by Anne Pyburn Craig
Around the turn of the century, Midtown Kingston looked pretty bleak. IBM had been gone from the neighboring Town of Ulster for several years, taking with it the dollars that fed a wide variety of families and businesses. Other industries had been gone even longer. Back in the day, many useful and lovely things were made in Kingston. Folks wondered if that would ever again be the case.
But the city’s good bones remained. Brick buildings stood forlorn, beautiful and decaying, as people hurried from one end of Broadway to the other, on their way to somewhere else. Kingston was a city in need of heroes.
|Photo by Stephen Blauweiss.
Enter one Mike Piazza. A real estate guy from “Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island, Queens, Rockland, and now Ulster County,” as he describes himself, Piazza could have turned out to be just one more empty bag of promises. Many have come here with big ideas, only to grow frustrated. But Piazza’s plans, and perhaps his very nature, were different.
“I have a small brokerage company, and when someone walked in my office door with the information on the [Shirt Factory], it just struck me as a very reasonable price and proposal,” he says. “It was a good building with a lot of potential.”
Piazza made the purchase in 2002, after the opening of Monkey Joe Roasting Company in Midtown Kingston (by Gabe Cicale). “It seemed timely; Starbuck’s was just coming on and making news [in the area],” he says. “The Shirt Factory was basically in shambles in the dead center of Kingston. There were a couple of artists in the building, but the place was a complete wreck.”
Indeed, in the building’s condition at the time, unconventional and tough-as-nails creatives were probably the only ones who would have considered calling it home. Windows were covered in sheetrock, the only doors were the roll-up kind, and the heating system was barely functional. Many people would have just seen a structure that could only have been improved by a wrecking ball.
But Piazza saw reinforced glass under the sheetrock, generous spaces, wood beams, and classic brick. And he admired the grit of the existing tenants. “Some tenants have been here for 17 years,” he says. “The superintendent has been here for 40 years, and he’s going to stay. The people had huge potential, just like the building itself.”
As Piazza was pouring money and love into the Shirt Factory, Kingston was struggling toward redefining itself as a hotbed of creativity. In the first decade of the 21st century, initiatives like the Kingston Digital Corridor and Tech City were striving to gain altitude. But while other efforts floundered, Piazza’s thrived—and somehow, so did the overall renaissance of this historic little city as a fine place to make art. Alongside venerable organizations like the Art Society of Kingston and traditions like the Artists’ Soapbox Derby, Piazza’s revitalization efforts played a role in developing what Business Week would, in 2007, call one of the best places in America for an artist to live.
Artists anywhere might well wish for a landlord as supportive as Piazza has proven to be. “It’s not just random,” he says. “People who come here come here because they need this type of atmosphere. They like the ceiling heights, the large windows, the creative pulse. The building has life. It’s vibrant. A hundred and fifty people come in and out every day.”
The 64,000-square-foot Shirt Factory now houses 60 tenants, including Piazza himself. “I live here and I love it,” he says. “It makes for a short commute and a good connection to the tenants. And the synergy is wonderful. The tenancy has matured, as better tenants have continued to move in and put down roots. The building has a life of its own now.”
Having found it to be generally a good thing, Piazza has continued buying up Kingston’s historic brick heritage, brushing off decades of cobwebs and creating mixed-use showplaces. Besides the Shirt Factory, the Brush Factory and the Pajama Factory are up and running. More than simple renovations, the buildings have emerged as anchors of the emerging Midtown Arts District. The WWI-era Brush Factory, with a new sprinkler system and Otis elevator, now houses office and commercial space. The Pajama Factory houses about 30 tenants in spaces with 10-foot high ceilings, hardwood floors, and lots of natural light. Rents are kept reasonable, and pets are welcomed.
Shirt Factory artists are encouraged to host events and gallery openings. A lot has happened here: the list of endeavors includes “musicians, ceramists, sculptors, stained glass makers, filmmakers, glass blowers, painters, woodworkers, photographers, fashion designers, makers of musical instruments, sound mixers, vegan cheese making, media mavens, a pole dance studio, and both fine and conceptual artists, as well as small businesses that add to the variety that makes up this community-within-a-community, unique in a region already noted for its creativity.”
“I think the biggest surprise for me is how much satisfaction I get from seeing tenants mature and thrive,” Piazza says. “I do a little painting myself, just dabbling. It would be hard not to want to pick up some type of creative expression in this atmosphere.”
Though other speculators with various schemes and agendas have gone down in flames and tossed blame at the local powers that be, Piazza doesn’t find the city and county governments to be problematic. “There are always going to be those little moments and details that need working out, even if you would think that after 300 years you’d have a well-oiled machine; life happens,” he says. “There are ways in which I suppose the planning boards and such could be even more streamlined and efficient, but for the most part, everyone has been very supportive and cooperative.”
