Before the new owners of the historic Hamilton Street Clock Factory seal it up and begin the arduous process of turning it into artist lofts, a few ghosts returned to haunt the buildings abandoned halls.
Dimitri Rimsky was one of those ghosts. The former nightclub booking agent turned mime, video editor, graphic artist, and photographer has lived many lives. During much of the 1980s, he lived those lives at the clock factory in the Mill River/Fair Haven section of the city.
He was among the artists, entertainers, makers, and rebels who made the first attempts at transforming the clock factory into a place for “creatives” and roustabouts to live, work and play. On Monday, he joined historic rehabilitation consultant Bill Kraus, who has worked for over a decade to help redevelop the 150-year-old factory, to take one last tour of his former home and workshop. Kraus is inviting back ghosts like former artists, entertainers, and even clock factory employees to create a documentary about the living history of the building before it gets a new lease on life.
In its next iteration, the clock factory will be known as the “Clock Shop Lofts.” It will have 130 apartments. The new owners, the Oregon-based Reed Realty Group, will have its tax assessment on the property frozen at just over $1.2 million for the next seven years, or about a $51,591 annual tax bill.
That agreement is contingent upon its residents making only up to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), which is defined as $70,480 out of an $88,100 benchmark for a family of four. About 44 of the 130 apartments will be reserved for artists. The project is expected to cost about $37 million. (Read more about the project here and here.)
And the tour of what’s left of the decaying former factory brought back memories for Rimsky, who was among the people who helped turn it into a magnet for underground artistic activity in its later years. From punk and rock and dance music at the former Brick ‘N Wood International Cafe to mimes and strippers and “edible” art creators, the clock factory was at one time home to it all.
“It wasn’t quite as bad as this,” Rimsky said Monday as he walked through the building Monday. “They’ve ripped up shit and piled it everywhere.”
Rimsky remembered that owner Tony Yagovane and his family were working on one side of the factory. There was a nightclub being planned for the bottom across the quadrangle. There was the guy who fixed pianos and possibly made string instruments.
“The guy that we met had his papier-mache gallery up in that area where I was,” Rimsky said. That guy was the artist and now Florida State University Professor Paul Rutkovsky, who started the Papier Mache Video Institute at the factory in 1977.
Rimsky bumped into him and Beverly “Bev” Richey, the first artist-turned-public relations director for The Arts Council of Greater New Haven, as Rimsky led a reporter and photographers through the dank, dark factory guiding them over precariously covered holes in the floor and up and down staircases lit only by flashlights. Richey now lives near Milwaukee.
“There was a couple of bands that tried to have rehearsal spaces here and kept getting broken into and having their stuff stolen,” Rimsky recalled. “We talked to them and tried to fortify their spaces. It took about a year, we moved in while we were working on it. We had to do everything ourselves. Tony helped.
“And we had friends who had knowledge of certain things,” he added. “We had friends who were electricians. Friends who were plumbers. Or knew something.”
He said most of the people who lived and created at the factory didn’t know anything about the type of trade work that their friends did. But they learned.
“We did all of our own plumbing, all our own electricity, all our own gas lines,” Rimsky said. “And for the most part, we were really good about code and doing it right.
“We weren’t squirrely,” he added. “We were going to live in them and we wanted them to be as safe and efficient as possible. We were looking at it as the long haul.”
The dream was much like the one that the new owners of the clock factory have promised to deliver, Rimsky said— with one exception: It was a do-it-yourself dream.
“There was a loft system on Daggett Street but the whole arts culture renovation of urban spaces hadn’t really caught on here yet,” he said. “It was being done certainly in New York, and certainly in other urban spaces where that segment of the population needed low-income, low-cost flexible space.”
Rimsky said if you’re an artist working on a 20-foot canvas you can’t do that in a small walk-up. And old factories with high ceilings, made from tough materials designed to get dirty and withstand experimentation were appealing to artists and makers of all kind.
“They are these incredible spaces,” he said of the factories. “And artists aren’t fussy. A hot-plate and a sink and we’re good. You don’t need a marble top counter in your kitchen.”
And once they made parts of the building habitable, “it was play time,” Rimsky said.
“We had a beautiful dining table,” he said that had been made from things found in the factory. “We didn’t have any real kitchen facilities but we would make these incredible meals on hot plates. We’d have dinner parties and dance parties.”
Rimsky had brought along photos of the old space that he and his friends had tricked out with a movable video editing booth and a graphic design bay. There were scavenged barber chairs, televisions and anything that could be put to some use. There even was a refurbished disco ball from one of the clubs that Rimsky used to work with during his booking agent days.
He moved out of the building in the late 1980s after a fire—started by a resident who had been drinking and fallen asleep while smoking a cigarette—ravaged the section of the building where he lived on the fourth floor. Nowadays Rimsky is in his words “a partly-retired house painter” who lives in Washington, Conn.
It All Happened At Hamilton Street
Bev Richey said in 1978 she was taken under the capable wing of Paul Rutkovsky. At his Hamilton Street studio, she was cultivated to explore and document transient art. She began to develop edible works there: She baked exhibits that were created, shown and consumed—“for very small amounts of money,” she said — right at the clock factory.
