When art came for Downtown Brooklyn

Mike Boyle
Mar 23, 2013 2:52PM

For the longest time, Downtown Brooklyn seemed like the one area of New York that -- for better or for worse -- would never be gentrified. It was the sort of place where visitors ended up only because they'd been called for jury duty or had gotten very lost. For years and years, the fly-by-night electronics shops, wig emporiums, driving schools, encyclopedic sneaker shops, trinket wholesalers, dollar stores, sidewalk incense and mix tape vendors, and greasy spoons of questionable sanitation that had long ago been driven out of core Manhattan were alive and thriving in the blocks around Fulton Street.

The first clear sign that even Downtown was going to succumb to greater forces in the real-estate market was the appearance of public art. At first there was talk and no art: after Michael Jackson's death in 2009, plans were floated to rename the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station after the pop star (parts of the Martin Scorcese-directed "Bad" video were shot in the station) and erect a huge MJ mural on Hoyt Street. Neither actually happened. But around the same time, and seemingly overnight, a series of catchy and attractive murals by artist Steve Powers popped up all over the neighborhood: running wild along the ramps of parking garages, over storefronts, over brick walls of seemingly abandoned or derelict buildings. 

This was followed by the short-lived hipster mecca Dekalb Market -- a vacant lot full of shipping containers repurposed as artisan boutiques, organic farms, and hip pop-up restaurants that also put on concerts by DJs and bands that none of us were cool enough to know about. But in an ominous sign of things to come, the market was torn down this fall to make way for a Century 21.

At the same time, developers were putting up luxury condo towers, some with artistic pretensions of their own such as Toren (shown here in Frank Webster's 2009 painting). And then suddenly there was a Shake Shack on Fulton Street. Who put that there, and why?

I think Webster's paintings on Artsy nicely capture the ambivalence that many of us feel about these changes. There is "progress," but who will benefit and who will suffer? And won't any of us miss the old, gritty, chaotic Downtown even just a little bit? I know I will.

Mike Boyle