Who Owns a Vacant Lot? Orthodoxy vs. Culture Industry

by Lise Soskolne

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This article was published in Shifter 21 : Other Spaces, which can be purchased here.

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I was lucky in getting to New York City by the mid to late 1990s just before street life came to an end. Vacant lots could be taken for granted; their disuse was like a common-law marriage, a casual but forever kind of state. They meant that not every parcel of real estate was privately owned. Art wasn’t everywhere but it wasn’t always where it belonged, either. Colin de Land’s Brooklyn baseball cap was politics, not satire. Artists weren’t made in college, they were constituted through work and working it because that was all there was and that was why people moved to New York. Right?

When Craigslist first appeared in August of 2000 Giuliani was in the second to last year of his final term as mayor and the crime rate had dropped 57% since 1994, paving the way, the street and its life, for a professionalizing generation. Post secondary education and debt guaranteed the steady arrival of young people to stoke the growing demand for housing and studio space—both could suddenly be secured, along with an internship or job, before even getting here. Making it in New York started to have nothing to do with living in New York. By then, the consolidated impact of Felicity, Sex and the City, Will & Grace, and Friends was to shellac future citizenry in an unreal primer of complacency.

September 11th was a radical puncture but it only marked the beginning of a newer and more totalizing unreality to follow. The city became the star and set of its own reality show, drawing towards it those who wanted to conjoin with a moment that was epic, constant, unpredictable, historic. People started arriving and not leaving. Still, in a justifiable state of panic it was assumed that New York’s economic survival was dependent on making it a livable urban environment and marketable on those terms, and so Giuliani’s war on anything with the potential to hinder this project which had begun well before 9/11, was resumed with greater purpose. Security and the arts took their positions as the city’s gatekeepers and federal and state funding flooded into Lower Manhattan. But city agencies and money failed to retain what was left of the Downtown scenes and instead, by the mid-2000s, New York had achieved a state of moral rectitude by remodeling the whole city into a cultural district, accommodating and welcoming to a generation of aspiring creatives.

Meanwhile a new figure was ascending on the horizon of the art world. The demand for art by a growing collector base translated into an overall increase in social and professional events to facilitate the movement of goods. Openings, art fairs, biennials, book launches, after parties, post-after parties, symposia, talks, performances and benefits brought buyers and art products together upon a critical substrate of agents, brokers, dealers, assistants, independent curators and critics, consultants, associates and art handlers. In a classically American entrepreneurial mode a new and better-connected conduit made itself indispensible: the art worker was born.

Navigating this terrain was a generation of artists whose feel for resisting and contesting power had been internalized in the context of graduate programs and enacted within the chalk lines of the art world. Their ability to use each other’s professional skills to build careers on a foundation of symbolic activism and anti-institutional rhetoric positioned them well in this contemporary marketplace. New York City—still the repository of dreams both collapsed and realized also remained the port of entry into that marketplace, now both from the shelter of suburbs and academia.

Newly immigrated artists found their workspaces on Craigslist, transferring the last of their student loan money to the real estate brokers whose colonization of a website conceived to bypass the middleman had turned the artist’s studio into the new frontier in a saturated housing market. Those industrial buildings that had not been rezoned under Bloomberg for residential use, becoming Real Artist Style Loft Condos, were subdivided by speculators and turned into Real Artist Studio Buildings. Once Craigslist had inadvertently marketized the studio, very little of the working life of artists remained to be commodified.

To a 35-acre industrial complex on the South Brooklyn waterfront called Industry City, it was as if none of this was happening. 6.5 million square feet of poured concrete sat silently beside the exit ramp of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, referred to most commonly as a placeholder on the AM radio traffic report. Traffic backed up near Industry City.

In spite of its desolation Industry City is a valuable piece of real estate. Built at the turn of the 20th century, its iconic architecture has unobstructed views of the harbor and city, and it is located on an express train two stations from lower Manhattan. As the last piece of the Brooklyn waterfront that maintains its M-1 industrial zoning and makes up 10% of Brooklyn’s industrial space, the industry-retention lobby, real estate brokers, various city agencies, and community groups all claim a stake in its potential.

Originally named Bush Terminal, it was conceived by its founder Irving T. Bush as a “city within a city”, a fully integrated shipping, manufacturing and warehousing facility that had its own railroad system, steam and power stations, cafeteria, court system, fire department, bank, and internal transportation for workers. The Great Depression initiated its slow decline into obsolescence and in 1986 it was purchased and renamed Industry City by its current ownership, a consortium of investors led by two Orthodox Jewish family businesses, Fruchthandler Brothers Enterprises Ltd and Cammeby’s Ltd (FBE). The complex is managed by Industry City Associates (ICA), led by notoriously slick CEO Bruce Federman and operated primarily by Orthodox Jews. ICA’s offices are located there, in a retrofitted industrial penthouse whose pastel walls and hospital calm betray a high level of dysfunction within its management structure.

The external surfaces of Industry City’s 16 buildings numbered 1 through 26, range in tone from soiled Miami Vice pink through to battleship grey, having been beaten relentlessly over the last century from different angles by the weather. Cobblestoned streets and four defunct train corridors separate Buildings 1-9 and one medieval power station keeps 35 acres of real estate online most of the time. The complex’s narrow, avenue-length floor plates are leased to a cross-section of light industrial, manufacturing and warehousing tenants paying an average of 66¢/sq ft. In an increasing state of disrepair the crumbling monolith had for many years been suited to uses that don’t require any capital improvement, resulting in a rumored vacancy rate of 75% in 2007, when my involvement with Industry City started. Without generating enough revenue to maintain it in a state of even minimal repair, FBE had to find a way to attract and accommodate higher value tenants. It was in the face of this decline and dearth of vision for Industry City as a “Twenty First Century Workplace” that Abraham Fruchthandler reached out to my father, Ron Soskolne, to conceptualize and oversee its regeneration in 2006.