There is a small brick-red door on Spring Street between Crosby and Lafayette that has no signage except for a teal decal “64”, the building number. Through that door and down a small set of stairs was Spring Studio: a charcoal-dusted, basement sanctuary for people from all walks of life. At the bottom of those stairs was usually Minerva Durham, the owner, breaking from a impassioned conversation with a friend to smile quickly at those entering the space. For twenty four years, the studio was a safe haven from life’s distractions. There is a small number of figure drawing studios in Manhattan, and an even smaller number in the other boroughs. Spring Studio was the best I had ever been to. Despite the heat and low ceilings, nothing could compete with Minerva’s fair prices, model selection, and the inspiring camaraderie of the regulars. Spring Studio’s magic happened below street level, so many people who only casually walk down Spring Street will not notice it has moved, but for the community of artists that visit regularly, Minerva losing the basement-space was almost a tragedy.

Spring Studio, now called Minerva’s Studio, has moved to 293 Grand Street on the Lower East Side in Chinatown. The fist of big real-estate and foreign investment had come down on many of the original studios, delis, and galleries of the 60s and 70s, and although it was not ideal for Spring Studio to be forced from its place of conception, it is a near miracle that Spring Studio survived in SoHo so long. Spring Studio isn’t the only art-centered business that has found a new home in Chinatown. Minerva’s story and the history of Spring Studio reveal the awkward situation of many art business, like galleries and collectives, in the waves of gentrification sweeping across New York. Artists have become equally enablers of gentrification and victims of it. While Spring Studio is a victim of the economic climate of SoHo, a neighborhood gentrified at the end of the 70s, in the context of Chinatown, it may be read as another culprit in the gentrification of the Lower East Side.

The Studio and SoHo Photo by Allyson Gonzalez

When Minerva Durham was in her 40s, SoHo was still a hub of art and cultural innovation. She moved to New York to escape the bigotry of Saint Missouri and to find herself as a person and artist, after giving many years of emotional and physical energy to her husband’s career and raising children. After nine years of teaching at Parsons, Minerva invested what she had in starting Spring Studio. The basement originally rented for $900 a month.While altruism certainly was in the air during the 60s and 70s, she started the Studio for a single reason, “I wanted to pursue my art the best way I knew how: by doing it.” Spring Studio ended up becoming an integral part of many New York artists’ lives, schedules, and identities. Minerva explained that the artists who come to the Studio are “a community that wants to keep figure drawing alive and share what they’re doing.” Spring Studio became a comfortable place for passionate people to gather. Hobbyists and newcomers can sit alongside professional artists without any tension or fear of judgement. Spring Studio, in my own experience, has a completely organic balance between social and studious modes. Patrons move seamlessly from talking about their lives or current events, to discussing technique and anatomy, and to respectful silence when the model returns to the stage. Although Minerva did not envision this family when she started, they all have become incredibly close and were what allowed the studio to survive on the day Minerva’s lease for the basement ended. 

When the studio was born, SoHo was still the center of art and cultural innovation in New York. SoHo’s reputation was built on the backs of artists willing to experiment and challenge the norm, but the charm and power those revolutionaries gave to the SoHo brand ultimately invested wealthy real estate agents vying to turn culture into cash. Today, Soho’s historic, charm-filled buildings can easily sell for over $100 billion. Real Estate company Ponte Gadea in 2015 sold buildings in Soho ranging from $70 million to $277 billion dollars

In the 1950s, Soho was not somewhere families could enjoy an afternoon of shopping. During those years, Soho was a commercial slum. Attracted to its seediness and low rent, artists began to move to the area and rented lofts illegally.

The artists that moved there became the center of the avante-garde scene. Artists such as “Phillip Glass, Twyla Tharp, Nam June Paik, Meredith Monk, Chuck Close, Frank Stella, plus many others helped create the ideal situation to make SoHo the Nexus of creative activity for a very magical time in the 1960’s”. Minerva recalls the idea of community being big with people at the time, especially artists. Artists had an optimistic attitude. In an interview, Minerva said, “I always had a big focus on community. Even though I was from a very backwards city, a very racist city, I always had an idealism and so did the people I hung out with. It was a big idea in America when my children were young, everyone wanted communities and thought war could end.” This idealism and sense of community amongst the New York avante-garde artists was inspired heavily by the manifesto of George Maciunus. Maciunus said artists should live together and organize buildings where the ground floor could be shop and the upper levels could be for studios. This plan outlined a way for artists to live and grow together, while also including a plan to make money off of ground floor galleries.

