Today, Vera Haller of The Wall Street Journal brought the nation's attention to the real victims of gentrification: college educated artists being priced out of the rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Because, as we all know know, the problem with low income, predominantly minority neighborhoods being developed is that, as Haller puts it, "gentrification usually displaces the artists who breathe life into gritty neighborhoods."
Ever since the infamous blackout of 1977, Bushwick has been a largely destitute neighborhood, just waiting for weekend raves and multimedia exhibitions to bring it back to life. Now the raves and exhibits are there, and developers are coming to ruin everything hipsters hold dear, just as was the case in Williamsburg ten years ago.
Haller's piece profiles a group of artists trying to curb the tide of condominiums and rent hikes by pooling their resources and buying their own studio space. She writes:
The progression is clear: Artists move into a neighborhood where they can afford space to work but then get priced out when restaurants, retailers and real-estate developers follow. But in Bushwick, a group of artists is pushing back, taking a page from the developers' playbooks as they attempt to buy property in the neighborhood.
"Let's lay some roots here before Urban Outfitters does," said Jules de Balincourt, a painter whose work has shown at the Whitney Biennial and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. "Let's at least stake out our little islands amongst this flood of gentrification that's coming through."
The artists aren't trying to halt gentrification altogether, at least according to the commercial broker advising them. "They're not talking about stopping the tide of gentrification and development of neighborhoods. If they were hoping to do that, it's not realistic," said Nicholas Griffin of Aptsandloft.com. "But a small group of artists can mitigate it by carving out pieces for themselves." That's great — for them. As for the minority residents who have stuck it out in this central Brooklyn neighborhood? It's not clear how they figure into this equation.
The goal is to get more established artists to contribute a few thousand dollars to buy a complex where they, not greedy developers, control rent prices. "As an example, he said a $400,000 down payment on a $2 million commercial building with space for 10 reasonably sized studios would cost each artist $40,000—an amount that might be manageable," Haller wrote.
Never mind that that's almost $9,000 more than Bushwick's median income in 2007 — this isn't about the average Bushwick resident. As Lynn Sullivan, a Bushwick artist working with de Balincourt, told The Journal: "The main focus of what we're doing here is the preservation of cultural workspace," she said. "We are trying to create a little more security for people who live very precarious lives." The artists, at any rate.
What de Balincourt and his friends seem to be overlooking is that the "flood of gentrification" isn't coming — it arrived with him. Gentrification isn't just a rise in rent prices, but a change in the make-up and culture of the community. In a 2006 installment of The New York Times's assiduous documentation of Bushwick's evolution, Tom Le, a choreographer-turned-real-estate-agent, told reporter Robert Sullivan that his "discovery of Bushwick started when his own friends — dancers and artists — moved into lofts in the area in the 90's." Last March, meanwhile, a story by Jed Lipinski in The Times called Bushwick the next art gallery district, and only casually noted what the neighborhood was losing. "In the last year, more than a dozen art galleries have opened in the industrial neighborhood, taking over rusty factories, Dominican botanicas and auto-parts stores," Lipinski wrote.
There's nothing wrong with artists looking for cheap places to live. And in some ways, gentrification is good for a neighborhood. There are long-time residents who think it's great. As urbanist Benjamin Grant wrote in a piece for PBS, "Who wouldn't want to see reduced crime, new investment in buildings and infrastructure, and increased economic activity in their neighborhoods?"
Fair enough. The problem is, it is mostly the new arrivals, and people who bought into the community early, who reap the benefits of the change. Buying now is a smart move for artists looking for affordable studio space, but to act as if artists — specifically college-educated young adults — are victims, instead of part of the problem, is dishonest and ignores the people truly harmed as Bushwick becomes ever more synonymous with cool.