brooklyn

S2 | E8 | Susan Feldman

Narrator:                   

Hey BK, with Ofer Cohen

Susan Feldman:                    

I feel that the development of the Church of Saint Ann and the Holy Trinity that I began in 1979 in Brooklyn Heights I actually completed in Dumbo in the tobacco warehouse in 2015.

Ofer Cohen: 

On today's episode, I talked to Susan Feldman, the artistic director of St Ann's Annes warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Susan curates, unique theater from all over the world. Bringing avant garde shows, and new talent to the Brooklyn waterfront.

Susan Feldman: 

It started as a historic preservation story and it really connected to real estate in a very, I think very special way in a lot of times it can be cynical, it happens, especially with cultural organizations and we have real estate people, it can be like beginning of the end for bad situations and also for displacement of people. In a way, Dumbo was not particularly a displacement of many people because it was never particularly residential, but for me, it really was connected. I mean, I was literally hired by the New York landmarks conservancy when they decided they wanted to save Saint Anne in the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights because it had the first stained glass windows made in America and is a really important historic building.

Ofer Cohen: 

Over the years. Lou Reed and John Cale of The Velvet Underground and actor Willem Dafoe of the Wooster group have all made their mark on St. Ann's. The recent modern production of Oklahoma that's now on Broadway, got it's start there too. As you'll hear, Susan's story is closely linked to the Brooklyn resurgence.

Susan Feldman: 

I actually can still get emotional about it because when I walked into St Anne the Holy Trinity, I thought that it was one of the most beautiful interiors that I'd ever been in New York, even in America to some degree. I personally was looking for something with culture, history, emotion and beauty and I thought this would be a great place to move with the arts. The city was completely different when it came to real estate because it was sort of the end of a period where arts organizations and artists, could find places lofts or places that had been abandoned and you could get buildings for like a dollar a year, to help re revitalize the city. And in terms of Brooklyn, people were not particularly going to, Brooklyn institutions the way they were going to New York City. You know, to the ballet and Bam had just, I mean, in 1979, the next wave wasn't even there. So the people I was,speaking to, to try to help the landmarks conservancy and the church figure out what they could do to save their building and to have a public use that could complement it as house of worship when people like, you know, Harvey Lichtenstein and Joe Papp who was at the public theater. So this is just to set how far back it was.

Ofer Cohen:    

So through, through the eighties and nineties. I mean you've seen tremendous transformation around you. But tell me about those early days in terms of actually, you know, running a theater, attracting audience and developing shows.

Susan Feldman:  

So my job was really to go around and meet people who needed, there was a Brooklyn Opera Society, there was a Brooklyn philharmonia chorus. There was a Brooklyn Heights symphony orchestra. There was the new cycle theater that was a feminist theater company. There was the people doing, Celebrate Brooklyn that wanted to work during the fall and winter and spring. So they became the beginning of what became a season or, a constituency for, for the church. I was only hired for like three months, but then it turned into almost 40 years. So what happened was the groups, were using the space, we'd set up a season. Brooklyn Union gas made the brochure. It said there was something called arts at Saint Ann's, so that started to develop over time because there would be the companies that would do some of the programming and then there would be a couple of, of things that, you know, we would want to program. And for example, there were a group of women in Brooklyn Heights who were preservationists and they were very involved at the landmarks conservancy around the historic windows. And so they had a gala, you know, with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which at the time was run by Charles Wadsworth. And He fell in love with the church and he fell in love with the acoustics of the church. And so he decided after that concert that he wanted to work with us to create a preview series for Lincoln Center so that we were going to have all the great chamber music artists, singers, and instrumentalists. We're going to come to St Ann's for, you know, three or four concerts a year, classical music, and they ended up putting the building on the map with artists because they loved performing there. And that was also something that became very important to what's followed us through the whole trajectory of 40 years is this relationship between us and the spaces that we're in and the artists that were working with.

Ofer Cohen:

Why did you move out of the church?

