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In My Opinion: Essex Crossing Should Include Local Arts Organizations

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Rendering: Essex Crossing. ShoP Architects.
Rendering: Essex Crossing. ShoP Architects.

The following op/ed was written by Jan Hanvik, executive director of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. It first appeared in the May 2014 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

Whether viewed with dread or high hopes, the enormous, complex Essex Crossing project– 1,000 apartments, retail outlets, a park, a cinema and other amenities–is coming to the area south of Delancey between Essex and Clinton streets.

In formulating their proposals, developers vying for the lucrative city contract were required to collaborate with community partners, a loosely defined term. The idea was to engage existing Lower East Side organizations and institutions in plans to replace the forlorn parking lots that have occupied the site since low-rise housing was torn down nearly 50 years ago.

My organization, the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center on Suffolk Street, was approached by three developers. Together we fantasized about cultural amenities–some spectacular, some modest–that might be included. However, none of the developers we worked with was chosen.

The winning bid from L+M Development Partners, Taconic Investment Partners and BFC Partners includes plans for an annex of Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum. It would be appropriate, in the view of many, to celebrate Warhol in the city that gave rise to his legend.

In the view of others, the innumerable galleries, music venues, cultural centers, settlement house art programs and other arts and culture players could badly use the visibility and support that this massive development will bring to the shrinking old Lower East Side and the expanding new Lower East Side.

For example, one specific amenity that would boost local arts is a kiosk displaying promotional materials of local cultural and arts groups, placed inside a planned park on Broome Street, a proposal I recommended to the community board in March.

When it comes to the question of the Andy Warhol Museum, there’s certainly a value in having such a high-profile facility in the neighborhood. However, it should not be considered the only cultural amenity that might occupy space in the project, when such an enormous range and depth of homegrown programming has been thriving here since the neighborhood’s founding.

In the 1980s, I worked with grassroots cultural groups in the South Bronx, and a well-known choreographer told me once she was tired of “outreach.” She preferred that large institutions do “in-reach” instead. She meant that arts community leaders from places like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center should go into a new community, embedding themselves, getting to know the community and its needs. People shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhood to participate in high-quality cultural activities. Why couldn’t cultural assets be developed in formerly neglected communities?

That argument supports the idea of the Andy Warhol Museum as a plum prize in the Essex Crossing project. We haven’t stopped the expensive high-rise apartments; why try to stop a cultural amenity? One major plus: Executives of L+M, the lead development firm, have expressed a commitment to hiring locally for the museum, should it come to be.

Bringing the Warhol legacy to the neighborhood would ensure that residents and visitors have a high-quality contemporary cultural amenity at hand, ideally, with a portion of the museum dedicated to such an entity as the Lower East Side Performing Arts Development Center, much as The Factory and Warhol himself were open to all types of collaborations, experimentation and cross-fertilization.

All that said, given that resources are limited and there is not much incentive for developers to invest in spaces that won’t produce returns, those resources should be dedicated to already proven needs at the grassroots level.

At the top of the list is affordable space for visual and performing artists to develop their work. As a former modern dancer and a member of the League of Independent Theaters, whose 70-plus members have stated that the crisis in affordable space is their No. 1 priority, I–and they–would love to see a space dedicated to locally grown arts and culture.

There’s an opportunity here to create a win-win on the arts front that mirrors the outcome of the debate over affordable housing at Essex Crossing. Some members of the community fought hard for 500 apartments, all below market. We wound up with 1,000 apartments, 500 below market and 500 at market, which met the desires of the affordable housing advocates but also made the numbers feasible for the developers.

Lower East Side residents shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhood to partake in a high-visibility, high-quality experience such as the Warhol Museum. Neither should we plan a future that does not take into account the vast, varied and urgent needs, resources and talents of the existing Lower East Side community. Essex Crossing, which will replace acres of eyesores, will hopefully forge a unity and a synergy between the cultural resources that are already here, and those that are to come.

Jan Hanvik is the executive director at the nonprofit Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center at 107 Suffolk St., which houses 13 not-for-profit arts organizations, 43 art studios, four theaters, three galleries and three rehearsal studios. He currently oversees the multi-million-dollar renovation of the center, an architectural landmark Collegiate Gothic building built in 1898. Hanvik also serves on Community Board 3.


