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Top Stories

New York City is giving artists the brush-off
Unaffordable; other cities happy to oblige
Published on March 15, 2004

Eleven years ago, Patricia Smith found a loft on a gritty street two blocks east of the World Trade Center where she and her husband could live and set up studios.

They paid $1,700 a month, and like other artists who were forced to take a chance on an underdeveloped neighborhood, got used to the lack of amenities.

Then the Sept. 11 attack came, and as the city made plans to rebuild, speculators began placing bets that lower Manhattan would become the next trendy neighborhood. Shortly after Ms. Smith's lease expired, her building was sold and the new owners refused to renew her lease unless she agreed to a 300% rent increase.

Last November, after 20 years in New York City, the couple moved upstate to Delaware County.

"We looked everywhere, in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, but we couldn't find a space we could work in and afford," says Ms. Smith, a painter. "Our income really dropped after 9/11."

Few alternatives

Artists are famous for going into rough areas, gentrifying them, and then getting forced out. But there are fewer and fewer such areas left in Manhattan. For the first time in memory, many artists are skipping the move to other boroughs altogether and choosing to leave New York City.

Though there are no official numbers, arts executives estimate that close to 1,000 artists have left the city in the last two years. Thanks to a combination of post-Sept. 11 job losses and skyrocketing real estate prices, fewer artists are coming in.

"The artist drain is our city's No. 1 cultural problem," says City Council member Alan Gerson. "If it's allowed to continue, we will ultimately lose our standing as one of the world's leading cultural centers."

Connection still strong

Of course, New York City is still far from losing that position.

"If you're a fisherman you have to go to the sea, and if you're an artist you have to go to New York," says Lawrence White, a photographer. Mr. White started out selling his photographs of dancers on the sidewalk for $25, where he was discovered by the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga, N.Y., which gave him a solo exhibition.

Even though Mr. White's photographs now sell for $400 to $700, he, too, is leaving the city because he can't find affordable studio space here. He is buying a place in Saratoga.

"I would prefer to stay in New York City, but I have to move because I have no more space to do my art anymore," he says. "To have artists leaving in droves, particularly when they're beginning to become successful, is a loss of a great resource."

The exodus of artists from New York City is a boon for the rest of the country. Cities as near as Peekskill and as far as Seattle are making major efforts to attract artists with discount housing and other perks, and they are succeeding.

Outside lures

By building lofts and offering low-interest-rate loans, Peekskill has attracted more than 100 artists, most of them from New York City. The Near NorthWest Arts Council, an organization in Chicago that is developing affordable housing for artists with help from the city, has received 150 inquiries from people in New York.

"We're now in a competitive situation with many other cities," says Ted Berger, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, a statewide concern that provides fellowships to artists and extends loans to arts groups. "We're losing a momentum here."

Arts advocates are beginning lobbying efforts to push New York City to offer concessions, too. Much of the activity is focused on lower Manhattan because it is the latest neighborhood to undergo gentrification, and decisions are still being made over how to rebuild Ground Zero. In addition, some arts executives say, untapped funds earmarked for the area could be used to develop affordable housing and studios for artists.

In two weeks, Mr. Gerson's office will release its cultural blueprint for lower Manhattan, calling for a balance between supporting large anchor cultural institutions and grassroots art. Last month, the Civic Alliance to Rebuild Downtown New York held two public panel discussions for visual artists, giving them the chance to put forth ideas on how to develop lower Manhattan.

But many artists see an uphill battle. A recent study on the continuing economic impact of Sept. 11 on 175 individual artists, sponsored by DowntownNYC!, a downtown advocacy group, found that 15% of the artists have either left or are considering leaving the city because of rising living costs; 13% are considering abandoning their careers in the arts altogether.


More than 85% of the respondents said their income was not yet back to the levels reached in 2000, and 66% said their income was going down. A full 81% said changes in business conditions for New York artists have altered how they expect to continue their artistic careers.

"In Williamsburg, at 8:30 in the morning, all these younger-generation artists are getting on the subway and going to their jobs in Manhattan to support themselves because of the financial pressures in the city," says Ms. Smith, the painter. "It's a whole different lifestyle than if you have the time to drink all night and create your art. That whole romantic artist stereotype, those days are over."

Copyright 2004, Crain Communications, Inc

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