Cleaning Out the Basement | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Cleaning Out the Basement 

Is there any asbestos in the Flat Iron Building or is Shane Swank just stirring up trouble?

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By Elana Seifert

Artist Shane Swank admits he's no poster child for healthy living. "At times I've led what you might call an excessive lifestyle," he says. "I've been prone to drinking too much and smoking too much and ingesting substances that wouldn't do my career any good unless I was a rock and roller." But now Swank thinks his health may have been jeopardized by exposure to asbestos. And it makes him furious. "As a smoker and a painter, my lungs and my immune system are already compromised. But if anyone's going to treat my life with total disregard, it's going to be me."

Swank and other tenants of the Flat Iron Building at North and Milwaukee--for years the heart of the Wicker Park art scene--are alleging that asbestos was removed improperly from the building's basement last month. But Flat Iron owner Bob Berger and management company Realty and Mortgage say Swank and his neighbors are simply out for revenge after receiving eviction notices. As rents continue to rise in the Flat Iron Building, the current controversy, though perhaps serious, has come to be less about asbestos removal than about the continuing replacement of the old with the new in Wicker Park.

Though there had been problems between the basement tenants and building managment for at least a year, things came to a head only recently. Several months ago, Alex Gaines, a truck driver who rents about 2,000 square feet of basement space, was told his lease would be terminated July 31. Then, in the beginning of May, 90-day eviction notices were handed to Swank and Hans and Erik Kish, brothers who rent practice space in the basement for their band, Hi-Fi and the Roadburners. For the last two years Swank, known for his bawdy paintings of cartoon characters, has run the gallery Poop Studios out of his cellar space. On the evening of May 5, Swank says, he returned home to find a Dumpster parked in front of his door, filled with what he calls "questionable material."

"They'd been taking out a boiler, demolishing it, and I'd been in and out all day," he says. "It didn't really hit me what was going on." When he finally looked into the Dumpster, he saw what he thought was "obviously old insulation. Because of the age of the building and the age of the boiler, I had my suspicions about what kind." Swank called the Mayor's Office of Inquiry and Information to report what he suspected. "I mentioned to them to send someone over first thing in the morning because the garbage would be picked up." He then phoned his friend Mark Siska, a filmmaker who videotaped the Dumpster and its contents. Swank says he also took samples of the material.

When an inspector from the city's Department of the Environment showed up the next morning, most of the Dumpster's contents had already been removed. Gaines says he was present when the inspector arrived. "He stood there in the basement, pushed open the door to where the boilers were--but it was chained, so he could only rattle it--and said, 'There's no fucking asbestos down here,' and left." A few hours later Realty and Mortgage served Swank with a five-day eviction notice. "They didn't waste any time," Swank says.

The following Friday Swank called Stat Analysis Corporation, a private lab, which sent Craig Chawla to the Flat Iron's basement on May 8. Chawla took samples from the remnants Swank supposedly fished out of the Dumpster and from two pipes in his basement work space. Chawla says tests performed that same day show the sample Swank provided contained between 15 and 20 percent chrysotile, while the covering on one of the pipes contained between 5 and 10 percent chrysotile. "That's white asbestos," says lab manager Ben Ruth.

"You've got to be kidding," says Bob Malec, a supervising inspector at the city's Department of the Environment. He maintains there is no asbestos in the building. "What I want to know is why everybody is so interested in this. There's nothing at all in that basement. Nothing at all. We were out there. We took samples. The stuff on the pipes now is fiberglass, and the material on the boiler was not asbestos." Roy Carvatta, who owns Page Boiler Company, the contractor that replaced the boiler, also denies that there was asbestos insulation. "There wasn't even any insulation on the boiler, only a metal jacket," he says. "It was like taking an engine out of a car."

The city's report, filed by inspector Greg Hauser after his May 6 visit to the Flat Iron, states that Hauser "inspected the open basement area including the garbage cans & found no pacm [potential asbestos containing material]. TSI [thermal system insulation] in common basement areas is fiber glass." There is no mention of samples being taken, and no reference to the boiler room. Malec, however, says the city had samples analyzed by Carnow, Conibear & Associates, and they did not contain asbestos.

Then where did the material come from that Stat Analysis said contained 15 to 20 percent asbestos?

"Good question," says Malec. "I'd like to know too."

Realty and Mortgage's John Zimmers, who has supervised the property for Berger since November 1995, says he doubts the authenticity of Swank's sample. "I think [Swank] wanted to get the building owner."

Zimmers has had a strained relationship with Swank. He complains of illegal tenants occupying the basement--four people lease the space, but up to a dozen people have occupied it at any given time, a practice the tenants say was tolerated until fairly recently. "It's commercial space--people shouldn't be living there," explains Jeremiah Drake, who works on the Flat Iron management staff. His New Harlem Theater also has an office in the building. "We've tried to work with Shane. We've offered him space on the third floor. At one point he was going to do some painting for Bob [Berger] in lieu of rent. We also offered to let him do some painting in the building. But he had become seriously delinquent. Believe me, we regret having to do this."

Swank doesn't deny that he owes plenty of back rent--Realty and Mortgage sued him to collect $3,998, though Swank claims the amount should have been closer to $2,000. He also admits that he's had parties and events that haven't endeared him to management. Last year he hosted Chicago's first "Court of Porn," an art show and performance event with porn star Seka as guest of honor. He's also provided space for the first Chicago Underground Zine Fest and a 50th birthday party for Cynthia Plaster Caster, the artist who made her name making plaster casts of rock musicians' penises.

