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New York Hopes to Nurture Artist Neighborhoods

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Artists have long been in the forefront of gentrification in New York City. SoHo, the East Village, and then Brooklyn, became popular after artists moved there for affordable real estate. Ironically, the artists then can't afford to live in the communities they helped create. Now, emerging artists are being forced to leave New York City altogether to find affordable places to live and work. From member station WAYC, Andrea Bernstein reports on a program to keep artists in the city.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN reporting:

Standing on East 149th Street in Mahaven in the South Bronx, it's hard to imagine the neighborhood is in danger of becoming tony. But arts economist Robin Keegan is concerned.

Ms. ROBIN KEEGAN (Author; Professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Columbia University): It's one of the locales of the south Bronx that's famous for a lot of the burnout that happened in the '70s.

BERNSTEIN: But now, lured by its low rise old factory buildings and clear light just 20 minutes from midtown Manhattan, artists are moving in.

Ms. KEEGAN: There are patterns of development that we see and they happen a lot faster now.

BERNSTEIN: Here is the pattern. After World War II, manufacturing jobs left the city, leaving warehouses and old factories in neighborhoods like SoHo in lower Manhattan, and in Brooklyn, Dumbo; that stands for Down Underneath the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. The spaces, with their large floor plans and huge windows, turned out to be perfect for artists. Then the real estate developers came in and bought up the now valuable buildings.

Mahaven is at the beginning of this cycle.

Mr. BARRY KASTRINSKY: I like the art to have to fight with the machinery. The machinery…

BERNSTEIN: Barry Kastrinsky runs his family's silver dinnerware factory on Morris Avenue. A painter himself, Kastrinsky started inviting artists to work in his factory. He made a sculpture garden in an unlocked empty lot next door, across a wide boulevard from housing projects.

Mr. KASTRINSKY: And what happened as a result? Nobody came in and mugged me, yet. But, instead, I had artists come in off the street.

BERNSTEIN: There are now about 100 working artists in this area. As he (unintelligible) his way over to a gallery he opened nearby, Kastrinsky passes a sidewalk filled with piles of broken glass from car windows. But still, is Kastrinsky worried this neighborhood will become another SoHo?

Mr. KASTRINSKY: It still is so young and early that, like most of the artists, we have to laugh at it. You do still have this going on.

BERNSTEIN: Not so long ago people might have been laughing about Dumbo in Brooklyn, too. Jewelry designer, Caroline Gleeman was living there in 2001.

Ms. CAROLINE GLEEMAN: A lot of the street lamps are flickering and dark at night. The post office, any services, food, clothing, cleaning, supplies anything is a good 15, 20 block walk.

BERNSTEIN: A few months after that interview, Gleeman was pressured to leave. Real estate developers were circling. There's a West Elm department store in Dumbo now, and a gourmet food shop. Apartments there sell for an average 1.2 million dollars.

Gleeman moved further into Brooklyn. But last year, she found out she had to leave that loft, too. A developer had discovered the neighborhood and wants to build a basketball arena and high-rise towers. Gleeman was able to stay in Brooklyn because of a special subsidy she's getting from the arena's developer. But her colleagues aren't so lucky.

Ms. AYALA NAPHTALI: The heat bills really got to me.

BERNSTEIN: Ayala Naphtali, also a jewelry designer, scrapped up enough money to buy a house when she was pushed out of her loft. But this winter, the mortgage and utility payments became unbearable.

Ms. NAPHTALI: Sometimes when I travel in other places and I realize that people do live lives where they're not strapped because of their housing costs.

BERNSTEIN: Naphtali and her husband, a photographer, are moving with their two children to New Jersey. New York City officials are watching the exodus with dismay. Housing Commissioner, Sean Donovan says the city is developing a hundred million dollar fund to help artists by homes.

Commissioner SEAN DONOVAN (Housing Commissioner, New York City): If we believe, as I think many of us do, that artists not just need affordable housing, but actually create real estate value, what we're trying to do is create a fund that would actually leverage some of that, bring in investment dollars to follow artists and allow them, for reduced prices, to buy their space.

BERNSTEIN: Donovan says the project is still on a preliminary phase, with many details left to be worked out. But if it proceeds as planned, neighborhoods like Mahaven in the Bronx would not become artsy neighborhoods few artists can afford.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Bernstein, in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Bernstein
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