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  1. While this proposal is very admirable, I doubt it’s very practical. It’s the same for the WTC area. Once new buildings are raised on his land, it’s value will skyrocket, it’s tax bills will be enormous. The idea that there’s going to be some new shiny spaces there that local artists can afford is pie-in-the-sky. Those days are long over for this neighborhood.
    Great art grows in the cracks and crevices of society, like weeds; not in it’s guilded halls. Unfortunately, and thanks to Bloomberg, there are very few of these moldy, shadowed buildings for such great art to incubate. Warhol certainly didn’t create his great art in such a place. He did it in a vacant warehouse.
    Like SoHo, time and great art move on from a neighborhood once it is discovered. Our next important art is being created, but it’s probably being made in some outer borough where artists can actually afford to live/work today.
    It’s sad, but better answers to this hyper-gentrification will only come if we face the facts of what a luxury island Bloomberg has left us with.

  2. Yes Robow, totally agree with what you are saying practically, but we have the power to change the practices of our city. We have a majority leader in the council that is the chair of the arts committee in the council. We have the support of a lot of the council for major arts and culture support, and a newly politicized performance art industry because of the loss of space and the disastrous ousting of city legends from the neighborhoods they built in the last decade plus. It is in our hands to make the city we want.

  3. Believe me, I really hope that you’re right, birdsy, but I have doubts about that power you speak of and the elected leaders you’re counting on. Been there, been burned. We’ve always had the support of the council, and where has that gotten us? And the performance industry is already overworked and underpaid — they’ve never been a reliable force for change. They’d rather bolt for Brklyn, Queens, Jersey, or Detroit than stand and fight — there’s too much work to be made. It is in our hands, but those hands are already full.

    I worry about who will benefit from big new arts facilities in this area. Certainly, the 500 market-rate buyers will like it, but are the local, blue collar immigrants who work hard all day and spend evenings caring for children really going to get dolled up and hit the Warhol Museum? Will area residents, many working 2 jobs or more, have the capacity to care about culture? Or would they rather watch the game or movie (in their language), or just get in a rare rest? I wouldn’t blame them.

    And more importantly, will the culture exhibited in these shiny new spaces address their interests — all of them: hispanic, jewish, asian, african, eastern european, and more? Wouldn’t lots of smaller centers be more effective than a couple of big glass buildings that will be forced to focus on drawing moneyed tourists in their doors? Sorry, but I just don’t have good examples of new places like this providing micro-culture at a price that’s affordable to folks who live in apartments where the maximum income is $30k and groceries alone are prohibitively expensive. Feel free to educate me — I want to believe.

    “If you build it, they will come.” is a made-up line in a movie about reviving ghosts, not real people.

  4. Well said Jan. How do we use this to further our goals as communities that have their own distinct cultures and artforms? The fact is that there IS art growing in the crevices here and more coming. Last night we heard that an organization, encouraged by Enrique Cruz, is beginning to hold monthly cultural events at the Clemente Soto Valez Center. University Settlement is set to reinvigorate their downtown arts movement on May 15. The Eldridge Street Museum has concerts, readings. The Tenement Museum and MOCA too.

    Other spaces are being used. Gardens provide endless opportunities to build culture and arts sharing. The M’Finda Kalunga Community garden periodically hold Juneteenth, Moon Festival, Sukkot, Cinco di Mayo, Samhain/Halloween festivals and celebrations (along with ladybug releases). Edward Shalala has installed artworks, Joe Hubbard shows photographs. There have been teen movie nights, poetry, buskings with Louden Wainwright, The Marte Valle schoolchildren built beautiful sculptures. Impromptu arts, photography happen all the time there (and that’s just in the garden I know about). There are movie nights and poetry and music in other gardens too. It would be interesting to hear what other people are doing. People’s art that is as astonishing as the art in large well-heeled institutions (and frequently more so).

    There is life and vibrancy here still. I think Jan is asking us to think as big as possible about what can be created here. How do we keep our crevices that allow for art to incubate and also use (yes use) the
    facilities that draw in larger crowds? What if we encouraged whatever gets put there to make their space available to local artists and arts organizations to periodically show and support (financially too) local work?

    What other spaces do we have here that can be shared or repurposed? We have Park buildings in need of repair that could be turned into shared cheap arts spaces. We are artists after all, we do have imagination going for us.

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