Blame the Bohemians: The Gentrification of Bushwick, Brooklyn

by Stavros Pavlides

July 2011

The first weekend of June is special for the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. It is the weekend of the ever-expanding Bushwick Open Studios, which this year celebrated its fifth birthday. Despite the crass noncompliance of the MTA, which suspended all L-train service into Brooklyn, an adequately festive amount of art viewers braved the commute, in the process lending the neighborhood a definite air of cultural significance.

With over 2000 artists displaying work in over 350 venues in every conceivable form and medium, attempting to cover the art itself in any meaningful way poses a challenge. Certainly one could discuss some basic dichotomies in the exhibition of the work, such as that between the live-in studios and the strictly professional ones, the full time gallerists and the hobbyists, but such classifications are preceded by the phenomenon of the Open Studios itself. What they offer is a crystalline gaze into the nature and evolutionary status of gentrification in Bushwick.

New York City, with its especially transient population, has a long history of accelerated and thereby transparent gentrification, of which artists have typically stood at the vanguard, acting as catalysts of displacement and development. SoHo, a former industrial hub and the apex of cast-iron architecture, started developing in the 1960s when artists reclaimed the abandoned yet versatile lofts for their affordability and flexibility. The neighborhood’s subsequent economic ascension spurred an artistic relocation to Chelsea in Western Manhattan. Similarly, the East Village, a formerly notorious territory (baptized thusly by real-estate agents) found itself in the grips of gentrification, and in a domino effect of development, Williamsburg,  Bushwick and now Bed-Stuy, all in Brooklyn, have followed suit, spearheaded by artists and bohemians.

A closer glimpse into the mechanics of gentrification reveals specific evolutionary patterns. Low rent lies at the heart of every artistic migration. From thereon, the secondary parameters consist of either loft/warehouse space (SoHo, Chelsea, Bushwick), or proximity to developed areas (East Village, Lower East Side, Williamsburg). Bushwick, as will be discussed, combines all of the above.

Once artists establish a presence in the new neighborhood, lower rent is replaced by “bohemia” as the main attraction, and aspiring artists, semi-professionals and “BoBos” (bourgeois bohemians) begin to pour in as rent begins to rise, followed at last by the yuppies and the economic and class security they bring. The artists’ role as pioneers of redevelopment is complex, but the immediate explanations are financial, and to a certain extent ideological (artists are the denomination of the middle class most willing to live on less).

Bushwick, particularly the area between the Morgan stop and the Jefferson stop on the L train, is currently somewhere riding the tail-end of the second wave of gentrification, and on the eve of the last. Initial appropriation of the neighborhood has already occurred within the past decade. The appeal of a bohemian “loft lifestyle” has brought in peripheral/semi-professional artists, something that can be evidenced by the Open Studios themselves. In the author’s experience, by and large, the better work of any discipline to be found in the Studios was in the larger, professional ones, whereas the weaker work generally featured in the live-in studios and impromptu apartment-turned-exhibits. Works like the sheep sculptures of Kyu Seok Oh, or the monumental bark-textures of Eric Lindveit necessitate a large space, but also illustrate that artists of a certain tier are the only the ones that both need and can afford studios of their size. Nevertheless, creators of all strata coexisted and exhibited work as equals over the weekend, demonstrating how large indeed the event had become, whether it was art on display or bohemia.

As for the inhabitants of Bushwick themselves, discussing the Open Studio events and the changes in the area garnered divergent responses. And yet the older Bushwick tenants could not conceal a thin layer of apprehension and contempt concerning the development in their neighborhood, of which they viewed themselves as rightful inhabitants. This too is a familiar theme in gentrification, of the artist pioneers begrudging the subsequent sterilization of their grass-roots co­mmunity. On one level, this is understandable given the very real effort artists have put into transforming abandoned warehouses into hubs of creativity. On the other hand, what is implicit in the artists’ disparagement of the yuppie contingents infringing on their territory, is their own role as gentrifiers of a previously undesirable area. Their scornfulness implies ownership, and their ownership implies gentrification on the most basic level. Perhaps ultimately the artists and bohemians are intermediaries of class struggle, the vanguard of urban appropriation.