Who Owns a Vacant Lot? Orthodoxy vs. Culture Industry

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Trained as an architect and city planner in Toronto in the early 1970s, my father met Fruchthandler in New York in the 1980s where they worked together for Olympia & York, a Canadian firm owned and operated by Orthodox brothers Paul and Albert Reichmann who were developing the World Financial Center. As a gay, non-practicing Jew my father was not family or Orthodox but he had earned the trust that made Fruchthandler comfortable with hiring him, and as his Jewish daughter, hiring me as a consultant to coordinate the project’s cultural component. While our being related was not comfortable for my father it is the single most important reason that FBE hired someone like me—an artist with overdeveloped administrative skills and an unhoned disdain for capitalism—to use artists to raise the property value of Industry City.

For artists and Jews, many of them Orthodox, to find themselves interlocked on the material plane of real estate as tenant and landlord is common enough in New York, but for them to work in consort to build an institutional structure is not. Given that I was allied and beholden to both, the work could only get done if I was able to function as a kind of double agent. Moving between tenant and landlord, artist and non-artist, Orthodox Jew and non-Orthodox Jew, I siphoned the variant and compatible orthodoxies of both my client and my community into a business plan. I did this in close coordination with Dovy Fruchthandler, son of Abraham, while my father worked with both father and son. Now married with three children, Dovy had at times broken hard with Jewish Orthodoxy, and spending time as a civilian he practiced living hard as one. He didn’t pretend to understand the culture of art but was interested in it and recognized its value; this was an anomaly at Industry City where the tradition of orthodoxy was the culture of business.

With the exception of intermixing in spheres of commerce Orthodox Jews live in self-segregation. The home, synagogue, and Yeshiva are the secular sites upon which the orthodoxy of their practice is sustained. Historically, secular refers to the separation between church and state that keeps religious belief from determining law. In Orthodox Jewish practice there is an inverted secularism that is defined by a strict adherence to principles intended to maintain religion in the face of law and modernity. This inversion has resulted in the absolute avoidance of contemporary culture with the exception of commerce and it is this, reinforced by the belief that they are the Chosen People, which has produced a unique brand of self-righteousness.

A similarly aggravating contradiction and posture are at play in the art world. Despite the unspoken adherence to a critique of capitalism—itself orthodox—artists readily engage in commerce while also self-segregating. In the art world covert social networks unite cultural producers and their supporters in contexts regulated by strict social codes and behavior. Artists must also believe that they are chosen because the relentless dedication to contributing something new is what perpetuates an art practice within the avant-garde tradition that is Contemporary Art.

One major difference between artists and Orthodox Jews is that artists are conflicted about their position within the orthodoxy that guides their practice, and the studio is the site upon which that conflict is enacted. Returning control of this site to artists and separating it from the market was the goal of my involvement at Industry City.

I believed that decreasing financial instability by providing affordable and optimum working conditions would enable artists to develop a relationship to their practice that would not be informed by the market, thereby giving them greater control over the means of their own production. By secularizing our place of work, my intention was to keep out the growing domination of commercial interests that by 2007 was distorting how we were functioning as artists, and effectively right all of the wrongs of the past decade. No open studios, no studio buildings, no group shows. Deny access to no one. No hierarchy, pure democracy, work only.

This emphasis on production and inclusion informed how my father conceived of the overall regeneration program. He proposed to broaden the ongoing manufacture of traditional industrial products to, as he wrote for the project’s press material, “include new and complimentary sectors such as design and technological innovation, art-related production, craft-based production, and a marketplace environment for the wholesaling and retailing of those goods, as well as products and services that meet the needs of the workforce and the surrounding region of the city”.

Making this possible instead of luxury housing was the city’s commitment to retain manufacturing jobs in Brooklyn by maintaining the existing zoning—a singular exception to the rule that had rezoned most of the waterfront to residential. Not “going condo” meant that the existing tenant base would not be phased out once the property value rose but would instead create a richer mix by co-existing with the higher value tenants Industry City would attract, and my role was to use artists to make the complex desirable to them.

In my proposal for the position I argued that genuinely helping artists was in FBE’s financial interests because people were ready for a redevelopment that didn’t disingenuously gift cheap studio space only to retract and later displace, gut and rebuild, replicating the predictable pattern of thoughtless consumption and whitening caused by gentrification: New York did not need another DUMBO.

Besides, the enormity of the complex and corresponding vacancy rate meant that displacement was neither necessary nor inevitable. The city of Industry City could accommodate all—there was surplus in its girth. On this principle I outlined four objectives to be rolled out in the first year. One, immediately establish an artist community by offering optimum studio space for artists in financial need at below-market rents that would increase only with inflation: commercial rent stabilization. The intention was to ensure long-term affordability for the artists who were pivotal in jumpstarting the redevelopment, provided they could prove ongoing financial need, and not price them out when property values rose but instead support them in remaining there for the long term.

In 2007, the other artists I knew who were in financial need couldn’t afford to rent studios at all, so I wagered that they would sign on and move in and that this community and these politics would be palatable and even beguiling to the artists and creatives who could pay market-rate, the second objective. Third, develop space for non-profits and production outfits like art crating, shipping, and storage to generate what I later learned was ‘synergy’. Fourth, begin the upgrade of the abandoned Building 24 in preparation for a museum-scale cultural anchor tenant. In perfect alignment with my insistence on a workplace focused on production, the M-1 zoning prohibited commercial galleries.