Book Review: Vertical Village

Upon flipping the first page, cultural anthropologist Miriam Chaiken takes us back to the 1970s, introducing us to her father’s siblings, Shami and Joe, who moved into adjacent studio apartments in a formerly derelict building in Manhattan, NY, and lived there for the rest of their lives. The fifty-year-old building they lived in, Westbeth, was the result of a then radical mid-century housing project meant to provide struggling, early-career artists with an affordable living and working space, as well as a creative artistic community.  

Westbeth is the brainchild of Roger L. Stevens, founding Chair of the National Endowment for Humanities, Jacob Kaplan, philanthropist and patron of the arts, his daughter Joan Kaplan Davidson and architect Richard Meier. The building, formerly the Bell Laboratories building in the formerly derelict Meatpacking District, was retrofitted to contain 384 units for artists to inhabit. And in 1970, in one square block on the corner of West Street and Bethune Street (which is how the building got its name), this unique housing experiment opened its doors.

Ideally, Westbeth was meant to serve as an incubator of sorts, supporting artists by giving them a low-rent space to establish themselves and within five years, they’d move on to other studio spaces throughout the city. However, many of the original Westbeth inhabitants are still living there. 

Famous and obscure artistic figures have called this building home–from visual artists like Diane Arbus and Bill Kenon to dancers and choreographers like Merce Cuningham and Martha Graham (who’ve had their studios in the building) to actors and directors like Jack Davidson and Moses Gunn. Members of this community have been bonded through each other’s successes and failures, through the terrors of 911, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and the traumas of COVID-19. They’ve consistently drawn together, protected each other, and watched out for each other. 

Around the time Alduino took interest in this building and its people, he was living at the bottom of the West Village and working for Annie Leibovitz, whose studio was located on the far-west end of 14th Street. He would pass the “behemoth maze” called Westbeth for nearly four years on his daily walk to work. In early 2017, his curiosity led him inside, which eventually converted into a three-year exploration of the building and the artists who’ve called it home.

His exploration resulted in this book, a collection of eccentric souls who’ve put Westbeth on the map–of their colorful spaces and personalities, of elders in their 80s, 90s, and even 100s who are still producing art and staying active in the social climate of New York City. Their strength, their stories, and their work serve as a powerful testament to the kinship this community has formed through decades of life’s pitfalls and celebrations–a Vertical Village.

Get a copy of the book here. 

About the Author

Frankie Alduino is a photographer residing in New York City. His entry to the photo industry was as an intern at The Richard Avedon Foundation. He went on to work in-house at Annie Leibovitz Studio for a number of years before taking the dive into creating his own work full-time. His photographs, which center around themes of community, isolation, hope, and faith, have been awarded in American Photography 34, 35, and 36, Graphis Journal Photo Annual, been shortlisted for The Hopper Prize, and have been published in New York Magazine, InStyle Magazine, Garage Magazine, Artsy, and Document Journal among others. Vertical Village is his first monograph.
Follow along with his work on his website + Instagram.