Earlier this year, when the East Village’s beloved Stage Restaurant closed in the wake of a dispute with its landlord Icon Realty Management, Brooklyn-based artist Gilf! plastered the diner’s former home with caution tape reading “Gentrification in Progress.” It wasn’t the first time one of the company’s properties was the site of artistic protest: Karen Platt, a resident of an Icon-owned building on East 5th Street, has been known to chalk up the sidewalk with messages like “Enough Is Enough,” and over July 4th weekend, someone spray-painted a message on the sidewalk in front of the now for-rent Stage space that advised, “DO NOT RENT HERE. DO NOT BUY HERE. BOYCOTT IN EFFECT.”
It’s not surprising that Icon has angered East Villagers: The real-estate company placed second on last year’s list of “most demolition permits filed”, and has been accused of buying up properties, using questionable tactics to get longtime tenants to leave, and dramatically raising prices. “Icon is really pushing the bar for some the highest market-rate units in the neighborhood at this point,” said Brandon Kielbasa, director of organizing and policy at Cooper Square Committee, a tenant advocacy organization that’s been working with Icon tenants since the real-estate firm started investing heavily in the area.
While artists and non-artists alike have organized public protests calling out the management company for alleged wrongdoing, Icon is waging an artistic offensive of its own: last month, the real-estate giant announced that it was once again dedicating a couple of facades from its vast portfolio of New York City buildings to street-art murals. The press release quoted Icon’s principal, Terrence Lowenberg, as saying, “We are committed to giving back to the neighborhoods we are part of and public art is another way we are doing that.”
One of the murals, a collaboration between New York City street artists Jeremy Penn and Lambros (aka Matt D. Williams), is now up at 307 Mott Street. Another mural by Jerkface remains in progress on the side of the 2nd Ave building that one housed Stage. Once Jerkface completes his contribution, Icon will have sponsored, in total, six separate street art initiatives throughout the area, including an installation by Invader, the French street artist whose pixelated pop-culture references are instantly recognizable. None of them directly reference Icon, and it’s not as if the pieces are odes to benevolent landlords nor do they so much as hint at the sentiment, “Landlords, they’re just like us!” But the company has made a point of tooting the horn, so to speak, and letting it be known that they’re involved.
In a press release announcing their latest mural initiative, Icon made sure to note that Dorian Grey, the gallery that curated the Mott Street mural (with the help of artist recommendations by some interested Icon employees), was a local one. But that was only true for a short time after the release went out. After initiating the project with Icon, Christopher Pusey learned that after six years, he would have to close his gallery by the end of June. His building was bought by Benchmark Real Estate Group in May and the ground-floor space is currently up for rent at $7,900 a month. “[I’m] being gentrified out like everyone else,” Pusey revealed to us last month, while looking at an eviction notice.
There’s no small amount of irony in the self-declared “Last East Village Art Gallery” attempting to work with one of the neighborhood’s most notorious landlords, only to fall victim to the area’s cutthroat real-estate market. The twisted, but no less surprising outcome, speaks to the complicated relationship between artists and the real estate companies that seek to showcase or exploit them, depending on how you see it.
Of course, Dorian Grey wasn’t pushed out by Icon, and Pusey said he plans to continue working with the company. But others see Icon’s engagement with the arts in a different light: Kielbasa, of Cooper Square Committee, told us that while the murals were a “nice gesture,” Icon is ultimately hurting artists by “aggressively depleting” the affordable housing stock. “This is just Icon attempting to placate a community that has been negatively affected in numerous ways as they continue to move forward with decimating its vital resources,” he argued. “If Icon Realty were really committed to the arts they would leave the rent-regulated housing that artists need to live in New York City alone.”
Kielbasa put us in touch with a painter who’d resided in her East Village building for close to 30 years before it was bought up by Icon. Cindy (not her real name, which she declined to use) called Icon’s art initiative “somewhat of a joke, because they’ve helped kick all the artists out.”
