Saturday 9 August 2014

New York: Art City (Part 2 - Escape from New York)

Garageland writer Debbie Ainscoe visits New York. On the second leg of her trip she investigates the confluence of artistic invigoration, gentrification and rent hikes, crossing the bridge from Manhattan to Williamsburg and then Bushwick. (Part 1 – Following the Art)

As a visitor to New York in this short time I saw a very clear view of a pervasive attitude that is being allowed to happen in cities globally. And only in New York does the creative element raise itself so sharply. 

Due to a culturally rich and vibrant past, and a historic encouragement of the arts, this has been the basis of the solid New York art market that exists today within the global one. Small wonder it is such an intense draw for so many artists now.

I took a trip to Williamsburg and Bushwick in Brooklyn via the Lower East side. Its galleries are only a hop, skip from Williamsburg’s bright, young trendy professionals over the river. 

Merged into the City of New York over 100 years ago, Long Island's districts have become synonymous with the economic politics and flux of the City. Immigrants settled in Bushwick and invested in ownership over rent. 

Then the perfect storm happened,  a well meaning policy encouraging  higher rents for those on welfare transformed into the reality of landlords snapping up huge swathes of the needy and placing them in vacant buildings around the Bushwick area. Drugs and crime followed in the 70s and people moved out. Riots ensued and a reluctance to return to those days was understandably ingrained.

Williamsburg Sunday


The buildings in disrepair, a housing regeneration process began with assistance from  the NYPD’s narcotics branch. By then the artists had already moved in. 

So in 2014, emerging from the Williamsburg subway, a stone’s throw from Manhattan, I ventured onto the streets. I was faced with what I can only describe as a wall of hipsters out on their Sunday stroll. Williamsburg’s artists have long been edged out by a steady influx of other creative professionals and city commuters.

Bushwick is two stops down from here and has over 900 artists registered in studio spaces in its long deserted industrial units. This number does not include the wider area of Brooklyn, purportedly one of the largest concentrations of artists in the world.

And in these units space is key. The studios I visited when I spent the weekend walking round the
Bushwick Open Studios event (which incidentally is in its 8th successful year) were a surprise to me. Some averaging 50 square feet, with or without window, costing on average $1.50 to $2 and now up to $4-5 per luxury square foot. The type of art made in these spaces is obviously going to be smaller, accumulative pieces or internet based, and certainly not large unless you get lucky.

Carla Gannis in her studio at 41 Varick Ave

Carla Gannis in her studio at 41 Varick Ave

Man Bartlett in hist studio at 41 Varick Ave

Man Bartlett in his studio at 41 Varick Ave

Carol Salmanson of Nuture Art, a collection of artists who run non-profit studio spaces and a gallery located in the basement of 56 Bogart, spoke quite matter of factly about the very real and imminent threat of rent hikes, saying simply, "it will come."

Nurture Art

Theodore Art, part of 56 Bogart

Theodore Art
Theodore Art representing Scooter La Forge at NEWD

Theodore art representing Scooter La Forge at NEWD

56 Bogart is located adjacent to the Morgan St L train subway, probably one of the first areas to be seen as good pickings. Some of the gallery spaces around may just afford it, but it will alter the number and also type of artists who can be in studio spaces in this area. 

The number of artists here in 2014 bares a similarity to Berlin’s Auguste Strasse district in the 90s when everyone flocked after the wall fell. That too was reaching community status until the cheap rents and boho life appeal took on currency. Those artists had to move.

Bushwick artists are a community, and a well organised one, not like their predecessors in Williamsburg. And they are in no doubt that they are going to be up against this tidal wave of gentrification very soon.

Jefferson Street, Bushwick

Rent, for residents, artists and gallerists alike is key, to whether they are to stay within this particular area of New York, which has, up until now, been one of the most accepting of cities as far as creativity goes.

As an outsider,  the only option I can see is to have a well organised time-relevant rent stabilisation programme with limits in place when leases are up. This will at least slow down the rampant focus on cash for space. And most importantly it will give time for communities, art or otherwise to evolve.

Art is at the very heart of New York, and so a balance has to be met.

It's either that or head back out to the sticks. Escape from New York indeed. 

Debbie Ainscoe

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