I never really felt like a gentrifier.
Transplant artists in BK and Quisqueya Heights should feel some of these sentences. I buy local. I been here since before things started changing. The police took 3 hours to show up when I called them, too. I never got anybody evicted. I grew up in more dangerous neighborhoods. I started a jam session/community garden/youth mural project. I hate the yuppies and the trendy bars and the cafes. I know my neighbors. I didn’t come from the states. I ain’t even white. New York was built on the backs of immigrants, and my artistic behind is built to build community. I’m not them.
Why then, am I not one of us?
This was what I thought as I stared at members and guests of Bed-Stuy’s Community Board 3. My similarly nonbrooklynite friends and I were sharing our ideas and plans to restore and reopen the Slave #1 Theater, a local landmark that has been boarded up for over a decade for fairly messy reasons. (tl;dr version: Former owner died, left the place to his nephew. Nephew owes million in taxes, and his ownership is disputed by the former caretaker who sits in front of the building despite being told he will be arrested for trespassing.) I was figuring they’d be down. I know public schools have cut down on arts education, and neighborhoods populated by people of color have a dearth of art venues, especially f’real f’real theaters. They walk by that shell of a building every day, they must want to see it filled with creativity again. The Slave Theater was named so to remind us of where we came from, so surely nobody wanted the place locked down by years of red tape. At least our idea was better than turning it into a bunch of overpriced condos or a Chipotle.
Most of the crowd kinda hated us. Things started out smoothly enough, with plenty of smiling and nodding, until they realized that we didn’t actually own the building. That’s when folks at the community board meeting decided they could stop us. Stop us from what? From sharing something we didn’t own. Loudness occurred. People who hadn’t been involved in several years were talking about putting a group together to buy the property and run it how they see fit. Short of owning the building, some wanted to make sure we weren’t in control. They were sure we’d give it away, one way or another.
That’s the thing about artists. If you’re not using that pile of wood over there, give it to me and I’ll make it into a chair, then I’ll give that chair to somebody that needs to sit down. Developers love artists. They pick up and share the stuff that nobody wants to touch until Gothamist decides the stuff is worth touching. That’s when touching turns to taking. Developers buy up previously unprofitable properties and they don’t give anything to anybody. Everybody out, artists included.
Artists don’t really create much. We show off what we see in things that already exist. Bed-Stuy isn’t some blank canvas for an artist to do some will imposing on; it’s full of culture and opportunities that most don’t recognize. Locals and tourists alike. Just like every other neighborhood.
Fast forward to the other side of the board meeting, this time in Queens. CB2 was voting on whether or not to give a special permit to David Wolkoff to develop some high rises on his property, known to the world as the graffiti mecca 5ptz (five points). I ended up speaking to the board and the community again. This time (it’s youtubeable if you care) I was defending the community of artists who turned a run down building into arguably the most important legal graffiti site on the planet. We rolled deep. More 5ptz supporters than any other type of human. We treated the meeting like that 10 man rap group that monopolizes open mics, pleading our case one by one. Our case was solid. 5ptz is well liked by the surrounding businesses and police. The artists take care to keep the area safe and drug free. Teachers take their students to 5ptz on field trips. The owner has a shady history with the property. Mr. Wolkoff’s application was unanimously rejected. Everybody cheers. 5ptz remains, for now.
One of the board members approached me afterwards and asked me when the artists would get together and buy the property. We may have saved the community center this episode, but Mr. Wolkoff still owns the building. What really remains is the fact that a site that brings safety, money, and notoriety to the neighborhood can be shut down tomorrow ’cause we’ve been sharing stuff we don’t own.
I’d be remiss if this didn’t make me think of some old artists who performed Shakespeare’s works in the park for free, just for the sake of awesomeness. If they never figured out how to take ownership (or leasership) of where they showed their work, they wouldn’t have been sharing it for long.
I, along with my mini community of girlfriend and dog, have taken a step in that direction. I now am a property owner in Brooklyn. It’s not much, but I intend to share what I can, which I can, because it’s mine. Around the corner is Lowbrow Art Studio, frequented by many of the same (graffiti) writers that get up at 5ptz. If I’ve learned anything from NYC it’s that writers must often be publishers, performers must learn to be promoters, and “whose house is this?” hangs over every party. Like Mommalekt once said, you can’t make more ’til you make yours.
Brian “Dyalekt” Kushner is here to kick butt & drink milk and he’s lactose intolerant.
Here’s a brief update on the landmarks in question: Slave #1 is still being wrestled over, and 5ptz is working on having its landmarkness become official. Shout out to Local Project for keeping the conversation going.
LocalProject.org (Ask about their podcast with me!)
Relive the CB2 meeting: http://www.birthplacemag.com/2013/06/the-fight-for-5-pointz-hip-hop-artists-educators-arts-lovers-urge-community-board-to-help-protect-famed-graffiti-site/
The house: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/realestate/a-property-with-income-potential.html?_r=0
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is a two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.