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.

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Slouching Toward Avenue D

On the Lower East Side two industries define the new urban frontier that emerged in the 1980s. Indispensable, of course, is the real estate industry which christened the northern part of the Lower East Side the “East Village” in order to capitalize on its geographical proximity to the respectability, security, culture, and high rents of Greenwich Village. Then there is the culture industry — art dealers and patrons, gallery owners and artists, designers and critics, writers and performers — which has converted urban dilapidation into ultra chic. Together in the 1980s the culture and real estate industries invaded this rump of Manhattan from the west. Gentrification and art came hand in hand, “slouching toward Avenue D,” as art critics Walter Robinson and Carlo McCormick (1984) put it.

Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier (London/New York: Routledge, 1996) 18-19.