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.[/column]

[column]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.[/column][/column-group]

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[column-group][column]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.[/column][column] 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.[/column][/column-group]

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[column-group][column]While my father was developing the master plan with a team of architects and attempting to redefine for FBE what constituted industry in contemporary New York, navigating between the Economic Development Corporation, the Planning Department, local community groups, the existing tenant base, the Industrial Retention Network, retail brokers, and potential retail tenants, I was negotiating with Dovy Fruchthandler and coordinating the build-out of two floors of studio space in Building 9 for what he casually named the Incubator Program. 200 ft corridors split the floor plates in half making thirty-two 500 sq ft spaces and eight large corner units. Base rents for 500 sq ft were set at $330/month and corner units were $960/month for 960 sq ft and $1,250/month for 1,250 sq ft. The tenant base was evenly divided by gender, inclusive by discipline, age, and ethnicity but heavily and incidentally queer and politically engaged. It included Doug Ashford, Sadie Benning, A.K. Burns, Travis Boyer, Kabir Carter, Walt Cassidy, Deborah Czeresko, Anna Craycroft, Andrea Geyer, K8 Hardy, Sharon Hayes, Marlene McCarty, MPA, Ulrike Mueller, David Nelson, Karyn Olivier, Rit Premnath, and Desi Santiago, among others, while Allan McCollum, Kembra Phahler, Emily Roysdon, and Wu Tsang were signed on but ultimately didn’t make the move.

I was clear with them and they understood that their cultural capital was being openly leveraged to attract tenants that could pay market-rate. This formula then became the model for transacting space for arts programming, starting with Light Industry, a new venue for electronic media and film that did weekly screenings in an unrented corner unit in exchange for bringing audiences out to Sunset Park.

Leases were signed in a bar two days before we took occupancy. Over drinks I handed tenants the pen and assured them that everything would be fine. In late winter we joined the other occupants of Building 9: the storage facility for Virginia Dare’s liquid extract and flavoring vats, a mini-storage company, an AT&T transfer station, a busing program for developmentally challenged adults, 16,000 sq ft of damaged Verizon cell phone accessories and their receipts, and 48,000 sq ft of vacant space.

Inconsistent heat and single-pane broken windows that didn’t retain the warmth of a building that was deeply frigid did not equal optimum working conditions but Light Industry drew crowds and connected tenants, and within months unfamiliar and often explicitly queer forms of performance and film were taking place in unsecured vacant space seven stories below the management office. Charles Atlas and Andrea Geyer shot films, the Theater of the Two-Headed Calf produced and performed a queer adaptation of Macbeth, and A.K. Burns and A.L. Steiner shot scenes for their lesbian porn, Community Action Center. Feminist figure drawing classes, communal Indigo die baths, and early W.A.G.E. meetings erupted in the studios. The press quickly started to pay attention. A Village Voice article, DUMBO be Damned! Industry City Forges a New Kind of Arts District was followed by New York Magazine’s 2-page spread introducing Industry City as The New Factory.

The build-out of two floors of market-rate space in Building 2 had begun in 2008 shortly after the Incubator program was launched and I had already pre-rented almost an entire floor at close to double the Incubator rents. Early on I cold-called Dia Art Foundation and Creative Time who looked at the site, and soon after Harvestworks, The Filmmaker’s Coop, and Anthology Film Archives were considering space, and there was a possibility of Industry City housing the skeletal DVD archive of the recently defunct Kim’s Video. But it was when Paul Chan leased a custom-built market-rate studio that it became clear: Industry City had arrived.

In spring 2009, 32,000 sq ft of un-rentable windowless space sandwiched between the two floors of Incubator studios was approved for arts programming use for a minimum of one year. The plan was for single artists or groups to occupy space rent-free for 3 – 6 month periods to develop a project that would culminate in something, anything, whether public or never mounted. [/column][column]Scheduled were Michael Connor’s curatorial experiment Marian Spore; Desi Santiago; Nik Gelormino, Keegan Mognahan & James Leary; and Cliff Borress & Trisha Baga. Other projects in the planning stages were the Industry City Campus of Mary Walling Blackburn’s Anhoek School; and in conjunction with Light Industry and Triple Canopy, installations of Wang Bing’s Crude Oil, a 14-hour film documenting in real-time the workday of Chinese oil riggers to be screened in a public concourse over a parallel Industry City workday.

