A reaction to Don't Move to New York
by Patrick Gantert and Nicole Killan
Part of the problem here is a somewhat specific and willful historical blindness in the thesis itself, namely that it ignores the fact that artist communities have a tendency to populate and develop derelict, neglected, and consequently affordable spaces (a widely understood narrative). Sparing a full breakdown of NYC artist migration, a rough movement can be tracked beginning in the West Village, moving to the East Village/LES, then on to Williamsburg and now to Bushwick. Of course, this does not account for deviations in the pattern (South Brooklyn, UWS, UES, Harlem, etc.) but it is safe to say that in all cities, and most importantly for the purpose of this discussion New York City, artists migrate towards affordability over almost anything else out of necessity. Financial limitations dictate the latitude for studio work, however that is defined. Indeed, the idea of migrating towards affordability out of necessity is a good reason to avoid New York City at all costs. On the other hand, the city retains a rich history of a breaking down and building up of artist communities and, if one were to take a snapshot of the current landscape, shows little sign of stopping.
With that in mind, let’s consider the outrageous and astronomical prices for Bushwick studio space. At this point, it is safe to use Bushwick as the current working model for the discussion of a full on culture-founded gentrification. Last year’s Bushwick Open Studios boasted 551 separate events happening in the area and that only accounts for listed events — the place is saturated. In his Brooklyn Rail article from 2010, 'DIY Bushwick', Stephen Truax provides useful data regarding 2002 Bushwick studio prices:
'Artists were able to rent enormous spaces for very little (e.g., 8000 square feet for $2000 a month).'
Broken down and applied to the somewhat standard Brooklyn 200sq/ft studio space, this would mean a $50/month studio. Even in 2002, that was incredibly affordable. More than simply validating Johnson's point, this statistic typifies NYC artist communities, cheap when they move in and prohibitively expensive when they move out: the archetypal gentrification narrative happening in NYC and throughout the United States' metropolitan cities. Looking at the Lower East Side and Williamsburg alone, the writing is on the wall. These migrations are cyclical and ongoing, and to declare or worse yet try to incite some forced end to it all is to cut artists off at the knees. All of these above points we already know. So what’s the point of talking about this?
Something else to consider in the lead up to another imminent shift is the reality of a much more dispersed studio network within the city. As Johnson actually cites, Sunset Park is more affordable. Gowanus, though slightly pricy, has a vibrant scene that mirrors that of Bushwick. A trio of Red Hook startup galleries (Knowmoregames, 247365, and Primetime) just had a profile in the NY Times Magazine. More and more neighborhoods lower on the G line are offering affordable space and open communities which are attractive to makers.
Part of the discussion around whether or not it makes sense to be an artist in NYC is rooted in nostalgia, a fondness for the gritty city salad days (which seem strangely located to about 15 years ago), the tone of which can be reduced to ‘it was cool because rent was cheap in the East Village’. Paradoxically, by and large the people who support the notions outlined in Johnson’s article reminisce about the difficulty of NYC, stuff like the heat being turned off in your building on the weekends or, from a Facebook comment, ‘the artist lofts are gone and the Anne Taylor lofts are here to stay’. The language is romantic and wistful, evoking grainy images of Soho in the 70s, burgeoning, unhinged groups of future icons — the kind of stuff people see in movies about artists in New York. But this type of nostalgia succeeds not in proving a point but in clouding the present, not seeing the forest for the trees.
To return to Bushwick, we are currently seeing a contemporary incarnation of every community that has existed in New York City in the last fifty years, reaching the same fate, that is getting priced out of their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, enclave, loft, whatever you want to call it. We love Bushwick. Not everyone does but the climate in Bushwick alone is not an indication that artists should not move to New York. If this was the case, no one would have moved here after the 80s because the shithole was overflowing with NYU students and yuppies.
In a larger context, something we find troubling about all of this is the pervasive sense of hopelessness. The biggest issue is that making these kinds of statements and actually promoting them to students and young artists thinking about New York as an option after school is to literally work against a supportive community of NYC artists. To be clear, the system needs participants to move it forward, to make work in the face of odds, to open new spaces, to mount apartment shows, and to keep the dialogue progressive. New York is always an option. Yes, it's difficult, but come for the people, come for the conversations and diversity. It will be hard, but those smaller communities one becomes a part of are more open and inspiring than any other. No one has written an article like that before. "Yes, it's hard, but give me your tired, creative, and ready-for-change people. And if you aren't happy, you can always leave. That's ok too." More importantly, come to New York understanding these issues so that it’s no surprise, the amount of effort that needs to be put into being in this city.
All in all, this response comes from an emotional place. We love New York and this conversation just plain makes us sad. It is a special place, with a strong and artistically powerful history. The economy is bad practically everywhere, and in a country where there is little support for the arts, makers only have each other. And that’s a reason to move to New York. Or not. Do whatever you want.