Well, aren't I the Neglectful Blogger? It's been almost a month, and so many bloggable events in Peekskill have just blown by me--notably the Rotary Horse Show, the EMBARK/PEEKSKILL Festival and the outrageous Magic Night at the Beale Street Barber Shop.
It's just that, as my Australian friend likes to say, I've been "flat out like a lizard drinking." It's great to be busy, but blogging has temporarily fallen by the wayside. Even though I'm still crazy busy, last week something very important happened that I simply must address.
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from the Peekskill BID (which I recently joined) stating a position supporting examining and possibly changing the zoning laws regarding the downtown live/work artist lofts. Right now, the zoning restricts all new and existing downtown housing (with a few grandfathered exceptions) to live/work artist lofts.
This program, which began in the early Nineties, filled downtown Peekskill with artists at a time when the downtown was not in good shape. The lofts, many of which are fantastic spaces, attracted artists because of their special commercial/residential zoning. I know some like to argue this point, but many feel that Peekskill's artist loft program has played a big role in the renaissance of downtown Peekskill.
But many now think it's time for a change. The current zoning law is very restrictive. At least one person living in each loft has to be a Peekskill Certified Artist. No more than two people are allowed to reside in a loft, which means no families with kids. Employees of downtown businesses can't live right downtown, and even landlords can't live in their own buildings.
As someone who directly benefits from the current zoning, I had a visceral, knee-jerk reaction to this BID email. The word that came to mind was gentrification. Many other communities (most notably SoHo) have been transformed by artists who make an area hip and cool and are then priced out. The live/work lofts were designed for artists, who use them in ways non-artists wouldn't. They are very special spaces, and my immediate thought was that it would be a terrible shame if they were opened up to anyone and the artists were driven out. Artists are already suffering disproportionately in this economic downturn, and to me, this had a "hitting them when they're down" feeling to it.
The BID Board had a meeting last Tuesday to discuss this. I had plans that evening, but I called and said I'd be late. I knew I had to go to that meeting.
I had expected a large turnout from the artist community, but there was only one other Peekskill Artist in attendance. A lot of building owners/landlords were there, and they explained how squeezed they are right now. Property taxes are high. They need to charge enough rent to make it viable, and (even though the demand is there) in this economy vacant artist lofts are taking a long time to rent.
I spoke at length, and so did the other artist, and I felt heard. I had expected an adversarial situation, but it wasn't that at all. I was surprised at how much time and effort Jason Angell and the BID board had already put into studying potential solutions, comparing Peekskill with other artist-centered communities. What I realized was that the artists living in Peekskill are valued, and nobody's talking about pushing us out. But they are talking about some major changes.
That meeting was all about ideas on how to make Peekskill's downtown work for everybody. LOTS of ideas were bantered around - far too many for me to list here. What became clear to me was that the artist community needs to become much more involved. Times are tough, and we all need to work together to move forward.
So this is a kick-in-the-butt for my Peekskill Artist friends. The BID and the City are asking for ideas. Now's the time to claim our place at the table, which is all set and waiting for us. We're being asked to see ourselves more as business people, and I think we need to rise to the occasion. It's great to be creative and squirrel oneself away making art, but now's the time to emerge from our nests and get involved.
It's been a few years since I applied to become a Peekskill Certified Artist, but I do recall there was a section which asked how I was going to use my loft to benefit the community. It's a privilege to live in this incredible space, and I'm now revisiting that commitment. I have something major in the works - stay tuned.
I was so glad I went to that BID meeting. We're all on the same page - we all want Peekskill to continue to grow and prosper. We need each other to do that, and do it we will.