For two years it was a fraught but ideal partnership. Two orthodoxies that were indifferent to each other’s practices had compatible self-interests: artists needed space to produce and the landlord had an oversupply and needed revenue. Facilitating permissions from management to use vacant space usually took the form of an email exchange between myself, my father, Dovy Fruchthandler and CEO Bruce Federman. I would propose a program and explain in essay-style why it would add value to Industry City and without exception permission was always granted. The spirit of openness during this period is to the credit of Fruchthandler and Federman, and is due in large part to my father’s exceptional ability as sub-translator between us. It was also due to a mutual acknowledgement of each other’s orthodoxies and at some level, a respective recognition of being culturally misunderstood. They knew they didn’t ”get it” but “it” was clearly effective at realizing their goals.

At first, deciding which programs to propose was easy because projects focused on production that I liked—non-events—were coming from within the tenant base. But when Industry City’s extraordinary scale and dereliction became visible, cash-poor artists looking for studios and unsolicited proposals began to arrive, and my role as facilitator of space took on a curatorial dimension. Having to valuate people and their work undermined my rationale that Industry City was big enough to realize the dreams of each and every student of creativity who bubbled forth from the Beuysian spring. I was convinced that the complex’s enormous capacity and the applicant’s proof of financial need could mitigate any selection process by housing a community in its entirety—a democratic city-within-Industry City within New York City—but as an aesthete I was offended by most of what was being proposed. That was the first challenge to horizontality. Second was the probability of Industry City and Conceptual Art finding each other in Dia’s passing interest in Building 24.

Built into a pier, the isolated and ravishing Building 24 was precariously balanced on the harbor where Dia visitors could have been ferried directly from its dock around the tip of Manhattan and up the Hudson River to Beacon. For such a high value tenant FBE would have considered taking minimal rent and I probably would have advocated unconditionally for a deal, even by trying to guarantee no other exhibition space in a 20-block radius, assuming that was what they wanted. But after showing the Director and Deputy Director the site I also had concerns about its impact on the surrounding neighborhood and the project. If my goal was to integrate into the industrial tenant base an artist community and a critical, autonomously produced program that would reflect the very particular circumstances of its inception, making it un-reproducible anywhere else, not only would the presence of a major institution signify the project selling itself out, it would have triggered the displacement I was determined to prevent.

Things went no further than a follow-up email but an internal plan to approach Dia to produce a permanent sound installation by the now late Maryanne Amacher had been in process, as was a plan to solicit Dia’s founder Heiner Friedrich to house his collection of Dan Flavins at Industry City. Getting the attention of a large institution, like the spread in New York Magazine, also got the full attention of ICA management and ownership, which got me the credibility I needed to continue building the citadel and securing it for the community over the coming years. Still, the fluorescent Flavin glow of Dia—the word, Dia—now floated spectrally above every decision that was to be made: would Dia approve?[/column][/column-group]

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[column-group][column]By 2009 I had shown studio space over 400 times, leased to over 70 tenants, and was usually negotiating or producing projects with up to 5 others. A commercial broker out of DUMBO who had been hired by my father to lease the creative workspace that was to be phased in after the arts component took hold had not been so lucky. He chose to make up for his leasing deficiency by pushing his own cultural agenda, one of a handful of people that tried to force themselves onto the momentum. Everyone knew someone with an art project in need of a space.

Insurance complications and predictable delays resulted in a minor lull in arts programming activity during which he proposed to management without my knowledge what came to be known as ‘The Rave’. Stranded! 2009 was organized by a pair of DUMBO-based ‘cultural event producers’ who produce large, post-rave, self-described “art extravaganzas” in loft spaces. Its explicit alignment with Burning Man raised concerns for tenant security and with no connection to either the tenant base or the site, it was unlikely that it would raise the profile of the complex or contribute to leasing space—the criteria used by management to evaluate the merits of an arts program. Dia had become a bargaining chip, synonymous with ‘high value tenant’ or ‘optimum use of industrial space for art’, so my final argument in opposition to Stranded! 2009 was: if you want Burning Man you can forget about Dia.

The Rave took place in 32,000 sq ft below the Incubator studios where all previous and future arts programs were focused. According to a few Orthodox staff that attended in case things got out of control, 1,200 people in their late 30s partied until dawn in hybrid rave-burlesque or did yoga in a quasi steam punk fashion and there were no security issues. It was therefore an unprecedented success. Five months earlier we threw Bottom of the Sky, a party that drew over 700 people who orbited the Industry City community. With the crescendo of beer bottle throwing and topless lesbian dance floor it was, even and especially by Dovy Fruchthandler’s account, a great party.

