Articles

Bushwick Artists Ponder Ways to Fight Gentrification

by Jillian Steinhauer on June 21, 2013

Mobilizing Bushwick at Starr Space on Thursday night

Mobilizing Bushwick at Starr Space on Tuesday night; from left to right onstage: Lynn Sullivan, Jules de Balincourt, Paddy Johnson, and William Powhida (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“I’m getting tired of watching my friends leave because they can’t afford to be here. I’m getting tired of contemplating moving because I can’t afford to be here.” Thus spoke Paddy Johnson, editor-in-chief of Art F City, in her opening remarks at a meeting in Bushwick on Tuesday night. The event was held at Starr Space, the studio and occasional event space owned by artist Jules de Balincourt, and hosted by him, Johnson, and artists William Powhida and Lynn Sullivan. Mobilizing Bushwick, as it was called, or #stayinbushwick, as it’s been hashtagged, was an open, town-hall-style meeting to brainstorm ideas for, well, staying in Bushwick.

For decades, artists have been moving into underdeveloped neighborhoods, building amazing creative enclaves, and then getting pushed out when real estate brokers come swooping in to build overpriced condos. It’s the never-ending cycle of gentrification. But is there a way to combat it, or at least avoid having to move every 10 years? How can artists remain where they are?

The open discussion on Tuesday was a continuation of a conversation that began online, primarily on Facebook and Twitter, with Powhida also writing and sharing a Google Doc that lays out some of his ideas for what he called on Tuesday “a building that kind of owns itself.” The basic idea on the table was and still is to create some kind of collective organization — be it a trust, a co-op, a nonprofit, or something else — and buy a building. The artists involved would get studios, and their rent would go towards paying the mortgage. Once that’s done, any surplus money would be used to buy other buildings and do the same. And as Sullivan mentioned at the meeting, once the model is worked out, the plans will be made freely available online for others to use and mimic.

Paddy Johnson listens to an audience member speak at the meeting. (click to enlarge)

Paddy Johnson listens to an audience member speak at the meeting. (click to enlarge)

So Tuesday night was all about drumming up ideas and picking people’s brains. What’s the best way to go: co-op, condo, or neither? Where can they get the money from? To partner with for-profits or nonprofits? Is there any value to just occupying a building, rather than buying it first? What existing models can be used as guides? At least 75 people attended, and many of them threw out all manner of ideas, groups, organizations, and funding sources to investigate, including the Actors Fund, 56 Bogart (quickly shot down as being a bad suggestion), a building once owned by Charles Pratt in Greenpoint where he housed his workers, and a project called Holzmarkt in Berlin. The people who spoke were artists, urban ecology master’s students, real-estate brokers, nonprofit workers, and more.

All of which was great. At a starting point like this, the more voices, the better. And de Balincourt, Johnson, Powhida, and Sullivan obviously know that, because they organized the event. But there was an oddly uncomfortable feeling in the air — a kind of tension between the fact that they were obviously asking for help but also wanted to make clear that they weren’t necessarily going to take it. They asked for input but then often didn’t seem all that interested in the input they got.

That tension manifested itself a little bit in the broader discussions about gentrification. Early on, a couple of people recommended trying to get in touch with the wider Bushwick community, including the Puerto Rican residents, and potentially join forces with them. Suggestions like this culminated in one audience member asking, “Do we want to confront gentrification, or do we want to insulate ourselves from it?” De Balincourt balked at the question. “Gentrification is — like, that’s just the history of New York. I don’t think you can stop that,” he said. That, in turn, didn’t stop another audience member from asking later if the Stay in Bushwick project had a “social purpose.”

De Balincourt is right, in a way, that a group of artists can’t necessarily save an entire neighborhood, nor do they have an obligation to try. But his response seemed to represent the ways in which the meeting fell short of true inclusivity. There was, for instance, also a Community Board 4 meeting on Tuesday night in Bushwick to discuss a proposed rezoning in the neighborhood. But de Balincourt & co. scheduled theirs for the same time, because they didn’t know.

Ultimately, the Stay in Bushwick town hall raised many more questions than it answered, which was appropriate and to be expected. But some of the most important ones remained unanswered at the end of the night, particularly regarding what the actual goals of the group are. The idea had been to spend the first half of the meeting discussing and defining those goals, but it didn’t really happen, perhaps in part because of the wide open, scattershot nature of the meeting. The last audience speaker of the night stood up and asked the the organizers to “identify the wants more clearly.” All he could identify at this point, he said, was that “people seem to not want to have to move.”

Mobilizing Bushwick took place at Starr Space (108-10 Starr Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) on Tuesday night, June 20, from 7 to 9 pm.

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  • Bill Miller

    fight gentrification? In this case, they really ARE gentrification.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      A lot of our readers on Facebook have been making the same point. Can you explain your thoughts a bit? I think it’s really complicated, and I’m surprised that so many people have had this immediate reaction.

      • http://firstproofprints.com/ J Redmann

        These are a group of people (artists in this case) that moved into working class neighborhoods, commercial neighborhoods, or immigrant neighborhoods and start the gentrification process.

        They are educated, have jobs that afford the the ability to pay rent and produce art in their free time, they bring in gourmet coffee shops and organic grilled cheese sandwiches. They live two or three or four to an apartment meaning the amount of disposable income per person is much greater than the family of four across the street. The living dynamic is so different from a traditional household that financially the two aren’t comparable.

