CHB Interviews: Steve Wacksman, on the reno of his St. James Place home

Turns out one of my best tipsters and new neighborhood friends owns one of the gorgeously-renovated homes next to that dumpy house I'd love to buy on St. James Place! I asked him a bunch of questions on how he came to own on my favorite street.

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1. By now you know I am obsessed with your house. Who was the first to buy one of these and renovate?

Our next door neighbors at 156 did the first renovation. We were not living here at the time, but to hear them tell it it was an unsightly mess: fake stone stucco all the way up the facade. The parlor door was intact but the stairs had long since been removed or collapsed and only the garden floor door was accessible. They got a tax photo from which to work and, since it was small and grainy, improvised a bit on the details. Many of the details were salvaged from other buildings, etc. They won an award from the Clinton Hill Association for their renovation which was well deserved.

2. When did you move to the nabe, and what brought you here? Where did you live before the Hill?
We moved here in 2002. My wife and I had both lived in Manhattan previously and we were typical Manhattan snobs- I blew off more invitations to visit friends in Brooklyn than i can count, simply because it was 'too much trouble' to get here! I'd lived in the East Village since 1987 and was accustomed to living in what was essentially a rabbit hutch, but after we got married the Missus had had enough and put her foot down. I didn't think we'd find anything we could afford, but within 12 hours she found us a luxurious large one-bedroom in the Financial District. Maybe this isn't relevant here, but as an aside I wholly endorse the Financial District as a place to live- it's like a city within the city and there's so much to discover there; I loved living there for the most part.
Anyhow, we were there for 2 years when she announced that we would own our next home; our days as renters were over. And again, I didn't think we'd be able to afford anything we'd actually want to live in. And after seeing a handful of tiny, dark apartments with high common charges, the prognosis was pretty grim.
Finally I begrudgingly cast my nets wider and included Brooklyn in the search. And I found a house in Williamsburg with 3 bedrooms, 2 full baths and a backyard for just about 20% more than we were looking to spend on a broom closet in Manhattan. Initially it seemed like it would be out of reach, but when I looked at the numbers, certain things made it more realistic: 10% down (vs the 20% all the Manhattan coops required), no common charges, and low taxes. All told, the monthly hit would be about the same!
We lost that one, but the hunt began at that point for a HOUSE in Brooklyn. We saw a couple of dumps in Greenpoint before I found this open house listed. We pulled up as a young couple was exiting - the young woman rolled her eyes and declared the house 'interesting' with obvious sarcasm. It WAS interesting, too in as many good ways as bad. Sofie was taking stock of the hideous purple and yellow color scheme that dominated the majority of the interior,the broken windows and creaking stairs when I whispered to her excitedly "We have to buy this house". And so we did. We knew next to nothing about Clinton Hill - we'd never even heard of it before attending the open house. I went to art school and I applied to Pratt - I declined because too many people told me that the neighborhood was unlivable and a warzone and I'd be unceremoniously beaten and mugged and scalped and would be returned to my grief-stricken mother in a box. Ironic, then, that we bought our house here and proudly call Clinton Hill home.
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3. Is it true that The Notorious B.I.G. grew up on your street? If so, do you know which house?

I have indeed heard this rumor though I can't claim to be an authority on the subject. An unreliable source pointed to a house on the next block (bet Gates and Fulton).

4. Biggest challenge during renovation:
There were many challenges, though none ever seemed insurmountable. We were flying blind for the most part and were lucky that we worked with trustworthy contractors and architects. One of the most sticky issues was with the Landmarks commission, who required us to match our next-door-neighbor's facade exactly. The neighbors were upset because they felt their facade reflected many personal design choices and we should follow suit and design our own house. But Landmarks considered their now existing facade a precedent that we were required to follow. Tempers flared and, unfortunately, relations were never fully repaired.
Living in a house that's having extensive work done to it is not something I'd recommend to anyone- it's just taxing as hell on the nerves.

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5. Your dog is enormous! What kind is it?
Okie is a French mastiff called a Dogue de Bordeaux. They are fairly rare, but were admitted into the AKC last year in the Miscellaneous class so in time I'm sure they'll be more common. He's just turned one year old last week- he has a lot of growing yet to do. He'll likely be somewhere around 140 lbs when he's done. He's great fun and as gentle as a lamb, but he DOES snore and drool. A lot. (LH NOTE: yesterday in the park, I was talking to Steve when Okie shook her head, and her drool flew right into my mouth.)
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention our other dog, The Veal. She's a Boxer- 10.5 years old. I can't say enough good things about her and her breed in general; if anyone is looking for an athletic, fun-loving, good-natured, easy-keeping companion, think about a Boxer. Check out or
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6. Favorite place to eat in the neighborhood:

I'd probably go with Smoke Joint- the BBQ is excellent and the owners are great guys who know how to make you feel welcome and appreciated. Same goes for Cafe Martino on Myrtle- we go there for breakfast on the weekends and the owners treat us like old friends. I can't overstate how much that makes a difference to me- good,friendly service. We find many places treat us like they're doing us a favor by serving us; they rarely get a second chance.

We also like the food and atmosphere at Luz and we take-out from Los Pollitos ands Castros pretty frequently.

We went to Bonita this weekend and it was very good as well; I'm sure we'll be back.

7. What do you most wish would open in the area?
I could fill a book, but the short list is: Grocery with fresh produce and baked goods- not necessarily a 'gourmet' place, but a decent, clean greengrocer. I know the wife wants fresh cut flowers, too. Would love a gym- we joined Fitness Academy just weeks before it closed. Crunch is a bit of a hike...
Also, I dream about a restaurant - a simple place, maybe just slightly more 'upmarket' than an average diner - I'm thinking about the equivalent of an EJ's or Veselka, maybe. Someplace to sit and have a burger or something after 8 PM. What gives with the only diners in this neighborhood closing so early?

8. As an artist, do you feel the neighborhood is conducive to creativity? Do you worry that artists will be forced to leave due to rising prices?
Well, the art school's presence isn't felt as strongly as I'd hoped it would be. But I do see creativity everywhere- that's New York. I see it in handpainted shop signs and xeroxed yard sale flyers and graffiti. It's everywhere and I derive inspiration from everything- at least i try to, but I'm an illustrator, which means I'm a 'commercial artist'- I'm often most inspired by a paycheck and/or a deadline.
Since I moved to NY I've witnessed an increasing lack of interest in or sympathy for creatives - NY has become a playground for wealthy suburbanites who have done their best to reshape the city in their image. The small designers from Waukeegan who would move to NY and open a dress shop on the LES - who can do that anymore? Who can afford to when there's always a Chuck E Cheese or Radio Shack looking to expand their empire? Ultimately, though, I dream NY's inhospitable attitude toward the people that made it what it was will backfire and there will be a creative diaspora. Places like Kansas City and Dayton, OH will find more artists living in their midst while NYC is populated solely by bankers, entertainment lawyers and celebrity chefs.

9. Are you involved with SONYA? If so, how can a local artist align with the organization and participate in the annual SONYA Stroll?
I am not- as I mentioned above, I'm a commercial artist so most of my work is of little interest to art enthusiasts. To my discredit I've never taken the time to learn much about SONYA.

10.If you were a flavor of ice cream, what would you be and why?

I had to enlist some help on this one. Sofie says: "Rocky Road, because you've got crispy bits and soft bits." Long pause. "And you're always sweet" Awww.

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Thanks, Steve!
Steve Wacksman