But from the standpoint of management an event was successful if it brought people to Industry City, period. As Orthodox Jews, their limited cultural awareness was what had enabled me to push through my own agenda, but it was also what made them unable to comprehend the qualitative differences between purported art events and their respective impact on Industry City’s critical reputation in the art world. Although they correctly perceived my opposition as elitism, their inability to appreciate it as necessary caused them to view it as snobbery and obstructionism.

At that point, the battle I had been waging against hierarchy from that concrete compound had shifted into a position that advocated for it. My own orthodoxy had given way and I was accepting—and rather embracing—the necessity of stratification and the arbitration of taste. Not everyone could be a citizen of Industry City and not just anyone would be invited in. If management understood value quantitatively through their orthodoxy as business people, I had learned to do the same. Our financial and ethical interests were finally aligned but our aesthetic was not, and this made our goals fundamentally incompatible.

Sensing the dangerous ideological and cultural divide opening up into which everything I had been carefully cultivating was falling, I organized to make a presentation to help management understand that a rigorous approach to standards would sustain the project and bring them the high value tenants they needed to raise the property value. By making explicit the connections between our tenants and major museums and the importance of the social networks that build communities and set algorithms of status into motion, I planned to demonstrate that Industry City’s reputation could be made or broken by the choices we made going forward. [/column][column]The presentation was scheduled for the end of October 2009 and was to be made by Light Industry’s Ed Halter, myself and artist tenants Kabir Carter and Paul Chan to Dovy Fruchthandler, Bruce Federman, and Andreas Chizzali, Industry City’s new Chief Operating Officer who had just relocated from Denver, recently hired by my father with the ownership to restructure the management of ICA.

In preparation, I informally surveyed the Incubator tenants in an effort to build a case for the program’s value, recording how it had (or had not) benefited their work and careers. Though not a secret, the survey was ‘leaked’ to management. To Chizzali it was a breach of what he perceived as my limited role as a subcontracted real estate broker and I became the first casualty of his new world order. My termination—and effectively the termination of the project—occurred then, just before the presentation was to be made. The vehement opposition I had voiced against The Rave had by that point corroded the trust Fruchthandler and Federman had had in my judgment and they chose to support Chizzali’s decision. My termination was final, immediate and messy.

Within a few months Chizzali had hired his Orthodox wife whose second life as a hobbyist painter qualified her to take over my position, and in the four years since there have been biannual raves, pro-Israel group shows, open studios, and the complete dismantling of the Incubator Program into market rate space. My father was gently phased out after my termination and the broader regeneration program was suspended. Chizzali was expelled in 2012 and in 2013 a formal complaint was lodged with the Better Business Bureau and NYS Licensing Agency against Industry City on behalf of a coalition of tenants with the further intention of soliciting help from City Council Member Sara Gonzalez.

Over the months following my termination I regretted that I couldn’t have found a way for Industry City in its vastness to have accommodated both pure democracy and total autonomy: why couldn’t it contain the sum total of mass cultural production as it looked to me, leveled into an indiscernible field of objects and ideas, while also supplying a polished concrete Dia football field around every art work? I no longer believed in the foundation of the project, that there was room for everything; I had reached the outer limits of my own orthodoxy—but management had not. Room for everything had become their rationale and they saw no irreconcilable differences between Dia and The Rave. What they didn’t understand was that their coexistence at Industry City would break a fundamental taboo, one whose empty violence could only result in their canceling each other out. In the long run, breaking that taboo would have meant no increase in property value—and had they understood that, they too would have reached the outer limits of their orthodoxy as property owners.

Now, in the wake of Occupy, after other well-meaning initiatives have splintered into self-serving entropic missions, I understand that the self-righteous feeling I got when the simple act of doing my job (enriching the landlord) seemed to solve an ethical problem (securing equitable working conditions for artists), as well as the impasse it all ended in, were in fact just masking and denying my own nostalgia: when forced to choose between Stranded 2009, Dia, and the autonomy of the particular artists in my own community, it became clear that mine was not the democratization of the art world or the accommodation of teams of privileged cultural producers at the expense of the neighborhood. My latent and diabolical fantasy was that New York could regain its potential to be a vacant lot once more. It could still be orphaned by all corporate and market entities, abandoned by all things aspirational: go back to the suburbs and the Ivy league, go back to nature, back to business school. Remain: a manageable group of radical self-educating artists working, thinking, organizing, and performing against a run-down backdrop owned by no one; a covert and secularized culture of ideological debate, like performing Midrashic texts—orthodoxy not culture industry.[/column][/column-group]