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Artists, advocates fight piano factory evictions

Residents demand building management open talks

Catherine McGloin
Artists, advocates fight piano factory evictions
Resident-artists at the Piano Craft Guild building on Tremont Street protested outside, before handing the building’s management team a petition calling for them to start negotiations before converting studios into luxury apartments. photo: Catherine McGloin

Advocates rallied in support of the resident-artists facing eviction from their studios in the Piano Craft Guild building on Tremont Street, last Friday afternoon, demanding that property managers negotiate before turning artists’ workspaces into luxury condominiums.

Security staff swiftly cleared about 50 artists and advocates, including organizers from City Life/Vida Urbana, from the building’s private parking lot where the crowd had gathered Oct. 26 at 2 p.m., before then parading placards and a 3-yard long sign declaring the building at 791 Tremont St. an “eviction free zone,” to the apartment block’s main entrance.

“Our demand here today is simple,” said Roxanne Anderson, an organizer at City Life/Vida Urbana who helped lead last Friday’s demonstration. “We are asking The Shoreline Corporation to negotiate with artists that are living in this building.”

With the Boston Area Brigade Activist Musicians brass section providing the marching beat, resident-artists and their supporters spoke briefly to the crowd before they hand-delivered 500 petition signatures and a public letter from the mayor’s office to the building’s management team.

“If the owners of the Piano Factory want to reap the benefits of displacement and gentrification and redevelopment they also have a responsibility to negotiate with the artists who have made this building and this neighborhood what it is today,” said Anderson.

The number of available art spaces in the old piano factory, converted in the 1970s and secured by the city to support an artistic community, have diminished over the last decade. What was once a framing shop is now a bicycle storage room, and the theater was replaced with a swimming pool in 2014. Of the 176 apartments managed by The Shoreline Corp. and owned by Simeon Bruner, only 20 are occupied by artists.

Protestors murmured in agreement with the summation of one former-resident-turned-demonstrator that the building has become a “playground for the idle rich,” as the real estate firm looks to evict the last three artists — Wayne Strattman, Ekua Holmes and Peter Lipsett — with studio space in the commercial north wing, to make way for luxury condominiums.

Management has failed to discuss removal terms with the artists despite the artists’ repeated attempts to engage with them, said Strattman during the rally. According to their website, The Shoreline Corp. is marketing the Piano Craft Guild apartments as having access to a “lively artist neighborhood at your doorstep.”

“This will no longer be a lively artist neighborhood when it doesn’t have any artists still living here,” said Cary Rapaport, an artist at Piano Craft Guild who spoke during the rally. “It’s becoming commonplace for developers to use the cultural value artists bring to a community for their own financial gains,” she said.

The displacement of artists is something many in this community have seen repeated across the city in recent months. In February, 15 artists were evicted from studios at 128 Brookside Ave. in Jamaica Plain, while members of Northeastern University’s affiliated African American Master Artists in Residence Program (AAMARP) continue to fight against the university administration’s plans to remove them from their workspaces at 76 Atherton St. In Cambridge, 200 musicians were left without a place to rehearse or record when they were given a month to vacate from the EMF building on Brookline Street in June.

“I grew up in Boston and that space was really, really important for me and really important to a lot of people,” said Sophia Belle, a musician evicted from the EMF building who participated in the rally last week to show her support for the Piano Craft Guild artists. “I see that developers and real estate investors tend to treat artists like fossil fuels — they just use us and use us to sell upmarket condos and lofts until there’s nothing left of us,” added Belle.

Finding a new artistic home “is not as easy as looking in the newspaper,” Holmes told the Banner. While most artists find other studios through word-of-mouth, Holmes said that from her research the majority of available studio space is 30 to 45 minutes outside of the city and 30 to 100 percent more expensive. Some artists, she said, are paying $1,200 a month to rent studio space, on top of apartment rent, a high price for many artists whose income fluctuates with the demand and market value of their work.

“It’s a precarious situation,” said Holmes, “and the disturbing part is that it’s happening all over the country.” She called these evictions a “remixing of the city for very wealthy people with lots of options.”

Helen Matthews, communications manager for City Life/Vida Urbana, said that “these evictions are warning shots.” She expects much of the city’s industrial spaces to undergo the same transformation. “Corporate real estate greed … that’s what really underlies all of this,” she told the Banner.

Matthews said that through her work she has witnessed an uptick in family and small business evictions across the city. “It was foreclosures six years ago, and now it’s no-fault evictions,” she said.

Similarly, Holmes believes “money and profit are the highest motivations,” with rising property prices in Boston a significant factor behind the increasing numbers of artists being thrown out of studio spaces.

The office of Mayor Martin Walsh has offered support in some of these recent eviction cases, including facilitating negotiations between AAMARP members and Northeastern University administrators. But some artists and advocates remain critical of the city’s response.

“The City of Boston is a city that celebrates its artists, so it would be good if they looked at how to support the artists they celebrate,” said Holmes.

Matthews told the Banner she would like to see a more programmatic, proactive response to this issue, to avoid placing more of Boston’s treasured artists at risk of eviction.

During the rally, at which representatives from the offices of city councilors Michelle Wu and Ayanna Pressley were present, a public letter sent from the mayor’s office to The Shoreline Corp. was read before the crowd.

“We are seeing a loss of artists’ living and work spaces in the last couple of years, which is threatening to diminish our legacy as a city with a robust and thriving artistic community,” wrote officials from the mayor’s office. “We are particularly concerned that many recent evictions have been predominantly in neighborhoods along the orange line which is resulting in a disparate impact in our city’s communities of color.”

The letter also contained a request from the city for the building’s management team to reconsider their position and enter into negotiations with the resident-artists at risk of displacement, warning that, “The long-term cost of losing workspace for future generations is considerable.”

Calling Boston’s artists “culture makers,” Matthews said, “If you don’t have art engaging people in questions about beauty, ethics and social justice, and you don’t have racial, social and economic justice, what will Boston look like? It really doesn’t bode well for the city.”

The artists have until January to reach an agreement with the building management team, otherwise they will have to relocate.

“The genesis of the Piano Factory was to create a community of artists of all disciplines,” said Holmes. “We should remember what was created here … we created something special. It’s hard to watch it die all because of money.”

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