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, 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.)
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).
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.
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.”
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.”