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Protesters in Gowanus on the morning of Saturday, October 17, 2015 (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Arts Gowanus gathered its community on the morning of Saturday, October 18, for a rally to support artists who are being pushed out of a block-long group of buildings on 9th Street in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood. About 90 minutes before artists around the neighborhood would open their doors for the annual Gowanus Open Studios, a small group of neighbors, activists, and artists held signs and chanted “Keep Gowanus Creative” in front of 94 9th Street. Arts Gowanus director Abby Subak described the impact on the artists of the loss of an estimated 250 affordable workspaces. These artists, she said, “are in complete chaos, their art-making career is in question. Losing the space to do your work is a devastating experience for an artist.”

Council Member Brad Lander (right) at the Gowanus rally.

Council Member Brad Lander, who attended the rally, pointed out the value of creativity and supporting small business, noting that events such as Gowanus Open Studios showcase “people giving of themselves to build something together that we all want to be a part of.” Lander described the conflict as “a hard fight” over values, drawing a line between the values of “creativity, community, diversity and an economy that works for everyone,” and “a couple of guys’ profit.” Lander also introduced a petition that he is hoping will gain thousands of signatures. Lander said the petition, addressed to Eli Hamway, asks the landlord to “respect and honor the values of the community and let our artists stay in this building.”

While Hamway has not announced his plans, it’s hard to imagine a Brooklyn landlord in this market will be swayed by a request, however passionate, after spending $21.2 million to lease what appears to be the entire block. As Hyperallergic reported previously, the building changed hands earlier this year and the landlord, under the entity CH Gowanus LLC, purchased the leases on the buildings, which are inside a designated Industrial Business Zone. (Businesses who relocate to IBZ locations are typically eligible for financial benefits that enhance the appeal of such properties.)

Jenny Dubnau (ASAP) speaking at the rally, and to her right is Abby Subak (executive director of Arts Gowanus), who is standing next to Council Member Brad Lander.

Lander pointed out that artists are not being specifically evicted. Instead, as leases end, the landlord has stated that leases will not be renewed. Therefore, the full impact of a push to empty the building of art studios may not be felt for another two years. Some tenants who have been told to move by the end of the month are relocating to other spaces within the same buildings under different leaseholders, in what appears like a frustrating exercise of musical chairs.

Commercial tenants like artists and small businesses have no protections against such sudden moves, and this is the problem that artist Jenny Dubnau described at the rally, on behalf of the grassroots Artists Studio Affordability Project (ASAP).

The writing is on the wall.

ASAP as well as Take Back NYC and others are backing a solution to get a bill passed in City Council called the Small Business Jobs Survival Act. The bill would help small commercial lease holders like artists but also small businesses like grocery stores, restaurants, and small manufacturers. These business owners comprise a large group that Dubnau points out “have no rights in the city, none whatsoever.” She labels the issue a crisis. Carving out 20 spaces here and 20 spaces there just isn’t enough, she said. SBJSA is a form of rent regulation for commercial leases that gives tenants 10-year lease extensions and the opportunity to bring lease to binding arbitration if increases are unreasonable. “It gives us the basic right to renew, which we don’t have here,” Dubnau said.

Protesters

The SBJSA bill currently has 24 sponsors in City Council and needs just two more. Will Lander get behind it? It may be too late for the Gowanus artists at the 94 9th buildings, but many believe SBJSA is essential to the city’s future. Dubnau and others took the opportunity to discuss these issues with Council Member Lander at the event.

New landlord Eli Hamway has not commented on his plans for the buildings, but the practice of pushing artists out to bring in higher-paying creative businesses has become standard. In Brooklyn alone, for instance, artists in Industry City were displaced in favor of makers. And when a pension fund purchased Grattan Street’s Venus Knitting Mills in East Williamsburg last year, management raised artists’ rents and has begun converting some studios to retail spaces.

Dubnau closed her remarks to the small crowd saying, “Artists need to start seeing themselves as part of a community” and “fighting for legislation that’s going to help everybody.”