What separates the SoHo Minerva started and the SoHo that she was forced to leave by high-rent is the act of creation. Soho was once a generative place where people had studios, workshops, live-performances, and experimented within gallery space. The art presence in Soho today is a commercial one; art is not made in Soho, it is only sold. Before the commercial take over, according to the writings of blogger and native New Yorker Sharon Watts, “SoHo was definitely on the itinerary for our impromptu walkabouts, a convenient way to experience the fact that we were not in the ’burbs of Central PA anymore. Cheap, often illegal housing and vast, open floor space with uninterrupted natural light lured artists to the waning industrial neighborhood in the late ’60s and early ’70s.” . The modern gallery space is stark white, clean, and heavy with unspoken social-codes. In the Soho of Sharon and of Minerva, experimentation, chance, and in-the-moment sensation reigned.

The high rents that are characteristic of Soho today crept in to Soho mid 1970s, after artists’s presence made the neighborhood desirable, hip, and very attractive to wealthy buyers and real estate agencies. Today, SoHo is synonymous with trendy shopping, world class art galleries like Andre Zarre Gallery, a contemporary furniture center in Greene Street, some of the most sought after real estate, and the future site of Mr Donald Trump latest building ( Just as the culture and charm minority groups have given particular parts of Brooklyn and Queens attracts young buyers interested in a more “authentic” New York experience, the artist-culture attracted buyers more interested in their own commercial ambitions than preserving what drew them to Soho in the first place.

The Soho Migration

The sixties and seventies SoHo that many remember and young artists and art historians long for has not just up and vanished. There has been a migration of the art scene from SoHo to Chelsea, and now, to places like Bushwick and Chinatown. This cycle of artists enriching areas and then being forced to leave is an often ignored aspect of gentrification. Art galleries and studios are often pegged as one of the warning sides of gentrification. Online you can find hundreds of articles on finding the “up and coming urban neighborhoods” in NYC, and often these lists site artists and musicians as a sign that a neighborhoods value is increasing. Artists have become dreaded harbingers of gentrification. Minvera’s unique position in this cycle broadens our view of artists and art spaces as unidentifiable forces, equally victims and contributors to the development of previously undesirable neighborhoods.

Chinatown has become the perfect location for many artists, galleries, and studios seeking refuge from SoHo, Chelsea, and other expensive Manhattan neighborhoods. This movement is the unforeseen culmination of gentrification and high-end real estate. An article in the Observer interviewed Herb Tam, director of the Museum of Chinese in America, he said, “Some Chinatown residents feel like the galleries are invading the neighborhood without giving back. They aren’t showing Asian and Chinese artists, and they’re not contributing to the existing fabric of the neighborhood.” In fact, Chinatown is disappearing because, like the galleries and studios, young moderately wealthy white people are looking for cheaper places to live. According to a study covered by Chinadaily USA,

Condominiums are taking over areas that were previously used as industrial spaces. “The decline of manufacturing has contributed to gentrification as many former industrial spaces have become high-end condos,” wrote the authors of the study.

The addition of luxury condos also brought a change in the demographic of the communities’ residents, from families and working immigrants to non-family households, including students, young professionals, artists and designers “who often make the neighborhoods ‘hip,'” AALDEF said in the report.

Erica Pearson for Chinadaily USA

Where to Go

While in the ABC’s of gentrification label artists as a tool for the conquest of a neighborhood, many struggling artists are victims to New York’s rapid commercialization. Artists are innovators and creators of culture, to lose them at such a rapid rate in New York will lead to an irreversible stagnation, forever damaging the spirit of our city.

Unlike many of the high-end studios that are popping up in Chinatown and other neighborhoods, Minerva’s studio brings in profit only to support itself and her basic necessities. Minerva said, “If I don’t have enough money, I raise the prices a dollar. I give a lot of scholarships, I just wanted it to continue.” Minerva, thankfully, has been able to keep her wonderful studio open.

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