Hannah Black and Carla Perez-Gallardo, artists and owners of restaurant Lil' Deb's Oasis. Photography Clément Pascal.

why new york’s young artists are leaving the city and moving upstate

To a place where a one-bedroom apartment costs the same rent as a single room in Bushwick, and you might run into Marina Abramović or Ryan McGinley.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
06 December 2016, 7:30pm

Hannah Black and Carla Perez-Gallardo, artists and owners of restaurant Lil' Deb's Oasis. Photography Clément Pascal.

In May 2010, Patti Smith told students at Cooper Union that New York was no longer the city for them. "New York has closed itself off to the young and struggling," she said. "New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city."

Hudson, New York is a city, although it feels more like a small town. Home to approximately 7,000 residents, it sits with its back to the Hudson River approximately 120 miles north of Manhattan. A former whaling settlement, the city has experienced several dramatic turns of fortune, from prosperity in the early 1800s to post-industrial decline in the 1970s and, in the past decade, a revival funded partially by antique-seeking out-of-towners. But Hudson's newest residents also include a growing number of young artists who have decided to take Smith's advice and opt out of New York City.

While graduates of liberal arts schools have a history of colonizing small pockets of upstate, Hudson is unique in its position as a waypoint between big city and open country. It's a two hour trip from Grand Central Station, but surrounded by farmland. As opposed to major cities like Detroit and Philadelphia where young New Yorkers are also migrating (Smith's kids live in Detroit), it maintains a small-town sense of community, in addition to low rents.

In 1967, Smith and then-boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe paid $80 a month for their second-floor apartment at 160 Hall Street in Clinton Hill; in 2012, 160 Hall sold for over $1 million, and in 2016, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the neighborhood is $2,444. When writer and curator Shanekia McIntosh moved to Hudson six years ago, rent for a one-bedroom began at around $600. Factoring in inflation, that's roughly equivalent to what Smith paid to live in Brooklyn in 1967.

Shanekia lives on Warren Street, Hudson's main throughway, with two housemates in a three-bedroom apartment that's been handed down through a line of artist friends. The living room has a large oak fireplace and higgledy-piggledy bookshelves filled with eclectic titles left behind by former residents. Sitting beneath a photorealist painting of The X-Files's Dana Scully by one of her upstairs neighbors, Elbert Perez, and wearing a pair of thrifted leopard-print platform boots, Shanekia outlines her expenses. While rent isn't as cheap as it was when she arrived as a 21-year-old, it's still low enough that she doesn't have to worry about "having 'The Job,'" as she did in New York. "Being here, I can be working and out of commission for a week and not worry about that," she says.

Writer Shanekia McIntosh. Photography Clément Pascal.

After dropping out of university in Massachusetts, Shanekia moved back home to Brooklyn for a year before coming to Hudson. She now organizes art events, and previously worked for Hudson's community radio station, WGXC. "In New York, I interned at Nylon and at Rolling Stone. But that was the year a lot of magazines were folding and I kind of felt like I was at a dead end in the city," she says. "So Hudson presented itself as a good opportunity. There's been a great creative scene in Hudson for years; there are older artists who started moving up here in the 70s."

Even before the 70s, Hudson had strong artistic credentials. The painters of the Hudson River School were active in the area in the mid 1800s. Ellsworth Kelly, who was born in the Hudson Valley, kept a barn-like studio in nearby Spencertown. More recently, former Hole guitarist Melissa Auf der Maur and filmmaker Tony Stone opened Basilica Hudson, a community-oriented arts venue in a 19th-century factory building near the river. A wave of well-known weekenders like photographer Ryan McGinley and artist David Hammons has drifted towards Hudson. And in 2013, Marina Abramović announced her plans for the Marina Abramovic Institute, a center for performance art that will open in a former theater on Hudson's Columbia Street.