Protesters

ASAP and Lander (so far) may differ on the solution but agree there is an affordability problem. Lander believes zoning and land use policies could help, but Subak describes Lander as a friend of artists: “I think Arts Gowanus, ASAP, and Brad Lander have a similar hope for keeping NYC affordable and keeping artists in NYC. And ultimately I do hope that we all three agree on an effective way to do that.”

The intense demand and limited supply of affordable commercial buildings mean the game of musical chairs and the fight over access and rights — and values — will continue. While Gowanus as a creative community may be large enough to absorb the loss of one block — the bigger picture facing the city is, what are the consequences when the spaces removed from one community are never found in another?

As Subak said in her closing remarks, “If we don’t have artists, we don’t have art.”

Robin Grearson

Robin Grearson is a nonfiction writer covering the intersection of arts and gentrification.

4 replies on “Gowanus Rallies to Support Artists Losing Affordable Workspaces”

  1. I attended the rally yesterday as a member of ASAP. I appreciate Hyperallergic and The Daily News coming out to cover the event. Unfortunately, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth by poor artist attendance. With the loss of 250 studios, there should have been at least 250 artists present. With 250 people on the street showing their power as a constituency just on this one issue, City Council would feel the pressure to explore legislation to address the issues of commercial rent laws (such as supporting the SBJSA). Instead, artists’ apathy allow for Councilman Lander to give a supportive but ultimately ineffectual speech backed only by a petition asking the new landlord to be nice to artists.

    Now real talk. 94 9th Street Artists: if you aren’t coming out to show your numbers or contacting your council members to force a legislative solution on this issue (whether it be be SBJSA or an alternative), you are part of the problem. This isn’t
    just about your studio. This is about whether NYC will remain a
    city that’s affordable for artists to work and live.

    Look, I don’t even need a studio! I draw at a desk! And I own my goddamn apartment! If I can drag my ass out from Bay Ridge to spend half a Saturday at a rally to protest the eviction of you from your studios, you could at least put aside your excuses and do it too. How am I supposed to believe in this cause when you are showing me that you don’t?

    1. Agree fully, worse to allow Lander to stand in front of
      desperate people and lie and

      say he is on their side when his actions shout he is not and
      to insult all artists with a

      solution of signing a petition for their landlords to act in
      a human way, is disgraceful.

      He is suppose to lead and represent the will of the
      community , yet he remains silent and does nothing until the community speaks
      out and then he pretends to be on their side.
      Lander was a sponsor of the Small Business Jobs Act in 2010 giving
      rights to all businesses for 10 year leases and ending rent gouging. But today, he took his name off the bill and
      is on the side of the landlords. Next he
      will be explaining he had to do this because he was told the bill was unconstitutional
      , which is REBNY’s talking points to all
      council members to say when pressed to sponsor a bill giving rights to tenants.
      Forget the waste of time Lander petition
      to his friends the landlord and instead sign a petition demanding Lander and
      others sponsor the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.

  2. The event is somewhat ironic, of course, given that artists have historically been the shock troops of gentrification. And following a vocation that demands egotism and narcissism (because originality!) ensures that they won’t be able to organize very well. So they’re not only shock troops, but soldiers of (mis)fortune.

    Art is everywhere, but the money is in New York City. That’s your problem.

  3. Detroit has 141 square miles of space, with only a few in which anything like this is likely to happen. Brooklyn has 97 square miles that are nearly all subject to this. The problem, in comparison, is that in NYC industrial/loft/studio buildings tend to be clustered in neighborhoods and it’s the neighborhood “scenes” that make it hard for artists who need space. In Detroit, these spaces are much more dispersed, and “cool neighborhoods” do not really exist. The question then becomes whether one wants an inexpensive and actually own-able space to work in long term, or wants to be near nice shops and bars. It is also a question of how willing one is to actually work (not necessarily live) in poor neighborhoods, many of which are unlikely to be gentrified.

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