Still Fighting, 20 Years On


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An iconic East Side artist is once again fighting her landlord over a tenant downstairs


upper east side Twenty years ago, the artist known as Matuschka won a major victory for her neighbors by leading the charge to force out a Cooper's Coffee restaurant on the Upper East Side. The store had earned a number of Health Department violations and made life hell for its neighbors, keeping them awake at all hours with an overwhelming coffee odor that seemed to not only come through their floor, but also seep through electrical sockets and cracks in the wall.


Now, all this time later, Matuschka - a successful photographer perhaps best known for the award-winning "Beauty Out of Damage," a self-portrait of her post-mastectomy chest that appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine ? is fighting an eerily similar battle.


She says her apartment on 87th and Lexington Avenue is again virtually uninhabitable because of Eli's Essentials, a Zabar's store that moved into the space in 2013 after a string of businesses were unable to afford rent. Despite a clause in her lease agreement preventing the landlord from renting the first floor space to any "coffee shop or food establishment that does cooking (such as broiling, frying, baking) or steaming," Matuschka alleges that Eli's Essentials is doing just that, and she once again finds herself at war with a tenant in her building.


While the facts of the squabble are in dispute -- staff at Eli's maintains that the food is cooked elsewhere and moved into the store each morning -- for Mastuschka, it represents something far bigger: that for artists like her, it's become nearly impossible to both live and create in the city.


Matuschka arrived in New York at the height of the 1970s creative boom, moving into the same apartment where she still resides. She attended the School of Visual Arts before embarking on a career that crossed paths with the likes of Salvador Dali, Carl Icahn and Norman Wexler, the screenwriter who penned "Serpico" and "Saturday Night Fever."


Most of the artists from that time period have died, though, or been forced out by exorbitant rent prices. David Byrne, Patti Smith, and other NYC fixtures have all warned the next generation of creators to avoid the Big Apple. Byrne, the lead singer of the Talking Heads, wrote last year that "a culture of arrogance, hubris and winner-take-all was established" in the birthplace of punk rock, hip hop, and new wave.


"Everybody I know has left because it's become a big shopping mall," Matuschka said of the city's current incarnation. "It's all about consumption and money."


She said that in the ongoing conversation about lower crime rates and gentrification, New York has lost its grimy, inventive spirit. The same places where art galleries once stood have become unrecognizable in the shadows of condominiums that are occupied for only a fraction of the year.


"You don't have the feeling that all these people are creating," she said. "There's a very different energy when you're around artists and creative thinkers than when you're around lawyers and businessmen."


Matuschka herself is only able to stay in the city because of her rent-controlled apartment. She's undergoing breast reconstruction, though, and the smell of soup and coffee from downstairs has made it impossible to sleep at home without drugs, further complicating her health.


The situation is such that she now has no choice but to consider moving out of her home for the past 40 years, the very space where "Beauty Out of Damage" and other photos were taken.


"They don't really care about me; they just care about how much money they can make off this apartment," she said, adding that it's enough to make longtime residents wax nostalgic for the time before creative New Yorkers were left behind in favor of profit margins. "It was such a different time, and New York was bankrupt."


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