These more established artists are a draw for younger artists nearer the beginnings of their careers, and Hudson cultivates cross-generational conversation. Paintings of high-fiving chickens and pipe-smoking cats by legendary local artist Earl Swanigan turn up on the walls of many younger artists who arrive in town.

Filmmaker Zia Anger has an original Earl on her living room wall, as well as work by Hudson-based artist Annie Bielski (who happens to be her cousin). Zia grew up in Ithaca in western New York State and never even made it to Manhattan after college as she'd planned. "I saved up all my money to go to New York after grad school, and blew it in my hometown," she says. "But my parents, they're artists, and the New York that they experienced was like nothing I saw or what my friends are experiencing. Everything is commodified," she reflects. Zia took a job as a nanny when she moved to Hudson four years ago, to subsidize her work as a video artist and film director (she's collaborated with Angel Olsen and Jenny Hval, and she recently shot the video for Maggie Rogers's viral sensation "Alaska"). But she was soon able to focus on her own work full time. "The first two years I was here, I worked 40 hour weeks. I realized I can have the life that I want to have up here and not be constrained financially. My friends have been moving to New York since I was 16 years old and I've seen so many people go there and work and work and work."

And rather than funding their artistic projects with income from part-time restaurant jobs, "a lot of people in Hudson are making a living off their work, or a version of their work, because the cost of living is so cheap," Zia explains. "If you're an artisan and you only sell five things a month, that's possible. You make $1000 and you'll be good for a month, but that's a third of what you need to make in the city, minimum."

Artist Conor Backman. Photography Clément Pascal.

For artist Conor Backman, Hudson also provides valuable peace of mind. He lives in a minimalist mid-century bungalow at the end of a cul-de-sac a short drive outside of town. The house doubles as his studio, and he's able to store his work in the cellar. He also has a garden, which is sometimes visited by a family of deer. The kind of quiet that allows woodland creatures to pass by undisturbed is a perfect environment for the precise, intricate work Conor creates. He is currently working on a series of paintings the size of smart-phone screens for a gallery show in Brussels and will have his first museum solo show at the University of Albany in February. Conor points out, too, that if the seclusion in Hudson becomes too much, New York is only a two-hour train ride away.

If major cities like New York once acted as vital community centers for artists, the internet and social media have made that need for geographical closeness less. Over pupusas at Lil' Deb's Oasis, a tropical-themed comfort food restaurant in town, artists and owners Carla Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black describe the positive effect of Instagram on their business. Their regular customers, who range from construction workers to local families with kids, are joined on the weekends by New Yorkers who've discovered the restaurant's pink neon-lit Instagram page. "I don't know how it would have been ten or 15 years ago. But now I don't feel like we're missing out on any opportunities," says Hannah. "People follow us, we're part of the conversation." The two also regularly go back into the city. In November, they catered an all-female art symposium at MoMA PS1.

Lil' Deb's Oasis is a community operation of a kind that's increasingly hard to find in New York. Carla and Hannah inherited the space from its previous owner, Debbie, after she decided that 36 years of cooking breakfast there was long enough. With help from their friends, they converted the former diner into a hand-crafted pineapple-adorned paradise. Being inside feels like being at a Florida country club with a gentle buzz on. The walls are the color of strawberry ice cream, the tabletops are marbled turquoise, and the chairs have neon tennis balls for feet — to protect the floor, which is orange and painted with Matisse-like fronds.

The same friends who helped decorate Lil' Deb's are among its most loyal customers. Providing an affordable place for local people, especially local artists, to eat was one of Carla and Hannah's main motivations for opening the space. Most new restaurants that open in Hudson cater to wealthy weekenders, says Zia. "But Lil' Deb's is something that's really accessible to us. A lot of us needed it."

At first, Hannah and Carla planned to only serve dinner, which would have been possible given the price of their rent. But they soon came up with a mutually beneficial lunch arrangement in collaboration with an El Salvadoran family from down the street. From 11am to 3pm, their neighbor Maria Romero cooks pupusas in the Lil' Deb's kitchen. Maria and her family keep the money their food brings in, and Carla and Hannah sell smoothies during the same hours. Sometimes, several of Maria's nine kids wait tables after school.

