For the past half-century or so, New York artists have lived out a maddeningly repetitive story: They perpetually pioneer unheralded neighborhoods, only to be just as consistently replaced by the fruits of their own labor—subsequent waves of gentrification that make their artsy havens too expensive to live or work in.
But on a recent Tuesday evening in Sunset Park, a small cadre of Brooklyn creative types gathered in a refuge where they believe Starbucks and doggie day cares won’t follow. The setting was Light Industry, an avant-garde film and electronic-arts venue whose eclectic lineup of weekly events has ranged from a screening of early-20th-century boxing films to a glockenspiel performance of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run—in short, the type of New York artists whose work will not be auctioned at Christie’s or debut at Lincoln Center any time soon.
Light Industry is part of an arts initiative at Industry City, a six-million-square-foot complex of factory and warehouse buildings wedged between the elevated Gowanus Expressway and a desolate stretch of New York Harbor.
As the steady stream of scruffy twenty- and thirtysomethings head into Light Industry’s barely renovated factory space each Tuesday evening, they pass the last shift of workers leaving the Virginia Dare syrup factory a few flights up. The stairway is thick with the sickly sweet smells of kiwi, strawberry, and mango wafting down from the facility, which manufactures flavor syrups for Snapple and other food and beverage companies.
Virginia Dare is the only remaining industrial tenant in the building, part of a complex that a half-century ago was a thriving city-within-a-city with tens of thousands of manufacturing workers, power plants spewing coal fumes day and night, and wholesale goods delivered by the train- and boatload.
Like many industrial hubs throughout the region, Industry City has seen the majority of its manufacturing tenants trickle out of town since its heyday. Today, abandoned train tracks stretch onto the unrepaired cobblestone streets and empty lots are overgrown with weeds, giving Industry City a ghost-town atmosphere, despite a number of remaining industrial tenants—a box factory, a chocolate company, and several clothing manufacturers—still churning along inside, employing between 3,000 and 4,000 people.
After attempts to revitalize the complex over the past few decades mostly stalled, Industry City’s owners have hit upon a development model that seems to be working, recasting the complex as a space that blends Brooklyn’s industrial past with its rising creative class, with space for artists to work alongside industrial tenants.
“The idea is to establish a new paradigm of industrial development that doesn’t displace industry,” says Lise Soskolne, an artist who helped the complex’s owners, Industry City Associates, transform several floors of the Virginia Dare building into 46 rent-stabilized artists’ studios. These opened this spring, while 12 more market-rate studios are set to debut in December, and another floor of studios to be built out after that. “We wanted to avoid having that thing where it feels like artists’ studios dropped out of the sky into the middle of a neighborhood, and people start getting pushed out,” says Soskolne.
To many local artists, this surely sounds like the beginning of that timeless New York story: Artists start working in abandoned warehouses nobody else wants, only to watch them turn into hipster enclaves and, soon enough, million-dollar condos, forcing the artists—and everyone else—further along into New York’s can’t-win real estate wilderness. But Industry City is distinct from neighborhoods that have attracted artists in the past because many of the industrial tenants have no plans to leave any time soon, and the city still hopes to attract others back.
“It’s not like DUMBO or Soho, which were essentially empty when artists started moving in,” says Michael Schumacher, director of Diapason, a sound-art gallery that recently relocated from midtown to an Industry City building that it shares with a shredding-machine manufacturer. “Industry City is not completely abandoned in that way, and there’s already a strong community in the surrounding neighborhood.”
While many of Industry City’s laborers live nearby in Sunset Park, the complex itself is part of an area recently designated an Industrial Business Zone, meaning the city has pledged not to rezone for residential use and offers tax credits to manufacturing firms that move in. Rather than build a hip new neighborhood, the project developers envision an area that becomes a magnet for creative production without attracting the large-scale gentrification that often follows.
“This project is about artists working alongside others who are producing goods,” says Soskolne, “in a place that is sheltered from the commercial mayhem of the Chelsea art scene.”
It is, indeed, a long way from Chelsea. In Light Industry’s makeshift venue, folding chairs are wedged between giant circular columns, and films are projected on a blank, whitewashed wall.
“If anyone here wants to donate a screen, it is rather an important aspect of film,” quipped filmmaker Jonas Mekas, as he recently introduced Peter Emmanuel Goldman’s 1965 homage to old New York, Echoes of Silence.
Light Industry, already attracting a regular crowd from Brooklyn and beyond, soon plans to expand its events to twice a week.
“I figured there’d be a much longer lead-up period for our audience to figure out where Sunset Park is,” says Ed Halter, Light Industry’s co-founder (and sometime Voice film writer). “To be honest, I didn’t even know where it was before we came out here for the first time. But I was totally surprised because crowds started showing up right away.”
For many of the artists populating Industry City, the idea that it’s unlikely to become the next Williamsburg or DUMBO is exactly what draws them in.
“The fact that it’s not zoned for residential use is definitely something that attracted me,” says Andrea Geyer, a conceptual artist who lives in the East Village and works out of a studio here. “It’s nice to have a place removed from all the city’s craziness and know it won’t completely change and be condo-ized.”
Next up, Industry City hopes to further blur the line between artistic and industrial production with 11 renovated workshop spaces that were designed to attract graphic designers and other small media firms. Eventually, they envision retail spaces where both artists and industrial tenants can sell their products—a self-sufficient city-within-a-city once again.