Queens Modern

Photo: Pak Fung Wong

“This is not Archie Bunker land,” says Rochelle Slovin. “MOMA moving to Long Island City proves that Queens is cultural.”

Slovin, founder-director of the American Museum of the Moving Image, is only one of the Long Island City pioneers who are welcoming the Museum of Modern Art and its institutional muscle into their neighborhood. “Long Island City is actually closer to a lot of Manhattan than Chelsea is,” adds P.S.1 founder Alanna Heiss. “It’s such a short distance from Times Square that you can hardly draw your breath.”

Welcome to – they hope – New York’s newest destination neighborhood, one rebranded not with bars and artists’ lofts (like Williamsburg) or bistros and baby carriages (like Cobble Hill) but with art and culture. Long Island City – home of P.S.1, the American Museum of the Moving Image, the Noguchi Museum, and the Socrates Sculpture Park – has long been selling itself as the eastern counterpoint to Chelsea, with more space, more light, and less glamour. So what if it’s on the other side of the river?

But the argument is taking on new force with the June 29 arrival of the museum-in-exile version of MOMA, which is taking over a former Swingline stapler factory that’s being referred to as the “big blue box.” And it’s bringing a constellation of other high-rent refugees with it: The SculptureCenter, another longtime Upper East Side resident, acquired a space in Queens last fall and has hired architect Maya Lin to renovate it. A chic new building, with room for three galleries, has opened blocks from P.S.1. The Julia Roberts–produced television series Queens Supreme is set to be filmed at LIC’s 1908 courthouse (Sex and the City and The Sopranos are already shot at the nearby Silvercup Studios). A few Manhattan-style restaurants have begun to appear, intermixed with the area’s cherished Italian spots. And rents have begun their inexorable rise.

“There’s a point where the sound on your stereo goes from being barely audible to very loud,” Slovin says. “MOMA’s move has turned up the volume.”

MOMA may have brought its own spotlight – the museum is planning a major marketing campaign for itself as well as for the whole concept of an artsy Saturday in Queens – but Long Island City is one of those neighborhoods whose moment has arrived over and over again. First when Heiss opened P.S.1 in 1971, then when quiche was sighted in 1985 (an event considered worthy of a tongue-in-cheek New York Times neighborhood profile), and again when the Citicorp Building was built in 1986.

But the landscape hasn’t changed much. It’s still a sprawling terrain of gritty avenues populated with factories and row houses inhabited by middle-class families – historically Italian and Irish, now Indian and Hispanic. Even though MOMA is technically moving to the same neighborhood as partner P.S.1, you’ll still need a car, a bike, or the No. 7 train to get from one to the other.

P.S.1, at five stories, is one of the tallest structures in the triangle known as Hunters Point. The area is a mix of small-scale brick and stone buildings, old and new, and is bisected by Vernon Boulevard, the main commercial strip. Adjacent garages have been converted into rental apartments, offices, and the occasional artist’s studio. But the mood of the neighborhood is still small-town; the local brick-oven pizzeria, Manetta’s, keeps a list of people who are looking for apartments.

Across the Sunnyside rail yards from P.S.1, MOMA’s new neighborhood is anything but homey. Block after block of blank, earth-tone boxes contain envelope factories, vitamin manufacturers, auto-body shops, and, it’s rumored, T-shirt sweatshops. Signs of artistic life tend to take the form of color: the red Soho-style façade of brand-new bistro Tournesol, the Noguchi Museum’s safety-orange banner, the riot of (permit-required) graffiti on the New York Center for Media Arts. And, of course, MOMA’s brilliant blue stucco, a reference to Swingline’s original azure brick.

Artists have been here all along, arriving not in waves but singly, drawn by the area’s factory buildings, proximity to Manhattan, and abundant light. Many aren’t residents but commuters. Maria Iosifescu, an art restorer and photographer, moved her studio from a Tribeca loft (which is now a luxury condo) to LIC with a group of artist friends. They pooled their money and renovated half a floor of a still-functioning manufacturing building; each spring and fall, they try to put on an open house, papering the hallways with renderings of their incredible Manhattan view.

Andrew Miller, referred by a painter friend moving to California, runs his L.I.C.K. Ltd. Fine Art gallery from a four-story concrete loft building that’s half art, half industry. The trophy manufacturers on the third floor have been happy to make him assorted plaques and signs over the years; the resident writer on the fourth floor lends his extra square-footage to guest curators to mount their own shows.