Susan Feldman:   

Because the relationship between us and the church basically ended and we realized that the beauty of the of the relationship with the church was, which lasted for 21 years. So I can't say it was a failed relationship. It was an amazing relationship, but it kind of depended on who the priest was.

Ofer Cohen:     

Sure.

Susan Feldman:

And you know, the end of the relationship , for the arts and the church at the time really happened over two different priests. There just wasn't the compatibility of mission. But we had this going concern of this beautiful arts program and even the stain glass studio. And so we decided to move out, took everything with us.

Ofer Cohen:         

When you move to Dumbo, you made a conscious decision to focus more on theater?

Susan Feldman:    

What would happen was we moved to Dumbo and David,, they gave us studio, they give us sort of space and 70 Washington where we could set up our stain glass studio. We could set up an office and we can continue our puppet lab. But David said, look, you can always stay as long as you're giving back. Dumbo and the whole first year I said to him and Jed, I can't give back to Dumbo. We need a space. We need a place to perform. And so 38 water street, the tenants who had been storing cardboard left and smack Mellon had moved the carousel had moved into the old spice factory next to 38 water street, if you remember, which is where Jane eventually put the carousel before she moved it. So there was a gallery that was going to be there and then we were going to be there. Um, but we were sort of just a new game in town. Uh, and so we opened right after 9/11 with a big concert. It was big blues concert. And I remember, Martin Scorsese was starting a series on channel 13. So he hosted it and there were three different film makers that film the different sections. So Lucinda Williams was in it. And, um, the Mississippi Hill country guys were part of it. And that was kind of the first big thing we did. And we had Porta potties because we had 600 people in there or something, or 800 people. And David walked in and he went, oh, this is like Woodstock. I like it, you know? And people were coming up to him and saying, thank you for bringing Saint Ann's here and saving them and, and all that. So I think from the very beginning, it was something where we were kind of looking at each other and saying, what can we really bring to Dumbo? And that would be long lasting. And I think over time they began to see that something really could happen. We were supposed to be there nine months and we were there for 12 years. And I think we shifted from music to theater because in the church music was the thing that worked beautifully. And we had all that height and all that grandeur. And it wasn't really very good for spoken word or for theater anything. And now here were in this warehouse at 38 water street that had all this depth and not that much height, but it had this also amazing location. So, we started to use the depth and again, because we bring artists in who needed space and wanted to, experiment and could use that kind of open footprint, that became our signature. So literally we put up one wall.

Susan Feldman:    

Wow. And the tobacco warehouse at that point was vacant, abandoned space. Um, you know, on state owned land essentially, right?

Susan Feldman:

Yeah it was a shell and the empire stores where decrepit and kind of falling apart. But again, it was this sense of groups of people. It's always been groups of people wanting to do something amazing. And so all the studies that the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation was doing, um, with stakeholders to figure out what, what could happen in the empire stores, what could happen in the tobacco warehouse, who is going to govern Brooklyn Bridge Park, how is that going to all work? You know, we were in all those meetings and we were really interested to see how we could, how we could be part of it and how we could be helpful.

Ofer Cohen:        

That's an interesting point. So that's how the organization actually started as, essentially a partnership between arts and activating and sort of revitalizing an area.

Susan Feldman: 

It's true and, and we had to make it safe, you know, he had to make sure people knew how to get there. And so we had to figure out lots of things like way finding. And I remember we had these sandwich boards that would sit on the corner and you got, what do you face it this way or do you face it's that way. So people coming down dock street and you know, so really labeling things and trying to understand them and also bringing wonderful artists who had followings, who need, the Wooster group needed to be able to work outside of their small garage at the time because they had Willem as part of the company and the company was growing and doing bigger projects and they need a bigger audiences and we could, we could accommodate, we could accommodate them. And some amazing work came out of those early years. Um, one of them you may have heard of 'em Mabu minds, Lee Breuer directed a production of a doll's house with little people. The men were played by little people and the women were played by full grown women. So it sort of turned the whole nature of the sexism of a doll's house upside down because he had these big women in these little tiny men. It was really fascinating and there was a lot of great experimentation and we still did special music and some big music musical programming, but it really turned into a theater at that point. And then the time that the board really took off and grew into a wider board, uh, was when we knew we were going to do a capital campaign, when it became clear that, that the tobacco warehouse could become our future home. But that just took a little longer than we expected. It was a big detour.

