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Art, the "contested city," and the challenge of affordability

What roles do artists and the arts play in revitalizing neighborhoods: are they the creative spark, or vanguard for the developers? Maybe both, and more, as indicated by ART IN THE CONTESTED CITY: A Conference Exploring the Role of the Arts in Contemporary Struggles over Urban Space, held Friday at the Pratt Institute’s Higgins Hall in Clinton Hill. A diverse selection of artists, arts professionals, and civic activists from New York and beyond spoke on four separate panels.

It was an interesting mix, even for Pratt, since the Institute's advocacy planners historically have little relationship with colleagues in art and design, as noted by Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development.

While the discussions were wide-ranging, one fundamental theme emerged: artists, like many in New York, struggle to find affordable places to live and work.

In the 1970s, New York City was in fiscal crisis, but a lot of prominent artists recall that era as very promising for their careers and creativity, observed Miriam Greenberg of Pratt’s Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies. The reason: rent was cheap and “art developed in all kind of spaces.

Indeed, one panel included a performance, in which two members of the Fort Greene-based dance troupe Urban Bush Women alternately danced while the other read self description under the rubric “Where I come from.” For both Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Maria Bauman, the bottom line was affordability. “I wonder if my decision to base myself in Brooklyn was a good one,” wondered Zollar, while Bauman mused, “I wonder how my artist friends and I can live in smaller and smaller spaces… in Brooklyn.”

Zollar later expressed concern about the working poor. “I hear the prices of ‘affordable housing’,” she said incredulously. “Who are they talking about?”


How much are artists welcome? Ella Weiss, president of the Brooklyn Arts Council, took a mainstream view, citing how Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Red Hook have been revitalized, and pointing to the “new frontiers” of Bushwick and Sunset Park.

But those frontiers are where people live, and may not welcome newcomers who help raise their rent. Juan Flores, a professor in the Department of Africana and Pureto Rican-Latino Studies at Hunter College, CUNY, observed that “the prevalent concept is the artist kind of moves in from outside to take part in development. There’s really an alternative map—communities often engender artists.”

In the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, some panelists observed, The Point, a community development corporation, has made a special effort to produce such home-grown artists.

Rick Lowe helped revive the historically African-American Third Ward in Houston by encouraging fellow artists (most of them black like himself) to renovate and put art in shotgun houses, only to see developers invade the neighborhood. He’s a central character in a documentary film, “Third Ward, TX,” being completed by director Andrew Garrison.

Lowe acknowledged some contradictions which face longstanding homeowners: why shouldn’t they sell to developers and make some money; then again, if they want to stay in their community, what can that buy them?

(That dilemma has been faced by some homeowners in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods; the sum from a sale doesn’t buy them much if they’re staying, but it might buy a nice spread if they’re moving well out of the city.)

Policy questions

Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future observed that the arrival of artists and more affluent people may actually reduce the number of residents in a community, since singles and couples may replace families. While the fundamental problem is finding affordable space, he said, “the challenge is to ensure that long-time residents share in the benefit.”

That means that the city must create and preserve affordable housing in general, that local residents should get jobs that are connected to arts development, that longtime merchants get technical assistances, and planning includes community members from the outset.

He and others commented on the need for arts organizations to own their own buildings so they weather economic changes. Esther Robinson’s organization ArtHome offers a home-buying curriculum for artists, since home ownership is a key factor in an artist’s capacity to pursue a career. “We’re not trained as artists to think about our financial lives,” she said. “You will be your most generous when you are at your most stable.”

Robinson offered a larger context. “We’re an under-resourced nation,” she said, and indeed, statistics showed far more governmental support for artists in previous decades.

Where to go?

Risë Wilson of the Laundromat Project aims to make art more accessible to communities of color by buying a building and using the proceeds from a laundromat to support arts projects. “So many arts organizations are being pimped as gentrifiers,” she observed, citing the offer of a “sexy lease” followed by rising rents. “We have to be prepared to be there for the long haul.”

While her group has done projects in Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, and Harlem it is still seeking a building in Bedford-Stuyvesant. However, since the formation of the project business plan, she said, prices have doubled in the neighborhood, which is “in the throes of gentrification.”

Performance artist Danny Hoch, commenting from the audience, took off from Wilson’s comment that “Fort Greene doesn’t need us.” What would happen, Hoch, said, “if artists, before they moved to New York City, said, ‘They don’t need us’?” As Hoch tours the country—he can’t make his living just in New York—he meets students who anticipate moving to the metropolis. “I say, wouldn’t you be contributing more if you stayed home?”

