Rob Bryn remembers lying above a sweater factory listening to the huge loom moving back and forth below him as he tried to sleep. Living there for years, Bryn witnessed the slow transition of living in an industrial zoned area with working factories to an area full of artists living in these vacant buildings
“I literally saw the last textile business leave this area,” Bryn said.
As the dying breed of manufactories shut down due to cheaper labor overseas, a new purpose arose for the massive rectangular prisms sprinkling the otherwise desolate northern Bushwick neighborhood.
Years ago, wanting to find a place to throw their pottery, chisel their sculptures, or paint their masterpiece, artists clamored to Bushwick looking for space, inexpensive rent, and proximity to Manhattan. They turned to the vacant factories, a place that no longer created goods but now created homes.
For many years, artists lived under the radar quietly growing a community full of painters, craftsman, graphic designers, and creative types.
It wasn’t until recently Bushwick was discovered by young professional, students, and families looking for a place to call home, as Manhattan and the surrounding areas became too expensive.
The inevitable gentrification occurring in Bushwick is providing a haven for small businesses along with a revived energy for the artists. But it is also creating tension between the new and old. With rental space scarce, demand high, and rents climbing; many artists are depending on a newly expanded Loft Law—enacted to protect tenants from landlord misdoing—to save them from having to move out of their beloved community.
The tension comes as the Bushwick landscape is changing to accommodate the new wave of higher-income residents with a boom in art, more upscale restaurants and bars, and new amenities taking over the area.
A few years ago only two galleries existed in Bushwick, English Kills and the now defunct Pocket Utopia, but Bushwick now has approximately 15 galleries in the neighborhood with the famous Chelsea gallery, Luhring, Augustine, recently sowing its seeds in Bushwick in a $2 million space.
With the ever-expanding opportunities, even more artists are seeing Bushwick as an ideal place for their creative juices.
Deborah Brown, an artist, has sat on the Bushwick community board for six years and believes Bushwick creates a unique feel for the community but also helps emerging artists gain traction without dealing with bureaucracy.
“Super place to be an artist. There are a lot of opportunities to get your work out there, to meet a lot of people without many boundaries or hierarchies. There is a really great spirit, which I think is really rare. I’ve been here 30 years and never seen anything like it,” Brown said.
As the art community continues to entice young professionals to set up camp in Bushwick, the demand for new businesses catering to their needs has grown.
As restaurants like Michelin rated Roberta’s serve up $16 Cheeses Christ pizza or Northeast Kingdom pours a Black Mission Fig Sidecar for $13, the rush to get in on the business boom is high.
Relatively new on the scene, Henry Glucroft, owner of Little Skips cafe, believes the art community brings a coolness factor to his coffee shop but also provides a hub for creative juices.
Other amenities like gyms are catering to the new wave of young professionals.
Green Energy Fitness charges its members $79 to $99 a month for unlimited access to their super green gym offering a naturally heated yoga studio, an infrared sauna, touch screen computers, a juice bar with vegetables from their garden, and a two option flushing system. Besides offering the luxury of sustainability, Green Energy Fitness wants to bring the community together by hosting art shows, parties, and possibly a trade fair.
As gentrification is creating a larger and larger ripple effect, the cycle that crippled artists in Soho, East Village, and most recently Williamburg is starting to occur in Bushwick—the wave of young professionals looking to be near the creative scene could push artists out, as the cost of living is becoming too high.
These artists are hoping to combat the issue of displacement with the 2008 newly expanded Loft Law.
The law, originally enacted in 1982, was created to protect work/live space tenants, many who are artists, living illegally in vacant manufactured buildings under unprotected commercial leases. The law requires landlords to apply for an Interim Multiple Dwelling (IMD) number in order to begin the conversion process and bring their building up to code.
Vito Lopez, the Bushwick Assemblyman, advocated for the 2008 expansion. He wanted to put an end to tenants stuffing old newspapers in ceilings for installation, wiring their own electrical, installing their own plumbing, and a number of other hazards.
