Response to The Villager

For some reason, the moderator of the comments section of thevillager.com saw fit to exclude my response to Clayton Patterson’s most recent article, Let’s get back to our roots: We need new leaders. It wasn’t long, or offensive, so I don’t know why they censored it, unless they just can’t brook any disagreement with Mr. Patterson.

This is what I wrote (as best as I can recall):

Mr. Patterson puts the cart before the horse. Leaders come out of the people. It used to be that the people of this neighborhood were communists, socialists, even anarchists. Today they are mostly liberals. Liberals don’t care about the poor.* They care more about which stores open in the neighborhood than they do about the condition of the people who work in those stores.

And if artists need to live in slums to be creative, there’s no shortage of those in the world. “The breeding places of disease, the infamous holes and cellars in which the capitalist mode of production confines our workers night after night, are not abolished; they are merely shifted elsewhere! The same economic necessity which produced them in the first place, produces them in the next place also.” (F. Engels, The Housing Question.)

*I bet this is where they balked!

So that’s what I wrote, but since I’m posting this on Quilas, I will expand it a bit.

I don’t know why it is that people isolate the experiences of artists when talking about this neighborhood. (Well, yes I do, but they shouldn’t do it.) The movement of artists into this area occurred during a specific period of time — post-WW2. Artists were not immigrants; they played a significant role in gentrifying this neighborhood. I wrote briefly about this in my post Artists Made This Neighborhood?

I’m not hostile to artists, but their plight was the plight of thousands more who had no other options, the way the artists did, to live elsewhere. Today, artists are seen as the victims of gentrification when, in the main, they were the tools of gentrification.

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Artists Made This Neighborhood?

No matter how thoroughly obscured by the art world, the role that artists and galleries play in the gentrification of the Lower East Side is clear to those who are threatened with displacement, as well as to the community workers who are trying to save the neighborhood for its residents. “I think that artists are going to find themselves in a very unfortunate situation in the coming year,” says Carol Watson. “There is going to be a real political struggle, a very serious struggle on the Lower East Side. And those who line up on the side of profit are going to find themselves on the enemy list. It’s just that simple…” It is not a case of mistaken class identity for the people of the Lower East Side to place artists among the neighborhood enemies. For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the East Village art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side.

The second moment in the process of gentrification is contingent upon the success of the first. … On the Lower East Side it was not until artists, the middle-class’s own avant-garde, had established secure enclaves that the rear guard made its first forays into the “wilderness.” The success of these forays can best be measured by the rapid escalation in real-estate activity. According to a December 1982 article in the VILLAGE VOICE, Helmsley-Spear, Century Management, Sol Goldman, and Alex DiLorenzo III had all invested in empty lots, apartment houses, and abandoned buildings. Rents in the last two years have risen sharply. A small one-bedroom apartment rents for approximately $1,000 a month, and storefront space that once rented for $6.00 a square foot now costs as much as $35.

Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” THE PORTABLE LOWER EAST SIDE, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1987, 22 Jan. 2013 #http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html.

Lower East Side Artists Were Not Immigrants

While it might be tempting to view this current situation as merely the latest development in an unchanging immigrant history of the Lower East Side, there are fundamental differences between the past and the present. The experience of European immigrants was one of gradual assimilation; for today’s minorities, it is one of attrition. Any attempt to equate these experiences would result in profound distortions. The immigrants admitted to this country from the mid-nineteenth century to the close of the First World War belonged to a displaced, “floating” labor force following capital, which had itself emigrated to the New World. Because most of these European immigrants were allowed a niche either in the closed circuitry of the immigrant economy or in the city’s burgeoning manufacturing industry, there were opportunities for many eventually to move out of the tenements and beyond the borders of the Lower East Side. The present inhabitants of the area have no equivalent role to play in today’s economy, and therefore “upward mobility” is not the reason that fifteen percent of the residents left the neighborhood between 1970 and 1980. The exodus was due instead to arson and the wholesale abandonment of buildings by landlords.

To portray artists as the victims of gentrification is to mock the plight of the neighborhood’s real victims. This is made especially clear by the display of wealth. At this moment in history artists cannot be exempted from responsibility. According to Carol Watson, the best thing the artists of this city can do for the people of the Lower East Side is to go elsewhere. She realizes, however, that the hardest thing to ask individuals is not to act in their own best interest. Nonetheless, they need to decide whether or not they want to be part of a process that destroys people’s lives. “People with choices,” she says, “should choose not to move to the Lower East Side.”

Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, “The Fine Art of Gentrification,” THE PORTABLE LOWER EAST SIDE, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 1987, 22 Jan. 2013 #http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html