Gabrielle Selz, Writer

Resident at Westbeth in the early 1970s

(In 1970, Gabrielle and her mother and sister moved into the newly opened Westbeth Artists Housing.)

Because of the rule that half the units in the building be allocated to families, and most of those families turned out to have more than one child, Westbeth surged with children: crying babies in the arms of tired mothers, toddlers on tricycles zooming up and down the hallways, teenagers loafing in the courtyards, and my clan of overcurious, preteen mischief-makers.

Sometimes, when I tore through the building, I wore my colored paper 3-D glasses. The 3-D glasses, with red and blue lenses, had been handed out to all the tenants at the grand christening in May when New York’s matinee-idol-handsome Mayor Lindsay came and gave a speech about how we were pioneers revitalizing the area. Afterward he put his arm around me as he stepped off the podium. “I’ll never wash again,” I told my mother. Then we’d all trooped into one of the theatres to watch a 3-D experimental movie and roll around on the floor because as yet the theatre seats hadn’t been installed. Even when not viewing a 3-D movie, I still liked how the glasses made the world look as if it had been dipped in different colors of paint.

My gang included between ten and twelve kids thundering through the buildings, up one elevator and down another. In Westbeth, it was common to be accosted by a poet quoting haiku, or a puppeteer on the roof prancing around with a dancer in tights. Our band of ragamuffins in colorful clothing and unwashed hair hardly stuck out. Impromptu performances and readings took place in the courtyard or gallery. Movie stars like Warren Beatty and Julie Christie lounged on beanbag chairs in the film center.

With the building still under construction, every nook and cranny was open and available for exploration. On the thirteenth floor, my gang discovered a majestic theatre with a wall of mirrors at one end and rows of windows on the other. This was to be Merce Cunningham’s dance studio, my mother explained. But since he hadn’t moved in yet, it was OK to play there on its stage. Like most of the “penthouses,” it had roof access. Forget the stage, out onto the roof we tumbled. Some of the more earth-mother types planted a cooperative garden up on the roof, growing lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs in milk cartons and soup cans. When they saw us scampering over the asphalt they tried to chase us off, but we knew our way around the roofs of Westbeth like a band of chimney sweeps.

Excerpted and edited from Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction (2014), W.W. Norton, courtesy of Gabrielle Selz, gabrielleselz.com/unstill-life/.

See Gabrielle Selz’s previous Chronicles story about moving into Westbeth.

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