Paradise Plus : Keeping the New York edge in the face of gentrification
Disembarking from the L-train at Morgan Avenue the station was sodden with what smelt like a combination between rain-water and piss and the lights were dim enough to make me crane my neck around every couple steps to make sure I wasn’t being followed. Though it was late afternoon there was something about this place that made me question where I was, where I was going.
I would learn that this was Bushwick, not Willamsburg. What was once considered a “shit-hole”, a predominantly poor neighborhood that was home to minorities, a place “where the graduation rate was like 12% back in the day” and where women wouldn’t walk down certain streets unless they were “selling some cheek”, is now home to one of the biggest gentrification stories in history. The walls of Bushwick are covered in paint, fresh and fading, murals, tags, stickers. It could be considered any hipster’s dream with just enough grunge to make it faddy enough for a head nod from Urban Outfitters. So how does one of the poorest neighborhoods in America go from hookers and barred-windows to brunch, art galleries and people paying $2,500 a month to live across the street from a shelter and a methadone clinic? One word, gentrification.
As a graffiti writer named Zexor tells me as we stand inside Paradise Plus, a gallery/paint shop that recently had opened its doors in April, “the best way to bring up rent in these houses is how? Create a movement.” Zexor is a second generation graffiti writer, his voice would have a sweet but spicy aftertaste if edible, his face was round but his body, dense. He mentioned his father briefly, he was the founder of the WTO crew; a writer so legendary, so instrumental to this New York narrative of infamy, of misty colors expelled in the night that some of the biggest writers today still throw him up. The movement that Zexor is talking about takes the form of the Bushwick Collective. On their Facebook page it’s described as “an outdoor street gallery of artists from all over the world”, which is true but what lies behind these highly-Instagrammed walls is rising rent for original residents who are or have been impoverished. There’s a false impression that this area is safe, that’s it’s desirable all of a sudden as if slumming was hip. “I didn’t grow up wanting to live here but these people don’t know what they’re getting into,” Zexor said adjusting the neckline of his blue sweater before continuing, “art, it sells, it’s a selling point.” As the collective brings more and more people to disembark from the train at Morgan Avenue, it also brings the hands of foreign artists. “It’s not even a Bushwick collective. When you think of that you would think local artists but they’re not. That was my whole beef with it, it’s not a collective of Bushwick, it’s a guy who’s interested in street art and he’s bringing in these artists”, Zexor said. Zexor himself didn’t necessarily pursue the life of a graffiti writer because of his father, he tells me this, “I did it for my own reasons and it helped me get out of depression. Later on, it caused more depression to be honest, ya dig, but it kind of sucks.”
So in the face of all this change and seemingly one-sided sense of upheaval, it’s interesting to think that we’re sitting in Paradise Plus, this gallery, this paint shop. Nick is one of the guys behind the scenes of making this place come to life. He’s got glasses and a swagger to match, he’s from Boston originally but New York’s always been how he identifies as an artist andindividual. He tells us a little about opening the shop, “it was pretty organic. The crew was there beforehand and the shop was here beforehand because Second Nature’s (A skateshop) been here for a year or so. It just kind of fit, like a puzzle. My vision of the store would just be to promote people that we thought were doing good things and art that we thought was valuable and products that we thought made sense. We cater to real artists and if they think believe they’re real then there’s products and space to show their art.”
To understand the vision of the store, one has to understand painting, the release offered, the community surrounding it, the centrality of it to the human experience by those that dabble with spray cans, odd hours, the law and clean lines. “It’s a release. It’s similar to dancing, if you’re gonna dance in your house when you get out of the shower that’s one thing and if you’re gonna go dance in a big club and everyone’s gonna see you dance, that’s another. It’s just like how you’re gonna express yourself, if I wanna be quiet or loud or if I wanna listen to rock and roll or if I wanna listen to the radio”, Nick said from the storage room of the shop.
Graffiti has long since been a signifier of the raw, unrelenting air that hangs above New York’s city walls. Its association with vandalism, with blatant disregard for flashing lights and the cats who run Wall Street, with a silent kind of fame, have somehow now become a trend. Street-art is not the same thing as graffiti but the two have become synonymous. Change happened, the underground has become pop-culture. “I would say that some people would say that at some point that graffiti was a religion almost. It gets watered down and it’s become something that it’s not originally, but it’s not up to us, time passes, things change, it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to continue doing something you like and not being affected, or see that there’s value in it and capitalize,” Nick said. Yet, this is all part of the New York story, the city is based upon changes, it’s what gives the place its edge because people are always adjusting. They have to decide who they’re going to be in every moment. Though the edge is described by Nick as being “kind of like a ‘fuck-you’”, he explains that it’s not expressed with contempt, it’s expressed with an expectation of respect.
With the Bushwick Collective in their neighborhood this is how they choose to react, with originality and with a sense of community that’s long since been established. “If people get upset about being disrespected, it’s like well people obviously didn’t come in correctly, it’s as simple as that. There’s rules to everything, surfing, skating, anything, if there’s a public arenasthere’s going to be expectations and if you don’t meet them, you’re going to get canceled out”, Nick said in regard to the changes in the neighborhood. For these artists who have been here, who have called Bushwick “home”, not by choice but by circumstance, art is no advertisement nor is it cultural capital. “Art is a human thing, it’s as important as speaking, the cultural capital, whatever the fuck that is, sounds scary. Art is one of the most important thing., I would rather be able to paint than talk so whether it be indoor or outdoor, illegal or legal that’s how certain people choose to express themselves. They’re having a better time expressing themselves like that than talking, than loving, but that’s how they communicate so yeah, there’s no cultural capital in that there’s only what you believe in”, said Nick with creed.
To people who paint, who write, who shoot photos, skate, surf, bike ride, whatever, do graffiti, Nick said the most important thing was knowing and finding someone like them, to respect, to believe in. We all know that change is inevitable, that it’s the constant in this world of red-eye flights, Instagram, knock-off Chanel and rat poison but what shouldn’t change is a needed sense of community. So as I left the shop after shooting on the rooftop, listening to Zexor talk about how “rats are gangsta” and wishing an XL shirt came in a small because there was sushi printed on it, I walked back to the Subway station filled with the same conviction.
Written by Lindsey Okubo | Fall 2015