Alison Armstrong, Writer/Visual Artist

Resident at Westbeth since 1984

In Westbeth: All Because of Cousin Bill

My cousin Bill Anthony is nine years older than I. He’s the son of my father’s sister, Aunt Martha. And we did not get to see one another for years, except at family gatherings. When I was 12, Bill visited us at Grandpa’s while on leave from the army in Germany. Like his father, my Uncle Peter, an officer in World War I, Bill was full of outlandish stories about his adventures abroad. So when I visited Bill in 1966 in his East Village walk-up, I did not believe him when he told me about a special plan for an artists’ building across town and said that I should get on the waiting list. At that time, my son was 2½, and I was returning to Ohio State University to continue my studies.

In summer 1972, I was going to Dublin where I had enrolled in Irish history classes. Bill urged me to put my name on the waiting list for the new artists’ housing in the West Village, where he was now living. During Christmas holidays in New York City in 1974, Cousin Bill again urged me to put my name on the waiting list. I was then at Oxford and said I was never coming back to live in the U.S.

In 1981 I was back in the U.S., having finished my Oxford degree. I managed an interview at Kenyon Review in Gambier, Ohio, not far from my son’s high school, and left England for the editorial job. I was back where I began, more or less. When that job ended, I left Ohio. Bill again urged me to get on the waiting list for Westbeth. By this time, I would qualify as a published writer, and I did get on the waiting list. But my $25 deposit was refunded when, in 1984, I married Robert Jensen, who lived in Westbeth. Bill had introduced us. In a studio Robert had arranged for me, I wrote a literary cookbook, made art, and, after moving to a separate apartment, finished my dissertation in 1989. Robert died in 1990 due to complications from AIDS.

Since then, at Westbeth, I’ve completed six more books, painted, shown art, given readings, and served on the tenants’ council twice. West Village surroundings have improved, and so has our building. We’ve survived the trauma of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. I am increasingly grateful to be living in a true community.

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