Bushwick Artists Ponder Ways to Fight Gentrification

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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