NYC Real Estate: Where The Worlds of Gentrification and Urban Art Collide

July 20, 2015 | Bucky Turco

As more and more iconic properties get gobbled up and regurgitated as condos, and street art gets more and more popular, the real estate and art industries continue to intersect and seem to be doing so more frequently. And they’re both ripe for affiliation. Savvy developers know that urban art can cheaply provide great cover for development projects not supported by the local community and artists voluntarily work for little or no pay and don’t worry too much about the moral issues in many of these types of collaborations. Instead of battling it out with vociferous area residents or hiring a PR firm, there’s a much simpler strategy:
1) Donate the disputed space to artists, most of whom won’t even ask for payment.
2) Frame the giving of the space an act of philanthropy and mention how the developer is committed to the art community.
3) Come up with a hashtag and throw a big party with free drinks.
4) Sit back and enjoy the glowing reviews on social media by fans either unaware or unconcerned with the IRL implications of said project.

A lot of the artists and collectives who organize and curate these shows would argue that it’s a rare opportunity to paint the inside (and outside) of buildings and therefore it’s worth it just for the experience and (social media) exposure. In nearly every case, participants will not only do it for free, but also even pay for their own supplies, without even considering the millions of dollars that the property was purchased for. It’s not even an afterthought. ANIMAL took a look at some of these hybrid events that blur the line between art exhibit and experiential real estate PR stunt.

At a newly created food court in Coney Island stands large walls adorned in street art and graffiti-style murals. Thor Equities, a real estate development firm founded by billionaire Joseph J. Sitt, hired art profiteer Jeffrey Deitch to curate the walls and he picked a who’s who of notable street artists to beautify the public canvasses, including the likes of FUTURA, LADY PINK, Ron English, Roa, Maya Hayuk, and eL Seed. The mogul is known as the guy who wants to turn the neighborhood into a mini Las Vegas. Sitt is also full of shit. In an interview with NY1, he lied and said the artists were doing the walls for the love of it: “We’re supplying all of the materials and the canvases and everything to make this happen, but this is not a for-profit venture for them.” This is untrue. Artists on average were paid $5,000, a clear deviation from the norm.

To some in the art media, the Coney Island walls are repulsive. Artnet’s Christian Viveros-Fauné pulled no punches, calling it a “real estate ploy” that “exploits artists,” as if the latter didn’t have a choice. The site’s author was so incensed by Thor’s involvement, that it may have clouded his judgment of the art itself, describing it as “joyless, dreary, and dispiriting.” He went on. “Not only are the murals in ‘Coney Art Walls’ homogenous, they prove virtually interchangeable,” said Viveros-Fauné. To me, the art seemed pretty emblematic of the type of work these artists do and that most of it is top notch. But it is a marketing ploy and no one seems to care, ‘cause look how pretty and cool the art is. Plus, look at all these Instagram likes that are generated when IG users post photos of said walls.

After inviting graffiti artists to cover the building for months, the “Demolition Exhibition” was a one day group show at an old Pep Boys station in Jersey City. It featured the work of over 100 writers, many of whom don’t come out of the woodwork too often. In a way, it’s what made this particular showing different than most real estate-supported undertakings, which tend to be street art-focused. The site, along with the rest of the buildings in the massive parking lot are going to be razed and replaced with a massive mega-development project in the area. Since local production company Green Villain had an ongoing relationship with the Pep Boys while it was still open and was given permission to paint murals on the walls facing the light rail tracks, its founder Greg Edgell asked if he could also curate aerosol art on the inside once they closed down too. The auto repair chain didn’t mind, nor did the developers.

When interviewed about the role that real estate plays in these events, Edgell explained his position head-on. “There’s a duality,” he said. “Maybe developers are taking advantage in some way of this niche subculture, but at that same point, these artists are getting to promote themselves and be a part of something they would have never been a part of.”

The four-story building, a stone’s throw from the ritzy Gramercy Park neighborhood, was built in 1863 as an NYPD stationhouse. Nearly nine decades later, the cops moved out and into a new building around the block. The property was bought in the late 90’s for a measly $1.7 million by a non-profit catering to troubled LGBT youth and after losing its contract to the city, sold for $11.5 million to Suzuki Capital in 2014.

Artists were pretty much given free reign to paint what they want, although curator reserved the final say.Entitled “21st Precinct,” a nod to its most press worthy historical, over 50 artists participated. There was a huge opening with many of the artists present, meandering through the building amongst street art fans excited to see what the next floor was going to bring. Urban artists are very good at transforming interior spaces into fun art. There’s always something interesting about seeing work that’s mostly done on the street inside. While I toured the event I didn’t even think for a minute about the effects that the closure of this youth center would have. Like other art outlets, ANIMAL was just as complicit in not putting the event in better context. We didn’t mention gentrification and described the exhibit as having “knockout art,” which was true.

The Domino Sugar Factory was constructed in 1856 and has been providing sugar cubes for New Yorkers and markets around the world until the early 2000s. Two Trees Management Company, the developers who bought the waterfront Domino Sugar Factory to turn into a condo complex, deployed a range of PR-friendly goodwill projects to help temper the local outrage about the high-profile property and its inescapable gentrifying reverberations. In addition to constructing a temporary BMX track and an organic farm, Two Trees executed a bunch of art-based events. In 2013, the developers offered the space to art world 1-percenter Julian Schnabel and company to throw an exclusive art party, because if you’re going to market a property, best to do it with would-be customers and not the creative underclass. For another exhibit, they “donated” their empty main space to Kara Walker for her rather epic “mammy sphinx” sculpture made out of sugar, natch. It was open to the public and was reportedly eaten at night by pests.

