By Katarina Hybenova
Wearing thick framed glasses and an informal suit, director Josef Astor leaned against the bar surrounded by a handful of keen students on Thursday night. Josef Astor had come to Bushwick’s Brooklyn Fire Proof to attend the screening of his documentary Lost Bohemia and to discuss its broader meaning in the context of Bushwick as the present home to New York’s bohemia.
Lost Bohemia Above Famous Carnegie Hall
Lost Bohemia traces back the history of the artist Studios above Carnegie Hall that were demolished and replaced, for the most part, with corporate offices of CitiBank. The documentary focuses on the colorful portrayal of the last residents of the Studios and their unsuccessful battle against Carnegie Hall Corporation.
Unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, the historical building of Carnegie Hall was specifically designed and built in 1891 (by architect William Burnet Tuthill and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, respectively) with spaces for artistic work. These purpose-driven spaces had very high ceilings, skylights and large windows for natural light. The Studios served as live/work space for a number of visual and performing artists who left an invaluable imprint in the cultural landscape of this city and of the world. Isadora Duncan used to live there and rehearse new dance works; Enrico Caruso made his first recording there; Judy Garland used to sing on the roof every night. Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Robert Redford took acting lessons here and Lucille Ball had voice coaching. James Dean studied scripts and Leonard Bernstein, music.
The documentary begins in the 1980s when Josef Astor moved into studio #845 as a young photographer. What Astor didn’t know was that he wasn’t just getting one hell of an amazing studio, he was going to be adopted by a community of artists living there as a family.
Throughout the film, we meet several members of a beautiful community of artists, but mainly Josef’s neighbor, celebrity photographer Editta Sherman, also known as the Duchess of Carnegie Hall. We also meet Bill Cunningham, famous street fashion photographer for the New York Times; Donald Shirley, a classical pianist; Star, an 80-year old ballerina who secretly does her stretches in the hallway…
The atmosphere of the serene creative refuge starts to change in the second part of the film. We learn of the eviction notices sent to some tenants, while others are given several months to leave. Almost like a comic noir villain, Carnegie Hall Corporation forces the artists out, one after another. The artists fight back, they protest, they go to the court, they try to draw the media attention, but are ultimately forced to leave. Feminist poet Elizabeth Sargent is the last standing tenant, and she talks to us throughout the documentary as a mysterious voice through a series of answering machine recordings.
As the film progresses, we are served images of what is built in the vacated premises – conference rooms, cubicles, fax machines.
When you don’t understand, look for a bank…
According to unofficial information, over 80% of the Studios will serve as corporate offices for Citi Group. The “very needed” music school will comprise of less than 20% of the premises.
Among other interesting facts that the audience learns during the Q&A is that the Carnegie Hall building has a landmark status and that the building belongs to the City that leased it to Carnegie Hall Corporation.
A lesson for Bushwick?
While the story of demolished artist studios is heartbreaking, it has another more useful dimension. It is a story of corporate machinery getting away with anything it wants while the urban policy creators and media silently nod along.
I believe that the contemporary Bushwick can either take a lesson from history or learn from its own mistakes. There is an ongoing discussion among the members of the art scene in Bushwick, formally started by The Bogart Salon, about what can be done in order to preserve this artist paradise without anyone being pushed out in the upcoming years. (Anyone includes long-term residents, as well as the artists).
While our discussions regularly include an artist tortured by self-loathing taking a stand and admitting the responsibility for gentrification, the realtors chuckle…
The artists are indirectly responsible for gentrification. But before you silently start to cry in your studio, let’s see what a sociologist Sharon Zukin says in her “gentrification bible” Loft Living.
Zukin describes Artistic Mode of Production. The property owners are looking to increase the value of the property in the neighborhood converting industrial buildings into artists lofts, and by recruiting artists to live and work there. The artist life style creates “hip” ambience which attracts small businesses – galleries, bars, restaurants. This new “hip” infrastructure attracts different classes of people from the city who are looking to buy a property for an increased value or who are ready to pay much higher rent.
I will conclude with a quote of Sharon Zukin from the series of interviews for the website ThinkBig where she explained the necessary steps in order to create a sustainable environment for both long-term residents, as well as artists to live without a fear of being priced out.
[box]”The first step is to be aware of the cultural power that people have. The second step is to force local governments to make policies and to make laws to protect people’s right to stay in the apartments or houses that they have. And this is true for the people whose mortgages are being foreclosed as it is of tenants whose apartment complexes have been bought by big investment company. There have to be actions by the state, zoning, laws… and encouragements for long-time residents. Don’t forget that the people who have been in the city for a couple of years are on the way of becoming the long-term residents….”[/box]