Rents Displace Manhattan’s Historic Art Community
Lower Manhattan artists painted a grim picture of the city’s artistic opportunities at the Theater for the New City on Monday, Oct. 15. Actors, musicians and painters said they were displaced by rising rents and asked for more funding at the Community Board 3 open forum.
“Space has become prohibitively expensive, both private and professional,” said Bob Schatz, an East Village painter. “I don’t know what the solution is but to leave.” Schatz said he will be forced to move to Brooklyn once his lease expires next spring.
His worries about affordable apartments and work spaces were echoed by many of the about 40 artists who attended the forum. The discussion, created by the community board’s Arts & Cultural Affairs Task Force to assess the condition of arts in the East Village, Chinatown and Lower East Side, was the first of its kind.
The area was known as the city’s art center in the 1960s and 1970s. But over the past decade rising market rents have forced artists and venues out, Paul Bartlett, the task force’s chairman, said. East Villagers know of instances where apartments priced at $95 a month in 1978 today cost $2,300. Among the most notable establishments that closed are Surf Reality in 2003, CBGB in 2006 and Tonic in 2007.
Mimi Stern-Wolfe, director of Downtown Music Productions, recalled the 1960s and 1970s as “a vibrant time with many different lifestyles.” “But in the 90s the real estate people got smart and raised rents. We are victimized by the market,” she said.
Paul Clay, a painter from the Lower East Side said the rents are forcing the arts out. “Artists are moving to Berlin or Shanghai. They can’t afford to live here anymore” Clay said.
Hanon Reznikov, co-director of the Living Theater, said the company pays $30,000 a year for liability insurance alone. The theater came back to the Lower East Side in 2006 after it had closed 13 years earlier. “Our base has always been New York. This is our home,” Reznikov said, adding that the theater needs city funding to meet increased expenses.
“There’s got to be ways to find support for a cultural space in trouble,” Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, said. He had some suggestions. “Let’s have tax breaks for artists […] How about cultural landmarks?”
Kathleen Hughes, assistant commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, said affordable work places are the biggest problem. “The community is growing but the arts don’t,” she said about disappearing venues, adding that the department was committed to the artists.
Asked how the arts community in Community Board 3 was funded compared to other boards, Hughes said, “Looking at the numbers, pretty darn well.” She noted that the capital budget provides funds of $1.4 billion over the next four years for cultural organizations throughout the city, with $68 million going into Community Board 3.
But even with this support, venues like the Living Theater don’t generate enough income. “The revenue can’t pay the rent. We may be art rich, but we’re losing it fast,” Bartlett said.
His task force had invited the artists to make funding requests for the fiscal 2009 budget. Based on these requests, the task force suggested five venues to be included into the community board’s capital projects. These organizations are ABC No Rio, the Living Theater, the Theater of the New City, Arts for Arts and the Fourth Street Block Association. The community board will deliberate on the budget in January and send the recommendations to the Office of Management and Budget.
Summarizing the artists’ hopes that the city will increase future art funding in the East Village, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Stern-Wolfe said, “May we all win.”