So much so that Piazza is forging ahead into still more projects, this time focused on the Rondout district. He’s currently got three projects in the works there; the former Bridgewater Café on Abeel Street is farthest along. “We’re converting it to seven residential units,” he says happily. “Three of the apartments have lofts, two have walkout patios over the creek, and the lower level ones have walkout patios. One unit has 22 windows! Three are already rented, two to New York City artists and one to a doctor at Kingston Hospital.” The 1900-square-foot building has skylights, timber and beam ceilings, and on-site private parking.
|Photo by Stephen Blauweiss.
Then there is 11 Abeel Street, the former headquarters of the Forst Meat Packing Company, being reinvented as Abeel Terrace, with creek views from every apartment. “That one will have eight floor-through residential units, front to back. We’re starting construction this fall, in October or November,” he says.
And 9 Hone Street, an early 19th-century Greek Revival residence will become a mixed use space with residences upstairs and space for a gallery or studio downstairs. “I basically bought that one to anchor that end of Abeel Street, looking at the neighborhood as a whole,” he says. “It was a single family house with a storefront, and we’re converting it into two units, a two bedroom and a one bedroom, plus a gallery/studio downstairs. The one bedroom has a covered porch.” A San Francisco artist has already signed a lease on the gallery space.
Even that isn’t all. Piazza has commercial space in the works in Saugerties, and “one more place under contract in Kingston, but I can’t even talk about that one yet.”
Some still fuss about Kingston’s decline. But the critical mass—bolstered by high-profile doings like the O+ Festival, Jazz Festival, and RUPCO’s renovations of the Kirkland Hotel and Lace Mill Factory, as well as the newest proposal for the $20 million Green Line Center mixed-use complex on the site of the onetime Ferraro’s Mid-City Lanes bowling alley—is clearly on the way. One day in the not-too-distant future, visitors and locals may come to Midtown to enjoy not just a show at UPAC, but an overall ambiance driven by the arts and a Broadway teeming with activity.
Piazza, perhaps somewhat unusually for a real estate developer, speaks like a man who’s found his own creative spark and niche in this world. “I could retire,” he says, “I’ve thought about it a lot, but things are starting to happen, more all the time, and I’m enjoying myself enormously. We just keep improving the buildings and pouring the money back in. It’s a really good feeling, saving brick history, making homes for people who use them to do amazing things and create beauty.”
Shirt Factory Artist Profile: Stephen Blauweiss
compiled by Lisa B Kelley
The Shirt Factory is one of three historic industrial buildings in Midtown Kingston—between the gallery scenes of the uptown Stockade district and downtown’s busy riverfront Rondout—that have been converted into mixed-use spaces. Located one mile from the Hudson River, the Shirt Factory, Pajama Factory and the Kingston Brush Factory have been more than merely rehabilitated and serve as the anchor for the newly formed Midtown Arts District.
Stephen Blauweiss is an independent filmmaker and has been a tenant at the Shirt Factory for four years. A native of New York City, he first came to Kingston 17 years ago. He produces ArtScene, a monthly video web series, made up of four short segments including one about that month’s Chronogram cover artist. Subjects include profiles on artists and artisans, area museums, galleries, the art history that forms the vibrant creative community in the region, and more. Many of the segments appear regularly on PBS. The series can be seen at Chronogram.com/tv.
Blauweiss has produced over 40 short films about artists, including one on pop artist Robert Indiana. His film about artist Joan Steiner was exhibited as part of her installations at the New York State Museum and MASS MoCA. Blauweiss’s films have also been screened at other museums and film festivals in the US, Europe and Canada. A sampling of these films can be seen at ArtistFilmDocs.com
Stephen is also currently co-directing and producing a feature length documentary with Lynn Woods, entitled Lost Rondout: A Story of Urban Removal, due for release this fall. There will be an exhibition this November about Lost Rondout at the Art Society of Kingston that will coincide with the film’s release. The trailer for the film and great photos of the buildings lost along Kingston’s waterfront can be seen at LostRondoutProject.com.
Stephen Blauweiss’s film projects have ranged from Math: Adds Up To More Than You Think (an inspiring portrait of mathematically-gifted middle-school students from underserved schools in the South Bronx, who were invited to participate in a summer program in upstate New York) to Rappin’ For Godot (a satirical take on Beckett’s play as presented by a pair of academics who try rapping to appeal to a young contemporary audience), to a film about the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as composer and poet.
Blauweiss has taught Photoshop for over 20 years, including a decade at Pratt Institute, in addition to the Fashion Institute of Technology. Stephen now runs his classes at Tech Smiths in Kingston and also gives private lessons. For more information visit HudsonValleyPhotoshop.com.
For more information on projects under development visit: ArtistWorkSpace.com