At 580 Union Avenue, once stood the Manhattan Chocolate Factory, best known by the neighborhood for the mural that graced it. Painted with modified scenes from the Wizard of Oz—such as one of Dorothy’s gang dancing toward 1950s subway cars—it was something that Andrew Oswald had liked looking at. But two years ago, the factory was torn down. And though construction on a condo that will hold 62 apartments has proceeded, today all that Oswald has to stare at over his mid-morning coffee is a construction wall—dull as the pile of bricks it obscures.
The plywood panels that ring construction sites have become the sight du jour in Williamsburg, which saw a boom in luxury construction after a 2005 re-zoning. But as the economy has slowed, so has development, and these walls have outstayed their welcome.
According to Department of Building regulations, they are to be painted in dark blue and green hues, so as not to be noticed—they’re not here to preen, they’re here to separate foot traffic from dangerous work within. At Jimmy’s Diner, which faces the old Manhattan Chocolate Factory lot, Oswald sipped his coffee looking toward the bar, away from the windows. “There was a gorgeous mural there,” he remembered, of the view out to the street. “And now just this, all over.”
A strange partnership—between a real estate firm and an arts coalition—is seeking to change all this.
When Jennifer Lee, a broker at Aptsandlofts.com learned about the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition, she reached out. Her company had a good relationship with local developers and its CEO, a Williamsburg native, had always had a notion of beautifying the ugly sites. “They’re not the most beautiful things,” said Lee, the Director of Business Development, of the walls. “We’d like to make them a little more beautiful.” “I thought it might be a perfect fit,” Lee said of the real estate broker and the coalition, promoted by Councilmember David Yassky as a way of presenting local artists with public art opportunities and addressing urban issues with artistic solutions. It is an interesting fit: On one side, there are the artists—the first wave of gentrification—and on the other, there is aptsandlofts.com, which made its own waves in 2005 by bidding to broker a building at $650 dollars per square foot—far more than what was being paid on other properties at that time. Now, the artists would boost real estate again: Instead of protesting development with unsightly graffiti (as they are on Franklin Street) they will work with developers to make the neighborhood more attractive.
Back at Jimmy’s Diner, neighborhood resident Oswald wasn’t convinced: “My bigger concern than these walls is what’s going behind these walls,” he said. He saw a pattern of current residents being outpriced, of the neighborhood losing its “neighborhood feeling.” As an example, the first space the partnership will work on is on North 12th, between Bedford and Berry: Once the site of an experimental art gallery, ArtMovingProjects, it is now a pit ringed by a blue fence, and in the future will be the home of a six-story apartment building. The North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition simply seeks to reinject that artistic feeling. “I think a construction site is a construction site,” said North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition volunteer Ciara McKeown. “But if there’s an opportunity to make it nicer, I mean, why not?” As Dorothy might say: Oh, Toto! We’re home!
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