Ofer Cohen:          

So tell us about the detour a little bit of the tobacco warehouse.

Susan Feldman:   

Okay. So the low points, now we go to the low point. So one low point is the war with priests and we leave the church. That was obviously hard. Uh, but in Dumbo, um, you know, we'd had this long relationship, to Dumbo and now we were, it became clear at a certain point that the Walentas' were going to develop 38 Water street. So 2010, I guess the Brooklyn Bridge Park Concept for governance came together. And um, so we were at a pretty high point. We had won the RFP and we went to Borough Hall and there was like a ceremony and I was thinking about how they were actually, you know, we're going to be given a lease to this property between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. And I was thinking about Manhattan Island and Henry Hudson, you know, like you go back in time and it's pretty meaningful. And we had tremendous excitement about what we were going to do. And then about a month later we were all served with papers and so we were sued. We and Brooklyn Bridge Park and the city and the state and the federal government, everybody was sued for conspiracy, which to us was like collaboration of people working together to develop the tobacco warehouse and the empire stores. But there were some procedural grounds that people fought it on, having to do with the fear of privatizing part of the park.

Ofer Cohen:       

Yeah. The suit was filed by?

Susan Feldman: 

Brooklyn Heights Association, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy, the preservation league, there were actually, two suits, a federal suit and a state suit.

Ofer Cohen:     

So the preservationists?

Susan Feldman:    

They joined on the ones who had hired me.

Ofer Cohen:          

Right. That's the ironic a detour here.

Susan Feldman:  

Right, that was an ironic moment. So we were devastated to be honest with you, because, you know, we didn't feel entitled, but we felt motivated and we felt like we had a great plan and we knew that we were going to take good care of this building and we knew that it was going to meet all the criteria of preservation and arts and civic use. I mean, cause we'd been doing it for so long and quietly in a way, you know, like not with big fanfare but just focused, you know. And so at the end it became so political. So we were kind of very frustrated

Ofer Cohen:         

In the midst of a legal battle St. Ann's that's moved out of its temporary rent free location on water street to another interim space at 29 Jay they had to overcome so many hurdles by 2015 the $30 million renovation of the tobacco warehouse, half of which was funded by the city was complete. And St. Ann's had a permanent home for the first, first time, 2015 was when you opened, in a way, it's a whole different job for you because now you have a permanent home and you just could focus on programming. Right?

Susan Feldman:              

Yeah. I focus on programming, but I'm also concerned, I worry that there's only one gallery building. You know, I worry that, you know, I mean luckily 29 Jay where we were, it's still active as a theater and is a dance school, so it's still got a cultural use. So, you know, I really hope that those kinds of places can stay.

Ofer Cohen:                

Sitting in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Do you miss those cozy days?

Susan Feldman:              

