Paradise Lost? Artists Fear a Gentrified Gowanus

How do you solve a problem like Gowanus? On the one hand, it’s an oddly quiet valley of low buildings and big skies between Park Slope and Carroll  Gardens, where pedestrian bridges cut across a winding canal. On the other hand, it’s a fetid, carcinogenic cesspool that’s proven resistant to nearly 100 years of attempted detox. If you squint, it could be Amsterdam. If you inhale, it’s Love  Canal.  

But like the last debutante at the ball, Gowanus is starting to attract some suitors it doesn’t really deserve: Whole Foods is building a sprawling, two-acre complex within smelling distance of the canal; a 106-room Comfort Inn will soon open amid the empty lots and auto-repair shops; and developers like Toll Brothers and Shaya Boymelgreen are buying up land around the waterway with dreams of luxury high-rises.

All of which has Dana Matthews in a state.

Ms. Matthews, a photographer who rents 3,000 square feet of studio space above an industrial Laundromat, likes her Gowanus gritty—and affordable. So she’s proposing some new rules: Make Gowanus a specially zoned “Artists’ District,” where painters, sculptors, musicians, et al. would be free to get their art on without sweating the rent.

More than a thousand artists like Ms. Matthews have quietly established a thriving little community in Gowanus over the past 10 to 15 years, and her idea has become a topic of conversation. As they tell it, after being priced out of Soho, Chelsea, Dumbo and Williamsburg, the artists are finally entitled to a homeland.

“Artists don’t succeed because they have to keep moving,” said Ms. Matthews, seated between two half-finished instillation pieces in her second-floor studio. “We settle a dangerous neighborhood and make it attractive [to developers], and then soon we get priced out. There’s no way to stop it unless we have a place to stay.”

To Ms. Matthews, Gowanus is an artists’ paradise: “It’s raw, it’s dirty. There’s a soul here; we’ve been thriving here for 15 years with the toxicity.

“Nobody’s opposed to making it a better neighborhood—just give us a couple of buildings,” she added. “Let us stay.”

Ms. Matthews and her partner, Kris Kohler, a union rep for the Mason Tenders District Council (with whom Ms. Matthews shares a duplex in a Park Slope townhouse and a 5-year-old son), are drawing up a proposal loosely modeled on Manhattan’s garment district. Ms. Kohler has even enlisted a co-worker, Mike Maguire, to lobby the city; Mr. Maguire claims to be having “informal conversations” with several officials. Their yellow leaflets, “GOWANUS ARTISTS and CRAFTSPEOPLE at RISK,” blanket the area’s studios.

Progress, however, is relative.

A spokesperson with the city Planning Commission hadn’t heard of the plan, but offered encouragement. And a spokesperson for Toll Brothers said by e-mail that it’s “anxiously awaiting the City Planning’s framework,” but until then couldn’t comment. Whole Foods likewise declined to weigh in, although it did volunteer documents showing how it’s cooperating with the Department of Conservation’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.

Still, the artists’ idea has precedent. In 2004, Jersey City created a protected artists’ zone in its historic warehouse district dubbed the Powerhouse Arts District. And Ms. Matthews isn’t the only one willing to point out that New York, the alleged artistic capital of the U.S., is behind New Jersey on this one.

Indeed, she has some passionate people on her side. Take Laurie Sheridan, a mixed-media artist with a head of celebratory red hair, sneakers to match, and half of an approximately 300-square-foot studio directly below a gothic stretch of F train that runs above Ninth Street.

“It’s a selfish point of view, but I’d like the area to stay as is so I can stay,” said Ms. Sheridan, presenting a stack of documents listing known contaminants in the area (PCB’s, mercury, benzene, something called vinyl chloride).

And it’s not all about her: Ms. Sheridan, a veteran of the East Village and Chelsea gentrifications, speaks with genuine heartbreak about the poor families who’ve been displaced over the years as she and other artists have made their neighborhoods safe for development.

Of course, like Soho and Chelsea before them, Gowanus has its share of financially savvy—or trust-fund-enabled—artists who have bought their studios. Whether or not the city chooses to intervene, this less-vocal minority will remain—unless they choose to cash out.

Claire Weissberg, a tall, willowy ceramics artist, owns 1,500 feet of studio space just four blocks north of the Whole Foods site, in a building purchased by a handful of artists several years ago. She operates it as a storefront called Claireware, with vibrant purple awnings that stick out on Union Street like a heap of wild orchids in a landfill.

“If we didn’t own, we’d probably be out there protesting, too,” she told The Observer apologetically. “But if the area goes residential, our worth will double.”