Northwest of the bustling Main Streets of Sunset Park, surrounding Bush Terminal, lies what’s known as Industy City. Here there are seemingly endless rows of massive buildings, many of them post-industrial warehouses. They are architectural traces of a bygone era, where maritime trade defined Sunset Park in the early 20th century.
Bush Terminal has an interesting history worth delving into. There are many components to it, and its rise/fall as one of the main industrial ports in New York might hint at key factors that have shaped demographic shifts in Sunset Park in the past several decades. Starting at around the Great Depression, the port’s maritime industry began to wane. The Brooklyn Army Terminal (BAT), also known as the U.S. Army Military Ocean Terminal, was deactivated in the 1970s, as much of the military industry moved south to New Jersey. Formerly serving as the country’s largest military supply base through World World II, BAT reopened as an industrial park in 1987. Despite the spiraling dilapidation of BAT’s piers, something unusual occurred: warehouses remained opened, with 95 percent occupancy. The series of warehouses were eventually bought off by the infamous real estate mogul, Harry Helmsley (yes, the husband of the equally notorious Leona Helmsley). By the 1980s, the warehouses (more than 6.5 million square feet of floor space) housed the highest concentration of garment manufacturing outside of Manhattan, transforming the once bustling port into a toxic dumpsite. By the 1990s, EPA designated Bush Terminal a polluted brownfield.
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Fast-forward almost two decades to 2006: Bush Terminal receives $36 million in state funding (the largest amount of its kind in state history) to clean up the brownfield site. Bush Terminal has become a kind of centerpiece to the larger revitalization effort in Sunset Park (including the Department of Transportation’s proposed waterfront greenway pathway linking Sunset Park to Gowanus). And although this state funding awarded to clean up Bush Terminal’s brownfield is part and parcel to a larger revitalization plan, it is also a distinct project, separate from the SP 197-a plan.
Two years later, in 2008, a Brooklyn-based real-estate developer called Industry City Associates, constructs forty-five studios for the exclusive use of emerging artists. They are rent-controlled, and serve as better (that is, more affordable) alternatives than studio spaces in DUMBO and Red Hook. Artists begin to take notice, and slowly start trickling in. Other art-based projects began to spring up, including Light Industry, an “alternative” (“alternative,” as alternative can be in the great history of alternatives spaces in NYC) venue that holds weekly screenings of both film and electronic art.
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In spring of 2005, two long-time Brooklyn-based artists, Joseph and Audrey Frank Anastasi, decide to open a small gallery space on 48th Street (south of Bush Terminal) called Tabla Rasa. Today, it remains one of two gallery spaces in Sunset Park (as listed in Brooklyn’s WAGMAG). Both owners/curators also work as artists, as Joseph renders unusual sculptural shapes/scapes from various “found” material, from books, tape measurers, and wood; Audrey paints. Both also have had various professional ties to Brooklyn for years: prior to the opening of this sprawling second-story gallery space, Joseph ran a photography business out of the same space (1986), while Audrey, a Masters graduate of Pratt Institute’s Fine Arts Program, served as the President of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC), from 1999-2004.
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I visit Tabla Rasa late in the day; it is already dark outside, at around quarter past 5. Audrey buzzes me in, and gives me a walking tour of the gallery space (with brief introductions to the current exhibits), before retreating to the back work space (where she and Joseph is working, while I slowly roam the two exhibit rooms).
After about twenty minutes or so, I mosey on towards the back studio space (the pair share a large working space, packed with canvases, towards the back of the gallery), to a small corner office where Joseph is fiddling with some images on Photoshop.
During our conversation, Joseph asks me: “What’s the first thing you do when you go to an art gallery in Soho?” The implication is that most Manhattan-based (i.e., SoHo and Chelsea) art galleries retain a certain amount of distance and coldness; these spaces are really meant to be visited by certain people. As Joseph explains, neither he nor Audrey were interested in creating that kind of exhibition space: “We wanted to create an approachable gallery, where people actually felt welcomed to ask questions and explore. We’re not an art gallery space meant to encourage silence; we want people to actually discuss the art that they’re viewing.”
Despite its relative geographic isolation (located amidst looming, post-industrial warehouses, but not more than a seven to eight minute walk from the R), both Joseph and Audrey emphasize that Tabla Rasa has retained consistent support (with a steady stream of visitors and strong reviews from various art mags). The gallery is regularly solicited by artists, and most often, the pair will make field visits and curate the shows themselves. The space shows four to five exhibits a year (mostly group exhibits; solos are rare, although both current exhibits are solo), from artists who are both emerging and in mid-career.
The current solo shows at Tabla Rasa exhibit two artists who have retained strong ties to the Brooklyn community: the first room is taken up bright swirling paintings of Danny Simmons (an abstract painter, and brother to Russell Simmons and rapper Joseph Simmons — a.k.a.”Reverend Run” of Run DMC), and photographs by Thomas Roma (who currently serves as the Director of Photography at Columbia University’s School of the Arts). Roma’s exhibit, entitled “Dear Knights and Dark Horses,” acts in stark contrast to Simmons’ paintings. Rather than jumping out of the walls (as Simmons’ brightly painted paintings do), the black and white photos haunt, with the faces of nameless American soldiers posing for the camera on the eve of their deployment (to Iraq, and possibly, Afghanistan).
In a recent conversation with the editor of Sunset Park Chronicled (and in the midst of delving into the complex details of SP’s 197-a plan), Lisa points out what I think will be key advice: “Think about the different interests working here—public and private, community and business—and how they might overlap, or clash. I don’t think this is cut and dry gentrification.”
The revitalization of Bush Terminal, which also helped catalyze the current burgeoning artist community in Sunset Park, adds another complicated facet to all the various changes occurring in Sunset Park. I’m curious: how will the art community develop further into the revitalization process? What kinds of cultural and social dynamics will arise out of the co-mingling? Will artists also draw upon the changing dynamics of the neighborhood, and what ways will they make their presence known outside of Industry City?