According to Cindy, the East Village “had a community here, a pretty strong community of artists” once upon a time. But after Icon bought her building, the company “immediately started getting rid of everybody,” which included some artists she knew. What drove more than half the tenants out, according to Cindy, were the “absolutely awful” conditions the tenants suffered as a result of construction. At another Icon owned building, a friend and working musician moved back to Haiti, where he was born. “That’s all he could afford, was to go back home,” she explained. “They got rid of him in no time and he had to leave the country. That’s a direct effect Icon’s had on an artist.”
Larissa Zimberoff, an Icon tenant at 47 Clinton Street who works as a freelance writer, is currently locked in a legal battle with Icon. About a year and a half ago, the management company bought her building. “They called me up and said, ‘Your lease has expired, you’ve got to move out,'” she recalled. After filing a complaint with the State’s department of Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), arguing that her unit was rent-stabilized and therefore she had a right to remain in her home, Icon filed a separate case against Zimberoff in Housing Court.
According to Zimberoff, the case was redundant and the court “threw out” the case due to the action at HCR. “When they took me to Housing Court, to me, that was just to harass me– to make me spend money, make me have to give legal fees, just to make me do more work,” she explained. The State’s housing office ruled in Zimberoff’s favor, forcing Icon to give her lease back. But Icon has appealed the decision and now the tenant is awaiting a judgement.
Unsurprisingly, Zimberoff also dismissed the public art campaign as “a joke.” She scoffed at the idea that Icon was interested in “giving back” to the neighborhood or promoting the arts. “I mean, everyone should let somebody paint their building,” she said. “But it doesn’t show that they’re actually interested in keeping artists in their buildings as renters.”
Chris Coffey, a spokesperson for Icon, responded to this by insisting that, “We do care about artists, we do care about our residents, and we would love to have even more artists who are residents.” He added: “We have tremendous sympathy for folks who are going through any hardships, but I think we’ve also taken the last year to mitigate some of that and are absolutely looking to continue to do that.”
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Street art seems to have a special appeal for real estate prospectors– it’s easy to sponsor, cheap to make, inherently visible, and most of all, prospectors are betting that its association with authenticity and an edgy, hip lifestyle, will help them reel in a whole new generation of customers.
“Hybrid projects” between real-estate companies and art entities are actually pretty common (Animal New York made a list of recent ones), and some of these collabs have turned out to be jaw-dropping critical darlings, like the colossal sphinx that Kara Walker installed at Domino Sugar Factory, just before the massive development project led by Two Trees got underway. Along with the urban farm located adjacent to the construction site, the art installation (funded by Creative Time) was another posi project the developers have allowed on the property, seemingly to appease a community facing the imposition of an enormous, decade-long construction project in its midst. But Walker’s sculpture was hardly politically acquiescent. Instead, it conjured the rather sticky past associated with the Domino Sugar Refinery and the sugar trade, which was– to put it lightly– built on the backs of slaves. The artist explicitly referenced the refinery’s imminent demolition in her work, and called the building’s loss “tragic” in an interview.
Some such collabs result in, shall we say, a cozier match between creator and commissioner. Recently, Realty Collective, a Red Hook-based real estate firm, hosted an art show called Gut Rehab. The exhibition solicited new work that “hierarchies of spaces” by providing artists with open-ended prompts ranging from the benign (“food” and “volume”) to the contentious (“racial isolationism” and “real estate legislation”). The result? At least one extremely eye-popping piece, “Trump Hut“– the project of two guys who run an ad firm. It’s basically a wigwam that looks like Donald Trump’s world famous tresses, made from hula skirts, of course. As DNAinfo reported, the design is certainly “no crunchy Occupy Wall Street-style protest tent”– because, um, gross. “‘Trump Hut’ fits four chairs, a plush rug, champagne and cupcakes to give it a ‘luxury appeal.'”
