Jamaica Plain Artists Fight to Save Their Studios

 

Testimonials from artists working on Brookside Avenue in Jamaica Plain.

 

It was a bright afternoon in late September and Jamaica Plain’s Brookside Avenue was alive with activity. Birds were chirping, bubbles floated through the air from a humming machine on the sidewalk, and a small crowd had gathered for the 120 Brookside Farewell Fest, an open gallery event with live music, food, and drink. The event was a celebration of the building that housed a group of artists’ studio spaces for decades but is now being torn down by the city in favor of a luxury condo development. But it was also the launch of a new advocacy group called Brookside Artists that is hoping to raise awareness about the need to preserve spaces like theirs in Jamaica Plain.

The condo development on Brookside Avenue is part of a large-scale redevelopment effort being carried out by the city in this area. One of the goals of the project is to convert light industrial sections of the neighborhood where artists have traditionally lived and worked into residential areas.  As a result, many artists have already been priced out of their studios or forced to move to make way for entirely new structures.

“Artists came down here to Jamaica Plain back when nobody else would and sort of colonized the place, and we’re the first ones on the chopping block based on the fact that we  don’t historically have any real power economically. It’s just a case of the bottom line being the bottom line,” said Brendan Killian, one of the leaders of Brookside Artists. “So we’ve decided to rally our forces and try to stop it from happening.”

Killian is an oil painter who has worked at 128 Brookside Avenue for over 25 years. When he heard that 120 Brookside, the collection of studio spaces and galleries just next door, had been bought and scheduled for demolition, he knew he had to do something. The artists who worked in the two buildings formed their own little community, often collaborating and helping to promote each other’s work, and from that community came Brookside Artists.

“For us it’s about artists having a right to live and work in Jamaica Plain. Local politicians and the mayor talk about having neighborhoods in Boston with large cultural zones and artist galleries. But at the same time, the current policies and the market are pushing us out,” said Clive Moloney, a sculptor based at 120 Brookside. “Since the building has been sold, we’ve kind of pulled together. Before that it was just about making art, that’s all that really matters to us.”

However, when the proposal came before the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee this summer, almost every attendee at the crowded July 19 meeting was in favor of it.

“Part of what happened in this case is the developer came in with a Memorandum of Understanding about things like putting in a privacy fence and whether or not they were going to keep the trees on the property,” Zoning Committee Chairman Dave Baron said. A Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, is a document signifying the developer’s intent to heed some of the community’s demands about a project. “Typically, if there are things a developer can do to satisfy the neighborhood, they will.”

This left the majority of attendees convinced in favor of the project from the outset. In an attempt to win over the remaining holdouts, most of whom were artists, the developer also suggested allocating some of the proposed residential units as live-work spaces that are zoned to function as both workspaces and housing. However, these spaces failed to meet the needs of the artists who have worked on Brookside Avenue for years.

“The space that we’re in now is a workspace only. A lot of artists in this building can’t make the kind of work that they’re making in live-work spaces. When you talk to the greater Boston community, when you talk to government officials, they all offer live-work spaces and say, ‘This is what we can do,’” Brian Wilson said. Wilson is a photographer who uses pinhole cameras to capture light field images and then mounts them on patterned sculptures, something he needs the wide-open space of his studio on the second floor of 128 Brookside to do properly.

When met with opposition on the live-work spaces, the developer finally settled on building three small commercial spaces on the property in addition to the residential units. These proposed commercial spaces would be vastly more expensive than the current rent at 120 Brookside, and despite the developers offering to hold a lottery to allow a potential tenant to occupy one of the spaces at reduced rent, the artists displaced by the project would be unable to afford them.

“At that point the artists who showed up at the meeting were somewhat resigned to it. They saw it as the best they were going to get,” Baron said. “If we had been more alert about the preservation of artist spaces then maybe there could have been a better result here.”

Beyond any hope of saving their building, the displaced artists of 120 Brookside have begun to search for new locations to work from. Unfortunately, the city’s ongoing redevelopment efforts have made it almost impossible to find space with affordable rent in the area. According to Moloney, many of them are even considering relocating to Hyde Park, the next suburb past Jamaica Plain, for its relatively untapped housing market. But abandoning Jamaica Plain is their last resort, and those who have been displaced are still working tirelessly with their neighbors at 128 Brookside to raise awareness about their situation and salvage what is left of the artist community in the neighborhood they love.

“Ultimately what we’re talking about is the death of the art culture in Jamaica Plain. It’s really that critical in my mind,” Killian said. “If we are able to rally ourselves to the point where we relocate or find some stability, some stable place to work, I would absolutely include in that a space where younger artists can come, either at very low cost or for free. Otherwise, there won’t be anyone to take our place, and that’s essential.”

“This space is like a second home to most of the artists here,” said Wilson. “It’s a community outside of our home. It’s a place where we can come and create our work, but also think and visualize what’s next. And without spaces like this, I don’t know where we’re going to be.”

 

 

 

 

 

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