“We Are Experiencing Hyper-Gentrification”: Gowanus Art Community Sizes Up Its Future

A chalk mural on the exterior of 94 9th Street (all photos by Erika Sequeira for Hyperallergic)
A chalk mural on the exterior of 94 9th Street (all photos by Erika Sequeira for Hyperallergic)

As Arts Gowanus organized a rally for artists displaced from 94 9th Street and adjacent, connected buildings earlier this month, some 350 artists and local businesses were preparing for Gowanus Open Studios (GOS). Activists representing the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP) and Take Back NYC as well as New York City Council Member Brad Lander, Arts Gowanus Director Abby Subak, and local neighbors and friends showed their support and circulated a petition addressed to 94 9th Street’s new landlord, Eli Hamway, of Industrie Capital.

When the rally ended, a journalist was overheard saying that he had to run to cover the other story in Gowanus, Christopher Swain. His priorities point to the unfortunate truth that artist displacement is nothing new. Besides, it’s not every day that someone swims the Gowanus Canal.

Few of the artists whose studios I visited for GOS had attended the rally. Some were preoccupied with their impending moves, a few were still hoping to secure lease extensions; many had been focused on preparing their studios for what was likely to be their final time participating in GOS. Artists were angry and frustrated about canceled leases and confusing communication — including legal notices marked “Hand Delivered” that have been posted in building hallways — but they were mostly resigned to the fact that even with leases, they have little hope.

The overall mood was one of disappointment, with the evictions but also with the fact that what’s happening all over the city happened so fast in Gowanus. This is the logic of New York art-making today: Gowanus is a neighborhood artists hoped was polluted and unloved enough to be “safe” (read: affordable) for just a little bit longer.

A "hand delivered" notice to tenants posted at 94 9th Street
A “hand delivered” notice to tenants posted at 94 9th Street (click to enlarge)

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Alex Nero, artist

Robin Grearson: What is going on with your space?

Alex Nero: I am located in the 112 2nd Avenue building. We were told by Edward [Colley, owner of Halyards Bar in Gowanus] that the lease on our side is good for another two years despite what’s happening next-door.

At the time of lease signing, Edward assured me I can stay for three years. A few weeks ago, I saw Edward by the building and he again assured me that my lease is good. Two weeks ago, Edward told me that he will not renew my lease because his assistant is getting evicted and he will need to “take over” a few spaces on our floor.

I’m very bummed out by all of this. I invested a lot of money to build out my space. I have been here since January 1. I was assured I could stay for three years; this is a real heavy blow.

Visitors in Alex Nuñez's studio during Gowanus Open Studios 2015
Visitors in Alex Nuñez’s studio during Gowanus Open Studios 2015

Alex Nuñez, artist

RG: What’s going on with your space?

Alex Nuñez: I am a painter, and I moved to 94 9th Street after my MFA program at Hunter College, around January 2013. I found out about the eviction on Facebook. I called the management for several days and they finally returned my calls, telling me that I had two to three months to find another studio. They have not formally notified me.

RG: Have you found another space?

AN: I do not know where I am going to move. I have seen several studios, the prices are incomparable to the amount of space and the quality of studio I currently have.

Krista Scenna, co-founder and co-director of Ground Floor Gallery

RG: What was your reaction to the loss of these workspaces?

Krista Scenna: My gallery partner and I found this recent episode with 9th Street and 2nd Avenue extremely disconcerting and devastating as we’ve worked with several artists in that building, included it in last year’s tour [during GOS], and recommend it to friends who were curious about the Gowanus art scene. I’m on the board of Arts Gowanus as well, and we often think about how to sustain the arts community in Gowanus. Now it feels like we’re not tackling it fast enough!

RG: How will the loss of these workspaces (and artists) impact Gowanus?

KS: The eviction just makes us feel like we’re all on borrowed time here. I didn’t think it would happen so fast and I think that’s why many people find it jarring. It also makes me wonder, we’ve worked so hard to bring attention to this community, are we also responsible for this in some way? That’s the tricky part about gentrification, right?

RG: Can we create change if we work together and if so, what are the obstacles?

KS: Until artists and art advocates band together and start to OWN these spaces, I fear little can be done.

Paintbrushes in a studio during Gowanus Open Studios 2015
Paintbrushes in a studio during Gowanus Open Studios 2015

Cecilia Schmidt, artist

RG: What is going on with your space?

Cecilia Schmidt: I moved to Gowanus from a studio in Dumbo about 10 years ago, when the same thing happened there as is going on with our building — gentrification. I found Gowanus and first moved into a studio on 7th Street near 3rd Avenue. This was before the Bell House, there was nothing in the neighborhood. I spoke to a man walking around an industrial building that was being vacated, a developer who said he was buying and looking for artists, creative types of businesses, etc. (that is the temporary modus operandi). I looked at his plans in the street, agreed on a large space that he eventually built, and several artist friends and I moved in. This lasted for over 5 years, until the landlord decided we paid too little rent and overcharged us for a pass-through charge, turned off our electricity for no reason. We went to court, the judge saw the incongruities in their paperwork. At the next court date they sent a new lawyer who claimed he needed more time, and a new date was set. We didn’t have funds to fight, gave up, and two of us moved into 94 9th Street.