The Jeffrey-Deitch-curated Coney Art Walls can’t be ignored, either. While undeniably fitting of eccentric Coney Island’s hallucinatory landscape, the ongoing summertime street art exhibition, played out on slabs of concrete jutting out of the beachfront park, is funded by Thor Equities, aka Joe Sitt– the developer who has been working to turn the historic neighborhood into a mini Las Vegas by way of a $1 billion makeover. The murals occasionally reference Old Coney, the platonic ideal of city beaches and democratic resorts, or the exact opposite of Sitt’s vision for the neighborhood. His decidedly un-Coney dream plan includes a luxury hotel, indoor waterpark, and showbizz franchises like Cirque du Soleil and House of Blues. (Pray for anything but a Donny and Marie residency brought to by Cryofreezing.)
The Art Walls were not so well received as Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx, however, and their most brutal dismissal was delivered by Artnet, which described the project as “little more than a real estate marketing ploy,” and accused the murals of “[engaging] in neither activism nor neighborhood politics.” Instead, they serves as “perfect PR for gentrification’s nasty middle passage.”
But what’s an arts org to do when a friendly real-estate giant comes knocking? Fourth Arts Block (FAB) is an East Village-based coalition of cultural and community organizations working to maintain the area’s vibrant arts tradition. The non-profit has a partnership with Avalon Bay, another developer with ties to the neighborhood. Like Icon, the company provides wall space (albeit with the addition of funding) for artists selected by FAB to paint murals on publicly accessible parts of their property. The project, called Artist Alley, brings in a rotating cast of artists to beautify Extra Place– once a “a rat-infested alley” where bands parked their vans and unloaded into CBGB, the corridor became a slick, if otherwise lifeless retail strip before it was transformed into a dynamic, and even sorta funky space by the artists and their patrons.
Considering the circumstances, Risa Shoup, FAB’s executive director, told us that she understood why a developer would want to team up with an organization like hers. “On its face, I think that is a great thing. What I am intensely skeptical of: Is this being done to overshadow the other things that Icon is doing to destabilize [rent-stabilized] units? Or effectively kick out low-income tenants who are just as viable and important community members as the higher-income tenants they’d like to bring in?”
Through her work with FAB, Shoup regularly interacts with artists, many of whom she says can only afford to live in the city by way of rent-regulated and rent-stabilized apartments. “The mere threat that developers are trying to eliminate those units creates great turmoil in the artistic community,” Shoup explained. “And I certainly know artists who have had to battle landlords who are trying to unfairly and illegally destabilize their units.”
Shoup says the threat extends to commercial and retail tenants that serve as “integral third spaces” or important community gathering places. “Part of what I see happening with Icon, is they’re purchasing buildings that have longtime residential and commercial tenants and then they are raising the rents on both, but specifically with regard to the small business tenants.” Rent hikes often hover between 300 and 400 percent, according to Shoup.
She pointed to Allied Hardware, a shop that was in business at 57 2nd Avenue for decades and was forced out last year after Icon bought the building and issued a vacate order. The rent is currently listed in Icon’s retail portfolio at $26,000 a month.
Last fall, B+B spoke with Leslie Alexander, who had lived in a rent-controlled apartment above Allied Hardware for the past 30 years. After buying the building, Icon applied for permits for minor renovation work and proceeded to “gut the building,” according to Alexander. At one point, construction was halted after a ground-floor vestibule was reduced to “a pile of rubble,” according to Cooper Square.
Following the renovations, several three-bedroom units were rented out for $6,500 a month, according to StreetEasy. Meanwhile, the property continues to have several open violations with the Department of Buildings for infractions such as improper elevator and fire escape maintenance, among others– some of the same issues tenants were concerned about a year ago.
To address the situation and the public backlash, Icon recently appointed a “chief safety officer” to oversee the building at 57 2nd Avenue as well as another one on East 9th Street. Kielbasa dismissed this as “just another gesture of Icon’s” and noted that problems such as gas outages persist in Icon’s buildings. “There’s just a flood of very serious construction problems every time they do work in their buildings and we see the use of their lawyers very frequently— that, to us, is a pattern,” explained Kielbasa.