"I grew up around strong communities in Canarsie in Brooklyn," says Shanekia. "We had block associations and block parties, and that's really been exterminated by gentrification. When you move into an area and you co-opt it and ignore the history, you're really hurting the younger generation too. It's a bad process." She describes the approach at Lil' Deb's as a perfect example of how to consciously engage with and serve a community as a new arrival. (Debbie still lives in the upstairs apartment and checks in from time to time, though she doesn't like the large quantities of incense that Carla and Hannah burn.)

Film director Zia Anger. Photography Clément Pascal.

Gentrification is something Hudson has been grappling with for the past decade with mixed results. This summer, a New York Times article described the city as "Brooklyn comes to the country" and the most recent Instagram images taken in the area include snapshots of the city's many antiques stores, boutiques selling candles and small succulents, and an advertisement for a wooden spoon carving workshop.

"People come up and think this place is magical, utopic," says Zia. "And it is magical, but I think people underestimate what a tourism economy does to the full time population." As a 2014 Artsy feature about the city's growing gallery scene put it, "For some, Hudson risks edging toward a hothouse hipness and over-curated self-reflexivity, in a community where 20 percent of the original population still lives below the poverty line and has yet to visibly benefit from this renaissance."

Shanekia arrived on the cusp of what she describes as "the end of a weird Wild West time" in Hudson, when there were still empty storefronts on Warren Street and the center of town only had one bar. "I got here right when the town started shifting into becoming more commercial," she says. Like many of the newest wave of artists to move here, she takes her role in the changing community seriously.

"The difference here [as opposed to in New York] is that people really do feel the urge to give back to the community and not make it over," she says. This past summer — along with Zia and another friend — she ran a three-day digital art camp at the Hudson Area Library for local kids: "We had 27 different kids interacting with each other for three days using these tools that often aren't accessible to them." Two of her other friends started a sailing club for local kids, and another helped found an alternative school in town. "There's a presentness to it here," says Zia about witnessing the city's demographic shift. "In New York, you don't have to be present for it."

But there are also ways in which the city isn't changing quickly enough. "New York has such a huge queer youth community, especially with kids of color. And Hudson doesn't really have that," says Shanekia, "Or at least there's no real space for congregating in that way." While Hudson has a prominent queer community, and an annual Pride parade, the city doesn't yet have a gay bar. "I also feel like I'm in an interesting position in Hudson, because young black people do not move here," Shanekia continues. "The majority, overwhelmingly, are young, middle or lower-middle class white kids. I'll be hanging out with friends and someone who's visiting will assume I grew up here because I'm black."

There is a widening gap between what visitors see on store-lined Warren Street and the city's social and economic reality. "I'm very conscious of walking down Warren Street and knowing I'll be one of the few black people tourists will see all day. But I'm not the only black person in town! I'm not the only black creative in town!" says Shanekia. Hudson is home to strong Caribbean, African American, and Bangladeshi communities who are often missing from narratives of Hudson as a newly thriving antiquing destination, and who are negatively affected by rising rents.

Standing in her kitchen, one maroon-socked foot suspended in tree pose, Zia describes how her parents also abandoned dreams of New York to seek out alternative lives upstate. "My parents and their friends moved to Ithaca in the late 60s early 70s to start communes, and they're all still there and they're really happy. But whether their ideas were successful is to be determined," she says, "I come from a really utopic place and I see the dangers in that. A lot of my peers from Ithaca, we were spit back into a society in which we didn't know how to manage those ideas. Hudson is really different, though, because it's extremely cosmopolitan and business oriented." "You can practice your art and also practice being a human being here," she says.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Clément Pascal

New York
upstate new york
Hannah Black
zia anger
annie bielski
carla perez-gallardo
clément pascal
conor backman
lil' deb's oasis
shanekia mcintosh