Staten Island’s moment in the sun?
Katia Berg reports from New York: Artists behave like water - they find their way to creative, affordable places
Think about affordable live/work space in New York City and you will soon find yourself scratching your head. The gentrification process is quicker than ever, taking it's toll soon after an area has been rediscovered - Bushwick in Brooklyn being the most recent example.
People are trying to guess which neighborhood might be next - and right now not few put their bet on Staten Island. The long rejected 5th borough of New York, secretly referred to as the city’s ‘bastard child’ and ‘red neck county’ is rumored to be on the rise. Go figure. A seemingly new emerging art scene is proof to many. But is this enough to make the island the next hot thing?
Paving the way
Despite his skepticism, Johnson will admit that the local art scene, known to be rather cliquey and slightly old school, has opened up over the past few years. He himself contributed: Together with his artist girlfriend Florence Poulain, he runs "Deep Tanks Studio", a spacious basement loft which serves also as a gallery. The exhibitions and events they host are part of a monthly art walk event called 'Second Saturdays Staten Island', a series which was started in February 2008 by artist Brendan Coyle. He had moved to St. George shortly before, and transformed his apartment into a temporary open studio. An idea that would soon be adopted by several other artists and turn the scene somewhat on its ear.
It wasn’t always like that, for decades Staten island had been the place to be left: "I can count on one hand the number of friends I went to high school with that are still here. Everybody just wanted to get off, no matter what", says Johnson, who is 49. The borough still suffers from an unusually high out-migration rate of young professionals: Limited jobs, suburban lifestyle, no subway, no real scene (of anything), no buzzing nightlife- Staten Island is everything but hip and cool.
Green movement in red neck county
But things are changing and, times are changing: "There is a new anti-consumerist, anti-corporate mentality of living healthy, holistic and green”, says artist Florence Poulain, a French native, “those people may be very happy about the redevelopment Staten Island is undergoing at the moment.” One part of this redevelopment is the conversion of ‘Fresh Kills’, an area that earned the island its dingy reputation as ‘the world’s largest landfill’. Initially opened as a temporary dump in 1947, it soon became New York’s principal junkyard residing on almost 900 hectares of land, with garbage piling up 25 m higher than the statue of liberty. Short after its closure in 2001 it served as a dump for 9/11 debris and became the sorting ground for the search of the remains of those who had died in the terrorist attacks.
A few months ago the city sold ‘Homeport’, an area at the north shore waterfront, to a developer who plans to build a huge housing and a commercial complex aimed at young professionals.
Nestmakers and cuckoos
Still, it will take a lot more to cultivate a place and make an area trendy and attractive to the young and liberal. Municipal employees know artists might be the key for making the island more appealing to people from outside. The Staten Island Council of the Arts has been quite supportive of the local arts, providing grants and residency programs to help establish cultural life. There have even been meetings between realtors, landowners and artists to initiate low-priced live/work spaces in the islands almost suburban infrastructure, but so far the results have been rather frustrating: “They’re just tapping on our shoulders telling us: ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing.’ But they won’t lift a finger, they’re just going to jump on the bandwagon”, thinks Johnson.
It might take a while until this train is coming.
Katia Berg is living in Berlin and New York, she works as journalist and radio host at Flux.FM
Foto 1 by TheCoolQuest, creative commons flickr
Foto 2 p-a-t-r-i-c-k, creative commons flickr