Issue of the Week
Printer-friendly page Click here to get a printable version of this article

Arts And Neighbors

by Martha Hostetter and Rebecca Webber

18 March 02

When the American Museum of Natural History announced its plans to build a new planetarium, some of its neighbors did not think happily upon the stars; they fretted about the extra traffic and the noise -- made even worse, they feared, by the addition of a new underground parking garage and an outdoor restaurant.

As the Metropolitan Museum of Art planned to expand in order to show more of their Monets and Manets, Its neighbors were more focused on the clouds of vapor from the museum's new climate-control system. It marred their views of Central Park, they said.

Now Chelsea is slated to become the home of a new Chelsea Art Museum, at 556 West 22nd Street, just next door to the DIA Center for the Arts. It is the turn of the residents of Chelsea, like the residents of the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side before them, to voice doubt and worry about the effect that culture will have on the traffic patterns in their neighborhood.

The noble aims of culture oft conflict, it seems, with the reasonable desires of neighbors for some peace and quiet, and unobstructed views. But, for all their griping, the truth is that most New Yorkers are thrilled at their proximity to art and culture.

"'I live near Lincoln Center' or 'I can see the Statute of Liberty from my place'-- that's how people define their neighborhoods," said Phil Reed, a member of the New York City Council from East Harlem.

And so it was that, late in the year 2000, Reed was incensed to learn that the Museum of the City of New York, located in his neighborhood since 1930, was planning to move out, and move downtown into the newly renovated Tweed Courthouse, just behind City Hall.

"This plan promises nothing less than one community's future being sacrificed to benefit another's," Reed says (See "Corruption Is Not Dead At The Tweed Courthouse"). "The museum defines its neighborhood -- the neighborhood, its museum."


If arts institutions - theaters, concert halls, and especially museums - were seen for the longest time as preservers of culture, nourishing but intimidating, they have evolved in the public mind over the past decade into friendlier and more inviting places. It would be cheeky to compare them to shopping malls, but there are similarities. Museums in particular have added cafes and stores and become stroller-friendly; people meet there, and eat there, go there on dates, to hang out, and, yes, even to shop.

Partly as a result, they became intensely popular, attracting more attendance in the 1990's than ever before. The vastly greater crowds, coupled with flush economic times, inspired plans by almost every major cultural institution in the city -- and several minor ones -- to expand. The building bug hit Lincoln Center, which made plans for a billion-dollar renovation, and the Guggenheim, which envisioned a massive new museum near the South Street Seaport, and the Museum of Modern Art, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Ukrainian MuseumÉ.and so on. (The explosion of movie multiplexes in the city has a different but parallel history. See "When A Multiplex Moves Into The Neighborhood")

Though the events of September 11th caused a sharp drop in tourism and the arrival of economic uncertainty, which threatened many an expansion plan, the last several weeks have seen attendance at cultural institutions returning to pre-September 11 levels. Some of the ambitious expansion plans have been delayed, but many a cultural institution is moving forward.

The growing pains that such plans inflict are often felt most keenly not by the institutions themselves, but by the surrounding neighborhood. Perhaps the starkest example, certainly the most bizarre, is the effort by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to have its next door neighbors kicked out in order to have enough room for all their visitors. The museum would like to turn 99 Orchard, a neighboring building that houses 15 modern apartments and a Chinese restaurant, back into a tenement. Lou Holtzman co-owns the building with Peter Liang, who also runs the Congee Village Chinese restaurant on the first and second floors. The building has been in the Holtzman family since 1910, when the Holtzmans were immigrants to New York. The Congee Village employs 40 to 50, mostly immigrant workers. The Empire State Development Corporation is currently deciding whether or not to condemn the property.

The expansion plans by the Museum of the City of New York were nowhere near as controversial. The project for which the museum was hoping to raise $40 million would have doubled the size of its exhibition space, but without threatening any neighbors. Indeed, community leaders had been pleased with the recent efforts by the museum to form mutually beneficial bonds, such as walking tours of the area and exhibits pegged to the community's history during annual "Celebrate East Harlem" weekends.

