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Displacement at Greenbelt

The Greenbelt building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Sarah Nelson Wright.
The Greenbelt building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Sarah Nelson Wright.

In March, artists, policy advocates, and community organizers gathered in Williamsburg for a roundtable on gentrification, displacement and the arts. The venue, unexpectedly, was a new luxury condo building at 361 Manhattan Avenue. How did a new condo building end up hosting a panel on displacement? The answer is the story of Greenbelt.

In 2002, Derek Denckla worked as a consultant for several arts non-profits in Williamsburg. A social entrepreneur and musician, he saw rising rents force his clients to relocate, hampering their ability to plan long-term and grow. Noting parallels between gentrification in Williamsburg and the transformation of Soho from a mixed-use neighborhood with artist lofts to a high-end shopping area, Denckla conceived the Greenbelt project: a for-profit development with a permanent home for a non-profit art space in Williamsburg.

The Greenbelt building is an 8-unit green condo building with a 4,000 square-foot art space on the ground floor. The market-rate condos will subsidize the purchase of the art space by a non-profit for well below market value. Greenbelt is the first L.E.E.D. certified green building in Brooklyn (the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is the national certification for green buildings), with the goal of creating environmental, artistic and financial sustainability.

Denckla imagined condo buyers would be current residents looking to buy responsibly in the area. At the time, while aware of the escalating real estate values he hoped would support the project’s mission, Denckla didn’t imagine Greenbelt as part of the massive, unchecked condo boom that would hit Williamsburg a few years later. He put out a request for proposals for the art space, and, after an initial period of skepticism from the arts community, facilitated the formation of the non-profit Center for Performance Research, a collaboration between choreographers John Jasperse and Jonah Bokaer, to support dance and performing art.

Six years after its conception, in a much changed real estate landscape, Greenbelt is nearing completion. CPR has raised funds to purchase the subsidized space. The condos host open houses, while downstairs, CPR’s future space housed an art show called Displacement At Greenbelt. The March 27 roundtable was an important moment to reflect on gentrification in Williamsburg and the impact of projects like Greenbelt.

Fractured Atlas, a non-profit founded by Adam Forest Huttler, organized the roundtable to reflect the values of their project Placed + Displaced: mapping cultural vitality for civic participation ( The project maps artists, cultural institutions and creative industries in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. The goal is to create alliances between what they referred to as “newcomer artists” and longtime residents and advocate for their shared interests. “We’re trying to reposition artists from their role as harbingers of gentrification to agents of community empowerment,” says Huttler.

Luis Garden Acosta, founder of Brooklyn-based El Puente, emphasized community building as essential to any movement against gentrification. “Anti-gentrification efforts have always focused on people— ‘let’s stop them from coming in’—when the issue is not people, it is policies that create a context for the dislocation of a community and the instability that it brings.”

Indeed, the borders between “artists” and “locals” are porous. The media portrayal of Williamsburg suddenly transforming into a creative community with the arrival of mostly white artists displaced from Manhattan insults the neighborhood’s diverse creative heritage.

Equally offensive is the notion that gentrification has been the only force for positive change in the community. El Puente has advocated for neighborhood improvements for over twenty-five years. North Brooklyn has long been a first stop for Puerto Rican, Italian, Polish and Dominican immigrants. When the city began to envision the Williamsburg waterfront as a residential enclave, it enacted policies that damaged the viability of the already struggling manufacturing and light industry, which provides jobs with upward mobility for many working class people. The portrayal of Williamsburg as a blank slate neighborhood abandoned by industry undermines efforts to protect its existing resources.

Portraying artists as a homogenous group is another barrier to combining efforts. Many artists are not newcomers, having established themselves in the area in the 1980s and before. Bokaer notes that a poll of 587 artists in Bushwick found that the largest ethnic identity is “mixed heritage” at 35%.

Bokaer’s organization Chez Bushwick, an artist-run non-profit that nurtures new choreography, conducted the poll. Chez Bushwick saw over a four-fold increase in demand last year for their subsidized rehearsal space, due to the closing of at least four Williamsburg-based non-profits that had previously provided affordable space for emerging choreographers. These spaces were unable to continue due to prohibitive rent increases.

Garden Acosta supports solidarity with newer artists. “Many artists came here because it was affordable and have been chased out of their community with us.” He points to his work with Deborah Masters, one of the artists displaced from 475 Kent Avenue. Both have organized against Radiac, a radioactive and hazardous waste storage plant on Kent Avenue. Masters, an established sculptor, is leaving the city after being displaced four times.

In considering solutions for displacement, Garden Acosta is wary of the condo subsidy model. He says, “We cannot be co-conspirators in our own demise. When new condos are only affordable to the wealthy, their presence is not good for the community even if there is a portion dedicated to community space.”

Denckla says he has received some criticism for not providing affordable housing at Greenbelt. Critics wonder what the purpose of a community art space will be if the community it was intended to serve can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood. “The scale of the project did not permit us to include affordable housing, which was disappointing. Still, we hope we are providing a sustainable resource for use and enjoyment by the whole community.” Julie McKim, who curated Displacement with Elizabeth Grady, says that despite the challenge of true community inclusion, she appreciates Greenbelt’s attempt to address increasing displacement in Williamsburg and Greenpoint before it’s too late. Adam Huttler notes that the likely alternative is a not-green condo building with no subsidized art space.

For his next project, Denckla plans a larger scale live/work space where the subsidies are spread throughout the building, allowing inclusion of mixed income and mixed-use tenants, like artists and light industry. Bokaer hopes CPR will be a space that hosts diverse community activities in addition to fulfilling its mission to provide low-cost rehearsal and presentation space to performing artists. CPR’s website will be in three languages: English, Spanish and Polish.

While small-scale projects like the Greenbelt-CPR partnership provide intriguing experiments within the market context, it is essential that they not be held up as proof that luxury condos can subsidize their way out of the displacement they cause. The Bloomberg administration has championed the model of real estate development subsidizing community spaces. However, the sorts of community space that many developers prefer, like open space, raise property values and contribute to rising rents while failing to relieve working-class displacement.

Another concern is the degree to which the public is able to access these community spaces. A 2000 study by Harvard Professor Jerold Kayden with the New York City Department of Planning and the Municipal Arts Society found that 41 percent of the 503 privately owned open spaces in Manhattan were of marginal value and even “hostile to public use” by design and operation.

When the luxury housing market monopolizes land use, developers control what aspects of the community to value, promote, or preserve. Placement becomes an answer to displacement, with investor-approved resources emerging as “amenities” to development projects as opposed to arising out of the needs of the existing community. This model misses the essential goal of resisting displacement: protecting choice and access for everyone.

Significant displacement has already occurred in Williamsburg, but there is still substantial mixed-use space with artists, light industry and working class residents fighting to stay. Denckla sees the potential for alliances between some newer, wealthier residents who value living in a mixed income community, and their working class and artist neighbors. Caron Atlas, the project director of Place + Displaced, hopes that dialogue between Williamsburg and other communities like Greenpoint, Bushwick, Long Island City, the South Bronx and Harlem can help generate the broad alliances necessary to fight displacement.

A larger movement—based around shared interests and values like affordable housing and services, mixed use, and safe living environments—has the potential to challenge the current cycle of rapid gentrification and displacement in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, CPR plans to continue to provide space at Greenbelt for the relationship building that began at the roundtable.


Sarah Nelson Wright

Wright is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer and educator from the San Francisco Bay Area.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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