Excited by the crowds, worried about the rent: Conversations with artists in Bushwick

June 4, 2014 By Matthew Taub Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from Brooklyn Brief
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“It’s amazing,” said Colm Henry, leaning forward in his chair. A painter in Bushwick for eight years, he’s participated in the annual “Open Studios” events since their inception, but he said he still couldn’t believe the crowds. “It’s getting bigger and more popular every time.”

Mr. Henry had positioned himself in the corner of a live-work studio space at 449 Troutman St. that he shares with two others.

It was an optimal spot to survey the overflow audience, answer questions and suggest visitors sign on to his email list. His studio-mates, Aidan Grant and Scot Weiss, occasionally peered out from behind the viewing walls, beyond which were a kitchen, living room and beds. Despite their collective excitement, there was also a growing sense of concern.

“Bushwick is catching on,” Henry said. “Honestly, I’m hostage to whatever my landlord wants to do. We’re hostage to any landlord, really.”

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The crowds at the Bushwick collective block party, an event related to Bushwick open studios.

Indeed, amidst the surge of interest in the neighborhood with an event like Bushwick Open Studios, a recent article in the Brooklyn Eagle detailed how, for many artists, finding and keeping affordable studio space can be half the battle.

Another painter, Becky Kinder, shared equally bittersweet sentiments.

“For the first time, there are stores nearby stocking fresh foods,” Kinder said. “I can even go out to dinner right here, without venturing to the city.”

“But it’s a real crisis at the same time,” Kinder added. “I’ve been here for ten years after being pushed out of Williamsburg. There’s a community of people here who put down roots and helped improve this area. I’m worried about us.”

With a bed literally at the foot of her canvasses, Kinder described how her building’s landlord is actually applying for protection under the artists’ loft law, which was expanded in 2010.

“The artists and the landlords want to convert this to a legal residence,” Kinder said.

 Like many properties in Bushwick, the originally industrial building has structural issues the owners want to bring up to code, while being able to make the first floor open to commercial tenants. A loft law conversion would presumably insulate artists from drastic rent increases, but a deadline for tenants to apply passed in March.  Any new artists hoping to set up shop are out of luck.

A dog walker by day to pay the rent, Kinder admitted that the neighborhood may have reached the point of no return.

“It started to get nice, and then it sort of went over a cliff,” Kinder said. “People came in who didn’t have the same regard for the upkeep of the neighborhood. Littering, screaming at all hours of the night. I think they were lured more by the proliferation of bars.”

Even with the expanded loft-law’s protections for long-time tenants, a more widespread concern is the sense of a “scene” usurping the original premise of Bushwick Open Studios, or the neighborhood entirely. Many attendees over the weekend came merely to enjoy the sun, food trucks, beer tents and live music, while exhibiting their avant-garde fashion sense.  A good many didn’t bother to visit studios at all.

Some artists in the neighborhood, aware of this trend, decided to not even participate.

“I decided to take the day off,” said Jason Alexander Byers.  A painter who also works in prints, sculpture, paintings and photography, Byers spent the afternoon at Montana’s Trailhouse, a new bar at the center of the weekend’s events. Byers advised that he saw himself lasting in the neighborhood for two more years at most.

“After that, I’m not sure,” Byers said.

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