On June 1, a block of Troutman Street in Brooklyn was closed off for a party. A raucous band played on a stage set up in the middle of the block while customers waited in line get lunch and frozen lemonade from food trucks. Lots of people strolled about, stood in small groups and browsed staples of New York City street fairs — a stand with skincare products, another with jars of artisanal jams.
What distinguished this from an ordinary block party were the half-dozen people painting on the walls up and down the street. An artist named Fumero stood on a ladder stenciling in background figures above a portrait of a giant baby. Another, Franck Duval, painstakingly painted bricks red and yellow around a central collage of vintage magazines. A young man with the curious moniker of Jerkface put the finishing touches on a colorful mural of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Michelangelo.
This was the annual block party of the Bushwick Collective, a street art project that began with one wall in May 2012 and now covers dozens of properties along Troutman Street, St. Nicholas Avenue and surrounding blocks. About a hundred artists have participated. It’s on the itineraries of two different street-art walks and draws international tourists to the Bushwick neighborhood of northern Brooklyn — a formerly run-down area that even many New Yorkers had never heard of until the past few years. The Collective has been covered by media outlets such as The New York Times, Gothamist and Business Insider, and its images have been shared on social networks around the world.
The rapid growth of the project has taken place in a neighborhood where the pace of change is equally breathless. The much-muraled block of Troutman Street between Wyckoff and St. Nicholas has seen the opening of two fancy bars and a sleek café, where on a recent afternoon two impeccably dressed young women discussed where to stay during next year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Yet the Bushwick Collective isn’t an initiative helmed by gentrifiers or creative professionals. It’s the brainchild of a longtime local, Joe Ficalora, and its existence is intimately tied up with his personal history.
Ficalora’s parents emigrated from Castellammare del Golfo, a small town in Sicily. He was born in Bushwick in 1978. His father, a factory worker, was murdered in 1991 at the corner of Wyckoff and Starr, just a block from the family home. Today a mural of rainbow-hued skeletal hands commemorates the spot. After his father’s death, his aunt and uncle helped his mother raise him.
His uncle and aunt both worked in factories. When they saved a little money, they would buy some metal, which his uncle would use on a small metal job. Ultimately, Ficalora’s uncle built this side job into an ironwork company and finally into a structural steel company, GCM Steel, which Ficalora helps run today.
After the blackout in 1977, the year before Ficalora was born, Bushwick became, in his words, “a ghost town.” After fires were set during the blackout, the neighborhood continued to be plagued by arson for years. According to a New York Times story, three years after the blackout, Bushwick had “lost 20 percent of its housing, a third of its population and nearly half its businesses.”
In this environment, Ficalora’s uncle began buying buildings on Troutman Street, including the one where GCM Steel is located today. He died of an aneurysm in 2006, but his wife, Ficalora’s aunt Giovanna, attends Bushwick Collective events and told me (with a relative occasionally interpreting when she slipped into Italian) that she used to be scared walking back from the factory at night because it wasn’t safe, but appreciates that “now there are many people.”
After Ficalora’s mother died of a brain tumor in 2011, he channeled his feelings of despair into an attempt to beautify his neighborhood. In his youth, the graffiti scrawled on Bushwick’s buildings was a sign of the lawless atmosphere. Kids would spray paint their tags, and if the property owner painted over them, they returned soon enough. A wall couldn’t stay clean for long.
Ficalora had the idea of inviting artists to paint murals on the walls, hoping to create something that no one would have the nerve to come along and mess up. His idea was to offer up walls on properties owned by his family to artists, then convince other local business owners to allow murals on their own walls as well.
Not a large man, but solidly built with short, dark hair, Ficalora immediately comes across as a can-do kind of person — a guy who works through problems and makes things happen. He Googled “street art” and started to learn about it. He emailed some artists, offering walls, and piqued their interest. Pretty soon he had established relationships, and the project grew from there.
Ficalora curates everything himself: meeting with the artists, looking at images of their art, deciding whether it’s right for the Collective and determining where their work will go. The business owners sign paperwork granting permission. Occasionally the owners ask Ficalora for compensation, but the answer is always no. The artists’ work will stay up for anywhere from three months to two years (a few works have been up since the beginning of the initiative). Ficalora says all this is laid out in the contract he signs with each artist, though the artists I spoke to often didn’t pay much attention to the contracts and expected that their work would just last as long as it lasted. In the beginning, Ficalora had to seek out artists himself, but now, people often come to him. He has given explicit directions on the Collective’s Facebook page: “DO NOT show up to the BUSHWICK COLLECTIVE and expect to paint. SEND 3 jpegs of recent work, short bio, and your concept…IF YOU SHOW UP UNANNOUNCED YOU WILL NOT GET A WALL.”
