Whenever I leave my hometown of Manhattan these days, I am always reminded of what a safe, insular and gentrified bubble New York City has become. Gone are the days of the meat-market tranny hookers, Times Square street hustlers, Hell's Kitchen muggers and Alphabet City's pot-selling bodegas with their cashiers enclosed behind bulletproof plexi for protection. I no longer see cops parked late night in Tribeca alleys smoking reefer. The super-tenacious, now aging, Washington Square Park drug dealers are still hanging on, although they seem like fish out of water as they try to "transition" their business with the city's ongoing upgrades and park renovations. Not knowing quite where to lurk anymore with the park closed and the fountain under construction, they shuffle back and forth amidst the joggers and dog walkers hoping to squeeze what cash they can out of the NYU kids.
The grit that has been sandpapered out of New York City during the past 15 years has taken with it much of the underground creative community. Gone are the crazy 20-year-old art kids jamming on acid at clubs in the middle of the night, performing and making art, music and trouble. No more graffiti-ed and wheat-pasted walls below Houston Street, little local one-off shops, art exhibition spaces and storefront studios, all of which have been replaced by banks, condos and chain stores. The art busine$$ may still be booming in New York City, but the creation of groundbreaking culture and art in our city is a thing of the past. Young artists these days have been forced to take their mischief and wild experimental energy elsewhere as they can't afford to live on the island of Manhattan any more. This huge loss for our great city cannot be underestimated, and I think its effect on New York's character will become more and more evident as time passes.
Hopping across the bridge, curious to sniff around Bushwick the other
day, I couldn't help feeling nostalgic. I was meeting a friend for lunch
on Wyckoff Avenue at the lone, yummy and cool restaurant in the nabe,
Northeast Kingdom. It had no sign out front but was marked by a painting
of a deer above the door and was packed inside with hipsters. Around the
corner I noticed a tortilla factory blasting music and a storefront
selling live chickens and rabbits. (Believe it or not, I remember when
you could buy a live chicken on Broome Street and West Broadway).
Further down the block, industrial buildings were colorfully tagged,
stenciled and painted by artists with names like Judith Supine, Bast,
Ripo, Pufferella, Dan Witz, UFO, Dark Cloud, MANMAN, Rubin, ILOVEMYBOO,
Gore B, Ollie Dior, Chris Stain, Bloke, C215, Best, and populated with
creative young kids who have flocked here to live and make art for the
same reason we were all drawn to downtown New York in the old days --
really cheap rent.
After lunch I cruised down my new favorite crazy, not-yet-gentrified street, Knickerbocker Avenue, where the colorful mix of bustling local shops like 69-cent stores, furniture rental outlets and sneaker emporiums mix with Dominican diners and fabulous nail art salons. We continued on to a barren industrial-looking slice of Flushing Avenue, where a little community of galleries specializing in street art has recently cropped up. Street art, a big Bushwick feature, has begun to find a real place in the art market lately, and has thrown wealthy British collectors into a tizzy thanks to what the Wooster Collective (the most respected street art web blog run by my friends Marc and Sara Schiller) calls the "Banksy Effect." After Banksy's mindbending auction scores, local street artists like Faile, Swoon and others are now also commanding big bucks in the UK, and word has it the Brits are all over the local up-and-comers in the New York and LA street art scene. We stopped in to see Factory Fresh, the new gallery run by the artist Skewville (known for his wooden sneakers tossed over phone wires) and his partner in crime Ali, before heading to Ad Hoc Art Gallery, where a show called "Poets of the Paste" featured wheat-paste works by locals ELBOW-TOW, Armsrock, Gaia and Imminent Disaster. We hear the work sold out on opening night. Then we made our way to the crazy McKibben Street loft area with its gigantic industrial-sized art "dorms" (read: cheap apartments filled with packs of kids) and wild, partying art-making hipster kids. Finally, we visited my favorite shop in Williamsburg, the surf shop called Mollusk, before heading back home.
While eating my lunch at that little restaurant with the deer out front, I ran into a friend sitting at the next table, who publishes the street art mag Overspray from her Bushwick loft. She whispered to me, "Hey Kim, it's just like the old East Village here, no?" I thought to myself, "Kinda. But not really." The "not really" was because to me, nothing can ever replace what used to be My Manhattan. Sure, Bushwick and Williamsburg are super-cool-kid ghettos, but they will never have the other half of the equation. My hometown was always an island occupied by the cutting edge of not just hipsterdom and art production, but it was also the powder keg of international culture, commerce, wealth, power, ambition, grit and danger. So what happens when the polish on the apple becomes too clean, safe, uncreative and slick? Only time will tell, but I haven't given up yet on a NYC comeback.
Row one: Dan Witz, Swoon, Gaia, Lee Trice and Anthony Lister; Row two: Peru Ana Ana Peru, Armor, Skewville, Ripo; Row three: Stickman, Chris Stain, Serf, VOTE