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Exit signs

Endangered and dwindling, Fort Point's artists take panes to give voice to their outrage

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

The ghosts of Fort Point have come to rest on A Street, lashed to a chain-link fence in the shadow of the hulking brick-and-timber warehouses. They are windows from the Boston Wharf buildings down the street, wooden frames and ancient glass that workers ripped out as they began to transform the 100-year-old behemoths into modern offices.

A group of Fort Point artists took 25 of the worn windows and painted, etched, hammered, glued and sprayed them, and many of the resulting pieces mourn the exodus of artists from the neighborhood. It was the latest salvo from a group of artists who have often used their work to protest the loss of hundreds of studios in the old Fort Point warehouses.

"They're marketing the neighborhood as a place where there's a funky, thriving arts community," said Michael J. Tyrrell, an architect, artist, and one of the organizers of the "Windows onto Fort Point" project that recently went on display and will soon move inside the lobby of Midway Studios. "Yet they're not being as aggressive as they need to be to create strategies that maintain this community."

Artists' groups in Fort Point estimate that as many as 500 studios have disappeared from their neighborhood in recent years as developers bought the buildings and began to renovate them into condos and office space. Since 1980, about 180 permanent units - including Midway Studios, the newest, which opened in 2005, and two other buildings - have been created in partnerships between artists, city officials and developers, said Anita Lauricella, president of the Fort Point Cultural Commission. But she and her group want to see the creation of at least another 220 spaces for artists to live and work in the neighborhood.

Fort Point, once tidal marsh, is now many things. It is the largest artist community in New England, and one of the oldest. It is a historically important maritime district, unusually cohesive because most of the wharf buildings were designed by a single architect. And Fort Point, evolving at breakneck speed from a cluster of abandoned warehouses into sleek new offices and condos, including some with seven-figure price tags, is, like the rest of the Seaport District, Boston's most rapidly changing neighborhood.

So as the city debates what Fort Point should become, the developers see what could be. The artists see what they have lost.

"I think there are a lot of messages that we're continuing to softly say to the city and to the developer: You can't just on pa per put a neighborhood here," said Joanne Kaliontzis, an artist and another organizer of "Windows onto Fort Point." "There's a lot of roots. There's a lot of things that have come to define the neighborhood."

Artists began moving to Fort Point in the 1970s, taking over abandoned buildings. By the middle of the 1980s, hundreds of artists were living in the neighborhood. Not all of them were there legally - some lived in the studios that were meant for work only. Jacob Higginbottom, who has lived in Fort Point since 1997, shared one floor of a Summer Street building with eight other artists.

"I was kind of one of the loft squatters," he said. "We were supposed to be only working there. But nobody could afford to live anywhere else and paint. In retrospect, it was pretty good."

But then Boston Wharf, which had owned the buildings for decades, began selling them to developers, including Archon/Goldman, which now owns significant real estate in the area. The neighborhood's limited number of large buildings - and limited number of owners - has allowed change to come quickly to Fort Point.

As the real estate economy turned flaccid, Archon and other developers began looking even more toward creating commercial space, where demand is still strong. And that alarmed residents and artists, already uneasy about the lack of affordable housing. City officials, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino, have publicly vowed to create more housing, including some for artists

Since 2002, when Boston launched a program to create more spaces for artists to live and work, 183 units have opened around the city, said Jessica Shumaker, a spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Midway Studios, where 36 of the 89 units were restricted for tenants with limited incomes, was the largest of these recent projects.

"One of the reasons the mayor wanted us to embark on this initiative was because a lot of the live-work spaces in Fort Point were previously illegal," Shumaker said. "They weren't permitted. They weren't safe. They weren't up to code."

In 2006, after the artists were told they had to leave their Summer Street building, Higginbottom moved into Midway Studios on Channel Center Street, a new building for artists, and his rent tripled. He works full time as an architect, and could afford the increase. But many, including those who live elsewhere but rented studio space in Fort Point, could not.

Tom Wojciechowski, a painter and sculptor, lost his Melcher Street studio last year and moved to new space in Somerville. Terry Boutelle, a painter, could not renew her lease in two Fort Point studios - first one on Congress Street, then, three years later, the studio where she had moved on A Street - when the buildings were rehabbed into condos. Now she rents space in Jamaica Plain. But she misses the camaraderie, the support and the connections she had in Fort Point.

"There's a benefit of just being connected with other artists there," she said. "Calls to artists for exhibits are constantly being circulated."

Amy Baxter MacDonald, a painter and graduate student at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, spent 20 years in Boston trying to land a studio in Fort Point. She moved from Brighton to the South End, back to Brighton, then to Cambridge, then Dorchester, before she finally found an A Street studio to share. Then, a few weeks ago, she got word that she'd have to leave because the building was being renovated into office space.

"That was the place I was striving to get to the whole time I was here," MacDonald said. "I went to their open studios and they were really the best spaces. It was affordable and it has the artists' vibe."

She's looked at some of the newer studios, but can't find anything she can afford. She knows artists who have moved north to Lawrence and Lowell, but she wants to stay in the city.

"I'm just really sad to leave," she said. "I'm just really confused right now about what I'm going to do."

Artists' groups have left as well. The Revolving Museum, a nonprofit exhibition space that included artist studios, moved out in 2002 after its lease wasn't renewed and eventually reopened in Lowell. Mobius, another artists' group, left in 2003 and now has space in the South End.

But the artists who have stayed in Fort Point continue to protest what they see as the diminishing role of art in the neighborhood. Higginbottom turned his window project into an indictment of developers and city officials who, he argues, do not value artists. "Think of the future, not just $," he painted along the edge of one frame. "Many precede you here."

Another artist, Jason Byron Gavann, created a stark protest by stenciling a single dollar sign in each windowpane. Linda Leslie Brown paid homage to the artists who have left Fort Point. On her window, she etched, "Bye Bye."

A few weeks ago, some of Fort Point's art abruptly disappeared. Overnight, three of the windows hanging from the A Street fence were stolen. One has since been returned.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com

Artistic flares

Fort Point artists have often produced art that protests the lack of support for artists

2001 At 4 a.m. on a spring morning, artists lay 5,000 square feet of sod across the Summer Street Bridge.

2002 An artist creates and posts "Endangered Species" signs, profiling Fort Point artists.

2005 Two artists create the "Bridge of Sighs," in which walkers beneath the Summer Street overpass hear literary readings about departures.

2008 Artists use old warehouse windows to protest the dwindling number of affordable studios.

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