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.”