“People began questioning,” she said. “‘Cake isn’t art,’ they’d say. ‘An edible isn’t art.’ At the time in New Haven, those were very radical ideas.”
She said Rutkovsky was supportive of her work as she kept at it putting together exhibits with other artists. Meanwhile, women in the local arts community were beginning to ask: If men have mechanics and metal work, why couldn’t women make art out of the industries that were familiar to them like baking, and needlework and fabric?
“This happened as a result of being here,” she said. “It was me getting chances. This was home base. Paul was showing in New York and in other places but this was home base.”
Richey put together an art show in 1983 called “1984” after the Orwell classic. The show put the clock factory on the map as an artist haven, particularly for experimental, transient and avant-garde art. The show was covered to rave reviews by the New Haven Advocate, the New Haven Register and Art New England in part because it dispensed with putting art on walls. It put art in cake form on their plate.
“It was the show that made the building famous,” she said.
The way the one-night-only show was promoted — with 6,000 postcards and 4,000 flyers flooding the city — caught the attention of Frances “Bitsie” Clark over at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. Clark would hire Richey to become the council’s public relations director
“She said she was brilliant because she knew nothing about the arts but she knew a lot about organizations,” Richey said fondly. “She hired me because I knew arts and I knew it because I kept my eyes open here.”
Richey did once get herself into a little hot water with the Arts Council board and Clark. Ironically, it was over artist housing. When it was discovered that the Audobon Street Arts District was not going to be affordable housing for artists she put together an edible exhibition called, “Eat Audobon Street.” She served it at the Arts Council’s annual awards event.
“I’m watching rich people take the candy bars and slip them in their pockets,” Richey recalled. “They got upset when they found out what it was about.” Clark wrote her a letter that she still has that said she couldn’t make any art without the approval of the council but forgot to take Richey’s name off the letterhead that she had created.
It didn’t hurt their friendship and Richey kept making cake including orchestrating the edible exhibit that was made for New Haven’s 350th birthday. It was among the many memories she has of how art that grew out of the Hamilton Street factory created social engagement.
All three of the ghosts of the Hamilton Clock Factory’s past were happy to know that things were looking up for their old stomping grounds and that artists have a future in the reincarnation. But their optimism was tempered by what they’d seen happen in other places.
Rimsky who is involved with the planning commission in Washington said he thinks it’s great to have affordable housing under any circumstance.
“In the little town that I live in we have no children, school is dying, our volunteer fire department is dying because working people can’t afford to live there,” he said. “So the result is that you have no community. So to have affordable housing is an opportunity and a civilized thing to do to be able to make sure that everyone in the community has a decent place to live.”
But Rutkovsky, who still lives in Tallahassee, Fla., made the same point that many in the city have made: It depends on what you mean by affordable.
“The history of a lot of affordable housing is that you can’t afford it,” he said.
Rutkovsky is a self-described enemy of capitalism: “I’m a vegetarian, I’m a socialist and I’m a populist. It’s this exceptionalism and the idea that America is what it is because of exceptionalism. America is what it is because there are too many goddamn capitalist billionaires sucking our world dry.”
That said he’s hopeful about the factory being transformed into affordable apartments that include artists.
“What’s the alternative?” he asked. “That this would fall apart? At least from what Bill has told me, there will be a gallery and those artists have a say in what the gallery is going to be. But I have a feeling because this is top down—that’s what capitalism is about—so that’s the downside. It’s not coming from the community of artists or the community of humans.”
Rimsky said he and his colleagues tried the bottom up approach but it was hard because they didn’t have any money.
“There was a lot of resistance,” he said. “The hardest thing was the bureaucracy. The building codes are against you. That’s why the top-down becomes the solution. Because they have to pay the system all the way down. And they system says, ‘You’ve got all this money. Of course, you can do this.’ Whereas a guy like me can come in and take over a space and they come in and find a toilet and say, ‘Well that doesn’t look legal.’
“And then you’re screwed,” he said.
Bev Richey was less bothered by the fact that it was top-down and more concerned about what happens if the redevelopment is successful enough to jumpstart the neighborhood. Where do the artists go then? She suggested it would be best if artists owned the spaces, or if there was long-term rent control.
“The rent will always go up once the scene starts hitting,” she said. “Then the stuff is going to become valuable. That’s what gentrification has been doing forever.”
She is a big fan of the fact that the new lofts are not just for artists because she said it’s not necessary. She pointed to the bureaucratic birthday cake art project for the city. It was created by artists but also by people who were not. She said Rutkovsky brought working class people to Hamilton Street and it wasn’t a “hoity-toity scene.”
“It’s very important to demystify the creative process,” she said. “This whole idea of ‘artists’ is just another artificial barrier. The creative process belongs to everyone.”
Do you have a story about the clock factory’s heyday as an actual working factory, or its days playing host to punk rock bands and even R&B crooners? Bill Kraus wants to hear it. He’s also looking to raise money to make the documentary happen. Reach him at email@example.com.