N.Y. town re-creating itself

SUN JOURNAL

Binghamton: Blight turns old industrial properties into just the right places for visual artists to gather and ignite energy.

August 20, 2002|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — BINGHAMTON, N.Y.- For years, people looked at the blighted block of State Street lined with abandoned factories and warehouses and saw the worst: the Hell's Angels hangout, the drug bars, the raucous fraternity parties, the reminders that the once-thriving manufacturing hub has been bleeding jobs for decades.

But the artists saw something else: huge 19th-century industrial buildings with large windows, high ceilings, the chance to own 9,000 square feet for something like $75,000.

And so they came - just a few so far but enough to spark queries from New York, Miami, Toronto and elsewhere, leading to talk of an emerging "mini-SoHo" in this aging, conservative town 180 miles northwest of New York.

"There's a certain ethos, an energy in the area right now," said Hall Groat II, director of the Avenue Art Gallery, which opened in April in nearby Endicott. "Politicians are sold on the idea that culture brings in a qualified work force."

A tall order, of course, but then again this is precisely how Manhattan's SoHo got started 30 years ago, followed by enclaves in other cities around the country where artists seized on cheap real estate, and in the process made the neighborhoods beautiful (and pricey).

"Artists tend to be the shock troops for dying cities," said Peg Johnston, who started a cooperative gallery on State Street two years ago. "They're always poor and starving, and they can get a lot of space they can mess up. But they're also risk-takers, willing to go somewhere no one else wants to be. It's almost a blank slate. They'd rather take a chance and create something rather than move in someplace that's already done."

It's a particularly sweet turn of events for the arts community here, which has long bemoaned the void in visual arts despite thriving opera, symphony and theater companies and the presence of a state university.

Now political leaders are hoping that visual art - for a long time relegated to bank and hospital lobbies - might provide a long-sought lifeline to a company town that has lost its companies- first Endicott Johnson, with its 22,000 shoe-manufacturing jobs, and then IBM, which was founded here, but whose local work force has dwindled from 14,000 to 2,000.

"The question is: `Who are we going to be now?'" said Donna Lupardo, a former county legislator and candidate for state assembly. "How do we make this an interesting place for young people to stay? Enter the arts. It's not going to be our salvation, but it's a critically important component."

In other parts of the city and surrounding area - set in a picturesque region at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chenango rivers - galleries and art spaces have recently opened up, creating more opportunities for local artists to show their work, as well as drawing talent from outside the region.

There was no meeting, no plan to create an artists colony in the tri-city region of Binghamton (hometown of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling), Endicott and Johnson City. Rather, there were simply a handful of people - a painter here, a dealer there - each in his own world, all with converging ideas.

It hasn't hurt that some of the artists are well-known names, including one with serious star power: photo-realist Anthony Brunelli, a Binghamton native who made a niche painting urban landscapes of his hometown and has been represented for the past decade by New York dealer and SoHo gallery owner Louis K. Meisel.

The 33-year-old charismatic redhead could settle anywhere - his paintings sell for $40,000 to $120,000 - but he bought a four-story, brick, turn-of-the-(last)-century former food warehouse on State Street that he has turned into loft living space for his family and a top-floor studio. He also has plans for an art school on the second floor.

Brunelli wants to lure others into downtown loft living and develop an arts district in the spirit of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., a World War II weapons plant that is now home to artists and craftsmen.

"I'm not really a developer, and I don't want to be," he said. "It just grabbed me, and I can't let go, even though I should. This is the only thing that can save an area like this in upstate New York."

Now, Meisel, his dealer - who is among a small group of people who helped create SoHo - is providing financial backing for Brunelli to buy, renovate and sell lofts in another building in the neighborhood.

"We looked at loft and commercial buildings, and it turns out for not too many millions of dollars you can buy all of downtown Binghamton. Everything is for sale," Meisel said. "I told him to start with one building."

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