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As Northside Rolls In, Williamsburg Artists Face Eviction

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 15, 2012

338 Berry Street

338 Berry Street (image via brooklynpaper.com)

Those headed to Northside Art this weekend should make sure to visit the handful of open studios at 338 Berry Street, between S4th and S5th Streets, because those spaces won’t be studios for much longer. About six weeks ago, the 10 tenants still residing in live-and-work studios in the building lost their court battle with their landlord, Mona Gora-Friedman. The tenants are being evicted at the end of October, at which time Gora-Friedman will renovate the building and turn it into — sigh, what else? — luxury condos.

Choreographer and artist Andrea Haenngi moved into 338 Berry Street 17 years ago. At the time the building was a disused noodle factory, and Haenggi and other arriving artists erected walls and created their own spaces. “Most of us are in here 15 or more years,” she told Hyperallergic. “It’s never nice to lose your live/work space, but we built everything inside ourselves. There was nothing in here, you actually built everything. So it’s kind of your house, but then you don’t own it.”

This isn’t the first time the artists have faced and fought potential eviction. The New York Post explains:

The Berry Street building remained fully industrial up until the early 1990s. So when the city drove up property values in 2004 by rezoning the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfront for high-rise condos, the building’s previous owner tried to evict the tenants.

Instead, both sides compromised and the tenants signed an agreement in 2004 to be out by April 2011.

In the meantime, the state expanded its Loft Law in 2010, ostensibly with the goal of making it easier for artists to say in their previously illegal spaces. But in a number of court fights over evictions, multiple judges have found that the law doesn’t override previous tenant-landlord deals, meaning residents in those buildings are losing their homes when their agreements expire. This is the case with 338 Berry.

“Seventeen years ago, you went to the landlord, you just gave him some cash — they didn’t ask what your work is, about your bank account,” Haenggi said. “It’s really changed a lot.”

Haenggi expressed concerns, which the other artists at 338 undoubtedly face as well, about finding a place within her price range, given that she moved into her studio 17 years ago and has not been paying what would now be a standard market-value rent. Asked if she would stay in Williamsburg, she said probably not. “If I want to get the same amount of square feet, I can’t afford to stay in the neighborhood.”

What’s more — and as people have been saying for years — the neighborhood isn’t the same as it once was. “Williamsburg is not the [visual] arts neighborhood anymore. It is Bushwick now,” Haenggi said. She continued:

I remember when I came here, we were one of the first ones. After us the galleries came in, and that was a very blooming time. But then suddenly I remember the galleries — like, do you remember Roebling Hall? When they moved out, once that happened, the whole neighborhood suddenly changed. The galleries moved out, and so you had all these empty spaces suddenly and all these stores took over. And then you get families coming in and parents with their children, but they’re mostly on a better salary. A lot of restaurants came up, a lot of music, more entertainment and film, which means this neighborhood is now a normal, living neighborhood where people are looking for more commercial entertainment.

Of course the tenants at 338 Berry are only some of the artists in Williamsburg, but situations like the current one raise a big, lingering question: While Northside Art seems to be gaining visibility and growing with each passing year, will the art community it is representing survive?

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