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Canal Dreams: Artists Find Inspiration in an Unlikely Neighborhood

On a recent bright, bitter cold December morning, Lisa Mayock - one half, with Sophie Buhai, of the team behind Vena Cava - is showing off the pair's design...

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On a recent bright, bitter cold December morning, Lisa Mayock — one half, with Sophie Buhai, of the team behind Vena Cava — is showing off the pair’s design studio. “Here’s where we do a lot of the sketching,” she says, gesturing to a room lined with windows framed by whitewashed exposed brick. Bolts of printed silks are piled high on a shelf. Mayock walks past the windows, pointing out a sleek industrial sink, part of a newly installed kitchenette, in the far corner of the back room, at the center of which is a large table. “For meetings,” explains Mayock. “Or lunch.” It’s precisely the sort of airy, elegant space that you might find on Walker Street in TriBeCa, where Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez work, or in west Chelsea, where Phi is based.

But Mayock and Buhai are in Brooklyn. Working in a former cannery. Next to the Gowanus Canal, to be exact.

A glamorous fashion industry hub or heir apparent to the Garment District it is not. And yet this South Brooklyn neighborhood, a sprawling grid of industrial warehouses and factories incongruously situated between the million-dollar brownstones of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, with the 20-foot-deep Gowanus Canal ribboning through it, is emerging as an artists’ — and artisans’ — haven in a borough where rent by the square foot continues to skyrocket.

“What’s so appealing about the Gowanus area, I think, for artists and designers, is a combination of space that is more affordable than Manhattan, but also convenient to Manhattan, as well as the hip, post-industrial feel of the neighborhood,” says Bob Zuckerman, the executive director of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, or CDC, and Gowanus Canal Conservancy. At The Old American Can Factory, a series of six interconnected buildings skirting Third Avenue and Third Street, where Vena Cava, as well as more than 200 artists and designers are now based, studio rents go for between $12 and $18 a square foot, says a source familiar with local real estate. According to Gerald Scupp, deputy director of the Fashion Center Business Improvement District, studio rents in Manhattan’s Garment District average from “the mid-$30s to mid-$50s” per square foot.

“So much has happened around [Gowanus], with the retail rise on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, on Smith Street and on Atlantic Avenue,” says Barry Fishbach, executive vice president of Robert K. Futterman & Assoc., a leading retail real estate brokerage firm. As evidence of encroaching gentrification, Fishbach cites Target and Old Navy, as well as high-end boutiques including Bird, Butter, Ai Ai Gasa and Diane T. — which sell labels from Dries van Noten and Chloé to local labels like Vena Cava and Feral Childe — as stores that have thrived along the Gowanus’ bordering thoroughfares. “It’s a little pocket that is overdue for renovation, frankly,” he says. “It’s one of those last frontier spots.”

Last frontier, indeed. The Gowanus neighborhood, originally a marshland dotted by streams, emerged as a prosperous industrial hub in the mid-nineteenth century following the 1869 construction of the canal, which drained the surrounding area and allowed barges carrying brownstone, grain and metal materials to dock along the water’s edge. Industrial buildings — factories for clothing and paint, chemical plants and tanneries — popped up along the canal, while the surrounding neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens were built up by local workers in need of housing. Economically, the area initially flourished, yet environmentally, the canal proved disastrous: Inadequate sewage connections resulted in raw waste being released into the canal for decades. By the Seventies, surrounding buildings and the canal itself sat neglected, the result of lost waterfront business due to increased container shipping to other parts of the city.

Locals who have championed the development of the neighborhood as an artists’ enclave most often reference the late-Nineties renovation of the tunnel designed to pump cleaner water from New York Harbor into the canal as a turning point for the community. (A 1998 New York Times article, published just prior to the completion of the renovation, called the canal “a dead zone, a post-industrial wasteland of garbage-strewn lots, dumped corpses and raw sewage awash in fetid water.” Not quite the stuff of designer fantasy.)

With the smell of the canal — a noxious, rotten-eggs stench, according to longtime residents — slowly dissipating and cheap rents up for grabs, artists began moving into unfinished spaces in the adjacent low-slung manufacturing buildings. In 1997, the Annual Gowanus Artists Studio Tour, a weekend-long public tour of artisan studio spaces, was launched. That year, 15 artists participated; this year, more than 140 took part. In 2005, the painter Dana Schutz, known for her color-saturated still lifes and portraits, and her husband, the sculptor Ryan Johnson, moved into a factory near the canal, leasing a floor along with six other artists, which they turned into individual studio spaces. Finally, in what one might call the ultimate confirmation of any area’s mounting credibility as a creative district, last summer Julian Schnabel decamped to the area while his West 11th Street studio was being renovated.