More importantly, it was compelling, powerful and critical. It addressed slavery, the sugar trade and black female sexuality, but not the implications of this type of development on the neighborhood. “I don’t have a position on gentrification necessarily,” said Walker to in an interview with ANIMAL at the time. Two Trees also threw a bone to the street art community when it asked artists to embellish the towering green construction walls that envelop the entire site. Artists such as Hellbent, Rubin, and Aakash Nihalani enthusiastically took part, gleefully posting the work to Instagram with nary a mention of gentrification by them or their followers. Even our friends at Brooklyn Street Art, who served as “curatorial advisors” for the “Domino Walls,” swooned about the venture and mischaracterized it as well:

The Domino Sugar Factory, long an employer and symbol of industry on the river is now beginning a humungous [sic] decade-long renovation with new buildings planned while retaining the old refinery building on the site.

This makes it sound like the Domino Sugar Factory is still in business and expanding, which is the opposite of what’s happening. The sugar manufacturer left in 2004 and eventually Two Trees acquired the property. As for the old refinery, since it was declared a landmark in 2007, its outwards appearance, down to its massive signage, can’t be demolished by law. Developers won approval from the City Council in 2014 to build a sprawling $1.5 billion residential complex with 55-story towers. All said the Domino Walls do look cool and in street art, that’s usually the most important factor.

Remember 11 Spring? Like its nearby neighbor at 190 Bowery, the mysterious 5-story building had become a massive public canvas doused with graffiti and street art over the decades. In 2006, Elias Cummings Development bought the building and quickly realized they had a bit of a dilemma on their hands since the location had become such a popular destination for urban artists. According to the New York Times, the developer contacted Marc and Sarah Schiller, founders of WoosterCollective.com, the world’s most deceptive guerilla marketing website, and asked them to organize the event. Dozens of artists from all over the world participated.

Although its new owners doled out $12 million for the property and planned to nearly double their money once the properties were renovated and sold, none of the artists who worked tirelessly to get their murals done were paid. By aligning with Wooster Collective, a front for Schiller’s various marketing agencies, the exhibition was seen as a community event where everyone was donating something, even the owners of the building. Ha! Everyone came out a winner. The developers went from gentrifying overlords to street art supporters in one media cycle. Plus, can you imagine a better way to attract would-be buyers? The Schillers benefitted as well. The event not only cemented Wooster Collective as a bonafide friend to street art, but also showed the Schillers’ expertise in word-of-mouth and experiential marketing, two mainstays of his then marketing firm, Electronic Artists. He now operates a creative boutique called Bond. The three, fully renovated apartments were “priced from $6.7 million to $17.95 million,” according to the Times. Now that’s good ROI. Good work street art!

190 Bowery
A shining jewel near the borders of several converging neighborhoods, 190 Bowery was long a symbol of anti-gentrification. Its graffiti-covered facade was was reportedly photographer Jay Maisel’s giant middle finger to the city for never helping him clean off vandalism early on when he first bought the building in 1966 or just shy over $100,000. In 2014, the the storied lensman finally sold the official landmark building for an eye-popping $55 million to developer Aby Rosen.

In May, Rosen held an art event at the storied location, but he didn’t celebrate it with people who made the locations famous — street artists and graffiti writers. Instead he turned to Vito Schnabel. The one night exhibition was initially billed as a community event and last chance to look at the space, garnering lots of press, but it quickly delved into a widely publicized shitshow. Within hours of its opening, the show was closed to the public.Some questioned whether Rosen ever planned on opening it to everyone. It’s not like the entire 35,000 square foot was on display, just a space 1/7 of that size. It’s no wonder they couldn’t accommodate the large crowds. Now, months after that soirée for the art world elite, the building is back on the market and presumably not far away from another send off “art exhibit.”

Out of all the locations mentioned, the most controversial of all is 5Pointz. Originally called the Phun Factory and later renamed by graffiti artist MERES One, who served as a curator for the location for over 14 years. After decades of graffiti artist’s raising the buildings profile with colorful murals viewable from the 7 train in a mostly industrial section of Long Island City, developer Jerry Wolkoff finally decided to raze the monument to aerosol and turn the site into a immense residential complex.

Although he publicly announced his plans, Wolkoff clandestinely whitewashed the art on the exterior of the building to presumably soften the blow when the walls were finally demolished, incensing artists. He then further provoked MERES and the art community, by announcing his plans to brand the condo building “5Pointz.” Yes, the developer who knocked down one of NYC’s most iconic landmarks to public art now wants to name his condo building after it. MERES immediately filed a lawsuit claiming that Wolkoff has not right to that name. The renderings provided to the media by Wolkoff included token, handball court-sized art walls (pictured in image at top of the page) that would be built and painted by street artists as a sort of perverse homage to 5Pointz. To me, the walls represent tombstones and there’s no doubt that there will be amoral artists lining up to paint them, because in the end, what matters most is how cool something looks, not how it got there or its effects on the city. And that’s a sentiment that both street art and real estate can religiously agree upon.

(Photo of 11 Spring: Tammy Lo. All the rest: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)
(Lead image: Queens Courier / Photoshopped with Gilf!’s signature “gentrification” tape.