But then, suddenly, there was an abrupt change of plans.


East Harlem leaders first heard of the museum's change in plans by reading of them in the newspapers.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been looking to solve a dilemma of his own devising. He had launched a renovation of the Tweed Courthouse, the 1878 landmark building created by the corrupt political boss William Tweed. The renovation costs had ballooned from the original estimate of $36 million to close to $90 million, prompting comparisons to Boss Tweed's own lavish excess.

It was Giuliani's idea to make the renovated Tweed Courthouse the new home for the Museum of the City of New York. With his prompting, the museum's trustees voted unanimously to approve the move. For the museum, the move promised much more exhibition space for its 1.5 million objects, as well as proximity to Wall Street, a potentially lucrative source of funding.

The people of East Harlem were shocked. Debbie Quinones, the head of the local community board's committee on cultural affairs, has organized a campaign against the move. The museum, she says, is one of the biggest attractions in Upper Manhattan, and, if it is not clear that the museum fueled development in the neighborhood, that is partly because the city has not done enough to draw visitors uptown. "Ninety-sixth street is seen as a division," said Quinones, who grew up blocks from the museum and loved visiting its antique dollhouse collection as a girl. "It's a significant cultural barrier that needs a coordinated effort to break down," citing the need, for example, for better maps and signs.

A new mayor, who for weeks had sent signals that the planned move was no longer a done deal, this week announced his plans to move the headquarters for the public school system into the Tweed Courthouse instead. Now it is the museum's turn to argue that it would be good for the neighborhood, in this case the neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, where, the argument goes, the museum will contribute to its economic redevelopment.

Jim Grossman, a spokesman for the museum, argues that museums do well in the kind of mixed-use area around City Hall, with its restaurants, shopping, business, and tourist attractions. He described East Harlem as a mostly residential area, not well suited to what he described as a "citywide" rather than a "neighborhood" institution.


Another neighborhood, an aging industrial area that is turning mostly residential, will be the new home for a citywide, indeed a world-renowned, institution.

In June, the Museum of Modern Art will venture just across the East River to reside in the old Swingline Staple Factory, at 33rd and Queens Blvd in Long Island City, while its midtown space undergoes expansion and renovation. Long Island City is already the home of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, the American Museum of the Moving Image, and the Noguchi and Socrates sculpture gardens. Councilmember Eric Gioia is highly optimistic about the move, which is expected to draw a million more visitors to the community.

"My dream over the next decade is to create a museum mile," he says, adding that the arts are "the first wave in what will be a renaissance on the Queens waterfront."

"There's nothing more enjoyable than walking around a city that we don't live in. But we are much less familiar with exploring our own city," said Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry, who believes that the Queens version of his museum, which will be referred to as MoMA QNS, will offer the opportunity for many New Yorkers and visitors to the city to explore Long Island City.

While limited parking and other amenities are a concern, Lowry imagines that the 10-minute walk between MoMA QNS and its affiliate museum, P.S.1, will be well traveled. More cafes and bars might spring up as a result of MoMA's arrival, he notes, and the area already has "an incredible array of great restaurants."

Long Island City's leaders have been actively promoting their community as an art destination. Every Saturday a free bus, called the Queens Artlink, makes a circuit from MoMA, in Manhattan, to P.S.1, the Noguchi museum, the Socrates Sculpture Park, and the American Museum of the Moving Image. When MoMA moves to Queens, an ad campaign with slogans like "Destination: Queens" and "Follow Your Art," will attempt to draw people across the East River. Rooftop signs will greet travelers on the elevated number-7 train; patterned lights and a sweeping entrance ramp will guide visitors to the museum.

But the changes the art institution brings will not be positive for everyone. There have already been tensions among the residents relating to P.S. 1's Saturday afternoon parties at the museum with DJ music, ample beer, and fans and kiddie pools for cooling off. One area resident has lodged complaints about the noise and about party-goers urinating on the street.