Well, I actually work very hard to keep that cozy feeling. And you know, for example, when we moved from 38 Water street, well first when we moved into 38 Water street, there was this pioneering spirit. So, and the Walentas' were the ones who, who invited us down. And one of my favorite things is that Jane, David and Jed all claim us. They all believed that they were the ones that brought us and I love all of them. And they really, really brought us in almost like a family. And I could see how, how they were, having the space used similarly to the way the city was when we came to Brooklyn Heights. You know, they were activating buildings and they were activating the neighborhood with organizations that, you know, had something to give and also something to gain from developing a new neighborhood. So it really became a community of, of again, the developers, David Selig and, and Peter Lawrence had just started rice, um, you know, and rice was, you know, giving out free ice cream to bring people into the restaurant. And so we became this community of people that really felt like we developing Dumbo. We were building a neighborhood. So where is in the first one, we were saving a church, and, and having this great arts program for art's sake. Here we were building a neighborhood and still have a place in in Dumbo so that it's not, you know, just a tourist spot. I mean I recognize why the location is what it is now and why it attracts people and why it has to be all that, but it also has to have an inner life. So for me, it's like who are the new partners and some of the new partners are the empire stores people, you know, cause we can do stuff together and 29 Jay, you know, because that became a rehearsal space for our Oklahoma. as it moved to Broadway, we used it as a rehearsal space for the jungle, Angels in America rehearsed there. So there's still some of that shared use, which I hope will stay.

Ofer Cohen:              

So do you ever have any dreams about doing a St Ann's warehouse in some of the more grittier parts of Brooklyn where you know, like what Dumbo was 19 years ago, which is hard to find in Brooklyn right now. But let's say the border, you know, sort of Bushwick and Ridgewood.

Susan Feldman:                       

Well, they're doing it.

Ofer Cohen:                             

Right.

Susan Feldman:                     

You can see Bushwick starr and Jack, you know, they're doing the chocolate factory, they're doing it. And those neighborhoods are gentrifying so fast.

Ofer Cohen:                           

Right. It's much faster than in a way. Um, what happened The transformation of place like DUMBO

Susan Feldman:                       

Yeah. It's different, right? Sort of like a sweep.

Ofer Cohen:              

And so how do you feel when you roam through Brooklyn? How'd you feel about those other neighborhoods? And so like to do you have this, kind of like, do you wish you would be operating, there like 25 years ago.

Susan Feldman:               

Do I wish I was like, 30 years younger? Do I want to start it again? You know, it's very interesting because just this year I started thinking about that. I started thinking about that. What's the next thing that needs to happen, you know, um, you know, I'm looking for it.

Ofer Cohen:               

The entire story that you just told us, could it only happen in Brooklyn? Or do you just see it happening and other places?

Susan Feldman:             

I think, I think the trajectory of St. Ann's could only have happened in this Brooklyn or that Brooklyn to this Brooklyn over that period of time. I think there was something really against it happening. Like you can think of underdeveloped cities, but you don't think of Brooklyn Heights as an underdeveloped city and you don't even think of the Brooklyn waterfront isn't underdeveloped part of the city. Right? But they, but they were hungry. They were lacking in a way they were a little bit culturally deprived in a certain sense because there was no home grown acknowledgment really. And so I think that that was, that became a very important, there's a magical thing that happens between artists and people and where it happens. It's very important. And I think that that happened with Bam and with us. And I think the fact that it happened, it happened for both organizations in Brooklyn is amazing. And not a coincidence. And I also think having an enlightened mayor, and also I have to give, I have to give the developers, they were pretty enlightened also. Um, in terms of who they chose, how they chose restaurants and how they chose Quirky people. Bryce was a quirky place, you know, David's a quirky guy, you know, and, and Jed's quirky. So you have very special vision, I think happening and people getting along and not easy people. You know, like sometimes I think my board is like all anarchists now. They're all quirky people and they get along with each other. So there's a sense of purpose that people can unite around. And I think that was also unique.

Ofer Cohen:                     

I was asked a silly question at the end of the program, which is a tell us something that nobody knows about you. And different people answer differently but it's sort of like, you could do whatever you want with that question.

Susan Feldman:                   

I think what people don't know about me, is me. They know what I do , I guess. I guess unattached in a certain way to space like, I can float.

Ofer Cohen:                 

Susan Feldman . Thank you so much.

Susan Feldman:                            

Thank you so much. It was fun.

Ofer Cohen:            

You are listening to, Hey BK, the podcast about the people behind the Brooklyn transformation. You can find us at heybk.nyc or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Ofer Cohen. Thanks for listening.