Are Artists Gentrifying Sunset Park?

04/10/2013 4:00 AM |


Where artists go, rents will rise—that’s a story told over and over in New York. Sunset Park, a working-class neighborhood in southern Brooklyn, is the latest community to experience the effects of gentrification led by the creative class. Studio rates remain far lower than in well-known artist enclaves like Bushwick, but some artists and institutions are beginning to notice changes.

Noah Fischer, a New York-based artist who has leased out studios at the 18th Street waterfront since 2005, said it started in Gowanus, which blew up from 2002 to 2005. “I’ve seen a big shift in the culture,” Fischer told me. “Especially on 4th and 5th streets, but more on 5th. The hipsters are arriving and there are coffee shops. It’s creeping south.” When that small neighborhood filled up, tenants began moving toward Sunset.

“We were just about the first artists in this huge building,” he said. “The whole neighborhood was light industry, and for the next few years there was a steady stream of artists moving their studios here.” The artist reports that between 30 to 40 of his tenants now are artists—approximately half the building.

But Fischer hasn’t seen a huge jump in rents over the years. “Our studio prices have not risen that much” because of the zoning, he said, which is still industrial. It may also have to do with his lease, which is for 10 years. His is one of the “net leases” offered by many landlords in the neighborhood to appeal to artists. They’re long-term leases in which the tenants are responsible for everything from the electrical work to the lighting.

NARS Foundation, a non-profit that offers low-rent studios to artists, took on a net lease in 2006 but is now in a jam because of it. They spent thousands of dollars repairing the electricity and creating studios. But now, as their lease expires, they’re finding their landlords wanting to take advantage of the work they’ve already put into the building. “When the recession hit, we could not rent out 1,000 square feet to anyone,” Director of Programs Eun Young Choi said. They have not yet recouped their construction costs, and now their landlord, Industry City, wants to raise their rent by 47 percent. The landlords have been unwilling to negotiate. “We’re in a crisis at the moment. Our lease ends at the end of July, and our mission is provide artists with long term, affordable space. What do we do?”

When I called Industry City to talk about the changes in the neighborhood, I was transferred to the Director of Marketing Michael Kohan. I had only to mention the word “gentrification” before Kohan replied, aghast, that they had nothing to do with it. Industry City comprises 17 buildings and 6.5 million square feet of commercial space in Sunset Park, and its website boasts easy access to Manhattan via the D, N and R lines, the Long Island Railroad, and the BQE.

The brief conversation recalled Fischer’s last words to me. “I don’t see any end to the precariousness for artists in this zone,” he said, speaking to the financial realities for most artists. “There’s a definite ceiling.”

8 Comment

  • Y’all don’t really think that Artists have some special capacity for ‘causing’ gentrification, over and above non-artist related market operations, do you? Or are artists just that awesome?

  • Artist Yuppies Hipsters and Transplants need to understand one thing. The have destroyed the culture of NYC to the point of no return. Gentrification MUST be stopped at all cost!!!
    I’m a True native NYC resident with family going back to the 5 points, and I find it appalling when I’m asked by these invaders where I’m from because of my NYC accent.
    They need to educate themselves as to what city they’re living in and have some fucking respect for it’s natives.
    Yuppie go home.

  • It would have been nice if this account could be a little realistic with numbers on how many actual artists are involved as opposed to musicians, law firm clerks, students, food people, etc., as well as numbers on rent price per square footage, fixtured unfixtured. Comparison to another area would help, Hoboken? Gentrification is hardly a uniform thing as Greenpoint still has remnants of second wave Polish and sWilliamsburg, Bushwick havn’t ethnic cleansed the Puerto Ricans yet. However, if this is all we have to write about, then how dismally boring is the art world? Too many privileged art degrees making the same DeKooning/Warhol over and over again?

  • We are the New Jews of Brooklyn, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. A people of many lands and many languages, and one faith. Artists. And as the Jews and Italians and Irish swarmed over the City of Brooklyn more than a century ago and destroyed its old Dutch character, so shall we engulf today the whole of the borough and supplant its pizzerias and pubs and kosher delis with artisanal cafes and art galleries. And we are proud of it. What. “You got a problem with that?”

  • FYI, Nars didnt/doesnt have a net lease. ICA pays the RE taxes, water/sewer, delivered to NARS a clean, painted loft, with functioning electric service, light fixtures and bathrooms. ICA provides, heat, elevator service, 24 hour security and NARS had a good deal in the process. Maybe they shouldnt have expanded the way they did… Maybe their model is wrong. Dont blame the LL every time. Unfortunately, things never get cheaper.

  • Artists, in their infinite narcissism, like to believe that they can “cause” gentrification, but it doesn’t actually work like that. They may play a role in it, they may sometimes be a step in the process, but they don’t and can’t create it. It doesn’t matter how many artists flock to Detroit, for example — you won’t get real gentrification unless jobs move back there. Sunset Park, meanwhile, is just the next obvious neighborhood in a larger process that has been going on for a few decades now in Brooklyn. The planners and real estate developers of the city, the economy fueled by the finance and “creative” industries, and the perpetual housing shortage have a lot more of an impact than “artists.”

  • I agree with the native New Yorker below. Though Italians and other immigrant groups arrived and thrived in NYC, perhaps infringing only slightly on other groups that arrived before, we did so through industry and made a real contribution to the development of this city, from the establishment to labor rights and everything that is sexy to the monochromatic artisanal transplant who craves to be considered a New Yorker. The ubiquitous hipsters and yuppies only contribute liberal capitalism in their quest for a unique identity, which is really only a brand for the lazy and spoiled children of the suburbs.

  • I’m an artist and I just moved to Sunset Park after being in Williamsburg for over 8 years. Williamsburg turned from a neighborhood into a tourist trap. I don’t think I had anything to do with it, the process was well under way when I moved in. I hope that doesn’t happen to Sunset Park, at least not so quickly. It’s quiet, affordable, and interesting. It’s doomed.