Besides the safety concerns, before the law was passed tenants had little rights in terms of rent stabilization because they were under a commercial lease. Landlords were able to increase rents on a whims notice and tenants usually obliged as they feared getting booted to the curb or possibly having their heat turned off.
Lopez is hoping the newly expanded law will bring peace of mind to not only tenants but also the landlords and city.
The main issue is even though the law has been passed, the rules have yet to be set by the New York City Loft Board. The limbo state the law is living in is creating a headache for all parties involved.
“It’s like a gigantic set of Christmas lights that we are trying to untangle, so we can get them all to work. We just need all the lights on,” Jett Drolette, a Bushwick artist, said.
During a recent get together with members of the New York City Loft Tenant advocacy group, Drolette, along with other artists, gathered to discuss the current issues pertaining to the stalled law.
Drolette, who resides at 467 Troutman Street, has been fighting for his, along with his cotenants, rights to stop arbitrary rent increases from his landlord. Even though Drolette admits there has been a lot of “blocking and tackling” with his landlord, he hopes his actions will allow him to continue to reside in his building.
“If I live there for another 20 years, I’m glad I’m doing what I’m doing,” Drolette said.
Tenant organizer Victoria Kravets of Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen Council (RBSCC), a non-profit social service organization that helps both seniors along with other local residents, battles landlord issues on a daily basis.
“I just had a tenant call today about a $700 increase. The landlord had been harassing him by knocking on his door all day, texting, and calling him. It was relentless. The Loft Law will hopefully give them serenity,” Kravets said.
On the flip side, the landlords view the Loft Law with mixed feelings. Many are worried about the financial burden of the conversion. Others like Rob Herschenfeld, a landlord for many years, is thankful for the law, as he believes it provided much needed guidelines for conversion and thinks some greedy landlords oppose the law as it takes away from their lifestyle.
“It isn’t about the rent; it’s already is at market value. These people finance their lives by refinancing these mortgages. They try to wring every penny out of it [rent], which creates an adverse relationship with the people paying their mortgages. If you treat someone’s home like it’s your bottom line, there will be problems down the road,” Hershenfeld said.
The New York City Loft Board is trying to counter the financial investment by passing the 6-8-6 guideline, which allows landlords to increase tenants rent by 6%, 8%, and another 6% once certain milestones are attained. They are also still deciding on an interim rent increase, one that would occur before these milestones are met.
Besides some landlords upset about the law, businesses are also feeling the pain. Diana Reyna, the councilwoman for the Bushwick area, strongly opposed the law as she believes it is creating job displacement for many of the low-income families depending on the manufacturing jobs.
Leah Archibald, the executive director of EWVIDCO, an organization that supports production, manufacturing, and industrial services in Brooklyn, explains how the manufacturing industry in the Bushwick area is suffering much more than other areas across New York City as landlords are able to earn a lot more per square foot from residents than industrial users.
“Overall, manufacturing is declining in New York but in Bushwick it is happening at a much more rapid rate. This demonstrates that it above and beyond the natural decline; there is something special going on here. It’s the residential conversion both illegal and illegal,” Archibald said.
Besides being out bid by tenants for space, many manufacturers are getting driven out due to harassment.
Tod Greenfield, explains how neighbor company, Boar’s Head, is constantly being fined by the police for idling trucks, as residents complain about the nighttime noise.
“The company employs 1,000 people who support 2,500. Someone illegally moves into a building next to you but now is legal in an industrial zone. These businesses are getting chased out. People need houses, but they also need jobs,” Greenfield said.
Bushwick has taken on a gritty glamour with artists creating a Bohemian lifestyle in an ever-fragile environment. As both the artists and the wave that followed wait to see if Bushwick becomes the next Soho or Williamburg, the gentrification impact will continue to evolve.
Kikuku Tanaka, an installation sculpture living in Bushwick for the last five years, is worried the art community is becoming too big for its own good and creating a dilemma for the artists.
“We want to make it a community and we want to stay here, but I think the growth is creating a problem. We are working on getting ourselves kicked out”