When April Vollmer first moved to the Lower East Side in 1986, she took weekend walks uptown to Soho, where a growing art scene attracted a number of galleries.
At the time the only kind of gallery that existed in Vollmer’s neighborhood was the shooting type — places where drug addicts gathered to buy and inject drugs. Vollmer remembers syringes lying on the streets and drug addicts lingering outside her apartment.
“They’d be shooting outside of our front door,” said Vollmer, an artist who specializes in Japanese woodblock prints. “All I hoped for was that it’d get a little safer.”
Vollmer never imagined that two decades later her own neighborhood would be the center of a burgeoning art scene. From the rooftop of her five-story building, Vollmer has seen century-old tenement houses transformed into condominiums with balcony gardens.
Two art galleries that opened in the 1980’s on Rivington Street near her home – Gallery onetwentyeight and ABC No Rio – are still in business, but the landscape around them has dramatically changed.
The days of stray syringes are long gone. Instead, the Lower East Side is now home to galleries that display artwork from around the world. While galleries have been popping up in the neighborhood since 2001, the number began to multiply in 2007 when the New Museum of Contemporary Art moved to the Lower East Side from Soho.
According to the LES Business Improvement District, visitors can find over fifty galleries in the neighborhood. Sixteen new galleries opened their doors in 2008, compared to only two galleries that opened in 2005.
Despite a weak economy, the LES BID reported that at least seven galleries opened spaces in 2009.
“We definitely talk to about one gallery owner every other week looking for space,” said Sion Misrahi of the Misrahi Realty Corporation on the Lower East Side. Lower commercial rent on the Lower East Side has drawn gallery owners from more expensive art districts, such as Soho and Chelsea.
With the economic recession, rent in all districts, including the Lower East Side, has dropped by 20 to 25 percent, said Misrahi. Landlords eager to fill empty space and ease the burden of real estate taxes have been willing to sign short-term leases—an attractive option for some gallery owners. One relative newcomer, the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, moved to the Lower East Side from 57th Street in 2007.
In August 2009, it moved to a bigger location in the neighborhood on Orchard Street. The gallery displays mixed-media pieces, including digital paintings.
“I chose the Lower East Side because in the 80s, it was where creative people lived,” said Stoyanov, referring to the area’s former underground art and rock scene. “Here, there is real life.”
Stoyanov’s gallery is one of five galleries on the same block. The latest to join the cluster, the Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, also relocated from another address on the Lower East Side.
For Stoyanov, the increased foot traffic from the galleries nearby was a big draw.
He also chose the area because it didn’t have the corporate feel of art districts uptown, where adjacent galleries can extend for blocks on end. “It’s not just a homogeneous world,” but one that is “very diversified in an edgy way,” said Jen Davis, director of CSquare Gallery, which opened on Allen Street in the fall of 2009.
Longtime Lower East Side resident Vollmer said that she’s noticed an increase in foot traffic from art galleries only steps away from her apartment. “Most of [the galleries] come and go really fast, so it’s hard to know them,” said Vollmer.
But mainly, she is glad that with new visitors streaming in, her neighborhood is a lot safer than it used to be.