Of all the subjects BB could have tapped to talk about Bushwick, no one seemed as apropos as choreographer and media artist Jonah Bokaer. A phenomenon in the dance world — at 18, he was the youngest dancer ever hired by the Merce Cunningham dance company — the 26-year-old local activist is also the co-founder and current director of the 2600-square-foot performance loft, Chez Bushwick.
Famous for its experimental performances (and for charging just $5 for its rehearsal space), it’s one of a number of arts organizations that has expanded the definition of Bushwick. The north Brooklyn neighborhood was known for years as a working-class, largely immigrant community, until students and artists began moving into its industrial areas over a decade ago, giving rise to the new Bushwick — an arty, loft-filled neighborhood whose boundaries are often blurred with East Williamsburg’s.
As affordable as it is, artists are already being pushed out, like choreographer John Jasperse. He and Bokaer will share the new CPR (Center For Performance Research), a permanent, subsidized home for dance and performance in Williamsburg. Before it opens March 8, Bokaer spoke about life in Bushwick, and how he’s managed to stay put.
When did you move to Brooklyn?
I moved here in early 2000. I’d joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and found a shared apartment in Park Slope. And it was comfortable and cozy, but it felt a little bit gridlocked to me.
In what way?
Socially. Like you could stay there, you could sustain yourself there, but creativelyâ€¦ it was hard to find cultural outlets. So I left for a long tour and lived with my aunt for a while in Manhattan, and then in 2002 an apartment in Bushwick [became available.]
Had you heard of Bushwick?
I had. What attracted me to Bushwick was that there were so many industrial spaces and studios and choreographers working, and a lot of experimental work happening. A lot of all-night raves were happening too –and I’ll be totally honest, the neighborhood was pretty rough. In the mid to late 90s there was a building on Varet St. that a number of choreographers shared, and for years there had been a crack for sex trade on the ground floor. And I think in my first year here, I looked out the window and saw a huge white limousine on fire–just really shady. [Laughter] It felt like Fort Apache.
You could tell that the city wasn’t taking care of Bushwick, because it’s such mixed zoning. We’re smack in the middle of the IBZ–the Industrial Business Zone. There are some local residents (some but very few), and a lot of commercial space. But after a certain amount of artists had moved here [in 2003 or 2004], there suddenly was a natural foods market [on Bogart St.], and a bar [King’s County]. Then suddenly a coffee shop, and a new subway entrance to the Morgan Avenue L train, open seven days a week. So you could see it changing.
3rd Ward really blew up within months of opening in 2006 — 3rd Ward is a true, multipurpose arts space. There’s also a 24-camera motion capture facility a few blocks away, Worleyworks. Also, Brooklyn Fire Proof set up a 10,000-square-foot facility out here and they’e hosted a lot of wild performance events and films. There’s also a great roof space called Office Ops.
Have all the changes been good?
A lot of the development has been pretty irresponsible. Another one of the founding organizations of CPR is John Jasperse Company. John Jasperse’s studio was repossessed in 2004 and turned over to a developer, and now they’re building luxury loft condos.
So there is displacement. But I don’ see the arts as an agent for gentrification in this neighborhood. I don’t think the local communities are living in these loft buildings and I don’t see local families living next to factories.
I also think the arts have reduced crime quite a bit. There was a lot of mugging when I moved here; that’s not the case anymore. As soon as public arts programming on a larger scale started happening here, and people from Manhattan came out to Brooklyn to see performance or art events, it changed the landscape. Suddenly people were more inclined to have a meal here, or have a drink here.
So I see the arts as a stabilizing economic force. And what Chez Bushwick is trying to do is community development–through the arts but also through the existing social fabric. We work with the schools, work with the libraries. I teach dance and animation to fourth graders at the local school down the street every week. This is a non-profit organization, and a lot of the board is Brooklyn-based. The landlord is on our board.
How much does Chez Bushwick cost per month in rent?
When I moved in, it was about $1 a square foot and now it’s around $2900 total.
Is that a comparable rate for most loft spaces here?
It’s pretty comparable.
Have you thought of buying it?
The organization would love to buy but we’re in M-1 zoning [for commercial use only].
Are a lot of people living in commercial spaces?
Often, yes — consensually. I guess the big question is: are buildings to code? And if an inspector came, would the building pass inspection? Our landlord takes impeccable care of the building — we’re fortunate that way.
Do you live here alone?
I am the leaseholder, I work here, and I make my choreography here. But very recently, my boyfriend and I moved in together.
You’re sleeping in Manhattan. Do you like it better there?
I’m in Manhattan to be with him – and that’s what I like about Manhattan!
Where is he?
In the West Village.
Is it easy to get to?
From the end of the L line [in Manhattan] to Morgan Ave and then two blocks here it takes 20 minutes max. But I’m very local: I do all my business, programming, choreography in this local area.
Some people confuse this with East Williamsburg. Where’s the boundary line?
That depends on who you ask. I think real estate agents say East Williamsburg… Bushwick goes a lot deeper but technically whatever’s west of Bushwick Ave. and north of Boerum St. is Williamsburg or what they call East Williamsburg Industrial Park. But this is pretty much Bushwick. And three, even four subway stops further on the L is really also Bushwick and then north of that is Ridgewood.
Where do you food shop?
Brooklyn’s Natural — the son of our landlord set up that market — they’re pretty invested in the neighborhood. I also like the restaurant Northeast Kingdom, a little bit further east toward the Jefferson and DeKalb stops. There’s also lot of ethnic food here that’s very good–Ecuadorian, Columbian. And a lot of diners.
This is not a pretty area…
I’ve looked into the history of this neighborhood, and it’s like a scar of New York. There was a fire that completely destroyed it [in 1977] and in some ways it’s stayed completely depressed… I think that the non-profit sector is an important part of the puzzle, for how to stabilize the area. There’s a great organization here called Make the Road by Walking–they’re an award-winning social services organization. There’s also a lot of churches, and care centers for the elderly.
The Municipal Arts Society also did a whole case study on why the industrial zoning is important for employment here, for creating jobs, and argues why the IBZ shouldn’t be changed. I mean: if kids go to school down the street, and artists reside here, and there is low income employment — one could say that’s a delicate or volatile neighborhood, but I’m pretty hopeful that there can create an integrated community. Because so often, things get extremely homogeneous — and we’re far from it.
All photos, except of Office Ops, by Geoff Smith.