Jennifer Harder is a performer, actor and musician who’s been in a rotating stream of projects that would fall under the “alt,” “anarchist” or “steampunk” categories ever since moving to the city about 18 years ago. So she was surprised to find her picture on Brokelyn the other day under the headline “Here are some signs you’re about to gentrify a building” (Note: the headline has since changed for internal reasons). The post, written by me, called out an event a real estate company working for a landlord with a shady past used to help sell some Crown Heights units that had recently been flipped from apartments into pricey condos. The company lured buyers by throwing a steampunk/vaudeville party on April 20, with magicians, music and a bourbon tasting. Harder, 35, was upset at being pictured as the literal face of gentrification: “All of the entertainers are pros who were doing our jobs,” she tweeted at us. “The real estate agents should have been pictured instead.”
Harder and her fellow performer in the picture, Charley Layton, both consider themselves starving artist types: they’ve been in the city since the 90s and and have balanced intense creative pursuits — Harder plays in the legendary Hungry March Band and has toured with Gogol Bordello — with day jobs, side gigs and the occasional corporate event. The real estate job fell right on the the fault line many New York artists and musicians tiptoe every day: When should you take a gig just for the paycheck and when does a higher value demand you say no? There’s no easy answer, so I sat down with the two at Dixon Place on the Lower East Side the other day to talk about how they ended up taking the job and how they balance a career in the arts with the need to survive in an increasingly expensive city.
First, for the record, our post didn’t intend to make the duo the literal faces of gentrificaiton: the party they played at a building at 382 Eastern Parkway (trendily named 382e by real estate agents), was merely the symptom, a warning sign of the changes afoot, and the picture above happened to be the one the company sent out with a press release. It’s fair to say if a real estate company is trying to sell condos by holding a launch party — in a 100-year-old apartment building that was being flipped from apartments into condos costing as much as $1 million — they aren’t exactly targeting low-income residents. But Layton, 34, and Harder, 35, come off as people who spend most of their time rowing the canals of bohemian New York, not walking the hallways with shrewd capitalists. Harder and the Hungry March Band played our own Brokelyn High party at the Bell House in 2014.
“We were just hoping you were going to lampoon the fat cats instead of putting our cheesy mugs right under the announcement,” Harder, who moved to Williamsburg last year after living all around the city, told me.
Like lots of gigs in New York, the job came through connections made from playing other shows. Harder had met a real estate agent years ago while doing a Speakeasy Dollhouse show on the Lower East Side. It was an expensive show so it attracted the “kind of people who can afford $20 cocktails all night long,” she said.
The agent asked if he could hire her to throw a party to help sell a Tribeca property on the Bravo show Million Dollar Listing. Years later he contacted her about another idea: the company was trying to sell nine converted condos in a Crown Heights building and wanted to kick it off with some sort of fun theme, like a speakeasy. Would she be interested in rounding up some performers?
“I was like, ‘You’ve come to the right girl, I’m on it!” Harder recalled. “I was very excited to get my friends hired, at a rate that will pay their utility bills. I was really happy actually.”
The landlord behind those conversions, Pinnacle Group, has a long history of harassing tenants citywide and flipping lower-cost and rent-controlled apartments into high-priced condos. In 2011, the company reached a settlement over a class action lawsuit with rent-regulated tenants who said they had been subject to harassment, unlawful rent increases and aggressive eviction attempts during the real estate boom, according to the New York Times. In 2006, Democracy Now declared they were “carrying out an aggressive campaign to chase out many of its low-income and elderly tenants living in Harlem, the South Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.”
The final episode of WNYC’s gentrification podcast, There Goes the Neighborhood, released last week, said Pinnacle has been on a “march through New York’s gentrifying neighborhoods,” including converting at least 80 rent-stabilized units in Crown Heights to market-rate (read: expensive) housing so far (learn more about it here). The show’s producers tried to talk to the principal of the the company, but was told the he had no email or voicemail, then were hung up on (Note: Pinnacle owns the property but is not the company that actually hired the performers, which was handled by real estate company Keller Williams).
