The Beauty (and Limitations) of El Barrio’s Artspace PS109

Artspace PS109, on East 99th Street. Photo: Christopher Lopez

Buried in the litany of hopeful goals that Bill de Blasio reeled off at the State of the City speech this week was an unexpected pledge: 1,500 new units of affordable housing earmarked for artists, to be rolled out over ten years. That tiny piece of the mayor’s gargantuan housing scheme jumped out because artists in New York have a long history of unsubsidized suffering — and of turning their hovels into real-estate gold. Progressives might reasonably ask why these avatars of gentrification should get priority over other culturally essential but underpaid groups, like teachers (or, hey, journalists). The announcement also resonated because, like a number of de Blasio’s purportedly radical initiatives, it springs from a program seeded during the Bloomberg years. 

The obvious prototype is El Barrio’s Artspace PS109, a collection of artists’ studios in East Harlem that, after a decade in gestation, has just started to welcome its first tenants. The magnificently dour neo-Gothic palace, built in 1898 on a wave of idealism about public education, is a flamboyant presence on East 99th Street. With its steeply pitched roofs, gargoyle spouts, Tudor arches, and copper-roofed turrets, the five-story château looked more like a venerable university than a Manhattan high school. But the building had trouble adapting to the 20th century, and the Department of Education let it degrade, finally abandoning its leaky husk in the 1990s. The windows were boarded, ornaments stripped and stashed in the basement. The pocked façade went sallow. Rainwater ate away its guts. 

After Artspace’s renovation, carried out by Hamilton Houston Lownie and Victor Morales, the building shed its menacing glower. Cleaning has revealed a confection of pale brick and cream-colored terra-cotta. Inside, the school’s high ceilings, vast windows, and salvaged molding transform institutional decay into architectural distinction and make the apartments luxurious by the standards of most affordable housing (and a lot of market-rate housing, too). One quirky studio, meagerly illuminated by skylights, has a double-height niche beneath a circular turret, perfect for a 20-foot statue. Residents have started hanging their work in the tropical-colored hallways, creating the feeling of an art-school dorm. Soon they’ll start mounting shows in the generous ground-floor gallery.

The result is an uptown, younger version of Westbeth, the artists’ residence that the architect Richard Meier carved out of the old Bell Labs in the late 1960s and that has aged into a (now somewhat seedy) naturally occurring retirement community. Looking around at the temporarily pristine, half-occupied building, it’s hard to decide whether to consider PS109 an incubator of gentrification or a barrier against market forces — or both. Combining affordable housing with historic preservation is a fine idea, but it’s also an expensive way to make life cheap for a miniscule number of New Yorkers. The $52 million construction budget, more than 90 percent of which was paid for by a medley of federal, state, and city funds, comes out to $580,000 per household. (Subsidized rents will cover the maintenance.) At that rate, keeping artists in New York is a civic luxury.)

Knock on a door, though, and you can practically inhale the optimism. Peter Marcel and his wife Gianni Hamilton, both fashion designers, haven’t yet unpacked, so their not-quite-3-year-old daughter Queen and a pair of black kittens prowl among the moving boxes. Marcel displays his latest creation, a marijuana-themed, orange-and-black varsity jacket for a fictional team called the “Dealers.” The family literally dances with elation at having moved out of an overcrowded house in Forest Hills and into the two-bedroom apartment for which they pay just $1,022.

I’m just sitting in the bath looking up at the 18-foot ceiling and filling the tub with water that’s consistently warm,” Marcel says. “And I’m thinking … Yeah!

The Beauty (and Limitations) of Artspace PS109