“I’m not trying to make anyone jealous by telling you this, but I bought my house for $800,” James Cornish, a Detroit-based artist told the small gathering at Spread Art’s Bushwick Open Studios outpost on Saturday. “Well, we didn’t have cops — which isn’t necessarily as bad as you might think, wooh!”
Cornish, who essentially lives off-the-grid thanks to solar panels, shared an experience that’s become a familiar, but no less envy-inducing refrain when it comes to people describing the benefits (particularly for artists) of living in a place like Detroit. Almost everyone at the discussion audibly gasped. But Cornish and other artists visiting BOS from places like Detroit, Jersey City, and Philadelphia shared some surprisingly similar concerns about ownership, gentrification, and real estate with Bushwick residents.
A small crowd gathered at the rowhouse-sized gravel lot at 16 Harrison Place, which had been turned into a barebones outdoor gallery of sorts by Spread Art, an artist-run residency program and “creative incubator” based in Detroit. The arts organization hosted a bunch of performances in the lot throughout the weekend as well as artist-centric talks like this one. But don’t think for a second this was a sober occasion or that the plot was immune to the wackiness of BOS: throughout the talk a blindfolded man in a sequined dress teetered on high heels, occasionally dropping to the ground to feel around for who knows what.
No one seemed to notice. Especially not Cornish, who made it abundantly clear to the crowd that he’s a “third-generation native of the city of Detroit proper” and talked briefly about gentrification befalling longtime residents of his hometown. “We’ve never really had to deal with this, we’ve been America’s economic shit hole for so long – nobody wanted to live there,” he said. “Now we have a tidal wave of newcomers who have access to more resources than any roomful of Detroiters has ever had in the history of the city of Detroit — they’re buying up lots of real estate and they’re gathering lots of headlines.”
Cornish said he and other “natives” were looking for ways to “prevent, slowdown, mitigate, or fucking [do] something about gentrification.” We’re guessing Cornish wouldn’t have been too happy about that Detroit banner.
While gentrification is hardly something we’re used to hearing about in relation to Detroit, it’s inescapable when it comes to discussing Bushwick and the arts. Anthony Rosado, a choreographer and local activist, could relate to Cornish. “I was born in Woodhull Hospital,” explained Rosado, who’s lived in various apartments throughout Bushwick his entire life. “My goal is to infiltrate these new places that are popping up in Bushwick.”
Though the discussion on the table was real estate, Rosado said he was concerned with “a real estate that’s more intangible.” He cited the loss of a neighborhood tradition, a parade in Bushwick that used to take place the weekend before the nationally-recognized Puerto Rican Day parade (which takes place the second weekend of June). That celebration would have taken place the same weekend as Bushwick Open Studios had it been held this year. “That Sunday used to be one thing, and now it’s overshadowed by another thing,” Rosado said.
He later clarified in an email: “On the first Sunday of June as I grew up, Bushwick would already be partying the weekend before. This led to a week of flags everywhere and cars blasting salsa to reggaeton from their trunks […] It’s not a day nationally nor state nor city recognized. It’s organizers don’t have hierarchical titles, they’re the families who provide music and food and smiles and dancing.”
A woman asked why the parade didn’t happen this year. “The depletion of the Puerto Rican bodies that exist in this space, for one; the depletion of the peoples who organize that, two; and the amount of resources that have been lost because of gentrification in this neighborhood over the last 15 years,” Rosado responded, exasperated. “The last Puerto Rican Day that was poppin’– and I use that word in all its glory– was 2008, 2009 maybe, that was the last time I remember Knickerbocker being packed, Wyckoff being packed.”
Rosado said his goal is “to get the real estate of that day back.” He criticized one local arts organization in particular, the Bushwick Art Crit Group, for not bringing in enough lecturers from the existing community until he intervened. He’s now organizing an all-native Bushwick artists lecture series with the group. “Artists need to ask themselves, ‘Does my existence here harm more than help the community?'” Rosado said.
Esther Neff was something of a halfway point between Bushwick and Detroit. Neff, co-founder of Panoply Performance Lab, a DIY performance art space in South Williamsburg, is a Michigan-native who moved to Brooklyn after graduating college. “In some ways, I’m the gentrifier,” she admitted. But Neff described experiencing displacement as well. Years back, she lived in a squat known as Surreal Estate at 15 Thames. “We got tear-gassed and kicked out of that building in 2011,” she recalled. “That was a really fun time.”
Since then, her arts organization moved to a space at 104 Meserole and she’s watched as condos have sprouted up around their building. Somehow, Panoply has managed to hold on, though maybe not for much longer. “And it’s mostly Europeans who’ve been moving into these condos,” she explained. “It’s probably our last year there, our guess is that the landlord has probably sold the building already because it’s worth so much more dead than alive.”
While the discussion leader and co-director of Spread Art, Christina de Roos, reminded everyone they weren’t going to solve any of these big problems in the hour allotted for discussion, another artist piped up: “We can sit around and ask, ‘How do we bring this back?’ ‘Who will help us to bring this back?'” he said. “But we need to remember how as artists, we created something out of nothing – we also have to keep in mind this revolutionary spirit of art, and what we should be saying is, ‘I will make that happen.’ And what we make might not be the same, but are we ready to create something new? Now that’s a revolutionary mentality.”
Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly implied that Puerto Rican Day parade takes place the first weekend in June, it actually takes place the second weekend in June.