        A landlord would be a fool not to raise the rent, and it’s fine for a few years, because it’s only +50/mo for the few few years… but then you get designer lofts, and suddenly the neighborhood isn’t a secret anymore. Real money is developing the turf. Then the kitschy themed bars pop up, the quirky foodie venues, etc.. the working class starts moving out because they can’t afford it anymore.
        ——

        I think Bushwick is a far cry from Dumbo or Williamsburg, and as long as those neighborhoods are being developed, I think Bushwick has a lot of time left on the clock.

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          Yes, that’s definitely the cycle of gentrification. I guess the reason I feel it’s complicated is because part of me wonders, what else are artists and other low-income, educated creative people supposed to do? Not move into neighborhoods they can afford? I think calling them gentrifiers while letting landlords off the hook (they would be fools not to raise the rent…) is a little disingenuous, no?

          • emdub2012

            The focus should not be Artist fighting gentrification. It should be artist fighting landlords and overpriced living in NYC. Like a friend of mine said, This is like Pilgrims referring to themselves as Native Americans.

          • http://firstproofprints.com/ J Redmann

            No, the landlord is passively acting, the artists had a prime time to get ahead of the curve on this one and decided not to. They knew what type of community they were building and built it, why didn’t the artists frontrun it?

            It’s delusional to think ‘we’re here to build a better community and the landlords will never raise the rent on us’.

            Maybe they should form a coalition, look for space to purchase in a new neighborhood, sell shares to artists in the investment, find a giant building that’s super cheap and start over. South Bronx is really cheap, and when that 2nd ave line goes live it would be in primo territory.

          • Jillian Steinhauer

            Well those are exactly the types of things they’re looking into, although I agree with you that they’re perhaps coming at it a little late.

          • Kent Swift

            The only solution is to CO OP the communities (a.k.a. Lama-Mitchell-NYC housing) like they did to the low income housing project/tenements but the GOV. has let the Landlords/Wall St. Banks set prices. Bill Clinton/Crew (after Reagan) changed housing forever when he let Congress erase rent control and introduced Market Rate to Inner City Communities. Clinton let the Landlords raise rent 98% instead of the usual Gov. rate. He also got rid of the Glass Steagall Act of 1933 in 1999 that accounted for the housing/Wall St BOOM/BUST and everyone praises him on job well done. Check the youtube vids and do your own research.

            Who controls Brooklyn below: LOl
            http://www.charlierose.com/watch/60128677

        • Kimiko Deal

          OMG, thank you. You articulated what I was trying to conjure into words!

  • yukia

    my first thought, too, bill miller.

  • http://firstproofprints.com/ J Redmann

    Bill it isn’t about race, it’s about education levels and job availability, a gentrifier has access to better paying jobs than the current resident of the neighborhood and that usually dovetails with a higher level of educatio. Then local establishments cater to the new resident with greater disposable income eventually resulting in a self imposed exodus by the old residents.

    • mjs

      It is absolutely about race. For many, many people, race is inseparable from questions of class (or, as you put it, “education levels and job availability.” If this group doesn’t understand that as part of the conversation, they are a huge part of a huge, huge problem. Ask anyone who was born in bushwick. Or harlem. Or bed-stuy. Or the lower east side. The list goes on across boroughs, state lines, even oceans.

      • http://firstproofprints.com/ J Redmann

        MJS I really don’t know how to reply to this, you’re taking an issue that is pretty clear cut economically speaking and flipping it on it’s head into a discussion about race. Which has nothing to do with this.

        Greenpoint used to be a poor white neighborhood until it started getting gentrified, but it was largely working class neighborhood. The LES is a neighborhood that has been in a constant state of transition, from Italians, to Puerto Ricans, to Whites, and everything in between, now it is largely a homogeneous mix of people and it has been undergoing gentrification for nearly a decade. What’s the excuse there? NOT RACE. It’s education levels and income disparity (which largely happens as a result of being under-educated). Gentrification happens actively but doesn’t always succeed, look to neighborhoods like Red Hook. Why does it succeed in certain areas? Probably because people that are even more educated see greater opportunites.

  • emdub2012

    This makes no sense! How can you cry about the neighborhood being gentrified and you are the one gentrifying it!…LOL!

  • Severine7

    What’s so great about Bushwick anyway? Pick up your laptop and move somewhere else where you’re not surrounded by clones.

  • Jeffrey

    Loans are given to corporations easier than individual people. I say it’s time to form corporations to fight fire with fire. Gotta beat em at their own game. We can get a small group of 5-7 people per building, form a corp. Get a loan, and begin moving in and being OWNERS, not RENTERS. Then if someone wants to leave, someone else can buy them out of their share. This way we as artists will have some real skin in the game.

  • A Bushwick Resident

    This is all fine and dandy but how can artists fight for neighborhoods to not be further gentrified without including the neighbors around them who started to feel the push when the artists themselves moved in? The attempt to fight against gentrification is well intentioned but the hypocrisy is appalling. Let’s not forget that many of these artists are gentrifiers themselves. Buying buildings, before or after the original residents have been booted out for your higher income? If you all really want this neighborhood to remain the same, why not ask the people who have BEEN here for their input as well, not just the artists who are here now. Discussions of rezoning have already begun, how much longer until all of Bushwick becomes East Williamsburg?

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