Design Talk by MV article no. 7 - NYC, The Creative Melting Pot
FOR THIS WEEK'S Design Talk no. 08 - Brick and Mortar Retail Through Rose Colored Glasses
(Because It’s Not as Vicious as It’s Made Out to Be)
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Creative Tastemakers are the ones who, through commitment to their own styles and work, emerge beyond “we” thinking and stake claims to their own unique ideologies or aesthetics. New York City was once the mecca for these aspirants. Today, the city’s creative landscape is cataclysmically shifting, and the beacon of untapped space and economy that other cities offer is beckoning. 

As a creative, I figured out early on that I had to stake a claim to my own personal independence. I'm one of a set of triplets – all girls – so growing up I was automatically a part of a "we." Thankfully, our parents encouraged us to be our own individual selves – no matching outfits, etc.... I was frequently referred to as “the Different One.” I decided that this was OK with me and embraced the title! Back then in Detroit, there was very little opportunity to pursue industrial creativity outside the automotive industry. So, for me, part of that process of developing my own unique character involved leaving Detroit for New York, to establish myself as “me,” separate from the incessant “we” inherent to growing up a triplet. 

I headed to New York to be a designer, with no intention yet to be a retailer. The city was a mecca for creatives, a true land of opportunity. It was a place where anyone could do whatever they wanted to do. I came to be around other creatives, to be inspired by them and mired in their energy. Many parts of NYC, including SoHo, were zoned for “light manufacturing,” and the city allowed for artists – only artists – to have residential spaces, as well, if their practice involved light manufacturing. Basically, artists were legally allowed to live in their studio spaces, an ordinance that permitted the likes of Jasper Johns* and Donald Judd to live and work in SoHo. Downtown New York was abuzz with creative industry.

The large spaces, creative buzz and interesting businesses made places like SoHo very desirable to more and more affluent residents and shoppers, driving up rents and property values. However, the bulk of SoHo is still zoned for light manufacturing and JLWQ (Joint Live Work Quarters for certified artists), meaning the bulk of retail stores and residents – neither artists nor manufacturers – are non-conforming (technically illegal) tenants. As a result of the rent “bar” these incomers have (re)set, many of the artists and manufacturers who re-energized the neighborhood have been forced out.

(It doesn’t help that the New York City Department of Buildings, the DOB, doesn’t always do its part enforcing zoning legislation.)

 This has drastically shifted the creative landscape in New York City: by not being able to afford studio, retail, and residential rents, people are distanced from tight-knit creative environments in lower Manhattan. These artistic ecosystems have moved into Brooklyn, spreading out across the borough. The once-concentrated melting pot of creatives that, through proximity, fed and inspired one another is now seeking that camaraderie elsewhere – in other boroughs’ specific areas, certainly… but also in other cities.

 I won’t get too deep into the nitty gritty of those goings-on (consider that a teaser for a Design Talk to come!), but it all ties in to the Cycle of Revolutions in craft and commerce, which I addressed a couple weeks back. Through these observations, we witness a “micro-evolution” occurring amidst that larger cycle, one in which retailer displacement is prompting a return to retail/creative wastelands. Creatives and Makers are moving to cities like Detroit, Philly, Cleveland, and cities upstate along the Hudson and in the Catskills. Each of these post-industrial cities has empty warehouse and factory space. Those spaces, much like in SoHo and parts of Brooklyn, are attracting artists, designers, the manufacturer/maker, event planners, filmmakers, and photographers. 

This fresh – and affordable – real estate has further encouraged the wonderful development of artist, designer, and micro-manufacturer entrepreneurs as “me” characters, with unique, developed styles distinct from the “we.”

There is still immense, boisterous creativity happening in downtown New York, mostly from the lucky ones who, like me, got a foot in the door while the rents were still accessible. I take pride in offering a curated space that not only showcases my own designs, but also those of over 100 other emerging designers. 

That said, the atmosphere and landscape of that stomping ground is shifting cataclysmically. New York is losing its footing as the long-time epicenter for tastemaker designers and artists. SoHo is no longer full of the Judds and the Johns of its halcyon days. Luckily, creatives are resourceful, and they’re staking their own claims elsewhere, be it another borough or another state. I believe that’s a wonderful thing to witness. But as someone interested in, and researched on, the realtors and city officials responsible for these changes, I also believe it is something to take very cautious note of.

Next week, I’ll dive deeper into the details of the zoning changes, ordinances, and real estate trends that are affecting the way our precious NYC neighborhoods are operating and functioning for – and against – the creatives who give them so much.




As told to Emily R. Pellerin 

*Jasper Johns’ SoHo studio space was once at 27 Howard. That’s right – where my store is today was once the home of the iconic artist’s easel and paints!



Garry Burrell:

I could not agree with you more. Bing one of those who fells there was no place left in NYC for what I wanted to do. The art is not important only the money. I know we all need money, but these days you have to have millions to start with to be an artist or a small business in NYC.

Nov 08, 2017

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