It began with a New York Times op-ed about cheap rent and plentiful space. A hashtag followed (#movetoDetroit), then billboards painting the Motor City as the next great Maker paradise. If the fix isn’t quite in, the idea has been planted that the Brooklyn Renaissance may be mature and ripe for relocation. It’s a sad tale, oft told, of artists being priced out of places they helped make cool.
In a new book Brooklyn Spaces: 50 Hubs of Culture and Creativity, writer and “hipstorian” Oriana Leckert chronicles some of the hottest venues that have made this scene unique. They range from the performance-based House of Yes to the North Brooklyn Boat Club, all built with DIY grit, boundless energy, and creativity that seems to have no limit. The book takes us inside fascinating post-industrial structures in various states of decay, but its true subject is how these spaces inspire art—a search for the soul that makes each setting sacred. Brick and mortar are the bones, imagination the spark that brings them to life.
Primarily gathering places, these venues engender “creativity, culture, and community” and are more than the sum of their re-purposed parts. Along with dynamic photographs, Leckert gives a brief history of each as well as a sense of what the creators went through to realize their vision. Far too often, it’s the familiar struggle of artists versus rising rents.
Before the possibility of Detroit being the next Brooklyn, however, Leckert’s interest was sparked when a friend drove her from Manhattan to a desolate stretch of north Brooklyn. It was 1998, she was a college sophomore, and Williamsburg was crime infested and forbidding. Yet, inside the Galapagos Art Space, Leckert discovered a vibrant world of avant-garde culture and performance art. It made a powerful impression, and she sensed that she had found her “tribe.”
Realizing that Brooklyn was going through “one of those moments,” when creative energy coalesces in a certain place at a certain time to produce a distinctive artistic era, Leckert decided to capture it. She began writing a blog called Brooklyn-Spaces, which was smart because it gave the world time to catch up to “Brooklyn cool” and let Leckert establish herself as a trustworthy source. Many of the places and productions she saw were not, in a manner of speaking, “up to code,” and organizers needed to be sure she wouldn’t rat them out.
Several Bushwick spaces have been featured in Brooklyn Spaces. Among them is Nyssa Frank’s Living Gallery, which Leckert admires for hosting a wide variety of events, including BYO art shows and Brooklyn Acts, a drama group dedicated to youth empowerment. Bushwick City Farm, though not an arts group, has also been spotlighted, having evolved out of the same can-do spirit. Begun in 2008 in an empty lot under the JMZ tracks, it moved in 2011 to a bigger lot with a darker history: gas station, apartment house, drug haven. Bushwick City Farm was granted the right to stay and now produces a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers that it donates to the community. Welcoming and open, it’s a place where people can wander in to help or just sit and enjoy the scene.
Leckert believes that bonds between different people can be forged by bringing them together in one place at one time. All her selected Brooklyn spaces have come about through “luck and chance,” and all encourage people of various backgrounds, talents, and skills to mix. Such environments bring to mind the Moulin Rouge, the Parisian nightclub where artists such as Toulouse Lautrec intermingled with performers such as Jane Avril and La Goulue, with an audience of dandies, working men, and, on occasion, the Prince of Wales.
Combining a spirit of prior epochs with a recognition of our current age, Brooklyn Spaces is not only colorful and fun, but also an historic document by someone who knows the players and became one herself. It’s easy to see how. Leckert is young and outgoing, filled with an infectious excitement about Brooklyn as creative space. But she may also be a little worried.
A “hard year,” a “turning point” for many ventures, is how Leckert described 2014. Some venues closed, whereas others facing rent increases and loss of space have responded with bold second acts and the determination to proceed in a more sustainable way. Galapagos Art Space, site of Leckert’s epiphany, has moved to Detroit. According to its website: “The white-hot real estate market burning through affordable cultural habit is no longer a crisis, it’s a conclusion.” Artists are “no longer talking about the next show they hope to land. They’re talking about the next city they can land in once their current lease runs out.”
Today, a red windmill still turns atop the reinvented Moulin Rouge, but now it’s a tourist attraction, a “must-see” for visitors to Paris. There are shows and mementos, but the creative scene that sparkled during the Belle Époque has moved on. When we consider our own neighborhoods, this may make us wonder and despair: Whatever happens next, we’ll always have Brooklyn—and now this terrific book to remember it by.