Yonatan Tadele, another housing organizer at Cooper Square who works closely with Icon tenants, said there was “insane turnover” among Icon’s rent-regulated units and they were regularly being deregulated, as is allowed once a unit’s rent hits $2,700 a month.
Tadele pointed to 222 East 12th Street as an example. When Icon bought the 22-unit building, he said, each and every unit was rent-stabilized. “Now it’s an 18-unit essentially luxury building and there are only six or seven [rent-regulated] tenants left in the building– everyone else was either railroaded into taking a buyout, in my opinion, or served with a court case,” he said.
Coffey noted that when the company bought the East Village building in early 2013, just eight of the rent-regulated units were actually occupied (Tadele offered that “the previous landlord had tried to clear units before the sale”). Now, the number is down to six. The way Coffey sees it, “It has stayed pretty stable. We’ve had a couple of specific instances in the building that have led from the eight to the six, but it is fairly close to [what it was] when we bought it.”
But the building has actually seen a dramatic turnaround – from a 22-unit SRO building where, in 2010, newly listed one-bedroom apartments (some with access to communal bathrooms only) were going for $775 to $980 a month, to an address where “brand new gut renovated” one-bedroom units were listed this year at $3,150, thanks to features like “espresso cabinets,” access to a shared roof deck, and “luxury bathrooms w/ intricate mosaic tile-work.” It appears that some of those former-SRO units have been divided up into two-bedroom apartments, and all listed apartments have had private bathrooms added.
Kielbasa pointed to another Icon address, 128 2nd Avenue, that was “completely occupied when Icon bought the building” and “majority rent-regulated.” Now, he said, the 20-unit building has just nine rent-regulated units left.
As you can imagine, politicians have become involved in the fight against such turnover. In May, City Council member Rosie Mendez joined Cooper Square and attorneys from the Urban Justice Center and Manhattan Legal Services in a public protest. Tenants of 57 2nd Avenue and another Icon address, 445 East 9th Street, demanded “proper lead mitigation, safe construction practices, unobstructed building entryways, no disruption of elevator service,” among other things.
The most recent development in the Icon saga became apparent in June, when Icon’s Terrence Lowenberg was arraigned at New York City Criminal Court for allegedly making false statements on a construction permit application submitted to the DOB in September of last year for work on 56 West 11th Street, a violation of City Administrative Code. The application claimed that the building was not only without rent-regulated units, but that it was currently vacant– both of which a city inspector found to be false. (Cooper Square confirmed that the building was far from unoccupied.) The case is still ongoing, and Lowenberg’s next appearance is scheduled for September.
Speaking to Bowery Boogie, Icon chalked the latest incident up to “a change in industry standards” involving the filing process. Since it wasn’t the first time Icon had been accused of filing false information on construction permit applications, B+B asked whether the practice was a recurring one. “It is absolutely not a pattern,” Coffey told us. “We’re challenging the allegations and intend to vigorously defend ourselves against this first-time violation.”
Coffey also insisted that clearing out rent-regulated tenants “is definitely not our policy,” and says, “I think that we’ve made a lot of progress over the last year.” While Cooper Square says there have indeed been some improvements during that time, the organization counts them as small victories in its larger struggle against what it still maintains are construction-as-harassment practices. Tadele pointed to the case of 56 West 11th Street where, despite the DOB’s recent attention, he explained: “They’re approaching the two-year mark without cooking gas.”
Icon, however, insists that things have been on the up. “I know that things have not been perfect,” Coffey admitted. “But at the same time, we have added resources, we’ve added protocols, we’ve worked with specific tenants, and specific tenant groups to make things a little bit better. We have made it a priority to make the quality of lives better for the tenants in Icon buildings, and we have not completed that goal– it is a lofty goal– but I think we’ve come a long way.”
When it comes to the issue of construction, Icon says that renovations improve the lives of all tenants and in many cases provide much-needed repairs to rundown buildings. “Anytime you have construction, it’s frustrating, it’s hard,” Coffey said. “But coming from buildings that are below code, and that need, in some cases, pretty serious upkeep, we have an obligation to make those fixes and make those changes and bring the building up to code.”
