A few months back a certain abandoned lot just off the L train was overgrown with weeds and full of garbage, but as of last week it’s become a buzzing center for small retail shops, food vendors, and affordable art studios. A beer garden is set to open in the coming weeks. L train? Art? All signs point to this being Bushwick, but this is the New Lots Avenue stop, or East New York. ReNew Lots Market and Artist Incubator is a project of Arts East New York, a local non-profit working closely with the city to promote public art works, creative production, and arts education in one of the city’s worst reputed neighborhoods.
Bill Wilkins of the Local Development Corporation East New York along with other city leaders spoke at the grand opening. “This is something that would normally happen in DUMBO or Williamsburg,” he said.
It’s not that neighborhoods like East New York are lacking in the arts, but they’re often neglected when it comes to arts funding. However, efforts like ReNew Lots reinvigorate blighted, underutilized areas and breathe new life into a neighborhood sorely lacking in fun public spaces all while promoting the arts.
The market itself is made up of several shiny black shipping containers outfitted with big picture windows. While some are dedicated to retail and food vendors, the rest are modest but functional and, above all, affordable art studios. For the most part, the artists and retailers, most of whom are people of color and all of whom are living in Brooklyn, had been working out of their apartments prior to the incubator. For many, this is their first shot at a true workspace.
Berchell Egerton, owner of Made in Afrooklyn, says he started sewing bow ties when he tore his ACL playing basketball. He’s a tall guy, colorfully dressed and bubbly. ReNew Lots is his first opportunity to work somewhere other than his basement and sell his handmade clothes– street wear made with fabrics sourced from Dakar, Senegal. There are some familiar African patterns, tote bags, shirts, pillows, and backpacks but also really unique items like Berchell’s camo jacket, which he wore to the event.
When I spoke with Catherine Green, the executive director of Arts East New York a few months back, she explained that the organization’s hope was to jumpstart small business by offering below market-rate spaces. The shops are essentially pop-ups— after this fall there will be a whole new crop of retailers and artists in the lot, but at that point the businesses will hopefully have attracted enough support that they can move into a more permanent space of their own in the neighborhood.
The participating artists pay slightly less ($300 a month) than retailers do ($400) for their space in exchange for helping with public arts projects like murals around the neighborhood. Wet Paint, the artist name of Sophia Dawson, paints portraits with social justice in mind. “I paint women who have lost their children to police brutality, figures in the Black Lives Matter movement, and political prisoners,” she explained. This isn’t her first studio space– previously she’d worked inside a warehouse owned by her family– but this is her first official residency. “It’s really intimate, I feel like I’m back in undergrad,” she explained. “It’s cool to be in a community of creators again.”
While Sophia’s is a more traditional studio space, setups like Thee Art Cave (the project of Angela Nicole and Stephanie Ari, roommates living together in Bed-Stuy) are ongoing efforts. The two artists are working to raise funds for hardware including a screen printing press and laser engraver, all pretty expensive stuff that including materials rings up at about $63,000. “I studied at Parson’s, where I had access to that stuff and it would be dope to have that here,” Stephanie explained. “This community doesn’t normally have access to that equipment and it allows people to express themselves in a different way.”
As both a public space and retail corral, ReNew Lots is heavily dependent on the support of the neighborhood, but because the artists will be directly engaging with the neighborhood throughout their residencies it’s hard to imagine the space will be overlooked. As I was leaving from the L platform above, almost everyone waiting for the train took a minute to look out inquiringly over the lot.