Sculptor Joel Shapiro, whose last exhibit was on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum, has recently purchased a building just south of the Queensboro Bridge. A former power plant, the brick structure will provide 22,000 square feet of studio space for Shapiro and his wife, painter Ellen Phelan. “It has this nice raw quality,” he says of the area. His next-door neighbor is a machine shop, which can come in handy for a sculptor who works in metal. “It feels fresh because it is not about retail, which is what everything in Soho is like.”

It’s that raw quality – and the attendant low rents – that drew MOMA there in the first place. At the time, before the P.S.1 merger, MOMA was just looking for long-term storage not too far from 53rd Street. But after it realized it would have to close the original MOMA, all that empty, high-ceilinged space began to look less like a warehouse and more like a gallery.

For three years, as the museum expands and revamps its midtown location, collection highlights like Warhol’s Marilyn, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night will be on display only in Queens. This summer, it will also display its entire car collection, in a show called “AUTObodies,” along with vroomy art. (This would seem awfully Guggenheim-like, were it not for the fact that MOMA was the first museum – ever – to have a car exhibition, in 1951.) It’s also programmed a nod to its new home: Rudy Burckhardt’s early-forties photographs of then-exotic Astoria.

If the Demoiselles alone isn’t enough of a draw, February 2003 will bring the blockbuster-to-end-all-blockbusters: “Matisse Picasso,” a show juxtaposing masterpieces by the two beloved modernists. That’s the kind of show art lovers travel to Washington or Chicago for – or even western Massachusetts, where the Mass moca showcases contemporary art in a similar warehouse-grand space. Queens, however, is only a subway ride away.

“We draw these very arbitrary distinctions of ‘You have to cross a river, you’ve got to cross a bridge,’ ” MOMA director Glenn Lowry says. “It gets exploded: People on the East Side think going to the West Side is far away, and people on the West Side think Chelsea is far away. It is all psychological. None of this is far away by L.A. standards.” The tough, pared-down architecture of the MOMA space also recalls another famous contemporary-art venue – Frank Gehry’s renovated police-car garage for the Los Angles moca. MOMA, no fool, hired Los Angeles–based Michael Maltzan, a former Gehry employee, to design the new outpost’s public spaces. (The rest of the facility has been designed by Scott Newman of Cooper, Robertson & Partners.)

To get over the psychological barrier, one might start calling the whole area QNS – that’s how Lowry suggests people might refer to his museum’s temporary quarters, and early adopters like the Noguchi’s Amy Hau have already picked it up. “Being close physically to QNS is certainly a nice plus,” she says of her museum’s temporary move to a serene loft space four blocks from the big blue box. The Noguchi’s newly renovated building (complete with working clock tower) is turning into a mini-museum itself: The Museum for African Art will move into the floor above the Noguchi in September, decamping from Soho while its permanent home, designed by Columbia architecture dean Bernard Tschumi and architect Yolanda Daniels, takes shape at Fifth Avenue and 110th Street. Daniels is also designing its loftlike LIC space, whose layout is identical to the Noguchi’s. “We really very purposefully selected Long Island City,” says deputy director Anne Stark. “It is a very exciting new destination for culture, and a great opportunity for collaboration with other arts institutions. We’re a little on our own down here in Soho. It is not the art destination it once was.”

The SculptureCenter, an exhibition and education organization, is banking that the architecture of Maya Lin – whom it’s hired to transform its Purves Street factory – will help to draw visitors. Director Mary Ceruti looked in Dumbo, near BAM, and in Chelsea before settling on Long Island City. “None have this combination of accessibility and mutually supportive organizations,” she says. Although SculptureCenter isn’t opening until the fall, it will greet MOMA’s arrival with a witty curbside installation by Nina Katchadourian: a flock of three specially marked cars, outfitted with oversensitive alarms that play birdsongs when touched.

If people won’t get on the subway or take advantage of the free Artlink bus service – which was started last summer and travels from what we now might call MOMA Manhattan to MOMA QNS, with a loop to AMMI, Noguchi, P.S.1, etc. – those at MOMA claim they aren’t worried. “As the French say, tant pis,” Lowry remarks with a smile. Lowry has said he expects attendance to be about 400,000 people (last year, it drew about 1 million), and the museum will open its galleries only five days a week, from Thursday through Monday. Other LIC museums report an increase in visitors over the past two years. P.S.1 now gets approximately 200,000 per year, half of that over the summer months (when it offers the hipster-magnet outdoor Warm Up concert series), while AMMI gets 70,000, and began selling out weekend-evening screenings for the first time last fall.

