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Artist Boom Divides Bushwick Into 'Us Versus Them,' Some Residents Say

By Meredith Hoffman | October 21, 2013 9:08am
 Rafael Fuchs, an artist with a gallery and studio in 56 Bogart (a space with dozens of studios), called the concentration of artists "a natural thing." He also said that even though his studio was technically in East Williamsburg he considered it Bushwick because of its "spirit and mind."
Rafael Fuchs, an artist with a gallery and studio in 56 Bogart (a space with dozens of studios), called the concentration of artists "a natural thing." He also said that even though his studio was technically in East Williamsburg he considered it Bushwick because of its "spirit and mind."
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DNAinfo/Meredith Hoffman

BUSHWICK — Welcome to Bushwick, the land of artists — well, part of it.

The neighborhood known as New York's next creative frontier is only seeing an art boom in the area closer to Manhattan, prompting a potential "us-versus-them" rift between longtime and new residents, the local community board chairwoman warned.

"It seems like all the emerging artists are concentrated in one end of the community. We need some artists at the other end," Community Board 4's chairwoman Nadine Whitted said of the divide. "That's how you get the us-versus-them syndrome."

Whitted, a lifelong Bushwick resident and longtime board member, reminded the crowd at a recent community board meeting that "as we grow we need to keep in mind the full community" of Bushwick.

Many residents, both old and new, agreed that certain "artist pockets" had cropped up — but people's opinions on the phenomenon ran the gamut.

To Bushwick native Luis Ramos, the divide was racial, because "white people don't feel comfortable going to an area where there are too many people other than them."

"I think they should do whatever the hell they want," said Ramos, who said he was more bothered by the rising rents in the neighborhood than by the divide. "I think it's the issue of race and one's fear of another people...I don't take affront to it because that's their business."

Meanwhile, filmmaker and artist Kweighbaye Kotee, who lives in an "artist pocket" off the Jefferson L train stop and organizes the Bushwick Film Festival, said she felt the segregation certainly existed but was unintentional.

"It's crazy to me, because sometimes I'm walking on my block and I realize I'm the only black girl on this street," said Kotee, a native Liberian who moved to Bushwick after receiving a scholarship to study at NYU.

She marveled that even though a large portion of Bushwick was Latino and black, she was a minority in that area.

"I do have a feeling of crazy segregation happening in Bushwick and I'd like to see more people working together," said Kotee, who recently organized the panel Confronting Bushwick to address such tensions. "We shouldn’t leave it up to the artists to spearhead the move to really dig deeper into Bushwick...It would be great to be very aware of ways both neighborhoods make the other side unwelcome."

Kotee said she knew some longtime residents felt "offended" that newcomers weren't including them in their events — and she admitted that even she had unintentionally publicized her film festival in the past only in new cafes and on art blogs that missed a huge portion of the population.

"Even though I'm an African-American woman I realized we had few African-American and Latino audience members. I was like, 'What am I doing here?'" she said of her past years organizing the festival.

This year she did more widespread outreach and hosted the panel, and drew a much more diverse population, she said.

"My parents suffered the same thing of losing their voice," Kotee said, noting they fled Liberia in wartime. "Those here, they feel they're losing their voice."

Meanwhile, many artists who've flocked to the area said the "pockets" of creativity stimulated their own work and said the trend was a "natural" phenomenon that had occurred around the city and world.

"I think it's a natural thing for artists and people in general to stay near the subway station," said artist Rafael Fuchs, who has a gallery and studio off the Morgan stop on the L train (which some define as East Williamsburg). "For those [artists] who live in farther pockets, it's hard to get visitors."

And although he claimed to feel no strong tensions, he said that "conflict is inherent" and "one part of gentrification," which is occurring there rapidly.

And Sarah Bisceglie, who recently moved into a studio in 56 Bogart, which is full of studios and galleries, said she chose her new room because she liked that she could "step outside, throw a rock and hit an artist."

Curator and artist Nyssa Frank, who recently relocated the Living Gallery from near the Morgan stop on the L to Broadway by the J train to reach a more diverse community, said she understood Whitted's point.

Still, Frank said factors like infrastructure and cultural norms helped dictate the clustered movement of artists.

"There wasn’t really a community by the Morgan stop, it was industrial, so it made sense for artists to come to that area, whereas where I am now there's not as much freedom," Frank said of the more built-up longtime businesses of the J train. "They're congregating in one place because historically that’s what people who are alike do, people who feel comfortable around each other."

But Deborah Brown, a Community Board 4 member and an artist who moved to Bushwick several years ago, disagreed that there was such a divide between old and new residents, and encouraged people to "dig deeper" to see the integration occurring.

"I think artists are spread all over Bushwick. There are artists all over the place here," Brown said, noting that this year's map from the art festival Bushwick Open Studios proved there was a distribution. "I think they started out in industrial areas but that’s old news."

Brown also said she constantly saw new residents, from artists to urban gardeners, finding creative ways to enrich the community through education, kids' activities and outreach. 

"I think a lot of the new community is involved in many ways and I've seen that on my block, people taking kids to summer camp, ball games and plays," Brown said. "If you dig deeper, you see there's not such a bifurcation."