standard Excited by the Crowds, Worried About the Rent: Conversations With Artists in Bushwick

Colm Henry (Photo by Matthew Taub)

“It’s amazing,” said Colm Henry, leaning forward in his chair. A painter in Bushwick for eight years, he’s participated in the annual “Open Studios” since its inception, but still couldn’t believe the crowds. “It’s getting bigger and more popular every time.”

Photo by Matthew Taub

Photo by Matthew Taub

Mr. Henry had positioned himself in the corner of a live-work studio space at 449 Troutman Street he shares two others. It was an optimal spot to survey the overflow audience, answer questions, and suggest that visitors sign on to his e-mail list. His studio-mates, Aidan Grant and Scot Weiss, occasionally peered out from behind the viewing walls, beyond which were a kitchen, living room, and band rehearsal space. Despite their collective excitement–and bragging rights when showing off a slick bookshelf-lined living room that rounded out their unit–there was also a growing sense of concern.

“Bushwick is catching on,” Henry said, worriedly. “Honestly, I’m hostage to whatever my landlord wants to do. We’re hostage to any landlord, really.”

Photo by Matthew Taub

Photo by Matthew Taub

Indeed, amidst the surge of interest in the neighborhood with an event like Bushwick Open Studios, a recent article in the Brooklyn Eagle detailed how, for many artists, finding (and keeping) affordable studio space can be half the battle.

Another painter, Becky Kinder, shared equally bittersweet sentiments.

“For the first time, there are stores nearby stocking fresh foods,” Kinder said. “I can even go out to dinner right here, without venturing to the city.”

Becky Kinder's Studio (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Becky Kinder’s Studio (Photo by Matthew Taub)

“But it’s a real crisis at the same time,” Kinder added. “I’ve been here for ten years after being pushed out of Williamsburg. There’s a community that put down roots and helped improve this area. I’m worried about us.”

Becky Kinder (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Becky Kinder (Photo by Matthew Taub)

With a bed literally at the foot of her canvasses, Kinder described how her building’s landlord is applying for protection under the artists’ loft law, which was expanded in 2010.

“The artists and the landlords want to convert this to a legal residence,” Kinder explained.

Like many properties in Bushwick, the originally industrial building has structural issues the owners want to bring up to code, while being able to make the first floor open to commercial tenants. A loft law conversion would presumably insulate artists from drastic rent increases, but a deadline for tenants to apply passed in March. Any new artists hoping to set up shop are out of luck.

A dog walker by day to pay the rent, Kinder admitted that the neighborhood may have reached the point of no return.

Photo by Matthew Taub

Photo by Matthew Taub

“It started to get nice, and then it sort of went over a cliff,” Kinder said. “People came in who didn’t have the same regard for the upkeep of the neighborhood. Littering, screaming at all hours of the night. I think they were lured more by the proliferation of bars.”

Even with the expanded loft-law’s protections for long-time tenants, a more widespread concern is the sense of a “scene” usurping the original premise of Bushwick Open Studios, or the neighborhood entirely. Many attendees over the weekend came merely to enjoy the sun, food trucks, beer tents and live music, while exhibiting their avant-garde fashion sense. A good many didn’t bother to visit studios at all.

The Crowds at the Bushwick Collective Block Party, a Related Event (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The Crowds at the Bushwick Collective Block Party, a Related Event (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Some artists in the neighborhood, aware of this trend, decided to not even participate.

“I took the day off,” said Jason Alexander Byers. A painter who also works in prints, sculpture, and photography, Byers spent the afternoon at Montana’s Trailhouse, a new bar at the epicenter of the weekend’s events. He advised that he saw himself lasting in the neighborhood for another year, two more at most.

The Scene at Montana's Trailhouse (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The Mid-Day Scene at Montana’s Trailhouse (Photo by Matthew Taub)

“After that, I’m not sure,” Byers said.