New York, New York, It’s a Wonderful Town

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To coincide with this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, TIME’s International edition asked me to write a brief essay/feature piece on the exceptionally large arts-related base of the New York City economy. I spend a fair amount of it talking about the chief threat to that economy, the phenomenally high real estate prices in New York that have stayed high even as housing in the most of the rest of the U.S. has cooled off and sometimes tanked. Those prices push out artists, galleries, performance groups and anybody else who forgot to get an M.B.A. and an invitation to Davos.

I bring that piece to your attention here partly because this morning I was forwarded an e-mail from someone at the e-mail address of the Rufus Corporation. That’s the business arm of the artist Eve Sussman, best known for the video works 89 Seconds at Alcazar and The Rape of the Sabine Women. (The e-mail was not from Eve personally.) It illustrates what I mean by that threat. Here are some excerpts:

The live-work building located at 475 Kent Ave in Brooklyn’s coveted waterfront neighborhood of Williamsburg was issued a Vacate Order by the NYC Fire Department on Sunday, January 20th at 7:30PM, the day before Martin Luther King day. Tenants were given until 1:30 in the morning to leave the building on a frigid January night.

475 Kent is a microcosm of New York City’s cultural and economic activity with creative professionals generating an estimated $15 million in annual revenue. The vibrant community of 200 working artists – photographers, architects, writers, musicians, sculptors, filmmakers, designers, painters, printmakers, etc. is under attack.

The events on Sunday night were precipitated when the FDNY [Lacayo: that’s the Fire Department of New York] inspected the basement of 475 Kent Ave. and “discovered” two 10′ diameter metal canisters containing grain used for making Matzo….The presence of the grain resulted in a so-called “hazardous emergency” situation that gave FDNY and DOB [Department of Buildings] license to vacate the building.

Since the 1960’s New York City’s tacit urban renewal policy has been reliant on artist’s moving into derelict buildings in less desirable neighborhoods…. 475 Kent is a prime example of this kind of turn-a-blind-eye urban renewal that has been a boon to the City of New York. A decade ago South Williamsburg was a dangerous neighborhood. Once artists take the initiative to live on the edge and restore and renew unused real estate in what were marginal areas the City becomes predatory. The transformation of Williamsburg by the artist community into one of New York City’s most desirable neighborhoods encourages the city to move artists out as they calculate the tax revenue of luxury condo developers moving in. No one in any city agency cared about our health and safety ten years ago. Now that our building has become hot property the City is ready to muster all the powers of its many agencies to assist in the muscling of the property from the owners and the tenants.

For the record, I don’t know any of the people who live — or used to — in 475 Kent and I can’t vouch for the version of events as they describe them. But as a glimpse of the daily struggle in New York to keep space available for artists and creative businesses, it’s worth passing on.

The blogger C-monster has a post with pictures about the same event.