Nevertheless, Swank says he's always had a good relationship with Berger. He admits to falling behind on his rent occasionally during his six years in the building, but, he says, he has always made good on his debts.

Zimmers is unimpressed. "Shane is disgruntled because we're not going to be financing his stay in the building anymore," he says. "The last couple years they've just really started to bring the building down....The whole thing had gotten totally out of control. It had become real raunchy. When you've got people like Seka, when you've got porn stars coming in, you have to ask yourself, 'Is this where we want to take the building?' We were jeopardizing our tenant base. Bob's always had an on-the-edge building, but we're asking people to start looking at it as an art-gallery mall. You have to have a building that people want to come into." Berger says the basement tenants no longer fit into his vision for the Flat Iron Building. He prefers the tenants upstairs--calling them "serious artists"--and claims the basement crowd only wants "to get drunk and destroy."

The video Siska shot on May 5 does not exactly show the basement tenants in a favorable light. Stat Analysis's Bob Ruth describes it, tongue in cheek, as "an entertaining little flick, what with the cigarettes and the profanity and all." At one point Swank appears wearing a mop on his head, "as a disguise," he says.

According to Zimmers, the Flat Iron had asbestos removed in 1993. "That doesn't mean there's nothing in the building," he says. "This is all to the best of our knowledge. There might be some encapsulated asbestos somewhere, in interior walls, in insulation materials, in the piping. But not in the boiler insulation that came out. That was fiberglass. If things weren't safe, wouldn't the city have given us notice?"

A report filed with the city states that asbestos was removed from 340 linear feet of pipe in the basement and the second and third floors in April and May of 1993. The method of removal is listed as "negative pressure glove bagging," in which a vacuum sleeve is placed over the area to be abated, and the material is watered down, cut away, and bagged. Darrel Smith, project manager for Burdco Group, Inc., the removal contractor listed on the report, says his firm has done several jobs for Berger Realty in the past, but he doesn't remember the specific job at the Flat Iron Building. Smith says people doing this kind of work wear personal protective equipment, including respirators. In addition, warning tape goes up within 30 to 40 feet of the work area, and OSHA-mandated placards are posted near the work site. "We also lock the doors," he adds. "Any tenants in the area would be removed."

Swank and the Kish brothers say they have no recollection of that happening in 1993. "Wouldn't we have noticed if guys in space suits came around at some point?" asks Erik Kish, who has leased space in the basement for 12 years. Other long-term tenants back him up. "I never saw anyone wearing protective garb or equipment anywhere in the building," says Diane Cole, a former third-floor tenant who first came to the Flat Iron in 1988. She recently moved out of her studio after a dispute with Zimmers. Like the basement tenants, she says management has been pressuring the older occupants to pay more or move since last year. "It was like Zimmers had been ignoring the property all along and suddenly realized he had a gold mine on his hands. People who'd been left alone before were getting harassed."

In March, Drake came to Cole with a new lease, which raised her $255 rent to $300 with additional electricity charges. "I pleaded my case," Cole says. "I told them I really couldn't afford it and asked if I could stay on just till August. I pleaded my case and they met me halfway. I said, 'Just let me stay on till August to finish up my work. I'm going to be showing my work in Europe, and I need to finish my work for the show.'"

Cole says she struck an oral agreement in which she would continue to pay her old rent and relinquish one of the two spaces in which she worked. But a month later, she says, the building staff began erecting a wall in her remaining space (dividing studios after leases have expired has been a common practice since Berger took over the building in 1993). "Zimmers had shown that room to someone and is going to rent it to someone. It made it very difficult to work. Then in May I got an eviction notice....John made it sound like Berger was ordering it, but I had had very few problems with Bob before. I had not had complaints the whole time I was there. I had cheap rent, and they honored me in their own fashion. I really loved having that space. But recently it's gotten so thuggish and nasty." Having seen management lock up other artists' work as security for back rent, Cole didn't want to take any chances. She left for good last Friday.

Zimmers explains that plans for the building include dividing existing upstairs space and renting the new, smaller studios at higher rates. "About three of the older tenants have about 6,000 square feet between them, paying about $5 a square foot," he says. "The new people coming in are paying anywhere from $12 to $14 a square foot for smaller spaces. That's affordable commercial gallery space."

Last week Swank moved out too. Gaines says he has stopped paying rent and will leave at the end of July, unless management kicks him out sooner. The Kish brothers say they'll stay until they find a new place. "Sure we're worried about the asbestos, but we got nowhere to go," says Erik Kish. Once the current occupants leave, Zimmers says he and Berger intend to continue renting the basement space. "After they are all out, we'll clean it up and have the Around the Coyote offices moved down there." Up through this year's arts festival, Around the Coyote will stay in space Berger has donated. Zimmers calls it "choice space" and says it's attracted interest from some of the potential tenants currently on a waiting list for space in the building.

What will come of Swank's allegations about the asbestos is anyone's guess. He took his complaint to the Illinois attorney general's office, which forwarded it to the state EPA's Maywood regional office. Officials there say they defer to the city of Chicago on smaller complaints. And the city clearly believes the building is safe.

Meanwhile, Swank says, he's keeping his asbestos samples and the video in "a safe place."

"I don't really know right now what I'm going to do with them," he says. "I'm hanging on to them until someone wants them for evidence, I guess. Or at least until I can afford to dispose of them properly."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Shane Swank photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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