In 2014, at the intersection of Rogers and Lefferts avenues in Brooklyn, the AbunDance Academy of the Arts started offering classes in everything from dance and musical performance to martial arts and wellness.
Karisma Jay, artistic director and founder, wanted to give the residents of Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood long-term access to arts education in a time when it isn’t always available elsewhere, like in schools. She knows what it’s like to not have that access. For one term in college, she decided to focus on math and science instead of her passion for art. That period was tough for her because she didn’t have a creative outlet.
“So, thereafter I added all the arts classes back in and my GPA skyrocketed,” Jay says. “And I see how art changes lives, really and truly, because it changed mine.”
In April, however, Jay’s vision faced a setback. With the rent set to double on their space, Jay says, they couldn’t afford to renew their lease. AbunDance closed. (As of 2014, the median household income in the South Crown Heights/Lefferts Gardens neighborhood was $41,867, according to the NYU Furman Center, and between 2000 and 2014, the percent of low-income residents who were rent-burdened grew by 10 percent to 50.8 percent.)
AbunDance students have been practicing their dance steps and perfecting their singing voices at four different spaces since the shutdown. From national cuts to arts education to rapid gentrification in Prospect Lefferts Gardens and the surrounding area, the three-year-old nonprofit organization faces multiple hurdles to assembling everyone again. But if United for Small Business NYC, a coalition of organizations assembled by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, has its way, small businesses like AbunDance will have more security when it comes to setting up shop in neighborhoods across the city. In early June, the group released its platform, calling for tougher policy that would combat commercial displacement, such as tools that would help develop affordable commercial space and a penalty system for landlords who warehouse property.
“Those fines have to be greater than what the developer or whoever owns the space can bear so that they really stop doing it,” says Risa Shoup, executive director of Spaceworks, a nonprofit cultural community development organization that works to supply affordable rehearsal and studio space for artists. “This arts academy, other arts organizations, are so important because that’s how people within various communities can elevate their practice and feel empowered to collaborate and share, and if they want to continue to grow and show their practice to more and more people.”
Since October 2016, NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs has been gathering feedback for CreateNYC, the city’s first cultural plan. Shoup has consulted on the plan, which will be available later this month. Those surveyed have expressed a desire for greater diversity in arts and culture leadership, better access to information about programs, and equitable distribution of programming throughout the boroughs.
“I’d say especially within Brooklyn, part of why I think all arts organizations in boroughs that are not Manhattan are important is just because for so long, we’ve kind of concentrated our resources for arts and culture, including but not limited to money, to the borough of Manhattan,” Shoup says.
In gentrifying neighborhoods, part of the challenge as Jay well knows, is paying the rent on space.
AbunDance Academy of the Arts in Brooklyn closed in April. (Photo by Deonna Anderson)
“For all of the progress we have made over decades to establish and protect the rights of residential tenants, the rights of commercial tenants are largely limited to what’s in their lease,” Benjamin Dulchin, ANHD’s executive director, said in a statement announcing the platform to combat commercial displacement. “With gentrification and displacement threatening the viability of commercial tenants in neighborhoods across the city, City Hall needs to develop tools to protect small businesses, create affordable space, and regulate bad landlords.”
While City Council enacted legislation last year to prevent commercial tenant harassment, there’s no substantive commercial rent regulation in New York City. Activists have been fighting this battle for years. In 2014, small business advocates pushed for the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, legislation that would provide equity between the commercial tenant and landlord during lease negotiations. It has been stalled in city council since its introduction.
Meanwhile, without official regulation, nonprofits in gentrifying neighborhoods around NYC have to look for money with rising rents in mind.
AbunDance received funds from City Council Member Mathieu Eugene’s office to offer classes to seniors. “One of my huge, huge mottos is that I love to teach the arts, and spread the arts for students from ages 2 to 82,” Jay says. “And I joked around because last year we actually had an 83-year-old, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute,’ so we do classes for ages 2 to 92.”
On a recent Sunday in June, as AbunDance students danced at Kings Theatre, during a portion of the show, which was inspired by the “Sister Act” movies, women dressed like nuns walked down the aisles to collect donations. Jay delivered a call to action to the audience to keep AbunDance alive.
For two months, the organization has also been running a GoFundMe campaign to raise $50,000. They’ve got just under $14,000 so far.
Community members have been showing support in other ways. They have given Jay words of encouragement and spread the word to their networks. People from the neighborhood who never stepped foot into the old studio have donated. Parents have paid for their children’s classes in the disparate locations and given extra at the same time.
“What’s unfortunate is that I have to drive by our previous location every day,” Jay says. “And there is nothing going on.”
Deonna Anderson was a 2017-2018 Next City equitable cities fellow. An Oregon-based reporter with experience covering city government and social issues, she graduated from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a concentration in urban reporting. Her work has appeared in The Marshall Project, Oregon Humanities and Vice's Motherboard.