Where Will New York Put All Of Its Artists?

A pipe dream? (Image via Industry City)

New York’s laughably unaffordable real estate market (and in particular, its pricing out of the very artists who make it such a sought-after cultural hub) is, of course, a much-discussed trope. We more or less based an entire city election on it! During said election cycle, Lena Dunham famously commented that “We can’t have our generation’s Patti Smith moving to Tampa.” It was a nice bit of soundbite-friendly campaign hyperbole (she was stumping for Comptroller Scott Stringer at the time), but if the New York Times’ recent follow-up with Industry City’s former artists is any indication, it’s a future that’s bearing out more quickly than we thought.

Around six months after dozens of artists were priced out of their studios in Sunset Park’s Industry City—the complex was purchased by a group of developers that includes Jamestown Properties, which promptly upped the rent—the Times checked back in with them, and the outlook isn’t what you’d call great.

A number of artists who worked out of the space as part of the New York Art Residency and Studios Foundation have since scattered all over the borough, making it tough for both artists and curators to develop much of a sense of community, and to continue on with their work at all; several people interviewed by the Times have actually changed the nature of their artwork to accommodate shrinking studio space or the necessity of working out of their own apartments. The piece is full of disheartening quotes from aging artists who say things like, “Nobody has any hopes about being able to rent affordable spaces,” or, “All I can see is going further out, then having to move again. I just can’t take it anymore.” The article mentions affordable outer-borough studio space in Mott Haven, Ridgewood, and Staten Island’s St. George, but if relatively un-gentrified neighborhoods like Sunset Park are already feeling the squeeze, one would assume these neighborhood’s won’t be far behind.

Depressing stuff, huh? And it all means Brooklyn is rapidly on its way to becoming one giant re-creation of the Lower East Side on a Saturday night, a developer’s shiny, branded candyland? Well, yes and no. As Brownstoner points out, the response to the piece has largely been along the lines of “artists should just move to Detroit/Pittsburgh/anywhere cheap and congregate on the internet,” but it seems important to note that in spite of the very real threat posed by predatory development (and the very real hysteria about New York losing all of its creative types), the number of city dwellers who identify as “artists, writers or photographers” actually increased between 2000 and 2010, from 108,000 to 124,000.

Also seems important to give a nod to programs like Spaceworks, a city-backed nonprofit that seeks out and places artists in affordable studio space. But it’d be interesting to get the numbers on how many of those self-described artists are longtime residents that’ve managed to scrape by, the mythical trust fund kids whose parents are bankrolling their “bohemian” stints in the city, or something else altogether. The real question here might not be “where” are all of New York’s artists, but “who.”

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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