Remembering the Days When Artists Could Afford Manhattan

Rodin Studios, founded in 1916 by Painters John Fry and Lawton S. Parker, along with Fry's wife Georgia Timkey Fry, and designed by architect Cass Gilbert (photo by Flickr user edenpictures)
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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