Brooklyn, New York: Craft Over the Bridge
Brooklyn, New York: Craft Over the Bridge
A Kinder, Gentler Borough
There is nothing quite like wandering through Brooklyn. The eclectic mix of old factories, beautiful brownstones and ethnic neighborhoods so preserved they feel like the "old country," as well as others that have become so gentrified many older residents are left wondering what happened, is truly awe-inspiring.
Strolling through Williamsburg, one can witness the results of this gentrification firsthand. With its hipster bars and warehouses quickly being converted into condos, the neighborhood on the western end of the borough has become the poster child for a rapidly changing city. But there you'll also find John Pomp's glass studio, where pedestrians can glance in and see glass being blown, and the high-end design store The Future Perfect, which sells the work of many well-known craftspeople, including the reused wood furniture made by Carlos Salgado and Bart Bettencourt of Scrapile, whose studio is two blocks down. Over on Bayard Street Jeremy Lebensohn and his team are busy restoring metal sculpture for the Museum of Modern Art and doing architectural metalwork for some of the most respected architecture firms in the nation.
Williamsburg was one of the first neighborhoods to draw artists from Manhattan, though not all willingly. "I came here kicking and screaming," says Lebensohn, who moved to the area in 1997. Lebensohn, who has operated his metal and sculpture fabrication and conservation business for 24 years, always prided himself on finding affordable real estate in Manhattan, but he was finally priced out. "I planned on staying a year and a half while I kept looking and then moving back to Manhattan," he says. "I love it now. It feels like the ideal place."
One of the factors that won Lebensohn over was the many mom-and-pop metal dealers that have managed to remain in the neighborhood (although with rising rents, it is questionable how much longer they will last). Woodworker Salgado also found this to be an advantage. "I have access to raw materials," he explains, "and also to manufacturing expertise that is still here." Unlike Lebensohn, Salgado did not have to be dragged to Brooklyn. Like many, he found the community of artists extremely appealing. Pomp, who moved to the neighborhood in 1999, also found this pull irresistible. "It offered close proximity to the city that was a source of inspiration for me," he says. "It was also important to be surrounded by like-minded people, an artist camaraderie." To Dave Alhadeff, owner of The Future Perfect, opening his shop there five years ago was only logical. "It was pretty basic," he explains. "I had a certain amount of money to spend. I chose Williamsburg because of the price per square foot, the proximity to Manhattan and the fact that it's known for being an arts neighborhood."
From Williamsburg it's a quick jaunt to DUMBO, the neighborhood situated underneath the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges (DUMBO stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). There you'll discover another hotbed of craft and understand why this neighborhood is the home of Brooklyn Designs, an annual design fair that has jump-started many a career. Furniture maker and former sculptor Susan Woods is one of those who credit the event for contributing to her success. "I did my first non-fine art event there, and it was a very encouraging time," she says. "I participated for a few years and received a great deal of attention as a result." Wood's studio and gallery, Aswoon, is just one of many that line the side streets of the waterfront neighborhood. Housed in both small storefronts and large warehouses are Gallery QB, Spring Design & Art, and the studio and showroom of furniture maker Jonah Zuckerman's City Joinery, who first transplanted to Brooklyn from Manhattan in the late 1980s. "I was part of the first wave," he says of the relocation. "It was more affordable, and Brooklyn has always had this art culture that you can't find outside New York. The work of New York craftspeople is much more sensitive to contemporary art. The furniture being made here couldn't be made in Boston because people wouldn't get it."
Of course Williamsburg and DUMBO are just two of many neighborhoods where artists and makers thrive. Brooklyn is, after all, over four times the size of Manhattan geographically, and if it were an independent city it would be the fourth most populous in the nation. Take a stroll down the "other" Fifth Avenue, in Park Slope, home to brownstones and brick townhouses reminiscent of The Cosby Show, where boutiques selling craft and design goods thrive. Head west from Prospect Park and you'll find yourself in the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus, where Atlas Industries, owned by furniture makers Joseph Fratesi and Thomas Wright, is based. It is in Gowanus where potter Lois Aronow works out of a former can factory and where ceramist Pamela Sunday works in a shared studio space with 14 other artists."Brooklyn is a kinder, gentler place to live," says Sunday, of the quality of life. "After having a private studio in Manhattan, I found the camaraderie that comes with working in a group studio to be quite inspiring." Aronow finds herself agreeing with Sunday, pointing out not only the leafy green trees that line the streets, but also the creative energy that pervades the borough. "Within the bounds of my neighborhood, I know two Guggenheim winners and a MacArthur winner," she observes.
The neighborhood that is quickly becoming one of the most exciting places for makers is Red Hook. Referred to as the "new Williamsburg" or the "anti-Williamsburg," depending on who is describing it, Red Hook has been kept from developing as quickly as some other neighborhoods by the lack of convenient public transit. Textile artist Denise Carbonell and metalworker Derek Dominy, owners of Metal and Thread on Van Brunt Street, came to Red Hook in 2008, after spending many years on the Lower East Side. "We looked and looked and we found Red Hook to be our kind of place," says Dominy. "People are interested in something made from hands and the ideas behind it." "There are a lot of people wanting to learn," adds Carbonell. "That's very appealing. We want to concentrate on building local customers. The local aspect of the shop is very important to us."
Husband-and-wife team Mary Ellen Buxton and Kevin Kutch, who are originally from Colorado, were part of the first wave when they moved to Red Hook in 1993 to open their artisan glass studio, Pier Glass. The studio, which offers postcard-worthy views of the Statue of Liberty, was one of the first four businesses along the pier. Now there are over 60. The couple credits their landlord, Greg O'Connell, for establishing a home for many artists. O'Connell snapped up real estate along the harbor a decade ago when it was still affordable, developed it and offered the space to artists and gallery owners at reasonable prices. Describing why he's chosen to lend such support to the arts community, O'Connell explains matter-of-factly, "When it comes to economic development, they're the pioneers."
Among the various buildings O'Connell owns is 275 Conover Street, right next to the pier. The building provides a business and residential space for artists and gallery owners that many take advantage of. There, furniture maker Andrew Raible of Standard 41 can live and have his showroom. One floor up, Jim Clark, owner of Look North Gallery, does the same. Clark sees the lack of public transportation as one of the defining factors of the neighborhood. "The fact that it is not a convenient place to get to and from, has created an environment where everyone is here because they want to be and because they see something special," he says, pointing out Red Hook's rich character and small-town feel as part of the draw.
But as more artists discover this appeal, the future of the neighborhood is yet to be seen. Raible, whose woodworking business goes back seven generations to its origins in Austria-Hungary, has lived and worked in many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, including Gowanus, Fort Greene and Carroll Gardens. He's borne witness to the development of many of these neighborhoods and wonders where Red Hook will go with so much new money now coming in. "Red Hook had the perfect cross section of craftspeople several years ago," he says. "Now people are being pushed out. It's a more nuanced crowd."
With the much-debated arrival of IKEA and the cast of the twentysomething reality show The Real World moving to the neighborhood, there is no doubt that things are changing. Not all residents are worried. Carbonell and Dominy see this transition as an outside entity that cannot penetrate the craft community they live and work in. Clark agrees. "Some battles are won and some are lost, he says, "but the residents' resilient love of Red Hook keeps pushing it into the future as one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in New York City." Who will leave and who will stay is still up for debate, but one thing is agreed on across the board-Brooklyn has an undeniable appeal that isn't going anywhere. "Brooklyn is still exciting," says Raible, "and I'm still discovering it."