Artist Clayton Patterson is leaving New York: Does this just complicate the anti-gentrification argument?

The artist/activist is blaming his impending move to Austria on the continued sanitization of New York City

I’m no fan of the 1 percent, let alone the .01 percent, and therefore, I am no fan of gentrification. I say this, however, knowing perfectly well that I am an agent of gentrification, and have been since I first moved to New York in 1981 (and even three years before, when I lived in certain run-down neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. because they were all I could afford—neighborhoods that are now quite chichi). I don’t like it, but it’s been a fact of late-20th-century, early-21st-century city life, so really, what am I supposed to do—move to Iowa? Shoot myself? (Well, sure, I’ve considered the latter, though not over ruining the neighborhood.)
Gentrification has been in the news of late, with Spike Lee running his mouth off about it in typical Spike Lee fashion, while also getting into Twitter pissing matches over the subject. Spike is entitled to his opinion, but I couldn’t help notice that while inveighing against the evils of outside interlopers “bogarting” the ’hood, he noted without apparent irony or self-awareness that his own family was among the first African-Americans to move into the largely Italian-American enclave of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. He made no mention of the reaction to their arrival, though as a Cobble Hill resident since 1997, I can assure you that when I first got there, those same Italian-Americans looked very askance at me. They’re all gone now, of course, replaced by the likes of Martin Amis—and yeah, yours truly.
I mention all of this because over the weekend, The New York Times weighed in on a very grave development related to gentrification: the imminent departure of Clayton Patterson from the East Village for greener pastures in the Austrian Alps. Patterson’s reasons for leaving are certainly deeply felt: He could no longer stand New York City as it has become, thanks to gentrification.
For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Patterson, he is a Canadian artist who arrived in New York City in 1979 after teaching stints in various Canadian university art departments. I remember running into him at E.V. openings back in the day, and he immediately struck me as the sort of blowhard who makes much of his bohemian cred because that’s all he has going for him as an artist. But I also figured, Hey, whatever works, right?
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was already a great deal of anti-gentrification agitation going on in the East Village and the Lower East Side, emanating mostly from college-educated white kids looking to flee their suburban upbringing. Patterson, however, became a special case after the night of August 7, 1988, when the city’s attempt to impose a nightly curfew on Tompkins Square Park erupted in a two-night street battle between police and demonstrators protesting the move. Underlying the riots was the fact that the curfew was meant to provide cover for the demolition of a huge homeless encampment in the park that had become an open-air bazaar for drug dealing and prostitution. In the minds of the protesters, however, the homeless were the real residents of the neighborhood, victimized by a mayor in the pocket of developers.
In any case, I was at the riots, since my apartment at the time was just off the park. So too was Patterson, with video camera in hand. His footage of the events, and his own rough treatment by the cops (who hardly comported themselves well during the tumult), made him a local—and even (briefly) national—celebrity.
During the years that followed, Patterson appointed himself something of an avatar of neighborhood authenticity, standing athwart the forces of gentrification with hand held high. He also customized baseball caps with his art, which he sold, and which became a favored fashion accessory among certain celebrities like Gus Van Sant.
That these two roles are not seen as being the least bit contradictory, by the Times or anyone else, underscores the complexity of trying to take a position on gentrification in a city as dynamic and ever-changing as New York. But don’t feel too sorry for Patterson, as he himself is a beneficiary of what he decries. In 1981, he and his girlfriend bought the building on Essex Street in which they live and work. Presumably, they can sell it for way more than they paid for it, easing Patterson’s exit from the city he no longer deigns to live in.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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