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Photographs by Don Hammerman at Bogart Salon in Bushwick
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Getting ahead in the art world entails knowing what’s new, what’s different, what’s the next big thing. In New York City, the quest for what’s new can often feel like an endless chase through the city’s rapidly developing (and rapidly shifting) art communities. First it was Chelsea, then it was the Lower East Side, and then it was Williamsburg. All of this sort of made sense: starving artists would inhabit these areas because of the many low-rent apartment complexes; the areas would eventually become cool, exclusive, and expensive places for the young bourgeois to inhabit; then the rent would be so high that the artists were forced to look elsewhere for affordable housing. That “elsewhere,” it seems, is now the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Located southeast of the oft-stereotyped Williamsburg, Bushwick is rapidly becoming the place for a myriad of MFA students to create art, build studios, found nonprofits, and open galleries. On Thursday, January 19, members of the Bushwick art scene convened at the Bogart Salon, a recently opened gallery space, to discuss the future of the neighborhood and the artists’ relationship with the neighborhood’s pre-existing population.
The event was moderated by Hrag Vartanian, founder of the art blog Hyperallergic. For Vartanian, the shift to Bushwick can be attributed almost entirely to the surging real estate prices in Williamsburg. “You could still get a loft for a very reasonable price,” Vartanian says of the real estate market in Bushwick. “You could get an apartment. I mean, there were a lot of options.” One would expect this sudden infiltration of an artsy crowd from Williamsburg might have caused immediate tension between the established working-class families and the new arrivals, but Vartanian claims that many in the non-artist community who owned homes were happy because “their real estate values were going up. There were some middle class and working-class families who had been there for decades, and all of a sudden their homes start going up in value every year.” So at the time, things seemed to be going pretty well.
However, this shift from Williamsburg to Bushwick began in 2000, just as Vartanian and fellow members of the art community arrived in the developing area. A significant amount has changed since then. Though the values of homes went up and the crime rate has gone down, all is not perfect in the neighborhood as the scene begins to develop more rapidly. “The problem for residents now is that the rents are going up, that there are bars opening on the corner that they may not be able to afford,” Vartanian says. So what does this mean for the area? Can the artist community establish a scene like the one in Williamsburg before the surging prices catch up with it? Vartanian is not so sure. “In 2006, we were throwing our hands up, saying, ‘Oh, this scene is so over.’ And then we did it again in 2008, and then we did it again in 2010. So I think it’s difficult to say.”
But not everyone feels this way. Peter Hopkins, the owner of the Bogart Salon where the panel discussion was held, has a markedly different opinion from Vartanian on almost all accounts of the devel- opment of the neighborhood. Having moved to New York fresh out of college in 1982, Hopkins declares he has seen “four incarnations of the art scene in New York City.” Like Vartanian, he “knew that Williamsburg was over” when the rent started to surge and the zoning plans for the city were altered.
But unlike Vartanian’s view that the Bushwick scene started at the turn of the new millennium, Hopkins claims that the “Bushwick scene began last week.” The panel discussion was intended to assemble “a loose collection of people and thoughts” that Hopkins and his peers did not create, but rather “gave it a name.” It isn’t easy for Hopkins, who uses metaphors of Nirvana and the Occupy movements to describe what is happening in Bushwick, to identify anything exact when it comes to the development of the area. For Hopkins, the panel was of the utmost importance because it put the idea of a “scene” into the consciousness of the people living there—and, as Hopkins claims, “The moment it enters consciousness, it comes into being.”
The real problems come up, however, when Hopkins speaks of the non-artist population. Vartanian—who wished to avoid using the term “non-artists”
as a “monolith”—described an area that, aside from a few pricey, gentrified establishments scattered throughout the neighborhood, was still a unified place. Hopkins sees things differently: “People feel disenfranchised. Artists are like the cockroaches of the economic world.” For Hopkins, it seems that
when the artists come in, people move out. “Any- body could have come in [to Bushwick], but artists did. Did I disenfranchise someone, or did I do something worthy?” According to Hopkins, there seems to be some hostility in the non-artist community. “We hire local people, but at the end of the day, you don’t see Gabriel and Domingo at the openings,” he says. First and foremost, Hopkins says he is “a small business owner. I need low prices and big spaces.”
But is that all Bushwick is? A cheap empty lot? Not according to Hopkins or Vartanian. “This is a place of open and thoughtful people. The galleries are
not little white boxes—the spaces are different here. It’s incredible. Bushwick is everything that Chelsea can’t or won’t do.” Though Vartanian doesn’t necessarily see this place as artistically different from the existing art neighborhoods, Bushwick does have “the concentration of all those things that other places doesn’t have, that Williamsburg doesn’t have in terms of young people,” he says. “Williamsburg doesn’t have the new arrivals. Those are the kids that the media outlets love, the new, fresh story.” Like the other neighborhoods that have come and gone— or come and stayed—the art world will be watching to see if Bushwick can last.
But in this city, nothing is certain. “Who knows?” Vartanian says. “New York is always reinventing itself.”
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