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Sunset Park Industrial Stronghold Spurs Neighborhood Change

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of an ongoing series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits Sunset Park's Industry City complex.

[At the century old warehouses of Industry City, the intersection of art, industry and real estate is changing Sunset Park. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

With 6.5 million square feet of space, Industry City is one of the last industrial strongholds in New York City. Wandering through this vast 17-building complex in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, reveals a healthy mix of manufacturers and small businesses. Printing presses, paper companies and flavor producers share space with a growing number of artists' studios and small business incubators. In the last few months, however, the new owners of these buildings have focused on bringing in a different crowd, hosting film screenings, fashion parties, and art shows in a newly renovated space populated by coffee & tea shops. Talking with those who live and work in Sunset Park, it becomes clear that the neighborhood is changing quickly, and that Industry City is helping to spur that change.

"Five or ten years ago this neighborhood was a hole. And now it's gentrifying quite rapidly," said Gary Oshust, the owner of SPark Workshop, which leases a 10,000-square-foot space in Industry City. With 16 studios, a gallery, and a communal woodworking shop, SPark was created by Oshust to be "a space for people who want to do loud, creative work." He hopes his new landlords will continue to support that mission. Industry City was bought by a consortium of several businesses in August, and the new owners have begun to remodel many spaces in these century-old warehouses. "We're all a little excited and nervous to see what they might do," said Oshust. "We don't know if they are going to upscale all this and kick us out."

After taking over Industry City this summer, its new owners have curated a nonstop series of events which began with Rooftop Films presenting four screenings on a pair of roofs. "We were wondering about how difficult it would be to get people out there. There's not a lot of arts events that have been in Sunset Park," said Dan Nuxoll, program director of Rooftop Films. "We had over 300 people for every screening. It was 500 on a couple nights. So the attendance was fantastic." These screenings were followed by an even larger event in the Fall, when the exhibit "Come Together: Surviving Sandy" brought close to 80,000 visitors out to these once-quiet cobblestone streets.

"Gentrification is an old New York story. I am not interested in those politics. I'm interested in art."—Phong Bui, curator of "Come Together"

According to many art critics, "Come Together" was a glowing success for Industry City. The Times called it "a sprawling, encompassing, inspiring exhibition," while New York Magazine named it the best art show of 2013. But not everyone was enthusiastic about the new attention being brought to Sunset Park. Paddy Johnson, the editor of Art F City and the arts editor for L Magazine, wrote two negative pieces about "Come Together," including a scathing opinion piece in the Times highlighting the fact that 100 artists had lost their studio spaces prior to the exhibit due to rent increases by the new landlords.

"You know, the thing that really burns me about this is that it's worked," said Johnson. "It seems like they would like the market to rise so they can collect more rent and make more money… They want more exposure." For Johnson, Industry City is just part of the larger problem of New York City neighborhoods becoming increasingly unaffordable for artists, leading to a homogeneous cultural life. But for Phong Bui, the curator of "Come Together," these issues were not the focus. "Gentrification is an old New York story. I am not interested in those politics. I'm interested in art," said Bui. "I was not here to negotiate real estate value with Industry City. It's good for their business and in return I get to do the show." What all of this attention will mean for the diverse residential areas of Sunset Park has yet to be determined, but these changes along the industrial waterfront may amplify the wave of gentrification that is threatening to engulf the larger neighborhood.

The crumbling warehouses of Industry City are currently being renovated by their new owners. Many of the buildings have suffered from years of neglect, with last year's storm damage adding to existing problems.

This rooftop was used over the summer for several screenings. "Those buildings are amazing," said Dan Nuxoll of Rooftop Films. "I assumed that people, once they got out there, would really enjoy the space and they did."

A variety of businesses are stacked inside Industry City's warehouses. Dan Nuxoll compares it to Dumbo 20 years ago, "an area that no one thought of as being a place you went to ever for anything. It was just this sort of underutilized industrial area that was kind of shady and foreboding."

Many of the buildings' spaces are empty or are being renovated, awaiting new tenants. "Obviously there is always the potential outward expansion of gentrification," said Dan Nuxoll. "Certainly that is something that is coming to Sunset Park to some degree."

In the meantime, many older industrial businesses in the neighborhood are still operating. The largest and oldest manufacturing tenant in Industry City, Virginia Dare, recently renewed its lease, according to Crain's, and will add another 30 employees to the 170 already working for the company in the complex.

The SPark Workshop at Industry City is one of several newer businesses in Sunset Park. "We opened a little over a year ago and we're pretty successful so far," said Gary Oshust. "I think that the need for what we are doing is there."

Almost half of Oshust's spaces are rented out to woodworkers, including Collado Crafted, which launched a line of handmade end-grain sustainably harvested and locally sourced cutting boards in November. 

Several of the interior spaces of Industry City have recently been remodeled. "Tenants are excited to see the investments that we're making in the buildings," Andrew Kimball, the new CEO of Industry City, recently told Crain's. "You see it every day with elevators that are being worked on, the facade restoration going on, and with lots of tenants working on their spaces. There's a real energy."

On upper floors, several empty spaces are now for rent. "There's no one in there. So these spaces have been sitting empty since we left," said Tamara Zahaykevich, who had to leave her Industry City studio in July after a 50 percent rent increase. "There's really no reason for them to push us out, other than they are trying to set a precedent for a very, very high price per square foot."

"I think the goal is that they want to appear to be really cool and really hip, and to try and attract people with more money," said Zahaykevich. "Because I think they want to rent their spaces to people who are part of this slick New York that Manhattan has become."

In one ground floor space, several food businesses have opened up shop. "The transformation that happened over the course of a year—it's amazing," said Chantha Uy, co-owner of the Ninja Bubble Tea shop, which opened in October. "It was empty space."

Ninja's neighbors form a small food court, and include Blue Marble Ice Cream and Colson Patisserie, which opened a bakery and espresso bar earlier in 2013. "That's why we moved to Industry City—the arts scene," said Uy. "Everyone is feeding off of everybody and we love it."

Down the hall from the food shops, one of the most prominent works at the exhibit "Come Together" presented a grim view of the city, with two inflatable scab rats looking out over a diminished urban landscape. It was created by the Bruce High Quality Foundation, a collective of Industry City artists.

"Gentrification is a gradual process that none of us can stop," said Phong Bui, the exhibits curator and the publisher of the Brooklyn Rail. "Artists always go to places where there is cheap rent. They pioneer neighborhoods, whether it is SoHo, Tribeca, etc."

Bui's office was located in a large second floor space during the run of the exhibit. His previous workspace in Greenpoint was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. "My studio was destroyed. 25 years of work was destroyed," said Bui. "Doing this show was a good way to heal from that process."

Meanwhile, on the streets outside Industry City, the destruction of several old industrial structures is underway, to make way for new development projects and businesses that are coming to the waterfront.

Liberty View Industrial Plaza, an eight-story, 1.2 million-square-foot warehouse workspace, will soon open next door to Industry City. It advertises Sunset Park as "a walk-to-work neighborhood."

"I've been in New York since I was 26 and find that its getting harder to live here," said Tamara Zahaykevich, who lives in Sunset Park and is now in her 40s. "Now I have to work more jobs, and my rents are going up all the time. My studio rent goes up every year, my home rent went up 11 percent. I don't know if I am going to be able to stay here next year."
—Nathan Kensinger
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