All was well until about 5 weeks ago, when we were told by our lovely landlord Edward Colley — who sublet a few floors of the building around 15 years ago, did a buildout,  and sublet to us — that he had tried to negotiate better terms for us but couldn’t, that he has a provision in his lease that if the building was sold, he lost his lease.

RG: Have you found another space?

CS: I can’t find an affordable studio in Gowanus. It’s great what enterprising businesses, and people like the amazing Abby Subak are doing here, but I really wish it hadn’t become so hip and didn’t have the amenities, so that I could stay in this neighborhood to work, and go to another one to hang out, eat at great restaurants, hear music, etc.

Abby Subak, artist and director of Arts Gowanus

RG: How has the neighborhood grown?

Visitors looking at work in the Gowanus Print Lab during Gowanus Open Studios
Visitors looking at work in the Gowanus Print Lab during Gowanus Open Studios (click to enlarge)

Abby Subak: Only in the past five years have the restaurants started to appear. And of course Whole Foods in 2013. And now the number of galleries (art-exhibiting space is different from art-making space) and exhibiting organizations continues to grow. These exhibition spaces have shifted Gowanus from a below-the-radar neighborhood focused on only the making of art to include a significant outward-facing exhibiting presence.

RG: How will the loss of these workspaces (and artists) impact Gowanus?

AS: Losing 300 to 400 artists in Gowanus is big. It is probably about 10% of the artists in Gowanus. And this was such a large, vibrant, and close community of artists who got to know each other and support each other and play roles in the Gowanus community. We are going to feel a big hole where there have been active, engaged, working artists.

RG: What do artists in Gowanus need right now?

AS: Artists in Gowanus need space to make their work. And space for artists is being reallocated for other, more profitable uses. Artists need the city and individual owners to recognize that there is a significant community value to creativity and art-making that could outweigh pure financial costs. Unfortunately, when a landlord is not part of the community, they think only in dollars and not in value added to a community. Artists need this particular landlord to do the right thing and keep as much of this building as possible for affordable art studios. Artists need protections and policies for zoning in Gowanus and affordability citywide to protect spaces where they can work.

RG: What is Small Business Jobs Survival Act and why is it important?

AS: I like SBJSA because it is an actual bill that artists can latch onto, and artists need to latch onto something right now. However, if I move beyond SBJSA as a proposal and work to imagine its implementation, I have significant reservations about the effectiveness of the bill. I am still working to understand it and what reality it could really create. Artists are light manufacturers. In Gowanus, the artists and manufacturers have a solid relationship. It is important for both artists and manufacturers to realize our interests are aligned and to work together to protect these spaces.

A visitor looking at work during Gowanus Open Studios
A visitor looking at work during Gowanus Open Studios

Tamara Zahaykevich, artist and Artist Studio Affordability Project activist

RG: Why is it important to keep art studio space affordable?

Tamara Zahaykevich: Art studios are barely affordable. It is important for anyone with a studio practice to have access to space for so many reasons … we need to have a place to conduct our business, many of us benefit from the community … the feedback from working around other artists, it’s a place to store your life’s work, it’s space where you can be noisy and dirty … which you can be in an industrial space. It’s a place of business … it is where we work.

RG: What do artists in Gowanus need right now?

TZ: We can only create change if we work together. We need numbers. The art community needs to step up and be a constituency that is taken seriously by elected officials. Many artists still need to come around and realize that they cannot afford to stay in a bubble.

Artists need to become aware of their living and working environments. We are experiencing hyper-gentrification. We can no longer ignore the impact gentrification has on long-term tenants in our neighborhoods. Most of us have been gentrifier and gentrified. We can only move forward if we acknowledge this and find ways to work together with our neighbors who most likely also are being devastated by high rents and are threatened by displacement.

RG: What is SBJSA and why is it important?

TZ: The SBJSA is a bill that is currently sitting in City Council. The passage of this bill would finally give commercial tenants the right to a 10-year minimum lease with equal negotiating power as the landlord. Right now, commercial tenants don’t have rights, which is why the artists here in Gowanus are being displaced.

Note: Edward Colley did not respond to emails for this story.

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There were many flyers posted on building walls around Gowanus during GOS advertising studio spaces, most of them in New Jersey. I had conversations about shuttle bus routes, spaces in Paterson and Union City. Artists are weary of moving, and moving again, of losing proximity to neighbors and local resources. Yes, they will persevere, they will find and build new workspaces. But how many (more) of those spaces won’t be in New York City?

Of Christopher Swain’s swim up the Superfund waterway, the New York Times wrote: “Almost anybody who visits the Gowanus Canal imagines a little Venice someday in the heart of Brooklyn.” Perhaps this is true, but it is hard to imagine Venice without artists.

A poignant mural on the roof of a building in Gowanus
A poignant mural on the roof of a building in Gowanus
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