Posted on 10 November 2011.
Space Invaders hang beside the Secret Project Robot stage. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)
A cross adorned with beaded necklaces stands in the center of an art gallery bereft of paintings. Space Invader effigies made of cardboard hang beside a vacant stage. Murals of children’s faces gaze wistfully at a recording studio devoid of musicians.
Monster Island, the iconic art center in Williamsburg, was shut down last month to clear the way for an undisclosed new development. Around 40 artists, musicians, and arts promoters had worked in the mural-laden building since it opened in 2004. Because the building is scheduled to be demolished, there was no need for them to clean up before they left.
The four original organizations that leased space in the building all decided to relocate outside of Williamsburg because they can no longer afford to live there. Over the past decade, artists like the ones who worked in Monster Island helped make the neighborhood a desirable place to live: The October issue of GQ, for example, lauded Brooklyn as “the coolest city on the planet,” and most of the article is about Williamsburg. However, cultural appraisals like these have increased demand enough to price out the artists who first made it a “cool” place to live.
Like the bourgeoisie in mid-19th century Paris who moved to la périphérie as new apartments were built outside the city center, the affluent in Manhattan continue to move into Williamsburg to live in newly built condominiums. As these newcomers drive up the cost of real estate, the artists that first revived the area have relocated to Bushwick.
Williamsburg’s revival began in the 1990s, when former industrial complexes, remnants from an era of manufacturing, were converted into spacious lofts. Baited by these cheap spaces where they could both live and work, artists flocked to neighborhood. As a result of this nascent gentrification, crime began to diminish and D.I.Y (an Emersonian-like acronym that stands for “do it yourself” and embodies the ethos that art should be produced, distributed, and promoted independently) venues like Monster Island began to flourish.
“Williamsburg used to be a somewhat dangerous industrial neighborhood filled with drifters, minorities and junkies,” says Zajaceskowski, the founder of Secret Project Robot, an art gallery that was housed in Monster Island. “After more white college-educated kids moved in though, those types got pushed out, and it became a safer place.”
Sean Reagan plays for the last time in Monster Island. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)
As Williamsburg filled with threadbare musicians, paint-splattered artists, intimate music venues, and avant-garde art galleries, the neighborhood became a trendy place to live, much like Soho was in 1960s.
For the seven years it was open, Monster Island was a hallmark of cultural pursuits in Williamsburg. The building provided a platform for bands not yet considered commercially viable to build a following and hosted established indie-rockers like Animal Collective and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The tenants rented studios to psychedelic artists like Maya Hayuk, showcased Kandinsky-like paintings, and provided rehearsal rooms for musicians to practice and collaborate.
“For my generation, this was the space to see and experience the arts,” says Sean Reagan, the lead singer of Brooklyn-based band Cult of Youth.
The Haves and the Have-Nots
Monster Island at the corner of Kent and Metropolitan Avenue. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)
In order to address a number of derelict warehouses left over from Williamsburg’s manufacturing days, the New York City Council re-zoned the neighborhood in 2005 so these facilities could be refurbished for residential use. A coup de grace to artists, this meant both the spaces they used as galleries and the live-work units they preferred as housing became fertile ground for expensive real estate to be planted.
“As the dollar-per-square-foot potential for these buildings went up, there became more of an incentive for landlords and developers to convert them into either condos or expensive rentals,” says Danny Schwartzman, owner of the Williamsburg-based real estate firm Linnaeus Group. “So, the larger spaces that artists used got carved into smaller units because it made more financial sense for landlords.”
Spurred not only by Williamsburg’s artistic temperament but also by both the picturesque view of the Manhattan skyline and its proximity to the city, New Yorkers began to move to the area to live in these expensive condos, alongside Europeans looking to take advantage of the exchange rate.
Though Monster Island, a former industrial complex, was not rezoned for residential use, the rezoning did change the community that surrounded it: new chic bars, upscale restaurants and pharmacies replaced vacant industrial buildings in the neighborhood.
“There was a time when people moved here because they wanted an art scene all around them, but I think that more recently people have decided to move here because they were following the artists who first moved in,” says Zajaceskowski.
Among the affluent that have recently moved into the neighborhood, some see the artists as the spray paint totting milieu that drives down property values. And among the artists who have lived in Williamsburg for years, some see those moving into the condominiums as the consumers who drive up the cost of living without adding anything to the community.
“The people who are moving to Williamsburg now aren’t really searching for art,” says Zajaceskowski. “They’re searching for luxury.”
