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Brooklyn Artists, Once Pioneers, Now Priced Out

Beware of artists. From Austin to San Francisco, Chicago to New York, when artists move in, rents will rise.

Beware of artists. From Austin to San Francisco, Chicago to New York, when artists move in, rents will rise. Often, there’s a honeymoon phase when artists keep on doing what they’re doing, and neighborhoods thrive with self-owned cafes, bars, and boutiques. Zooming in on Brooklyn, that honeymoon phase is nearly over. From Williamsburg to Sunset Park, artists are being priced out of the neighborhoods they helped make into what they are today, and it seems like nothing can be done. All this might sound like an old story, but what’s different now is the rapid speed at which these neighborhoods are changing.

In Sunset Park, where many artists live and work, those renting studios from Industry City are having a particularly difficult time. “I got pushed out of Williamsburg,” artist Tamara Zahaykevich said over the phone. “I thought this area would be safe for a while.” For nearly three years, Zahaykevich has rented a studio through the New York Art Residency (NARS) Foundation at 88 35th Street.

The studios at 35th Street are rented out through Industry City. In 2008, the landlord began converting Sunset Park’s unused industrial spaces into spacious studios for artists to make work. But now, Industry City is telling artists to leave—some by the end of the month—in order to make room for larger manufacturers.

For those who aren’t leaving, their rents are going up. “Industry City hasn’t been giving long-term leases,” Zahaykevich explains. “But I don’t feel comfortable taking a one-year lease at 100 more a year.” She’s not renewing her lease when it ends in July, but she doesn’t know where to go next.

“The thing that blows me away is the rate at which this is happening. What's very difficult to understand is that there are entirely empty floors, and this area [Sunset Park] has so many buildings, about 60 percent occupied,” Zahaykevich added. All she wants is some security—a simple human need. She’s in her forties, and has been priced out before: DUMBO in the 1990s and Williamsburg in the 2000s.

“I don’t even know where to go after this,” Zahaykevich mused, although she wants to find a way to stay in Sunset Park, and has contacted her local council member. “How do we get the city to recognize that the creative industries are viable to cities and can’t get pushed out?”

Heading north to Williamsburg—once a haven for creatives—a similar situation is playing out. One of Williamsburg’s last artist studios will close at the end of the month. The tenants at 173 North 3rd Street need to vacate because their building was bought out by Waterbridge Capital; so far, the plan is for the building to be demolished entirely. From those ruins will sprout a 245-room boutique hotel, just around the corner from a Whole Foods.

Lisa Schroeder of the Schroeder Romero art gallery has lived and worked at 173 North 3rd Street for 21 years. “My gallery started here and we rented out six studios. We made them cheap and artist friendly at $350 a month.” That going rate is practically unheard of in Williamsburg, and nearly anywhere else in the city for that matter. When I called her last week, she was frantically packing up those decades of her life and business.

Similar to what’s happening in Sunset Park, Schroeder was first told she had a month to leave. That was in October 2011, but after months of going back and forth with attorneys, and after her landlord filed a countersuit for $30 million, all parties involved negotiated a buyout.

I asked Schroeder where she and her husband are planning to move. They’re going to Bed Stuy, but most of the artists renting studios have yet to find another space. She’s not optimistic about where artists should move next. Bushwick, too, is becoming pricier and pricier. And now with a mega-mall opening up soon, it seems to be going the way of Williamsburg.

“This town is becoming so poisonous for artists,” she sighed. “It’s all about real estate, it’s lost its soul. And the reason real estate prices went so crazy is because artists moved in. We get fucked in the end, but it’s an old story.”

But the neighborhood they moved into barely looks the same as it did when they moved in. William Powhida, one of the artists moving his studios out of 173 North 3rd, hinted that it might not be so bad to get out of Williamsburg (although it would’ve been better through choice, not force).

“As I was moving the last of the stuff out with my friend,” Powhida mentions, “I told him I’ll miss the space, but not the neighborhood.”

Brooklyn image via Shutterstock

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