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Culture town hall focuses on real estate forcing out LIC artists

By Bill Parry

The first ever Long Island City Cultural Town Hall Meeting was expected to be a forum on the “Sunbather” sculpture, a controversial piece of publicly funded art that has roiled Community Board 2 in recent months. Instead, the eight-foot-long pink statue, and its impending installation on Jackson Avenue, were barely mentioned.

The several hundred people in the standing-room-only crowd at MoMA PS1 March 18 were more worried about affordable housing and studio space for artists. Speaker after speaker addressed City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), who hosted the event, and his guest Tom Finkelpearl, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, with their concerns about the art community being forced out of the neighborhood by the real estate boom.

“Rockrose is eating up the neighborhood and hundreds are being pushed out,” Zoe Morsette, a 32-year Long Island City resident said of the developers that are transforming the Court Square neighborhood. The sole owner of a business that makes sculptures and props for films, television shows and Broadway, Morsette has been driven out of other neighborhoods that have been gentrified such as the East Village, SoHo and Dumbo.

“I don’t know how Dumbo still has an art festival — there are no artists left,” she said. “And if things don’t change really soon we won’t have an LIC Arts Open because all the artists will be gone.”

The annual arts festival, scheduled for May 13-17 this year, draws thousands of visitors to western Queens for events and exhibitions in more than 50 venues. Last year over 160 artists opened their studios to the public.

“There won’t be anymore studios in LIC,” Morsette said. “There are people in my building that have had their rents increased 40 percent. We need a dedicated arts district in this neighborhood.”

Van Bramer said he could not agree more.

“We’ve got to make sure these places exist,” he said before explaining proposed legislation that would outline the city’s first comprehensive cultural plan, which is still being developed and would be introduced in the City Council within a few months.

“Western Queens is the epicenter of Mayor de Blasio’s future plans and what we face is a very big, big deal,” Van Bramer said. “This administration is attempting rezoning and that is where our leverage comes into play.”

Finkelpearl, who as an artist lived and worked in an LIC loft beginning in 1979, said, “It was very dangerous, but it was a city where an artist could survive. We hear the kinds of issues with staying in New York City and staying alive as an artist. This is a great concern, Without you, without artists, without the creativity that’s represented in this room, New York is just not the great city that we all love. We’re here because of the spirit.”

One man in the audience said that he had come from Manhattan to listen to Finkelpearl and Van Bramer, whom he likened to former NBA stars “Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen” on city culture.

“We’ve been called a lot of names, but never that before,” Van Bramer said before turning serious. “Tom and I work together and fight for the cultural community every day. We want the cultural community to know that they have champions fighting for them.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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