As a result of this second wave of gentrification, the cost of real estate has increased throughout the neighborhood. For example, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment increased from $1,715 per month in 2008 to $2,160 in 2011, says Schwartzman.
A tattooed man outside of Monster Island. (Photo: Robert Owen Brown | City Beats)
Monster Island, by comparison, was cheap. Zajaceskowski and Karl LaRocca, the owner of Kayrock Screenprinting, found the building that became the arts center in November 2004 standing dilapidated at the corner of Kent Avenue and Metropolitan Avenue. Though it was too expensive for them to rent on their own, they decided to split the rent with other people in the arts industry to make it more affordable. If not for their combined financial efforts, says Zajaceskowski, they wouldn’t have been to afford the monthly rent.
“Monster Island succeeded because it was four different groups of people, each working independently but using a cooperative approach to lowering the rent,” says Todd Patrick, who owned rehearsal spaces and operated a music venue in the building called the Monster Island Basement.
When Monster Island began its operations, rent was approximately $10,000 per month for around 12,000 square feet. And because of the terms stipulated in the lease, the monthly cost never increased by more than a few hundred dollars.
“We paid under market value in 2004, and by 2011, we paid substantially under market value,” says Patrick.
The tenants of Monster Island were forced to vacate the building by Oct. 1 after their landlord did not offer an option to extend the lease. If they had tried to negotiate another lease, Patrick says their monthly rent would have been at lease twice as expensive, which most of the tenants wouldn’t have been able to afford.
Other Williamsburg arts organizations have been forced to close because their landlords did increase the monthly rent. Beka Economopoulos says her non-profit arts organization, Not An Alternative, was forced to leave its 1,800-square-foot residence after rent increased from $1,000 a month in 2003 to $2,500 in 2005 to $6,000 this past August. Cinders art gallery was compelled to leave its 450 square foot Havemeyer Street location after the rent increased from $1,800 in 2005 to $2,200 in 2010 to $3,000 this year, says co-founder Kelie Bowman. Both organizations are still searching for new locations.
Bushwick and Beyond
Of the four original organizations that leased space in Monster Island, all of them have moved to Bushwick except Kayrock Screenprinting, which instead moved to Greenpoint. Todd Patrick, who’s also known by his moniker “Todd P.,” is not opening a new recording studio like the one he operated in Monster Island. Instead, he has moved to one he previously established in Bushwick. The two main art galleries, Secret Project Robot and Live With Animals, which also functioned as curated music venues, have moved to joint space at the corner of Melrose Street and Knickerbocker Avenue.
“Unless you’re a big time artist, you can’t afford to live Williamsburg,” says Vashti Windish, co-founder of art gallery housed in Monster Island called Live With Animals. “So a lot of us have turned to Bushwick.”
Momenta Art, an artist-run not-for-profit gallery, has also recently left Williamsburg for Bushwick. In September, it officially reopened at its new Bogart Street location paying the same amount per month but with twice the square footage, says co-founder Eric Heist.
In Bushwick, the rents are more affordable. For example, the average price for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,400 a month, says Martin Rubin, a realtor at Bushwick Realty Group.
Spurred also by Bushwick’s proximity to the city via the L Train, artists attracted to both D.I.Y. music venues like the Silent Barn and galleries like Momenta Art have begun moving to the area.
“Williamsburg has become a suburbia; it is only white, college-grads,” says Zajaceskowski. “Bushwick is still rough and gritty. There are art spaces popping up all over, and there’s lots of diversity.”
However, just as the artists catalyzed the gentrification of Williamsburg, their eastward emigration may be the outset of the same process in Bushwick. Baudelaire once wrote that the shape of a city changes quicker than the heart of a man. Though he was referring to Paris as the city modernized throughout the 19th century, the same maxim could be applied to vicissitudes of any city, including New York. Like Williamsburg and the areas in Manhattan before it, after artists gentrify a neighborhood it becomes more appealing to the affluent. And once these consumers catch up to the culture, the artists inevitably get priced out, leaving their Space Invader adornments hanging in wait of demolition.
“The upside of moving to Bushwick is I feel like I’ve rediscovered what I was looking for in New York when I first moved here. You know, diversity, art and a gritty environment,” says Zajaceskowski. “But I don’t know where we’ll go once we get pushed out of here.”
For more on Monster Island closing, check out this slideshow on by Citybeats writer, Alejandra Russi.