Monday, February 18, 2008

On The Road, Again

I have recently been asked to vacate my Richmond, Virginia studio to make way for higher paying tenants in the name of progress and commercial development. This is certainly not the first time this has happened to me, it is just the first time it has happened to me outside of Brooklyn. I have lost a handful of studios over the years to hungry landlords and understand the need to make a buck on one’s investment. I also understand (but do not agree with) the exploitative theory of using artists as cheap labor and a way to get things done on the cheap while a certificate of occupancy is being sought.

“No need for a lease. Just pay me every month and you can stay.”
Don’t ask, don’t tell, and certainly don’t disclose anything about your arrangement with anyone wearing a badge.

This brings me to Matzo Gate, the story about the horde artists being evicted from 475 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn . In case you have not heard, on Sunday, January 20th at 7:30 p.m., the building was issued a Vacate Order by the Fire Department and tenants were given until 1:30 a.m. to collect their belongings and leave on one of the coldest nights of the year. The Fire Department said they had found a potentially explosive grain silo and a wood-burning stove in the 10-year-old Matzo factory in the basement of 475 Kent Avenue during an earlier inspection, and claimed residents were at risk. Without a moment to take their belongings or figure out where they would go for the night, or the following weeks for that matter, the residents of 475 were ushered into the streets like refugees. I used to live ten blocks away at 67 Metropolitan on the corner of Kent Avenue when I first moved to Brooklyn in 1998, and remember passing 475 Kent on numerous occasions. I recall this building specifically because of the feelings of envy for their updated and seemingly weather proof windows, a luxury I had dreamt of many a night as I lay in my drafty loft. How lucky the residents of 475 are to be living in this creative community with sprawling views of the East River. I imagined 475 being warm and habitable, free of the debris and trash my roommates and I had inherited with in our newly acquired loft, a former fur coat factory directly above an operating sweat shop. I imagined a life so much sweeter in a building free of the hum and drone of industrial sewing machines working day and night. We had a commercial lease and were not supposed to be “living” in the space. This was not a secret practice during this time and it fueled a renaissance.

Williamsburg had a drastically different landscape in those days; it had very few trees and even less grass. Luxury lofts and condos had not yet homogenized the neighborhood, some of the best bars still served a local population by slinging beer and wine in plastic cups, the L train was not filled with suits at six o’clock, and though the waste transfer station was a nuisance, it was still better than having high rise condos blocking our view and access to the East River waterfront. The only park in the area would be virtually unrecognizable as such to most visitors, and still we called it home. Though I was far from being a “Pioneer,” I lived there when “illegal” loft living was not only common, but also plentiful and a necessity in order to be able to afford a studio to make art. It was at about this time that Williamsburg had an explosion of culture in the form of new galleries fed by the critical mass of artists living in the area, most of which were even operated by artists. The neighborhood economy was booming and new restaurants were opening up monthly. Things were good and that was the problem. Things were so good that people were losing their studios, and sometimes their homes, to developers who quadrupled their rent in an effort to get rid of their loyal tenants and make way for luxury condos. At that time my cohorts an I were paying something like $ 1,000 a month for 3,000 square feet of space, and still squeaking by. Who could afford a luxury condo? Today rents are too high to support up-and-coming galleries and most galleries have made the move to Chelsea. So much for the cultural incubator.

I guess the real point of all this is that we artists have a way of ignoring the obvious and having the vision to see what is real and potentially valuable. In this case, moving into a place like Williamsburg, a neighborhood that was once blighted and undesirable to say the least, and turning it into one of the hippest, most desirable places to live in Brooklyn, if not the entire city. The funny thing is that we do not achieve this deliberately. It is not our goal to raise the property value and appeal of a place only to be kicked out in the middle of the freezing night by the people who want to exploit what has been created. If we knew we had this power we could charge a fee for our services. Why can’t the people who want to profit from these neighborhoods do the pioneering themselves? I suppose that there is not a magic number of Starbucks, Gap, and other retail outlets needed to transform the economics and cultural worth of a place. Retail therapy does not cure. Hell, it rarely relieves pain, and in most cases renders a place worse off than it originally was. If this is the sort of creativity that business can come up with then perhaps developers and politicians should take a new approach and follow the lead of artists. That being said, maybe there is a value that can be placed on culture and creativity. Rather than exploiting artists and treating them like third-rate citizens, perhaps artists should be rewarded and given a stake in their accomplishments. After all, if the artists leave, who is going to be responsible for bringing diversity and flavor to the neighborhood?

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