One way to get to know a neighborhood is by exploring its buildings. So we did. This story is part of a series in The Brooklyn Ink on some of the structures in the borough, and what they tell us about life in and around them.
The stately five-story white brick apartment building on the corner of Bedford Ave. and Grand St. in Williamsburg is bustling again, after years of neglect. The once graffitied and boarded corner space is newly renovated to showcase a Flemish brasserie and new boutiques. The building, 292 Bedford Ave., is at the heart of gentrification that’s transformed this neighborhood into one of the trendiest sections of Brooklyn. There is money to be made.
In 2014, Williamsburg landlord George Wanat, sold the building, graffiti and all, for $6 million, city Finance Department records show. Wanat originally bought the low-rise building in 1976 for $22,600 dollars at a city auction. He would make nearly 300 times his investment in a less than 40 years.
But not long after a Bedford LLC bought the building, which includes 20 apartment units, tenants began to complain to the city’s department of buildings. Many of the tenants had lived there for decades and have stabilized-rent rates. In total, 58 complaints were reported since 2014.
In February of 2014, one tenant complained that the renovations of the commercial space created huge piles of dust and concrete, making tenants sick. A stop-work order was put in place for 292 Bedford Ave., however, the calls kept coming in. One caller reported that the unstable building structure had caused part of the ceiling to collapse in an apartment unit.
A year later, 292 Bedford Ave.’s building manager, Isaac Rosenburg, was charged with bribing city housing inspectors to dismiss building violations. The charges were part of a larger sting operation investigation by Manhattan District Attorney’s office and NYPD in February of 2015.
Approximately $450,000 in bribes were made in connection with more than 100 residential and commercial properties in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, the investigation found. The building manager pleaded not guilty.
Greed and dishonesty at 292 Bedford Ave. have made news headlines before.
Author, historian, and local tour guide James Nevius was particularly intrigued by the goings-on at Bedford Ave. in the past century. The lower-level of the 1910 building was originally opened as a private bank operated by a Ladislaw W. Schwenk. Nevius included the troubled past of the building as part of his Williamsburg, Brooklyn tour. He said in 1914, the state of New York shut down the bank and arrested Schwenk for stealing thousands of dollars in deposits from what was a relatively poor, immigrant population, after knowing his bank was insolvent.
A New York Times news article in 1914 described an angry mob beating on the entrance doors of the failed bank at 292 Bedford Ave. An account from the Times article described the men pounding on the door watched by “weeping Russian, Jewish, Slavonic and German women.’’ The article went on to say that “one man tore about through the struggling crowd crying that he had saved $600 after years of hard work and had intended soon to return to his native land.”
Nevius said the historic building was at the center of a thriving immigrant population on Bedford Ave. He paused before moving on to point out a building close by that sold for more than $20 million.
In spite of the controversy surrounding 292 Bedford Ave., gentrification has ushered in the newly renovated Witlof Brasserie on the lower level of the storied building. The old Schwenk bank is attracting a crowd again, this time for the big screen. The brasserie’s manager Nick Carr said film director Noah Baumbach was just in to use 292 Bedford Ave. as an on-set location with actors Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman for his upcoming film. A silver lining for the century-old building and its neighbors.