Unsurprisingly, Pusey, who is currently running Dorian Grey out of a pop-up location in the Hamptons, is looking forward to working with Icon in the future. “To me, it’s about a bigger picture than pointing out various real estate developers. I’m kind of looking down the barrel here, and it sucks, but what am I gonna do? I gotta go buy a building so I don’t get evicted.”
Coffey told us that Icon’s tenants had reacted to its art initiative in an “overwhelmingly positive” way, and even some of those who say they are victims of harassment see the merit in their landlord’s sponsorship of public art. Zimberoff found it difficult to fault the artists involved in the project. “If I was an artist looking to paint on a big building, I would absolutely take their offer,” she said.
But it’s not as if the artists are striking it rich. Coffey admitted that Icon isn’t paying the artists directly for their work and is essentially just loaning out the walls. He pointed to the “ancillary costs” associated with the project including security, clearing the facades in preparation for the murals, and the loss of potential revenue from advertising. “But so many people benefit from public art,” Coffey reasoned. “Sometimes people don’t always see it in the neighborhoods, and so, especially for people who may not be able to afford to go to higher-end galleries, or other places where there is terrific art, we want to do what we can.”
Jeremy Penn, one the street artists who painted the Mott Street mural, admitted that he had “no idea who’s running the show.” When he was offered a showcase for his work, he didn’t ask a lot of questions. “When there are available walls in New York City, every artist wants to do them,” he said.
As it so happened, the wall he was offered was near a Planned Parenthood on Bleecker Street, where Penn noticed Pro-Life protestors make regular appearances. Penn liked the idea that these conservative protestors would encounter his art: “For my work, it’s perfect, to get people pissed off a little,” he said. “I’m a total pro-choice, male feminist– if there is such a thing.” While Penn’s depiction of women are usually informed by “vintage erotica” (think ’80s Playboy) he said that the situation with the protestors inspired him to create an “homage to the power of the female and the power of the goddess.”
Given that he demonstrated something resembling a social conscience, I was surprised that Penn seemed nonplussed when I told him about the accusations against Icon. “They’re being pretty cool about letting us do whatever we want to do, and you never know what sort of hidden shit I might put in there, once I dig a little deeper into what exactly went on.”
After lingering a bit more on the issue of displacement, Penn offered his own critique of gentrification. “I’m personally affected by this kind of stuff– I have an apartment and a studio [in Williamsburg] and everything around me is getting knocked down, so I feel it, and I do empathize with that,” he said.
Still, Penn assured me, before it was done, that the mural on Mott Street was “totally going to keep that New York grit alive.”
Once it was complete, I tracked down the mural and inspected it up close. True, this “goddess,” as Penn called her, is a woman whose sheer scale makes her look “powerful,” but it was hard to mentally separate the image from the ones of lace-clad sexpots in Victoria’s Secret catalogues. The nameless portrait is conventionally attractive, a Brazilian blowout framing her coy glance and perfectly trimmed eyebrows– she even has a delicate beauty mark. I searched for those “subliminal messages” Penn had hinted about, but struggled to find them. Maybe they were just super obscure? But the harder I squinted at it, the more the mural seemed to me apolitical and bland. I was also sure that, without knowing the context, I would have assumed it was simply an advertisement– add in the mural’s close proximity to a CVS, and it’s a dead ringer for an ad touting the extremeness of some new drugstore-brand mascara.
Of course, you can’t blame independent artists and galleries for doing what it takes to survive. According to Pusey, no one has anything negative to say about his partnership with Icon. “I don’t think anyone thinks I’m an asshole, because we’re the champions of a part of town that has long been kind of funky and maybe under-appreciated. Dorian Grey was– and I’m saying ‘was’ now because I’m looking at the eviction– was one of the last authentic, independent galleries in the East Village,” he told us in June. “But with change, comes progress.”