerful blasts from the top of the keep that guarded the entrance, brilliant flashes and the smell of powder and gray smoke flowing over them.
Thankfully I had kept my finger on the trigger, Esther says, because it was a huge explosion and scared the shit out of us. The other guy didn’t keep his finger on the trigger, so I was the only one who actually documented it. These weren’t M-80s or firecrackers—the explosions were huge.
When the smoke cleared, Bennett pushed them toward the street. ‘Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!’ They ran to the fence and Bennett closed the gap behind them. As they walked away, angling for invisibility, Esther expected sirens, police cars, fire engines to confront the swimming-pool Armageddon. Instead, there was silence.
It was as if four explosions going off was normal, Esther says. Just another day in Williamsburg.
Bennett would use Esther’s footage in a performance piece at ABC No Rio, a Lower East Side art space. On the train ride back to Manhattan, Esther worried about the effect of the explosions on the vets making dinner in the catacombs.
How decadent, Esther says. That was what I was thinking. How decadent. Here are these guys who need a real home and they’re probably having flashbacks while this guy is making his art show.
* * *
Getting off the L at the Bedford stop put you on guard. From First Avenue the train took forever to pass under the tidal strait, too much time to worry about the tons of seawater and mud waiting overhead to crush you. The Bedford station was a bleak hole. The shit-brown paint was cracked and peeling. Rats scurried between the rails and dashed across the platform. Foul water dripped. Upstairs, Bedford Avenue wasn’t any better. At seven p.m. you felt fear in the gloom and rightly so. Old New York hands donned their city armor. The street was quiet but not with the sprinkler hiss of summer lawns: no, Williamsburg was a ghost town. The other folks who got off the subway with you, most of them blue-collar men, hurried down the street, slipped around corners, disappeared. If you were curious, though, if you couldn’t help yourself, you slowed down. You liked the jolt, the city edge; you wanted to see the ruins. Except for the flashing Christmas lights of the Greenpoint Tavern, Bedford Avenue was dark. Shutters masked the storefronts. Some had folding lattice gates instead of metal shutters so you could look inside. Behind the shutters, dust coagulated on display platforms. Merchants had locked their shop doors one day and never come back.
Three guys I knew moved to a Williamsburg loft in the summer of 1988: Stephan Schwinges, Kai Mitchell and Andrew Lichtenstein. They were perfect fodder for a rough neighborhood—young and cocky and willing to live on scraps. Drew and Kai had graduated that spring from Sarah Lawrence College just outside the city, and Stephan was a louche German expat who’d left his homeland under a cloud and bounced from Berlin to London and then to the East Village.
A Mexican American illustrator told Stephan that he was giving up the loft he shared with his wife in Williamsburg, a big space, two thousand–plus square feet for a thousand bucks a month, if Stephan was interested.
Stephan’s response: ‘Where the fuck is Williamsburg?’
But he went out and looked at the loft: two floors on the west side of a warehouse at the corner of Metropolitan and Driggs, right on the border between Northside and South. The back windows looked out onto an even bigger warehouse and a weed-strangled lot. Catty-corner on Driggs was a stoneyard with winches and cables to hoist blocks of marble and granite. An Italian m...