Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Crafts on Columbus

For the past 34 years, a popular arts and crafts fair called Crafts on Columbus has thrived in a choice spot along Columbus Avenue between 77th and 81st Streets. For six weekends each year, white tents line Theodore Roosevelt Park. This coming weekend, however, is slated to be their last. Their permit expires this month and Community Board 7 denied a renewal.

Peter Salwen, artist and author of Upper West Side Story: A History and Guide, has started a petition to save the fair. It has over 1,450 signatures so far.

He calls the fair one of the great cultural features of the neighborhood. “In 1980,” he says, when the fair began, “the Upper West Side was a dangerous place. The fair contributed substantially to changing the area’s character. Now the artists are being attacked, as they were in SoHo and other parts of town, pushed out by the financiers.”

Peter Salwen's paintings

It’s unclear who exactly is responsible for the fair’s demise. Long-time fairgoer Pat Joseph says, “It’s just two crazy people on the Board with a lot of power. They want it gone for some strange reason. But who gets rid of something so good?”

It is difficult to make sense of it. In a city where so many cookie-cutter street fairs routinely commandeer the avenues, hawking the same tired wares in between mozzarepas and bouncy castles, Crafts on Columbus is a genteel operation. It’s the place to go when you need a gift for your Aunt Myrna, who loves a brooch made of antique wristwatch parts; or your mother, who looks fabulous in a hand-painted silk scarf; or your nephew, the newly minted psychotherapist, who needs art for his first office. Simply put, they’ve got nice Upper West Sidey stuff.

Opponents of the fair have argued that the vendors sell “junk,” but there are no two-for-one tube socks here, no t-shirts upon which Borat gives the thumbs-up and says “Sexy Time.”

Opponents claim that the fair overcrowds the sidewalk, but the entire length of it spans the backside of the Museum of Natural History, impeding not a single business nor residence. Meanwhile, Shake Shack across the avenue hosts a daily scrum of burger fanatics, jamming a residential sidewalk year round.

Opponents say the fair is noisy and that it hurts the businesses across Columbus. But the yuppies and white-haired ladies who peruse the handbags and cardamom-ginger soaps don’t make much of a peep. As for the businesses across the way, from the boutiques to the delis, they say the fair brings more customers into their stores (I asked them).

So what is this really about?

Simon Gaon with painting of a friend

Simon Gaon, artist, founder of the fair, and executive director of the American Arts and Crafts Alliance, blames local political maneuvering and a kind of Upper West cabal. “A few people over on 81st Street,” he says, “have ganged up with the farmer’s market.”

On Sundays year round, the 79th Street Greenmarket occupies this same desirable length of Columbus. On the six Sundays when Crafts on Columbus is here, the Greenmarket moves to a schoolyard on 77th Street. “They’re inconvenienced,” says Gaon. “That’s what this is about.” But Michael Hurwitz, director of the Greenmarket Program, told me: “Greenmarket has not been involved in any of the discussions concerning the Craft Fair permit.”

Since a greenmarket also brings crowding, noise, and commerce, this does seem to be an issue of changing tastes. When Community Board 7 wrote their resolution to deny the craft fair’s license (pdf), they clearly stated a preference for the Greenmarket, calling it “extremely popular with residents,” and citing its occasional displacement to a “smaller and less visible space” as the number one disadvantage of the fair.

Gaon has offered a compromise, proposing to cut the fair back from six weekends a year to just two, for Mother’s Day. “I thought that was a reasonable offer,” he says, “but the Community Board said the decision is final. They never gave us a hearing. We weren’t even invited to the meeting. They did this under the darkness of night.”

In 1979, when Gaon started planning the fair, he was a struggling artist. “I was second-generation welfare,” he says. “I didn’t go to college. I wasn’t articulate.” His therapist thought the fair could be a good way to make an independent living while helping other artists in the process. Three decades later, Gaon looks back and says, “This fair made me into a man. It gave me empowerment.”

When the fair shuts down after next weekend, a hundred artists and artisans—many of them local--will lose a place for making a living and finding empowerment in community. In our urban foodie culture, where buzzwords like “grass-fed beef” and “foraged greens” send fashion-conscious crowds clamoring for the next trend, farmers carry more cachet than artists.

Next May, instead of a nice hand-painted scarf, mothers across the Upper West Side will be getting handfuls of ramps.

But there's still hope:
  • Sign the petition here.
  • Tonight at 6:00, Councilmember Helen Rosenthal will put the craft fair's case before Community Board 7. Please attend--at the David Rubenstein Atrium, Broadway between West 62nd and West 63rd Streets.


Laura Goggin Photography said...

I've had friends from the west coast visit NYC just to go to this fair to buy art. What a shame.

laura r. said...

maybe they need the space to build a box store?

Anonymous said...

I am almost embarrassed to live in NYC these days. What a pathetic excuse for a city. There is nothing left of NYC. People go around claiming what a great city it is with their PinkBerry cups and cup cake frosting on their chins. I am actively looking to leave this sad city and finally find a nice city where rents are at least affordable and perhaps they honor and respect their past.

Anonymous said...

I am a longtime artist at CoC show and got tons of signatures on the petition going around. I heard that the head of the community board is part owner of the greenmarket so it is his vested interest to get rid of us since we take up 6 weeks of the year in prime selling season for fresh foods. I do not know if this is correct but several people have mentioned this to me. As always it is the people with the money and the power who play dirty and force the rest of us to live in their idealized notion of "suburban" NYC.