Ficalora launched the project on Mother’s Day 2012. The first annual block party was held that June, and the event has since grown in size and popularity; for its third edition this year, corporate sponsors came on board, including Nooklyn, a real estate company that specializes in rentals for young professionals. This year he also held the first Bushwick Collective Art Show in a space on Troutman Street during the block party weekend. The show featured canvasses by street artists for sale.
When I spoke to Ficalora outside the opening of the show, we were constantly interrupted: by artists coming up to say hello, a local guy Ficalora had to talk to about working the next day, an acquaintance looking for a bathroom, and his aunt, saying something to him in Italian. During the show, the young woman he had hired as an assistant was frequently looking for him because he had the credit card reader on his phone, but he was usually off somewhere, pulled in another direction by someone else. Ficalora says that the growth of the Collective has made it hard for him to handle it on his own, in addition to his day job at the steel company. His goal is to set it up as a non-profit foundation, but it’s expensive to go through the process of acquiring 501(c)(3) status. During a later phone conversation, he said, “The shit grew so fast, and I need money. I’m not going to keep on using my own money.” But even if the collective gets a more formal structure, it’s hard to imagine it without the personal, almost obsessive stamp of Joe Ficalora.
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To say that Ficalora is passionate about the project could be seen as an understatement. At the 2013 block party, an artist who goes by the name Werds (he signs his work No Sleep and also uses the name Optimo NYC) started painting a blank part of a roll-down gate while sitting on his friend’s shoulders without first getting the green light from Ficalora. Someone tipped Ficalora off and he approached Werds angrily: “You didn’t get permission to do this, you know you have to get permission. The owner is a friend of mine and he approves all the art. Take it down! Look at what I did for you! Look at what I did for you!” Werds threw down his spray can in anger, but stopped painting, and the next day the piece had been covered up with black paint.
Many street artists feel that it’s an important part of their practice to continue to put up work that is illegal (or “non-permissional,” as street artist Dan Witz puts it), but many also appreciate the chance to create art in a place where it will be seen by lots of people and last an appreciable length of time. Witz compares working without permission to “turtles laying eggs — fifty percent will be gone in a year.” While he’s O.K. with that, he also enjoys being part of the less ephemeral scene here.
French artist Franck Duval, who signs his work FKDL and has come from France to do walls during the block party three times now, says that he is “honored to be a part of it.” The more prestigious street artists are drawn to the Collective, the more significant it becomes for any artist to be a participant. French street art pioneer Blek Le Rat (a major influence on Banksy) had two pieces in the art show, and Brooklyn street artist Swoon, who currently has an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, put up six wheatpaste works at the Collective this spring. Jerkface, who doesn’t want to reveal his birth name, told me the night of the art show that he earns a living from his art by selling canvases and occasional commissions, and the walls serve as marketing.
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Many local residents appreciate the new life that street art has brought to Bushwick. This part of the neighborhood is a mixture of light industry, some low-income apartment buildings and, lately, new bars and restaurants, as well as a cooperative office space in a former storage business. There are still some sewing factories, and others producing items such as metal, tortillas and 99-cent store merchandise.
Natalie Ballinas, the manager at Northside Tire Company on Scott Avenue, is happy about art coming to the neighborhood. “It’s nice, you see a lot of people taking pictures,” she says. “A lot more people come through the neighborhood, which is good. It used to be dead before.” She’s also glad that new businesses have come to Bushwick. A couple streets away, along neat blocks of brick row houses in the adjacent Ridgewood neighborhood, some Spanish-speaking homeowners expressed approval of what’s happening in the area. “The neighborhood is changing, and they’re not complaining,” the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Freddy Vargas interpreted for her parents. Likewise, Ed Arellano, with a family member interpreting, said that the art is “good for the neighborhood and improving the neighborhood.”
449 Troutman Street is an interesting case study in how the neighborhood is changing. According to neighborhood blog WyckoffHeights.org, the second through fourth floors of this former factory have been used for apartments for years, and the landlord is now seeking to legalize this occupancy using the expanded loft law, which allows commercial spaces to be rented as residential ones. Meanwhile, there is still a sewing factory in the basement: Through windows open to the street (it looks well-ventilated and reasonably comfortable), one can see Chinese women working at their sewing machines. But they may soon be gone, as the ground floor is being marketed as rental spaces for new businesses, with “possible basement use” according to the dedicated website. One of these new businesses is Oliphant Studios, which paints backdrops for photography shoots, and recently moved here from Chelsea.
Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Paper cited real estate industry reports that the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Bushwick is now $2,161, up nearly $500 from last year, the highest increase of any Brooklyn neighborhood. Realtor Massey Knakal is currently trying to sell a multifamily house on St. Nicholas Avenue for $2.3 million, and the listing mentions proximity to “creative art projects like the Bushwick Collective, a massive curated street art initiative.”
Not only is the Bushwick Collective on the radar screen of those in the neighborhood, but it’s also become one of the biggest and most respected hubs for street art in New York City. The only location of comparable scope now is Welling Court in Queens, and many of the same artists have worked at both. Five Pointz, a former factory in Long Island City where a massive street art collection was curated by artist Meres One (whose real name is Jonathan Cohen), was whitewashed by the building’s owner in November 2013. The building is slated for demolition and will be replaced by luxury condos.
Initially there was some rivalry between the two initiatives. The Bushwick Collective was originally called Bushwick Five Points until Cohen persuaded Ficalora to change the name, arguing that it was confusing for the public. Neither Joe Ficalora nor Jonathan Cohen will talk about the name Bushwick Five Points on the record now, but Cohen told me this version of the story in November 2013. At that time, Cohen and Marie Flageul, an event planner who collaborated with Five Pointz, expressed the opinion that since Ficalora is not himself an artist, he is less supportive of new artists, granting walls only to those who are already established. But Cohen has now painted a few walls at the Bushwick Collective himself. At the block party on June 1, Cohen was painting a wall on Troutman Street, and we had this exchange:
“Do you have a good relationship with Joe Ficalora?”
“Joe’s cool, Joe’s cool.”
“I’m asking because before it seemed like you were skeptical of him because he’s not an artist—”
“He’s a real estate developer.”
When I asked Ficalora whether seeking to increase real estate values was a factor in his work with the Collective, he grew very agitated. “Yeah, I’d love to answer that. I don’t own anything, I rent my apartment. I put my own salary into this labor of love…the ones that live here love it. They appreciate what it is now and what the fuck it was before.”
He recalled the crime and emptiness of the neighborhood during his childhood, and that “kids teased you about where you lived — you could spend the night at their house in Middle Village but they couldn’t spend the night at your house ‘cause of where you lived. You deal with that kind of nonsense your whole life — you feel like you’re less than everyone else.” Although Ficalora doesn’t own any property himself, his aunt does own the properties that his uncle bought.
I asked him if he planned on continuing the steel business now that he’s found success in another realm. “We’ve been here thirty, forty years,” he said. “There’s no way we’re going to stop doing that.”
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Many artists, wherever they live, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being seen as perpetrators of gentrification while often feeling victimized by rising rents themselves. Beau Stanton, whose mural has been on Troutman Street for over a year, doesn’t live in Bushwick but has noticed the changes there. “It’s easy to tie that to the Bushwick Collective project, and Bushwick Open Studios also brings a lot of people over there,” Stanton says. (Bushwick Open Studios is an annual event that has grown to include 600 artists this year.) Stanton has seen similar changes in Red Hook, where he lives, and even wondered whether by painting a mural there he would contribute to pricing himself out of his own neighborhood. He decided to go ahead with it and leave his mark. “A lot of artists are very conscious of beautifying what was a blighted area,” Stanton says, but despite the uncertainties, he concluded “the good definitely outweighs the bad.”
Some artists in Bushwick have founded a project called Placeholder to help maintain the affordability of art studios. Their goal is to set the organization up as a non-profit or low-profit entity to buy a building that will be used for below-market rents, specifically for artists’ studios. A restrictive covenant will ensure that the units can only be used as studios and that reasonable rents will be maintained.
When Shawn Gallagher, a member of the group, moved to Bushwick ten years ago, there were still occasional signs of its previous decline, including burned-out cars and packs of wild dogs. He hopes that groups such as Placeholder can find common ground between artists and the community. “People who have been here longer see people like me and it’s hard not to feel like these people are the problem,” says Gallagher. “But it’s not any group of people that are gentrifying; it’s the free market.”
Ultimately, a project like Placeholder, helpful though it may be, will have a limited impact. “At the most, we’ll take one or two buildings off the private market,” says Gallagher. “Prices of property are the greatest hurdle” — he estimates that it will take ten to twenty-five million dollars to buy a building. “We could do this easily in Pittsburgh or Detroit.”
As Joe Ficalora points out, the process of gentrification began way before the Bushwick Collective came on the scene. Drawing on local roots and new attention, the Collective is in the interesting position of being part of both the old Bushwick and the new Bushwick. “Bushwick is special in its own way,” says Ficalora. “I don’t want it to become Williamsburg or Long Island City. I want it to grow and become more beautiful. This neighborhood deserves to be beautiful for the people who suffered through what it used to be. Because before, it sucked.”