General 4-22-2004

The Gentrification Game

Are Artists Pawns or Players in the Gentrification of Low-Income Urban Neighborhoods?

I love the question, “Where are you from?” I have the coolest answer: Brooklyn. It wasn’t always so cool. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I felt I had the worst of two worlds: the danger and dirt of a city, the isolation and boredom of a suburb. Granted, back then Brooklyn carried social cache, mostly of the “you must be tough” kind.

But now when I say that I’m from Brooklyn I’m no longer assumed to be tough. Instead, people treat me like I’ve somehow trumped them, like I’m card-carrying birth certified hip. An artist. The child of artists. The child of refugees from Greenwich Village. True? Nah. In reality, I hail from unhip Brooklyn. Your old boyfriend does not live there with the rest of his band; your best friend’s sister did not buy a studio on my parent’s street. No, I hail from a place where hair is worn high and couches are covered in plastic. We’re talking neighborhoods like Flatbush, Carnarsie, Mill Basin, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay. We’re talking Brooklyn-Brooklyn.

Nowhere has the change from tough to hip been more evident than in Williamsburg. In the last few years I’ve heard more and more about Williamsburg’s new face. Artists unable to afford studio space in the East Village ventured across the Williamsburg bridge to settle in Brooklyn. The neighborhood-ugly squat buildings and plastic siding rectangle houses with few trees and a desperate skyline-soon became filled with galleries, cafes, and bars. Everyone knew someone who lived there.

A few weekends ago I decided to revisit Williamsburg to check out the scene. Even my parents were able to recommend restaurants and bars to me-as a Williamsburg neophyte, I was clearly behind the times. I toured the cafes and the galleries and lounged in the bars under the shade of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. What I found was a thriving art community, facing, as all urban-renewal arts communities face, a host of thorny issues.

At the center of the issue is money. Artists seeking bigger spaces for lower rents are often the first “gentrifiers” of neglected urban neighborhoods. Research by the NEA has linked the proportion of artists in the urban labor force with the rate of downtown gentrification across a range of US cities. As one artist explained to David Ley, author of The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City, “Artists need authentic locations…. every artist is an anthropologist, unveiling culture. It helps to get some distance on that culture in an environment which does not share all of its presuppositions, an old area, socially diverse, including poverty groups.”

Not every artist views him or herself as an anthropologist, but every artist needs cheap space-and plenty of it. So artists move to poor areas. And those areas begin to change. According to Ley, when artists move to poor inner city neighborhoods property prices inflate six to tenfold within a decade. Janet L. Abu-Lughod gives a telling anecdote about artist gentrification in her book “From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side.” Abu-Lughod reports that in 1978, New York’s Mayor Koch was so impressed with the way in which artists gentrified Soho that he proposed the same for the South Bronx. Somehow, the proposal didn’t take.

It’s easy to see why a mayor would love gentrification. Soho, once a neighborhood of abandoned warehouses and loose-cobblestone streets, is today filled with cafes, expensive restaurants, and designer boutiques. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a real-live struggling artist living there. Once the studios open and the smell of cappuccino wafts through the air, price hikes are just around the corner. This leaves the artists, not to mention the original neighborhood residents, packing bags in search of the next, cheap frontier.

At this point, Manhattan and San Francisco are all but frontier-less. Areas like Alphabet City in Manhattan and the Mission District in San Francisco, which were occupied by poor, mostly Hispanic families for over a decade, are now increasingly expensive.

In New York, children whose grandparents fled the Lower East Side now gladly pay $1500 a month for tiny, dark tenements, while the artists who sparked this reverse exodus are settling into studios across the Williamsburg Bridge

Ironically, artists who seek out poor areas for an “anti-establishment” aesthetic become accomplices in the gentrification game and end up bringing the bourgeois culture they fled to their new neighborhoods. Peekskill, New York, a depressed New York City exurb whose claim to fame is the “Facts of Life” sitcom, provides a perfect illustration of this conflict. For the ten years Peekskill’s Republican City Council has attempted to lure artists to downtown spaces in the hopes of neighborhood rejuvenation. The city ran ads in the Village Voice and promised to help artists renovate old storefronts into lofts and studios. After 80 artists made the move, Peekskill began construction on ArtLofts, a $5.7 million project of 48 state-subsidized artist-only lofts. Each loft carries tax breaks for fifteen years.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But when the Peekskill artists discovered the city was planning to install video cameras at downtown intersections as an anti-crime measure, they balked. Complaining that “artist only” zoning invites gentrification and that the cameras are targeted at the city’s African American community, Peekskill artists have taken to protesting and filibustering City Council meetings. Nick Mottern, a carpenter interviewed by the “New York Times,” said, “If I would have known that this grand artist scheme was to create a layer on top of the African-American community that was already living here, I wouldn’t have participated.”

So what’s an artist to do? Artists need cheap space, but don’t want easels to become associated with eviction. A few have taken to fighting gentrification head-on. In a move that makes the Peekskill artists look perfectly passive, a small movement in San Francisco’s the Mission District has begun pasting signs on lampposts that call for neighborhood residents to key luxury cars — anything to keep the yuppies out.

While guerrilla tactics might not stem the chai latte tide, the slowed economy might. Will the real estate market cool down–and will city artists stay put as a result? Keep your eyes on the urban frontiers, because only time will tell.

This article was originally created for It appears on NYFA Interactive courtesy of the Abigail Rebecca Cohen Library. It appears on courtesy of the New York Foundation for the Arts. For additional information about NYFA and its programs, please visit the NYFA Interactive website at For information on NYFA Source, a national directory of programs for artists in all disciplines, go to, or call live technical assistance for the visual and performing arts at 1-800-232-2789, or email for (visual arts), or (performing arts).