P.S.1 has negotiated an acceptable decibel level for the parties and added more portable toilets. Director Tom Finkelpearl says that the museum has also "tried to invite people inside," offering free admission to all Long Island City residents, hosting community meetings, and initiating educational programs.

It is unknown what long-term effects these cultural institutions will have on the neighborhood, which is still a major manufacturing area, often called "the loading dock of Manhattan."

"The arts lend cachet to an area emerging from an industrial landscape," said Margie Seamon, a commercial realtor in Long Island City, who is on the board of the Business Development Corporation and is a trustee for the Queens Council of Art. "They bring a buzz, more sex appeal, and greater comfort to tenants that arrive here."

Margret Dreikhausen, who founded a local coalition of artists in 1986, has noticed that rents are climbing, that factories are being gutted and converted. But this is not proof to her of anything definitive. "People keep talking about how it's going to develop, like Soho or Tribeca," she says, "but somehow in all these years it has not changed so much."

What nobody in Queens seems to talk about is that the Museum of Modern Art is planning to move back to midtown as soon as the renovations are complete. But the residents of midtown are certainly aware of that. Lowry, the museum's director, said that a series of open houses with community residents revealed concerns not only with the effects of construction in the next few years, but also with the expected increase in attendance (from 1.8 million to 2.5 million a year), and with the entrance. Residents of 53rd Street wanted the museum to move its entrance to 54th Street, so that there would be less traffic on their block. Residents of 54th Street did not want this; what would happen, they asked, when lines formed on the sidewalk or people spilled out late at night? Eventually, Lowry says, they reached what he considers a compromise solution. The museum, when renovations are complete, will have entrances on both streets.


When the Brooklyn Academy of Music unveiled a $500 million plan to transform its Fort Greene neighborhood into a 14-block cultural district, it seemed like the academy had put together a proposal that would enhance life for all area residents.

Just down the street, the Long Island Railroad and Atlantic Avenue subway station were being renovated. Construction of a much-needed shopping area nearby began. And the academy's plan even included a building on Hanson Street set aside for subsidized housing and office space for artists and non-profit organizations.

Still, some residents and business expressed alarm, in part because forums for discussing the plan turned out to be invitation-only affairs, and also because the academy's plans coincided with a sudden increase in real estate prices.

Jonathan Adewumi, the owner of Nigerian Fabrics and Fashions, said his rent on Fulton Street increased 60 percent shortly after the Brooklyn Academy of Music announced its plan. A decade ago, Adewumi said, "black merchants came in and cultivated an organic growth. Before the announcement [of the academy's plan], we made our goal to market ourselves and continue the growth." Now, he says, many shop owners are worried about survival.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music responded to community concern by offering subsidized office space for the Bogolan Merchants Association, an organization of mostly black, small business owners who say they have suffered from the area's rising real estate prices.

"Everybody is concerned about gentrification," said Lee Silberstein, a Brooklyn Academy of Music spokesman. "We want the district to have a look and a feel, but we are not interested in having another Soho where artists were forced out by their own success."


Ironically, it is not only artists forced out of Soho. So are the museums that followed them. The Guggenheim Soho, which opened on Broadway in 1992, closed down several months ago. On the very same block, the Museum for African Art is moving out. Temporarily, in its quest for a larger space, it is moving to Long Island City, next to Queens MoMA and P.S. 1 and all the others.

In a few years, the Museum for African Art hopes to open a permanent site on the corner of 110th Street and Fifth Avenue in East Harlem, attracted, they say, by "the culture of the neighborhood." This is the same neighborhood that the Museum of the City of New York wanted to leave.

Alex Halperin contributed to this report.

1. "New York In The Movies," a photo essay
2. "When A Multiplex Moves Into The Neighborhood"


Read a letter to the editor about this article.

Visit the Issue of the Week archives.
Tell us what you think about this issue. Write a letter to the editor.

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation, the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation’s public education programs.  Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.