Priced Out in New York City, Where Space Makes Everything Possible

Can Anya Sapozhnikova, an aerial acrobat, find the 30-foot-high ceilings she needs to make her art and her living?

So many New York stories turn on space. That's why New Yorkers scrap so hard for every square foot that they can buy, rent, or occupy. With enough of it, almost anything is possible in that city. I know because, for over six years now, I've been watching Anya Sapozhnikova prove it. The 26-year-old circus impresario, aerial acrobat, and stage producer attracts crowds that line up and pay to see her dangling upside down, 30-feet-in-the-air, hanging onto a strand of silk. But what happens now that doubling rents are forcing her from her high-ceilinged base of 5 years?

Everything turns on the dimensions of whatever she rents next.

* * *

I wouldn't have met Anya in the spring of 2007 if not for event promoter Will Etundi's proclivity for finding party spaces with very high ceilings. We were on opposite sides of a crowded warehouse, hundreds of drunk people between us, but no one could miss Anya: on stilts, she was 13 feet tall. stilts.jpg

Back then she lived in a sprawling Bed-Stuy basement with a very low ceiling and a thick pipe running down its center. Her building, 1054 Bergen Street, was about a 15 minute walk from the Marcy projects, where Jay-Z grew up. The basement door was silver, bore a rainbow, and said "boring" at the top. She'd reclaimed the space behind it, along with her friend, roommate, and eventual business partner, Kae Burke, cleaning out all manner of squalor. The unpleasant work left them with enough affordable square feet to host what they called MakeFun parties. Think cheap alcohol and crafts. Yards of fabric, sewing machines, paint, wood, and tools were on hand. If you were a scrappy entertainer in Brooklyn's underground scene, you could come get supplies needed for a costume or prop, along with a community well-versed in the ups-and-downs of affixing sequins onto anything. Since most attendees lived in closet-sized apartments, a workroom itself was a valuable thing, and everyone was playful even when sober. Most 19-year-olds would've lived there for years. Yet weeks after I visited that Bed-Stuy basement for the first time, Anya was thinking bigger.

The House of Yes, 1.0

House of Yes anya dangling.png

Kevin L. Muth

In those days, I'd g-chat with her intermittently to ask after various Brooklyn parties and art performances.

In April 2007 we had this conversation:

me: hey, sorry i never made it on Friday -- end of semester work is crazy. Are you free anytime Tuesday or Wednesday night to hang out?
anya: tuesday is make fun at my house. i'm about to embark on setting up a brand new communal paradise so i'm pretty busy this week

me: the one at coney island?

anya: no this one is in bushwick. 3500 sq feet!!!!!

me: awesome.
 anya: yeah. ladders and rooftop access and a patio. And a bathtub in the middle of one of the lounges.

As someone who felt overwhelmed, as a 26-year-old grad student, securing my own $1,000 a month NYC apartment, I remember being awed that Anya was orchestrating a 5-figure rental agreement at 20. She found tenants, filled all the rooms, and after figuring how to make rent each month, secured tow-away dumpsters to empty the space of accumulated cat droppings and rubble. And with a little help from her friends, she built that "dream space." Dubbed "The House of Yes," its vibe is captured by an email sent out to her burgeoning list of extended NYC friends.

The subject line: "Who wants to live in the House of YES?????!!"

Here's the body:

We used to have a roommate. His name was Rocket and he was a sweet dude. He moved to New York City for a girl and stuff didn't work out. Now he is moving back to California. Or maybe it was the fact that he was Mormon and The House of Yes was kinda rowdy. Naked stilt walking, hip hop shows, drunk aerial performances, topless glass walkers, indoor parades, 12-hour costuming workshops, friends hanging out till dawn, etc. Anyways, Rocket left and we will miss him.


We need a new roommate!

The space: $725.00 a month everything included. (utilities, Internet and ice cold PBR's). The room has its own private freight elevator entrance. A nice big window, high ceilings, a small storage space.

The House of Yes itself is located at 19-49 Troutman St. at the corner of Flushing Ave. You would take the L train to Jefferson and then walk 6 long blocks with traffic to 19-49. We're on the second floor and have no neighbors at night. We have a nice big kitchen and a nice stage. We got an aerial silk rig and a pool table. A deck and a roof. Two bathrooms, a public bathing bathtub in the living room, a sewing/costume/craft/soon to be silk screening studio room, MFTA access.

