EAST HARLEM — Local officials and community activists gathered in East Harlem on Tuesday to celebrate the groundbreaking of El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, a $52 million facility that will provide affordable housing for neighborhood artists.
The 90-apartment building, scheduled for completion in two years, will be comprised entirely of affordable housing for artists, with half of the units set aside for those producing art in the neighborhood.
"Rents are high here and apartments that are appropriate for artists are hard to come by, so I think this is going to be wonderful for the artists in East Harlem," said Yma Rodriguez, chair of Community Board 11's Cultural and Landmarks Commitee.
Rodriguez joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney in heralding the project as a boon for the community.
But not everyone was in the mood to celebrate.
Two protesters barged into the proceedings as officials were speaking, shouting, “You're a bunch of rich pigs" and "This is about gentrification — it's not about art."
The mini protest ended abruptly when security swooped in and dragged the man and woman, who appeared to be in their 50s, from the ceremony, at 215 E. 99th St. near Third Avenue. It wasn't clear where the protesters came from or whether they represented a specific group.
The exchange left Melodie Bahan, spokeswoman for Artspace, the Minnesota-based nonprofit developer that's spearheading the project, mystified.
“What Artspace does is the very opposite of gentrification,” Bahan said. “We create affordable permanent housing so that artists can't be gentrified out of their neighborhoods.”
The apartments at El Barrio's Artspace PS109 are open to any resident making 40 to 60 percent less than New York City's median income, with preference given to artists, particularly those who live in East Harlem. Applications will be accepted six months before the project is completed.
Eric Toro, a consultant for El Barrio’s Operation Fightback, one of several nonprofit organizations involved in the project, pointed out that Artspace PS109 will restore an abandoned school that sat vacant for 12 years.
"The Department of Education literally walked away from this building," Toro said. “They weren’t going to revitalize it. They weren’t going to turn it back into a school."
Commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Matthew Wambua, said he felt the space was worth saving. "This is a reclamation of a beautiful building in the spirit of reclaiming the community," Wambua said.
Local resident Inez Pedroso, a retired 62-year-old social worker, said she fully supports the project, even though "they've been working on this forever."
Pedroso, who's lived in East Harlem for more than 50 years, stood in the rain, listening to Johnny Colon and his orchestra close out the groundbreaking ceremony, while her 6-year-old grandson danced by her feet.
“We need space for artists," Pedroso said of her neighborhood. "Chelsea has their artists. SoHo has their artists. Why not the Barrio?"