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.

Advertisements

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