Does this question sound familiar? Studios in Greenwich Village now often rent for at least $2,000 and up per month, meaning an artist would need an annual salary of $80,000 to “afford” this rent. Most artists do not earn $80,000 per year. This headline was not pulled from a current real estate blog but from a 1921 article written during an earlier wave of Village gentrification. And although it was referring to an artist’s studio and not a studio apartment, many similarities exist to today’s issues of displacement and gentrification.
On August 28, 1921, the NY Tribune published an article titled “THIS TOWN IS NO FIT PLACE FOR AN ARTIST” about the displaced artists of the Village. “Where do we go from here” asks the Village artists who are not “millionaire manufacturers and their commercial brethren” as they realize that their bohemian neighborhood now belongs to the rich, and not the artists who created the “social prestige.“
Many think of gentrification as a modern problem of rich (white) people displacing poor (Black and brown) people in “up and coming” neighborhoods. But it’s not just a 21st century issue. The Village has faced wave after wave of gentrification dating back to its start. While the area around Washington Square was built for the wealthy in the early 19th century, the article reports: “The original rich departed fifty years before the art colony arrived. The bourgeoisie came and went. The humble workman left his marks on the wall, and following him came the immigrants….By economic deduction there remained only the artists…They entered and took possession…It attracted attention. Slummers discovered it. Keen-eyed persons with bobbed hair opened restaurants and pseudo art shops. Within a year the neighborhood was commercialized. Landlords were at work buying leases….They raised rents gradually, spreading the artists further and further away from the square….Washington Square had traversed its circle and was once more in the hands of the well to do.”
The article discussed how rents in central areas of the Village had almost doubled in the previous decade and describes how the gentrification of one area affects others like falling dominoes. “MacDougal Alley was the first portion of Bohemia to be elevated out of the reach of the ordinary artist. A wealthy amateur artist was responsible for that, but not intentionally. However, shrewd owners and agents did use her presence to raise rent right and left.” This “wealthy amateur artist” was a bit more than just that, as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had a rich and varied legacy, but the point is clear.
The area around MacDougal and 4th Streets maintained low rents for the area artists but had “uptowners” paying much higher amounts for similar units in the area. One cannot read this article and not think of the gentrification patterns of many NYC neighborhoods over the past 20 years, although the modern day “uptowners” are not just from uptown but have been coming here from all over the world to displace not just artists but lower income New Yorkers.
After the residential rents increased throughout the area, it was reported that the “commercial element is beginning to have its troubles.” The new tenants wanted to live in a “respectable” neighborhood and dance halls began to lose their licenses. Area businesses began to cater to the new, wealthier clientele. Artists began to move out and relocate to the Bronx and Brooklyn. Sound familiar?
At the time of publication, the only Village area not yet gentrified was the “unsavory” area know as “the Minettas,” which was the area surrounding the Minetta Lane and Minetta Street intersection. This area was full of prostitution and poverty, although the displaced artists knew that within a couple years that area too would be taken over by the “magnates.”
There is a long tradition about writing about how NYC is dead or is dying, but the author here is slightly more optimistic, noting that “A solution cannot be found in deserting New York for some less commercial city…The landlords will awaken to their opportunities, and the history of the New York colony will be repeated.”
Click here to read the full NY Tribune article.