New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco far outpace other cities as magnets for artists, but some other cities aren’t so shabby. Ann Markusen of the University of Minnesota showed slides of how an old brick factory in St. Paul had been renovated into handsome, airy workspaces for artists.

To Brooklyn eyes, the “before” photo depicted the old factory in a far more dilapidated state than is the "blighted” Ward Bakery on Pacific Street, slated to be demolished for the Atlantic Yards project.

Educating the public

Rosten Woo of the Gowanus-based Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), said he was inspired by Robert Moses—not the master builder, but the educator and community organizer who made his name in the civil rights movement. The arts, he said, can play a significant role in “this long-term project of building active citizenship.”

In the exhibition space upstairs at Higgins Hall was a CUP project, The Subsidized Landscape, an installation that portrays the vast array of government interventions that shape the built environment, from public housing to the mortgage interest deduction.

Produced in 2003, the model remains relevant, especially in the New York City context, since nearly all market-rate development in Brooklyn is subsidized by the 421-a tax deduction without any requirement that affordable housing be included. (The Atlantic Yards project would include affordable housing as part of a privately negotiated deal between developer Forest City Ratner and the advocacy group ACORN, with no city oversight over the scale.)

Joe Matunis of El Puente, the community organization in Williamsburg’s South Side, explained how demonstrations and protests aimed at Radiac, which stores and transfers hazardous and nuclear waste, has led the company to scale back its Williamsburg operations and make plans to leave.

Finding consensus

The Radiac protest involved Williamsburg’s diverse communities, including Latinos, hasids, and hipsters. Other struggles remain contested.

Author Jonathan Lethem, who in June wrote “an open letter” to Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry in Slate, headlined Brooklyn’s Trojan Horse, recalled that, “I was immediately informed that, as an artist, I…didn’t have authority to speak on behalf of the community. Fortunately, I had real street cred—I had occupied this turf since I was 6.” Earlier this year he joined the advisory board of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB).

Then again, as Lethem acknowledged, his novel The Fortress of Solitude--which takes on gentrification in Boerum Hill/Gowanus in the 1970s--encompasses "hugely ambivalent feelings” about the changing neighborhood his white and black characters observe.

Beka Economopoulous of Not an Alternative, a Williamsburg collective, discussed local activism regarding the recent rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The plan, which could bring in 40,000 more people, “fractured the public,” she said, with different factions concerned about open space, economic development, affordable housing, and the height and bulk of buildings.

“We wanted to make clear we were not anti-development,” she said of her group’s work with the Williamsburg Warriors, trying to point out how the rezoning would disrupt the neighborhood. It sounded like an echo of the DDDB coalition opposing the Atlantic Yards project.

In Williamsburg, however, the hipsters entered too late to reframe the issue. “You were either for affordable housing or height and bulk people,” she said. “If we’d gotten in earlier, we should have been talking about what is sane development.” (Actually, the local community board's plan had also been bypassed.)

Jesus Gonzalez, one of the relatively few people of color in the audience, commented on gentrification in Bushwick, where he lives. “My advice to people who want to be involved in helping fight against gentrification: just let the community make the changes themselves," said Gonzalez, an alumnus of El Puente programs. "Let the people who are directly impacted take the lead.”

Several people clapped enthusiastically, but others kept their hands still. After all, are the hipsters and artists moving into Bushwick the "community"? Questions of community and authenticity have emerged as well in the Atlantic Yards debate, especially at the highly charged public hearing on August 23.

Jason James, another member of Not An Alternative, observed, “It’s a long-term process.” He was referring to his group's effort to educate and organize the public. But the comment could equally apply to the effort to create more affordable spaces to live and work.

Williamsburg, redux

Economopoulous warned that the rezoning in Williamsburg, which offered developers a bonus in floor area for including affordable housing, had not paid off as predicted. And today's New York Times, in an article headlined City Sees Growth; Residents Call It Out of Control, suggests she's right:
City officials say that their plan is right on schedule, especially by the waterfront, where construction has started on projects that will produce 460 below-market apartments, plus an initial few acres of parkland.
But among many residents and community leaders, there is a nagging sense that the government has not moved fast enough to keep pace with developers.
In September, the city’s Department of Buildings received 337 complaints about construction in Greenpoint-Williamsburg, more than twice the filings from the community board of another fast-growing area nearby. In the heart of the rezoned area, near McCarren Park, luxury towers climb skyward, yet only nine new apartments of low- and middle-income housing are being built, far below the city’s original estimates.
Meanwhile, money for a legal fund to help tenants fight displacement has yet to be distributed because of snags in the city’s complex scheme to finance it.


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