I met artist Richard Humann on a Queens-bound G train in the summer of 2015. He was reading a book about Chinatown and I asked him if it was good. It wasn’t, he noted, but we talked and we stayed in touch, sharing our memories and dreams of Brooklyn. He’s traveled the world for his award-winning art, but since 1985 Greenpoint has always been home. While he can’t recall creating any conscious odes to Greenpoint in his work, the neighborhood and its residents have undoubtedly influenced him in his decades here.
When he moved to Brooklyn from his hometown of Stony Point, New York (“I would say it’s like an hour north of the city but it’s a million miles away”) after college, he shacked up on Meserole Avenue. In the years since, he’s migrated a mere block over. “I never left,” he smiles. When he first moved to Greenpoint, Humann recalls that Williamsburg was considered a hotter area because it was more rough and tumble – south of 7th Street wasn’t considered safe. He had shows in both neighbs though, from the Minor Injury Gallery – one of North Brooklyn’s first as far as he’s aware – to Williamsburg’s Pan Arts gallery, both long closed.
He’s stayed put as the neighborhood changed over the years along with the rest of the borough and city. I spoke with him about his thoughts on gentrification, the bad old days, bygone businesses, and what the future holds for Greenpoint.
All photos © courtesy Richard Humann
What do you miss most about how the neighborhood was back in the day?
It felt more like a family-oriented town than what it is today. There were a lot of Polish people who had generations of family here – now there’s a lot of hipsters, which isn’t good or bad, but it feels like people who are new to New York. I really do miss the sense of family, although the block I live on hasn’t changed all that much. I’d say that this block is almost frozen in time. The two delis have had different owners, but basically it’s the same kind of food.
So you feel the neighborly community feeling hasn’t persevered against rising rents, that it has objectively diminished?
Yes. I think what you have now is, the people who own the buildings, who probably say OK, I can make a lot on rent – they moved to some sunny place. This is not a negative statement I’m making, just an observation.
It’s kind of like when I go to Venice, Italy. There are still Venetians there but they have little pockets where they go. I think Greenpoint is becoming like that, where there are pockets of locals, but there are a lot of areas that are more hipster’d out. Manhattan Avenue hasn’t changed that much, but it’s beginning to, it’s changing a lot from what it was, but in the center there’s a lot of what there used to be, but bars are creeping in, more expensive restaurants are creeping in.
Do you think having those pockets makes it more authentic in a certain sense, to be the last of a dying breed?
Yes I do, and I feel that way about Venice also. The people still there are the real Venetians. They know where to go, like real New Yorkers – “Never go above 14th Street, it’s the nosebleeds.” It’s the same kind of way.
You’ve never expressed that to me; you’ve usually seemed more beaten down by the lack of community and the gentrification.
I think it depends what mood I’m in. It troubles me obviously but change troubles everybody; it’s both good and bad. The people who did own houses — now they’re worth more and it’s good for them, but it’s stifled the art scene. I don’t even know which artists are left anymore.
So where do the artists go? Do they stay in the city?
Artists are like cockroaches: You turn the lights on, they scatter. They run to different corners of places ’til they get chased around. There was a time we went out to Bushwick. I can’t think of any place in New York that’s not expensive now. I don’t know many people going up to the Bronx, it poses its own issues – the Triborough is pricey. So any money that you save if you’re driving somewhere, with an art studio there, you’re gonna pay on the bridge. The ride on the subway’s not horrible, but it’s still not exactly close.
There’s an older generation that is definitely moving upstate, to the Hudson Valley. Sometimes it’s better to go directly to the belly of the beast. If you’re gonna pay $2,000 a month here, you could probably get $2,500 a month in Chelsea or the Lower East Side and be right in the center of the gallery scene. Chelsea is beyond baked, but there might be little vacuum pockets people missed, temporarily, somehow. Many artists I know have moved to the Upper East Side, at cheaper rents than what people pay in Greenpoint.
Do you think that all the changes that are going on right now in terms of property values will stabilize, and Brooklyn can return to a place of affordability?
I hope so. I don’t know about affordability, but stabilization would be good because when I first came here, we would get together at Teddy’s – a bar and grill up on 8th – that was like my place to go, and that was the outpost, because south of that you got into trouble. We would meet there and different places and talk about art all day, and now all the artists I know talk about real estate. Conversations went from art and conceptions and aesthetics to rent or what you own. It’d be really nice if it went back to art again, and music. I don’t know if that can happen. It would have to go back to the days of The Deuce, almost, for it to happen on that level. I do miss that. I miss it. I could be pining about my youth, also, pining for my early days of New York.
I’ve been robbed here in Greenpoint, I’ve been held up, in Queens. There was this dangerous factor as well. In retrospect it’s very romantic – at the time, it sucked.
If you could bring back one shuttered Greenpoint business, which would you revive?
Right on the corner was a bar called the Landmark Tavern, and the first five or eight years I lived in Greenpoint from the 80s to the mid-90s, that was an old bar, it was a carve-oak bar, and the owner, Pat, knew everybody. We’d order a pitcher of beer and she’d cook – it was a real “Cheers” kind of place. Pat ended up losing her lease after 30, 40 years and she sold the bar. I think she was paying like $200 a month. I still miss that place to this day. I don’t even drink anymore, but having it there was a real sense of community. I’d come out of the studio and go to the bar next door; I’d literally walk next door. Now you’ve got bars that have been Disnified to look like an old bar. No bar has risen to fill Landmark Tavern’s void.
Check out Richard Humann’s work online at his website.