Anya Liftig is a 1995 Staples High School graduate. She entered Yale intending to major in political science. Ahead lay law school and a career in public service. But, Liftig says, “I took the liberal arts mission very seriously. I ended up questioning if that was what I really wanted to do.” She graduated as an English major.
She wandered through Asia with a backpack, and worked on a farm. She came back, and became a paralegal for a white-shoe Wall Street firm. She helped set up offshore entities and made good money. Yet she thought all the lawyers with fabulous apartments were “bored out of their minds.”
She quit and signed on with Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. Liftig was a tracker, following Rudy Giuliani around with a camera. Clinton kept talking about the need for health care, but did not provide it to her own workers like Liftig.
Disillusioned, Liftig left politics. She studied with Norwalk photographer Joe DeRuvo. Her photos appeared in the New York Times Magazine.
She reconnected with her old high school boyfriend and moved to Georgia where he lived. A short time later, they broke up. She enrolled in Georgia State University’s master’s in fine arts program. She earned two degrees and became a conceptual performance artist.
Liftig moved back to New York. She knew if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. She’s done other things — tutoring, selling books on the street — and she built out an art space (until her building was condemned, then turned into condos).
In the aftermath of the horrific Oakland fire — which gutted a warehouse that had been converted into a live/work art space, and killed a Staples graduate — Anya posted her reactions on Facebook. She wrote:
Every artist, especially every performance artist I know, has had experience living, staying, creating, and working in a space like this. We know this building and thousands like it in Detroit, Chicago, Brooklyn, Newark, Cleveland, Portland, Queens, Berlin, New Haven, the Bronx, Yonkers, London, Bridgeport, Oakland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philly, Pittsburgh et al.
When I moved to Bushwick in 2004 and built out a raw factory space with my partner, this was our reality. The fire exits were padlocked with chains to keep us from using them. No fire extinguishers. There were no fire detectors or working sprinklers. Eventually we were tossed out to make way for another round of artists (read people who could pay more.) Today 17-17 Troutman is a bastion of the Bushwick/Ridgewood art scene — flush with established galleries and artists with the money to pay the exorbitant rent.
This is the legacy that Soho/Tribeca/LES/East Village/DUMBO/Williamsburg/ Gowanus et al is built on. (Lest we forget the women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.)
But it’s not only the artists who are at risk, and artists who suffer. When the FDNY eventually raided our building, we spoke with them and appealed our case. They told us that, surprise!, we were living in a former pesticide factory and that our “landlord” had lied about having a Certificate of Occupancy from the city –and that when fire and destruction eventually came to our building (only a matter of time since people were illegally welding, wiring electricity, etc. in the building) that they would be risking their lives to come and save us. That put it in a new perspective for me.
Blame the developers.
Blame a country that thinks it is acceptable and even chic for artists to live in squalor.
Blame a country that claims to value freedom of a expression above all else and forces its real, honest to G-d artists to always live in poverty.
Blame a national culture that fetishizes “creativity” and “thinking outside the box” only when it serves to line pockets with cash and decorate Louis Vuitton bags.
(Hat tip: David Roth)