Did you know that, if you have enough money in New York City, you can buy a public street? OK, not buy, but lease one, for a really long time. That’s what Kaufman Astoria Studios did in Queens, and someone is not happy about it.
To wit: in 2011, following a lengthy approval process, the block of 36th Street between 34th and 35th Avenues in Astoria, Queens, was “de-mapped.” This move was part of a plan allowing Kaufman Astoria, whose studios then sat unconnected on both ends of the block, to turn the street into “the city’s first and only outdoor film set.” Construction on the set began last summer, closing off the block to foot traffic, and was finished by December. Kaufman now subleases the street from the Economic Development Corporation, which leases it from New York City. According to the New York Times, the studio does not yet pay rent. It will start doing so in 2015, “at $140,000 annually and escalate every five years. It has already begun making payments to the city in lieu of real estate taxes. These began at $33,137 annually and will increase every year.” The lease runs through 2049.
It’s just one block, really, and Kaufman Astoria isn’t the first private company to take control of a city street (Boar’s Head apparently own Rock Street in Bushwick, and has since the 1930s). Plus, many people clearly think the benefits of having an outdoor film set in the city will greatly outweigh any potential negatives for local Astorians. At least that’s how it’s been presented by the studio and in the news, with talk of the lot bringing in more movie and TV producers, of jobs created, an economic boost to the area, and even the (magical) reduction of traffic congestion. This year, the city showed its gratitude by going so far as to rename the whole neighborhood after Kaufman!
But it’s not all roses. When Kaufman Astoria announced this past March that it would use the new back lot not just for production but to host its newly formed for-profit flea market, people were upset. And people were upset back in 2010, when plans were first being formulated: a Daily News article detailed discontent, and commenters on the Queens Crap blog were way less than thrilled.
There is anger to be channeled — and happily, someone is channeling it in an Instagram account/meme. The template is simple: in each photo, someone (sometimes multiple someones) flips off the Kaufman Astoria Studios sign, which was erected during the creation of the new back lot. Sometimes the pictures are accompanied by captions — e.g. “Fun fact: this street was paid for by tax dollars but will operate as private property until 2049! #kaufmanastoria #kaufmanastoriastudios” — and other times just hashtags: “#fuckoffkaufman #kaufmanastoria #kaufmanastoriastudios.” Amazingly, whoever started the account (back in Dec. 2013) managed to snag the @kaufmanastoria handle, giving the protest an odd air of legitimacy.
The person behind @kaufmanastoria must know their art history, as the project is clearly modeled on Ai Weiwei’s Study of Perspective series. And while it might sound boring, just the same picture over and over, the creator has a strong eye; the photos vary in composition, placement of the hand(s) in relation to the sign, as well as angle, light conditions, and filters — the old trick of experimentation within a set form. The project’s also vivid: the accumulation of so many street-level photos conveys a sense of walking by this block of 36th Street day after day and feeling the anger and indignation at its privatization mount within you. Obviously a bunch of birds won’t bring the block back, but it’s nice to see someone registering a small, steady, artful protest for the importance of public space.