PEN World Voices Recap: A Literary Safari at Westbeth

Until last week, I had never heard of the amazing artist community Westbeth, which since the 1970s has been providing amazingly attractive, delightfully eccentric, and—believe it—affordable apartments to artists of all stripes in the very West of the West Village. As part of the PEN World Voices Festival last week, Westbeth hosted a “literary safari,” inviting guests into its labyrinthine, oddly dorm-like hallways to attend readings of PEN authors in the homes of Westbeth residents. For some, this was the ultimate in real-estate envy (an avid hobby of pretty much anyone in the city). For others, it was a chance to hear great writers they had never been familiar with read. And for most, I think, it was a combination of both.

Interesting side note: there will be a documentary about Westbeth coming out in the next month, which seems to have been produced by a Danish arts organization. There’s a trailer here.

Here’s the start of the piece I wrote for The L about this:

Just after work and just before sunset, the “Literary Safari,” that took place at the Westbeth Center for the Arts’ romantically crumbling apartment complex just off the Hudson River in the West Village, combined two of New Yorkers’ most beloved pasttimes: attending exclusive cultural events and envying the well-appointed, divinely located apartments of our betters. The Safari promised a “unique experience,” and so it was. For two hours, guests were invited to “wander the hallways” of Westbeth, attending readings by 20 international authors in the homes of Westbeth residents.

For those unfamiliar with the community, Westbeth (which is, to this day, managed by a non-profit orgnaization)—is located in a former Bell Laboratories complex which were converted, in the late 60s, into 383 studio apartments by architect Richard Meier. The community first opened to residents in 1971, promising affordable housing for low and middle income artists of all stripes. (Don’t get excited—Westbeth stopped even waitlisting prospective residents in 2009 “due to the length of time applicants now spend on the list.”) The complex is 13 stories tall, and all of the studios, whose eccentric and whimsical floor plans vary considerably, are centered around a large central atrium. The hallways themselves give the building a sort of art-school dorm feel: many of the doors are painted or decorated by the owners, and each one features a different color triangle, oriented in various directions and suggesting some sort of cryptic code or affiliation. Idiosyncrasies in the layout render it impossible (on certain floors) to walk from the western end of the building to the eastern end, making navigation in the twisting, labyrinthine hallways feel not unlike stepping through the looking-glass.

My full recap is here.

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