While Vena Cava is currently the most high-profile design name in the neighborhood, other smaller lines have followed in its stead, including Feral Childe, an eco-friendly line sold at Kaight and Utowa, as well as a number of emerging textile and jewelry designers.

“It can feel isolating working in my apartment alone, so I’m excited to be a part of an artistic community that’s actually affordable,” says Kiara Sausedo, a textile designer and recent FIT graduate who has rented space at the newly opened Gowanus Studio Space, a New York Foundation for the Arts-funded workshop located just blocks from the canal (printmaking, woodworking and storage facilities are available, with memberships ranging from $50 for access to tools and equipment to $300 for private studio space). The quiet neighborhood doesn’t bother Sausedo, who says she prefers the lack of distraction, as does the workshop’s co-director, artist Emily Elsen. “When we first saw the space, it was filled with industrial sewing machines, steamers, other equipment and sweaters,” says Elsen. She and her co-directors rent the 4,800-square-foot loft-like space on the second floor, which houses eight private studios, from sweater manufacturer Mitchell Schwartz, who maintains a small-scale active knitting factory on the first floor. Schwartz is one of the last apparel manufacturers still in the area, which he says is the result of the increase in inexpensive overseas production and labor costs.

“My father moved the business here in 1975 because of the large space,” says Schwartz, who rents out studio spaces in his building for $16 per square foot. “But the bigger you get, [the business is] harder to sustain, especially when you’re dealing with foreign competition.”

Now, says Schwartz, local manufacturers like himself are benefiting from clearing space in their factories for artisan studios, which boost the buildings’ market value and supplement rent or mortgage payments. “I’ve seen more of a change here in the last three years than I did from 1975 to ’95,” he adds. “We finally looked at our building not as a factory with boarded-up windows. We looked at the building and thought, ‘We need to strip it down, take away all the manufacturing stuff, clean it out.’ There’s a market out there for creative people who need affordable spaces.”

Or, as Elsen puts it, the neighborhood is “inspiring to people who want to make things. It still feels untouched. It’s conducive to collaboration, too — that sense that whether you’re a clothing designer or a sculptor, you’re around like-minded people, some of whom are down the hall or on the next block.”

As for artist pair Schutz and Johnson, the impetus to work in the Gowanus area was largely financial. “The prices have gone up even in the last two years, but it was so cheap, we thought there must be something wrong with it,” says Schutz. Johnson notes that the floors in their building that were occupied by what he deems “sweatshops” when they moved in have been renovated as studio spaces, with as many as 40 artists now ensconced in the factory. “It’s a good neighborhood for our line of work,” he says. “Walking from the subway to the studio, you see junk lying around, scrap metal piles on the corner. There’s a methadone clinic across the street, so you get a jittery crowd sometimes, but we have a community.”

Not surprisingly, Schutz and Johnson, along with many other local artists and designers, are apprehensive about the eerily quiet streets becoming a thoroughfare for sleek glass shops. In fact, several people interviewed for this article cited the invasion of boutiques from Club Monaco to Balenciaga in formerly artist-heavy neighborhoods like SoHo and Chelsea as the precise sort of gentrification they hope to avoid. But the city is taking notice of the area’s ripe-for-development appeal: This year, the City Planning Department revealed a new rezoning initiative for the area, with designations for commercial, housing and industrial developments, while the Department of Environmental Protection announced that a $125 million clean-up project for the canal, including the widening of the tunnel that flushes water through it, will begin next July.

Last fall, Whole Foods announced the construction of a 68,000-square-foot store, along with a 430-car parking lot, that is scheduled to open across the street from The Old American Can Factory. Due to permit issues with the land’s status as an industrial site, the opening has been delayed, though a Whole Foods spokesman told WWD that the company continues to be “very excited” about moving into the neighborhood.

“It’s a mixed blessing, really,” says Moriah Carlson, of Feral Childe. “I mean, it’s great to get a big new grocery store. But we’ve all got cheap rents, and we want to keep them.”

Back at The Old American Can Factory, where Mayock and Buhai are finishing off their fall 2008 collection, the atmosphere is downright serene as a photographer carries a tripod down one hallway, passing a young woman toting a yoga mat. “People are on the fence about whether or not they want to schlep out here, so we usually meet editors and buyers in the city to make it easier,” Mayock says, referring to the 30- to 45-minute commute from Midtown to the subway stop nearest their office. “But I can’t imagine going back to Manhattan now to work. It’s exciting to be on the fringes of something so creative. There aren’t that many places like this left.”

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