On Nov. 1, artist Julio Valdez opened five new studio spaces in a renovated building in East Harlem. He will rent the units, which occupy two floors of what used to be a ministry building as workspace to artists from around New York City.
He will open five more units in the same building on Dec. 1, when remodeling is completed.
Valdez wants to encourage artists to create and exhibit their work in El Barrio, to honor the history of the neighborhood and to keep the spirit of community alive.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to keep artists in Manhattan,” Valdez said.
Forces of gentrification have been bearing down on East Harlem (known as El Barrio among Latinos, the dominant population there) for many years. The area has long been a hub for the arts in New York, especially for artists of Hispanic background. But, as rent rises, many in the community feel artists are being pushed out.
“When you have a cluster of artists, I think spiritually it’s important for the neighborhood to have creative beings that are sensitive to what is happening,” Valdez said. Artists are able to express “a particular feeling, a particular mood about the neighborhood.”
To those working in creative fields, and often independently employed, the changing nature of the neighborhood means slim prospects for working and living in the area.
In recent years, there has been much analysis of soaring rents and an influx of more affluent residents to the area. Rental and
broker services capitalize on the development of luxury condos and apartment buildings to sell prospective buyers on the neighborhood. A Community Service Society report this summer showed that El Barrio experienced a rise in rent prices between 15 and 30 percent — less than the areas to the north and west (which followed Central Harlem’s trend of a greater than 50 percent increase), but more than the areas to the south (which showed rent increases of less than 15 percent).
“There’s only so many spots that are still somewhat affordable for artists,” said Carlos Lopez, a painter who rents studio space from Valdez and gallery space on 106th Street. There are two studio spaces at this location, which Valdez has made available to artists since the early 2000s.
In addition to the 10 studios at 118th Street and 3rd Avenue to open in November, Valdez is converting another facility, near 108th and 3rd, into smaller studio space and a frame shop, to open this winter.
“There’s not a lot of spaces that are affordable,” he said. “That’s why they had to be created.”
Valdez said that it takes funding, time and dedication to take a space from a decrepit mess (as all his studios have started) to a renovated, well-resourced facility where artists can make a home for their work. Valdez funds this endeavor through his own savings and loans from investors and friends.
He said he found artists to rent the spaces through his own network and through advertising with local listings, such as Stephanie Diamond’s The Listings Project. The 10 units in the 118th Street building have been rented out for the coming year, but as of early November, he still had space at the 108th Street location.
Pepe Coronado, a printmaker renting two of the new studios at the 118th Street location, has a vision for New York’s artist community similar to Valdez’s. Coronado recently moved both his apartment and his studio space from outside the city, close to Westchester, into Manhattan.
“I’m not chasing the art market,” he said, “I’m chasing the community environment.”
He means he didn’t look for space in typical arts hubs of the city like SoHo or Chelsea. Instead, he was interested in traditionally Latino communities like Washington Heights and El Barrio. As part of a Dominican artists’ collaborative based in the Heights, Coronado’s ultimate goal is to develop community studio space in Northern Manhattan. At the moment, however, East Harlem is the only area he has found that has affordability, accessibility and an established community on its side.
To set up a space like Valdez is doing, “You need money and you need luck,” Coronado said.
In Washington Heights, there is very little industrial space than can be turned into studios, he added, and landlords are not receptive to artists renting and converting units. Coronado is hopeful the culture will shift, with the help of politicians and the business community.
He said he hoped that Valdez’s model can be applied to the Heights: “Grabbing a couple floors and opening them to artists.”
These studios are still affordable for professional artists, he believes. The going rate for Valdez’s smaller units is $600 a month, while the larger studios are going for about $1,200 a month. Valdez believes these rates are comparable to those in Long Island City or Brooklyn — much cheaper than lower Manhattan rates but just as convenient a location, Valdez said. As rents continue to spike, communities will need more entrepreneurship and cooperation from building owners if they are to keep artists in the area.
“The main thing that we need is studio space,” Valdez said. “Without space to make the artwork, there’s nothing to see, there’s nothing to write about. There’s nothing else.”