We had a house meeting last night and decided on an ideal roommate: a dj with a car and gear, who also does electrical work and is at least a 7 out of 10. If you are those things then you are automatically in. If you are not, but still need a room, please send me an e mail...  

In addition to all that, The House of Yes had a six-foot-high paper mâché mask of a Where the Wild Things Are monster hanging on the kitchen wall. Most 20 year olds would've lived and partied there for years. But space being at a premium, the giant mask wasn't quite far enough away from the malfunctioning toaster to not catch fire when some toast set alight. It was a four alarm fire, and Anya watched the flames take all of her possessions. She mourned the lost space even more.

fire fire .png

Kae Burke

Making It

I'd moved away from New York by the time the House of Yes caught fire, having enjoyed many parties and random performances within its walls. Anya had been teaching herself to do acrobatics on silks dangling from high ceilings. For her, it was countless hours of grueling, exhausting, somewhat dangerous aerial training, every incremental improvement hard fought and exhausting. But casual friends like me experienced her training regime somewhat differently.

Last I'd seen her, she was still learning; then, suddenly, she was a pro. She messaged one night out of the blue.

anya: what's been going on

me: I've been working for a web magazine in DC. You?

anya: building a new space in nyc

me: I'd love to see it sometime...
anya: have you seen the times write up on us?

I hadn't seen it, or known that the young woman I'd met a couple years prior in a Bed-Stuy basement had achieved that right-of-passage for NYC success stories: the article in the paper of record.

Quoth the New York Times:

A slender young woman hung 30 feet in the air, coiling her body around two pieces of black silk that were attached to the rafters. A crowd watching below screamed as she unraveled herself and started falling toward them and then gasped with relief as she came to a stop just above their heads. The woman, Anya Sapozhnikova, was performing her aerial circus act, but this was not Cirque du Soleil, and there was no big top. Instead, it was a warehouse party in Bushwick, Brooklyn. While the notion of circus performers is largely associated with major productions like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Coney Island sideshows, a new generation of performers is taking the circus arts to unexpected places.

Fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerialists and sword swallowers are among those showing off their skills at parties, concerts, clubs and in the streets and in parks. "It's more exciting when you don't expect to see circus arts; it makes it dangerous" said Claire de Luxe, a stilt walker, fire dancer and member of Lady Circus, the troupe that performed on a recent Saturday night at the Bushwick warehouse.Audience members, who paid $15 to see the circus acts, were also treated to live bands and disc jockeys.

"I'm having a good time, drinking a beer, listening to some music, and out of nowhere this girl is falling a few feet from death," said Enrique Ruiz, 30, a plumber from Brooklyn. "It was amazing."

It's funny reading in the newspaper about someone you've hung out with and learning things you didn't know:

In recent years, groups like Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group and De La Guarda have expanded the concept of a circus beyond the traditional three-ring formula. In New York, lesser-known circus performers are carving out their own niche in the city's nightlife. The members of Lady Circus are often hired to perform at big Manhattan nightclubs, concerts and corporate events, and are typically paid $500 a night per performer. But they feel most at home and creative, they say, working the lower-paying warehouse parties in Brooklyn. "Loading into a warehouse and not knowing if the party is going to get shut down or not, it's chaos and it's great and that's what gives us a lot of our inspiration," said Ms. Sapozhnikova, 22, who started the troupe.

Ms. Sapozhnikova was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology three years ago when, coming home from a party one night, she was handed a business card for a company of stilt walkers. Curious, she called the number and was soon taking lessons in her apartment. She started taking her own stilts to parties and was soon hired to perform at a Lower East Side club. She decided about two years ago to organize her own group and started recruiting members through the Internet...

"Everyone's talents melded together and we became these multi-skilled performers," Ms. Sapozhnikova said. Lady Circus now has eight women, who train an average of at least 20 hours a week to improve their acts. Because a fire destroyed the loft... the troupe is renovating a loft space in Bushwick, where the women will hold performances and offer workshops for those interested in circus acts.    

That move changed everything.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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