Robert Moses would absolutely have bulldozed an entire thriving neighborhood, displacing and thus destroying the local communities. He would have gotten a particular thrill if those erstwhile communities were composed of low-income people or people of color or, since he countenanced no backtalk or criticism, artists. The specter of Moses menacing vulnerable communities is important to remember as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio conspire with Amazon for that private company to colonize Long Island City — and likely much more of the city as hyper-gentrification sets in and cascades outward from Queens. The thing is, against the odds, Cuomo and de Blasio are worse than Moses: This Amazon deal includes all the short-sighted cruelty and displacement; all the callous disregard for humanity or good governance; and all the contempt for and subversion of democratic process that we’d expect from Moses, but Moses wouldn’t do all of that just for the benefit of one private company, not to mention the plan to give that opulently rich company around $3 billion (at least) of public money, which even Moses was never depraved enough to want.
A few, more democratically-minded, politicians are beginning to question the farcically illegitimate deal Cuomo and de Blasio made with Amazon in secret, but a more creative and specific challenge to the deal comes from local artists. A collective group called the Artist Studio Affordability Project (ASAP) has created a pledge for artists and arts organizations to sign promising to stand strong against the Amazon juggernaut:
As working artmakers and arts organizations in NYC, we pledge not to take any crumbs from Amazon. We reject any outreach from Amazon including residencies, studio or performance space or exhibitions. We don’t want to help art-wash or culture-wash a dirty deal by Amazon with any “Sub-Prime” offers to artists and we won’t give the city and state any cover by participating in any of their blatantly undemocratic, closed-door deals. What’s bad for the community of LIC, the working poor and the working class is also bad for artists.
More info and a form to sign the pledge are here.
Art washing is nothing new, but this Amazon deal has some grim examples. ASAP’s pledge responds specifically to the planned 25,000 square feet of “community facility use/artist workspace” listed in the memorandum of understanding between Amazon and the city and state governments. Artnet points out that a loosely related document about Long Island City development that the de Blasio’s office released shortly before the announcement mentions creating 35 affordable new live-work spaces for artists. This, of course, raises some questions. How does 35 spaces compare to the number of spaces for artists currently, or even from several years ago before relentless gentrification arrived in Long Island City in earnest? Who will own these 35 new spaces and how will they decide which artists get to rent them and for how much? If an artist makes work about rapacious, monopolistic, worker-abusing corporations destroying arts communities and cities, will that disqualify them from renting one of this handful of art studios in the new Amazon neighborhood control zone? Would this disqualification be official or unofficial? What other kinds of censorship might begin to affect artists under this plan?
I spoke with Jenny Dubnau, ASAP member and working artist currently renting a studio in Long Island City, and she described the pledge as a chance for artists to “put our money where our mouths are.” ASAP is concerned with how often real estate developers and even politicians use art and artists to advance over-development without protecting those artists through the process. Dubnau explained, “It’s very difficult to ask an artist to turn down an opportunity because artists are usually low-income people, frankly. But in this case [the Amazon deal] was so egregious. And they were already starting to use language about opportunities for artists and performance space.”
As much as Amazon and government officials seem to show contempt for the idea of community, Dubnau told me that ASAP thinks of its position within the larger community as vital: “Our whole approach has been to be in solidarity with all the other sectors in New York that are also being displaced. The dynamic with hyper-development and -gentrification often has been to separate the real working artist community from the rest of the community, so we really don’t want to do anything would benefit ourselves, but that would also cause harm to low-income communities of color or immigrant communities that are under so much threat right now.”
ASAP has been working for years around the issue of commercial rent control, and has supported a City Council bill that doesn’t go far enough, but does have some important protections for commercial renters. This pledge, though, is very new; they haven’t yet begun promoting it widely to their own community, to journalists or to arts nonprofits and government agencies (I discovered it via a podcast hosted by two other people affiliated with ASAP). Dubnau was optimistic about some of the responses once the word gets out — she knows many artists will sign the pledge, perhaps even some high-profile ones — but did not have much hope for support from government agencies, which are subordinate to the mayor so unlikely to challenge him, or from many arts institutions, whose funding often comes from some of those same agencies ultimately controlled by the mayor. Nevertheless, she is staying with the fight: “I still believe that if there are enough flames and heat that come from the community, that is sustained politically, the deal could be scuttled. I still believe that.”
The corporate art washing that Amazon is planning, even before destroying the community with the gentrifying behavior that will need to be art washed away, is dangerous to these artists’ futures and they know it. In closing, Dubnau warned Amazon that the short-sightedness of this plan is exactly what will cause it to fail: “The mayor loves to talk about culture and the Department of Cultural Affairs talks about how much they love culture and Amazon talks about how much they love culture, and frankly what they’re doing is inimical to culture, because the ones who make the art are leaving. We need a big policy shift. Amazon is just a continuation — and egregious expansion — of what’s been going on in this city ever since Bloomberg. It’s all of a piece. We need better policy to protect what we love about the city. Its people, its diversity, its art. I really hope that we can save our city because I still love it.”