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Rodin Studios, founded in 1916 by painters John Fry and Lawton S. Parker, plus Fry’s wife, Georgia Timken Fry, and designed by architect Cass Gilbert (photo by Flickr user edenpictures)

Yesterday, Curbed NY posted a nifty map of 15 buildings in Manhattan that were originally built for artists. Ranging from projects with outside funding to artists’ cooperatives, the 15 structures mostly dot Midtown and the Upper East and West Sides, with a few outliers in the West Village.

It’s fun to look at the map and reminisce about a time when artists could afford to live in the center of New York. (Yes, I know it’s passé to call Manhattan that, and I know it’s not the literal center, but let’s accept it historically, OK?) The earliest building on the list, the Tenth Street Studio Building, dates to 1857, while the latest, Westbeth, was converted from old Bell Telephone Laboratories by Richard Meier in 1968–70. But the majority of the buildings date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which indicates that it’s been quite a while since artists could affordably live in Manhattan (without, say, cramming five people into a two-bedroom apartment).

Then again, artists these days are having trouble finding affordable space anywhere in NYC and have been increasing their efforts to find or create permanent, affordable studios. Cheap studio space can still be had in neighborhoods like Sunset Park, but it’s interesting to compare the histories of the Manhattan buildings on Curbed’s list with those in Brooklyn’s currently flourishing art scene. In both cases, artists have often been the ones to take the initiative, but many of the Brooklyn buildings began with artists essentially squatting, moving into industrial spaces and converting them into livable ones. This may result from NYC’s ever-rising real estate prices and relentless condo-ification: it’s always been difficult to raise the money to buy or build a building, but today the gap between most artists’ income and what developers want to charge in NYC seems  insurmountable. The problem with squatting, however, is that, one day, when your neighborhood becomes fashionable, you can be forced out. Unless you manage to rezone, which isn’t always easy, or even welcome.

If the Curbed map is any lesson, even the buildings erected with the best intentions succumb to the market — hence the $1.3, $1.9, $2, $3.8, $4.3, and $15.5 million listings for apartments now or recently for sale in those once-upon-a-time affordable artist buildings (or try $3,500/month rent). Given those prices, it’s a shame but little wonder that Westbeth’s management is “stockpiling” its holdings. When the current tenants pass away (many are in their 70s and 80s), they may take one of the last buildings actually designed for artists with them.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

8 replies on “Remembering the Days When Artists Could Afford Manhattan”

  1. Please stop saying Sunset Park is affordable. IT is not. Yes, yes, maybe less than Gowanus, etc., but seriously folks -what is affordable? Think of the space those folks had back then. We’re not talking that kind of space nowadays. We’ve been asked to pay 40-50% rent hikes over the last two years in Sunset Park and now we are simply being forced out by a set date, in other words non renewal of leases if Industry City is the landlord. Other empty spaces are not even available because they would rather have them empty than get what artists will pay.

    1. Thanks for pointing all this out. I think “what is affordable?” is the golden question. And our views on this are royally skewed in NYC.

  2. If they had a Mayor and Governor who actually cared about the people who made NY, NY. Then we wouldn’t be having these problems. It’s terrible that the people are letting this happen. This whole thing could have been stopped cold back in the 70’s if the local government cared about the arts in the ways they say they do.

  3. Maybe it’ll be affordable again if the good ol’ slimy, grimy days of New York in the 70s comes back? They cleaned up New York today, of course it’s going to be a lot pricier to stay there.

  4. I feel the same need as an Artist unable to handle a sudden move. Hence, the abrupt necessity of finding a suitable place, which can fit family members, aside from a working space. My idea of making unused space available to Artists and their families has been a dream I wish to someday afford for our fellow artists. As the economy has set me back from achieving that goal on my own, those with better credit might consider joining forces in co-op environment where tenants may rent to own. Just across the river on Union City, New Jersey and surrounding areas, there are a multitude of such buildings. With the cooperation of our efforts to purchase and repair some, it certainly makes sense. The sense being a more affordable alternative to rents AND other living expenses when compared to New York in general, not just Manhattan. Furthermore, it’s just a very short bus ride into the city and the subway, path systems. I appreciate any feedback from interested Artists, really willing to take a serious step towards a permanent residence in buildings and/or houses to the ends of a viable outcome on this matter.Thank you Hyperallergic for sharing this excellent article & the Mobilizing Bushwick meeting administrators for all your efforts!
    -Adriana

  5. Gotham West is one of the largest affordable housing projects to ever be built in Manhattan as part of the 80/20 program through the New York Housing Authority. Permanent? No. But subsidized leases for those lucky enough to get in will last for 40 years. Are artists any more or less entitled to affordable housing than first generation Americans, those putting themselves through school, single moms or the plethora of others pursuing their dreams in the Big Apple?

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