The Gentrifier's Guide: Art Is Long, Leases Are Short
Tamara Zahaykevich in her Sunset Park studio: “It wasn’t about just artists anymore.”
Tamara Zahaykevich is one of the many New Yorkers who have found themselves both gentrifier and gentrified, as the front lines have gradually shifted. "I've been in New York since 1996, and since then I've moved my apartment ten times, and my studio about ten times as well," she says. After a decade in Williamsburg — where, she says, "I was really oblivious to the idea that I had anything to do with rising rent" — she settled in Sunset Park, with her art studio nearby in Industry City, the sprawling warehouses on the Sunset Park waterfront that were built in the 1890s as the Bush Terminal, then Brooklyn's biggest rail port.
Industry City got its name in the 1980s, when the space was rebranded in an early attempt to bring in new businesses to replace the shipping industry, which, by mid-century, had mostly relocated to New Jersey after the Port Authority built massive docks there as part of a planned deindustrialization of the city. No major corporate influx materialized, though, and so, to go along with the complex's small garment shops and auto repair outlets, the buildings' owners sought out anyone willing to rent space in their cavernous warehouses — which, as is so often the case in abandoned industrial landscapes, meant artists.
It's what drew Zahaykevich to Sunset Park, and what ultimately may force her out. "Industry City was attracting more people to the neighborhood," she says, the presence of a few artists making Sunset Park seem hip and safe in a way that outsiders never would have seen it before. (Artists have long been seen to be harbingers of neighborhood change, even more so than Thai restaurants.) "People were coming this way because of all the things that were happening in Industry City, and then they thought, 'Oh, I could live here.' And those were people from Park Slope or Williamsburg or wherever, and they were paying a lot more than people who'd been here a long time."
With interest in the Sunset Park waterfront on the rise, Industry City was bought by Jamestown, the developer that also owns Manhattan's Chelsea Market. The new owners started aggressively seeking more high-rent commercial tenants: In addition to such trendy fashion designers as Rag & Bone, the Brooklyn Nets franchise has agreed to place a training facility there, 3-D printer company MakerBot has moved in, and Time Inc. recently signed a deal to move 300 employees to new offices in the complex. Not long after she started spotting "hipster dudes with clothes racks in the elevator," says Zahaykevich, she and other artists were informed that their studio leases would not be renewed.
Zahaykevich joined forces with Jenny Dubnau, a Queens-based artist who'd already been priced out of several neighborhoods herself, to launch the Artist Studio Affordability Project. "It started out as 'Let's do something for artists so artists can stay here,' " says Zahaykevich. But soon enough, she says, they realized the same forces that were displacing them were also affecting many of their non-artist neighbors. "It wasn't about just artists anymore — it was about residential rents, it was about commercial rents. And we started seeing how those two were interlinked."
To that end, ASAP joined forces with the Small Business Congress, a group of small-business owners who came together to support commercial rent regulation, and TakeBackNYC (a spin-off of pseudonymous blogger Jeremiah Moss's #saveNYC campaign) to push the City Council to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would effectively restore many of the benefits of commercial rent control from before that law was abolished in 1963. Initially proposed by then-councilmember Ruth Messinger in 1987 (and blocked by then-mayor Ed Koch, who warned it would "discourage investments in New York City real estate"), and then revived by the council in 2009 (then-Speaker Christine Quinn did the honors of blocking a vote on the bill, despite a majority of the council backing it), the SBJSA would give storekeepers and art studio occupants alike some defense against abrupt evictions and rent hikes: Commercial landlords would be required to offer ten-year leases to all existing tenants who've paid their rent on time, and if the two sides couldn't agree on terms, they'd go to binding arbitration.
As might be expected, commercial realtors have not taken this lying down, with the Real Estate Board of New York threatening lawsuits if the bill were to pass. (As a substitute, REBNY president Stephen Spinola suggested tax breaks for landlords who renewed their tenants' leases.) The SBJSA currently has 23 sponsors, but even some of these have expressed qualms about possible legal challenges; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, along with council Small Business Committee chair Robert Cornegy, has proposed her own compromise bill that would include nonbinding arbitration and a mandatory one-year lease renewal at a maximum 15 percent rent increase, which she says would give business owners more time to seek alternate homes.
If nothing else, calls for commercial rent control have provided a rallying point for a burgeoning anti-gentrification movement that has at times had difficulty settling on tangible demands against an often amorphous enemy. The Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network — a fledgling coalition put together by Imani Henry (the Flatbush activist behind the #beforeitsgone campaign) along with such longtime neighborhood groups as Downtown Brooklyn's FUREE, Flatbush's Movement to Protect the People, and the Bushwick Housing Independence Project — incorporated support for SBJSA into its core list of ten demands, along with an end to the much reviled 421-a tax break for developers and the direct election of community boards.
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"There's definitely not going to be a rollback — we're not going to go back to the Nineties," says Zahaykevich. Still, she says, she could see the SBJSA helping to save some businesses that might otherwise go under if forced to relocate on short notice. "I am optimistic in general, but I don't think that all of a sudden these horrible chains are going to go away. It's just a matter of staving off this other stuff. And in the meantime I think the community-building can be really incredible for the city."
Correction, August 25, 2015: An earlier version of this story misnamed the Small Business Jobs Survival Act.
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