Plus, even without a Starbucks, Long Island City is on the international map. P.S.1’s reputation has made it a stop for curators coming from or going to the borough’s two airports; they will drop off their luggage in the lobby. One rarely visits P.S.1 without seeing a couple of Invicta-backpack-wearing art lovers – clearly not from around here. “Last week, I spoke to a woman who is South American and who is having her portrait painted by Francesco Clemente,” says Andrew Miller. “Long Island City came up and she said, ’That’s the new art center.’ So the buzz is out there.”

A gallery at P.S. 1.Photo: Pak Fung Wong

Although institutions are attracting most of the press attention, Miller is one of three gallery owners in P.S.1’s immediate vicinity. In January, the Dorsky family opened a gallery in a sleek building designed to hold two additional art spaces. A rotating array of international curators will mount group shows downstairs, while the family runs its secondary art business upstairs. Eugene Binder (who spends half his time in another remote art capital, Marfa, Texas) shows local and Lone Star artists in a third-floor space close to the piers; he’s been there for seven years, relying on the intrepidity of loyal clients.

The art boom could even inaugurate a migration of designers from the meatpacking district. Tucker Robbins, known for his rough-hewn furniture referencing Asian, African, and Latin American indigenous crafts, opened a 20,000-square-foot showroom and workshop two blocks from MOMA this spring. He rented it on only his second trip to LIC – the first was to the Noguchi Museum. “I was terrified,” he confides, proudly showing off the Manhattan skyline from the party-ready rooftop of his building – he’s planning a happening for MOMA’s opening weekend. “But now all my friends are lusting after this exuberance of space.”

The arts, however, are only one element of Long Island City’s future. The business and real-estate communities, also just across the Queensboro Bridge in midtown, have had their eye on the low-rise area around the Citicorp tower for years. Last July, a 37-square-block area around Queens Plaza was rezoned to promote mixed-use development and allow for the construction of more skyscrapers, and developers quickly snapped up available lots.

Even after September 11, the plans have continued. MetLife has already moved 900 workers to offices in the Brewster Building and will, after the construction of a twelve-story tower (due to be completed in October 2003), add 600 more. Recently, the Arete Group received the go-ahead to build 4 million square feet of office space on the site of a municipal garage as well as a space across Jackson Avenue. The Department of City Planning has already received funds to improve lighting and signage and create better bike and pedestrian routes through the area. “The gateway to Queens needs an image,” says planner Penny Lee.

Not surprisingly, new housing in the area is primarily aimed at midtown-Manhattan workers, not artists. The Avalon Riverview recently joined the Citylights Building along the southern waterfront. Rockrose, the development company that is in the process of acquiring the rights to the Pepsi-Cola property, plans to erect seven residential buildings on the site. It will break ground this winter and hopes to complete its first tower within eighteen months. Rockrose also has its eye on built-up areas closer to the Citicorp Building, envisioning renovated loft-style apartments aimed at the downtown, rather than the midtown, market.

“A chic set of people were already going there, even before MOMA and the SculptureCenter,” says Rockrose director of planning Jon McMillan. “You’re going to have pioneers who struggle a little to buy groceries, but already along Vernon Boulevard the nature of the retail is changing. You have fewer tire-fix-it shops and more coffee shops and cafés.”

For some longtime residents, the prospect of change is unsettling, whether in the form of office workers or gallerygoers. Increased traffic brings higher rents; old ethnic communities begin to disperse. “There is an art community here, but it is not an artist neighborhood,” says installation artist Javier Tellez, who likes the fact that he can eat at Five-Star Punjabi with the taxi drivers or play chess with local Filipinos at the neighborhood park. “I could never live in Williamsburg, where you go to the supermarket and everyone is an artist.”

Although Tellez’s rent – $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment-slash-studio – is regulated, other artists are already feeling the pinch. Lucy Fradkin and Arthur Simms (she’s a twenty-year resident, he’s an eleven-year resident) once shared a studio on top of the Eagle Electric plant overlooking the courthouse. When the factory was sold last year, likely for an office development, they were kicked out, and Fradkin has been forced into a 200-square-foot shared studio, for which she is paying the going rate of $2 per square foot.

They’ve begun the search for the next artists’ neighborhood. Where? They aren’t telling.

Queens Modern