This is Not a Trend Piece: The Evolution of a Brooklyn Church

by Steven Thomson

December 2012

The German Evangelical Lutheran St. Mark’s Church at 626 Bushwick Avenue is not a church. Although constructed between 1885 and 1892 in a Victorian Gothic style by the local immigrant population, the edifice of Nova Scotia sandstone, granite and terra cotta has become the hub of a one-time underground visual and performance art community. Now, the site’s striking oxidized green spire will soon crown a redevelopment as ninety-nine residential apartments. This evolution from disused property to experimental art space and future real estate capital serves as a lesson in artist-induced gentrification, and, while following a familiar formula of migration in New York City, offers an opportunity to give pause.

Let us consider the church as a protagonist in the myth of Brooklyn cool. “It was my first party when I moved to New York,” recounts Bushwick artist and designer Royelyn de la Cruz, in reference to a raucous night in 2007 involving a three-person swing mounted to the church’s upper balconies. Yet according to curator Matthew Uhlmann, the grounds were the site of a functioning congregation until February 2011, when the remaining 15 members relinquished the cash-strapped property and the church was rechristened Bobby Redd Project Space. The debut, Dave Bates-curated exhibition was a hyper-local exploration of nostalgia that explicitly echoed the church’s architecture and its history as a site of memory and abandoned space, as interrogated by a roster of neighborhood artists like Don Pablo Pedro and Andrew Ohanesian. As part of his entry, William Powhida posted on a page torn from a spiral notebook a checklist of “Things I Think About When I Think About Bushwick,” locating the origins of the area’s gentrification to the Dutch settlement in 1660 on “leased” native Lenape land, and warning of the dreaded “hype” and its ability to “wash away anything good; sort of (exactly) like what happened to Williamsburg six years ago.” More than an art exhibition, Ghost Face acted as a crucible for Bushwick’s “vital community of artists, musicians, writers, gastronomes, performers and poets” via an “ongoing series of boundary-pushing and genre-bending events.”

The summer of 2012 would bring Holy Bushwick Open Studios, for which curators Henry Glucroft and Sabrina Yasmine Smith organized such large-scale installation work as Ohanesian’s conversion of the traditional church confessional into a functioning beer tap entitled Mandies, and the Desert Forest, for which the artist Phoenix assembled 2,500 square feet of hanging plastic strips, foam, fake fur and visibility-altering white sheets. These immersive art experiences were complemented by basement performances (accessible via slide) by DMZL, jam sessions with Good Friend Electric, cosmic yoga and a brunch featuring the “Dirty Gospel” of Reverend Vince Anderson. Simulacra, a 3D projection by Ryan Uzilevsky and Light Harvest Studio mapped clone armies and digital ephemera in precise coordination onto the church’s arches and ceiling. All the while, a monumental Renaissance-inspired triptych by James Keul depicting corporate drones kidnapping twenty-somethings kept watch from the balcony above. The event was partnered with Microscope Gallery, which shares a similar mission of “dissolving the barriers between the white walls of the gallery and the darkened setting of the cinema/concert hall/theater space.”

Such grassroots culture jams are hardly new to contemporary art communities—one only need point to the SoHo conceptual artist-run restaurant Food in the 1970s or the YBA-driven appropriation of Hoxton Square in the 1990s. Yet the artistic undertakings at 626 Bushwick Avenue evince a distinctly Brooklyn aesthetic that flourishes outside the Manhattan-centric art market, a look and feel that pays tribute to the borough’s working-class roots, twentieth century blight and twenty-first century sense of cool in a city for which wide open spaces for artistic exploration are increasingly far-flung. “You don’t have these spaces anywhere else in the world,” remarks Glucroft on the coup of conducting Holy Bushwick Open Studios at the in the “epic” interior. “It was both timeless and timely, the way we were able to maintain the integrity of the building.”

These happenings, one part abandoned building and two parts artistic innovation, would generate cultural hype that began with neighborhood blogs and DIY publications, and reached the tipping point with front page features on ARTnews, and the ultimate siren call of gentrification, a New York Times trend piece glorifying “the area’s bohemian mood.” Yet the raw creativity that crystallized in mid-’00s raves and climaxed in the sweltering summer of 2012 faces erasure—or at the very least, resignation to the next stop on the L train. Its impending absence and the impending introduction of privatized space poses the question of whether artists and curators’ celebration of fringe art marathons paved the road for real estate developers to reinterpret the caché of artistic playgrounds and sublime architecture and turn Brooklyn into an aesthetic trope. Thankfully, the building’s indefinite future as private apartments under the auspices of Cayuga Capital Management will preserve the historic structure, pleasing local activists while adding an additional selling point. In a city in which the symbolic language of artistic and architectural authenticity can be rebranded overnight as real estate equity, gentrification has itself evolved into an art. “Really, creative people drive real estate,” admits Glucroft. “But what we were trying most of all was to connect these creative people. Ultimately, it’s about the appreciation of art.” Surely it will simply require an additional creative leap to ensure that an area’s community-driven visual and performative impulse outside the church premises can remain sacred.