Harder and Layton didn’t know all this going into the gig, but they may have got some hint when they got there. One of the occupants of the building told performers that the property had bed bugs, and that if they should get out of there if they knew what was good for them.
“One of the tenants in the building did not want the event to be happening,” Harder said. “She was obviously upset.”
The real estate people waved off her concerns.
“They were like, ‘Ugh she’s crazy,’ ” Harder recalled them saying. ” ‘She doesn’t want the condos to be sold, she didn’t want the condos to be here in the first place.’ I was like, wow, huh showtime’s in 10 minutes. I guess I’ll just put my clothes in the dryer if there were bedbugs.”
— Jennifer Harder (@BlondeThunder) April 28, 2016
So how much do they look into a company like this before accepting a gig for them?
“I knew him [the agent] from before,” Harder said. “…No, I didn’t think about it.”
Layton said this was the first corporate job to come along for him in a while, so it was a big deal to accept it.
“I look into what I’m doing,” he said. “Personally, I just look at what my end of the responsibility is in this capacity. If I’m there to play music, I’ll show up to play music, get my check and get out.”
The event drew about 50 prospective buyers: they were young professionals of mixed races, people Harder described as “yuppies.” They got paid $500 each for the gig, which lasted about two hours. That’s the same amount as an arts grant Harder just applied for and won.
This is where the philosophical debate comes in, and where there are no hard and fast answers. One could argue (as we did) that helping a real estate developer sell condos makes you part of the problem of gentrification, making it harder for artists such as themselves to stay in New York. But one could also argue that artists could use easy paying corporate gigs to cover rent for the month and free themselves up to chase less profitable pursuits.
“I maintain a point that your issue is with the people in charge,” Layton told me. “I draw a line of my responsibility at: I’m hired to play this gig and I do it well to the best of my abilities, take payment and then I leave.”
Harder said she makes $12,500 a year from her art and does billing for a psychoanalyst on the side. Her rent is $800 a month, and both performers said they earned so little they qualified for Medicaid before Obamacare came along. Layton lives in Hamilton Heights with his wife, an aerialist. When he’s not doing gigs, he teaches a speech class at the Atlantic Acting School (and to be sure, his diction is quite excellent). When he’s not doing that, he busks in the subway or parks, playing classic accordion tunes or the Amélie soundtrack.
“I do it for the romantic experience,” he said. “My goal when I’m busking is to get two people to stop and kiss. … If I did that then I would consider myself a personal success. The problem with that is I get pennies or quarters.”
Harder takes the occasional acting gig. She appeared in a Super Bowl commercial for the NFL this year (filmed at Williamsburg’s Union Pool, incidentally). She’s debated the ethical quandaries of taking big paying jobs before: she nearly landed roles in ads for Tyson chicken and Popeyes; as a vegan, she wasn’t sure if she should take them (she ended up not getting cast in either). The Hungry March Band turned down an offer to appear on an MTV show once because it would have been a self-mocking role, she said.
“I think if we weren’t so hungry, we would have thought more about it,” she said of the condo gig, “if we had the luxury of being able to afford turning down a gig like this.”
(Here’s Harder and Layton together in a video they did for the Bathtub Jen and the Henchmen series, filmed at Brooklyn’s Way Station bar:)
Would you turn it down? Would I? It’s hard to make that judgement call for any other person without knowing their circumstances. But the concept of “selling out” is as outdated in modern New York City as using Hop Stop or finding an affordable loft in lower Manhattan. It’s so expensive to exist and so hard to make money off doing what you love that we all make compromises a little. You paint a mural for a developer, you write for a newspaper who constantly trolls cyclists and homeless people, you do PA work for a brain-numbing reality show, you take an assignment from Vice while still bemoaning Vice’s role in destroying the culture it came from. Ideological purity is like a juice cleanse: it sounds great in theory but it’s gonna give you weird shits and just leave you hungry at the end of the week.
Their advice to up-and-coming artists trying to make the same decisions is to diversify what you do so you can make money from lots of different sources. After we talked, I asked: knowing all this about the building’s owner, would they still have played the gig? Harder was unsure; Layton said he would.
“I needed the money and I don’t mind about my artistic integrity being called into question because I play a damn good set,” he said. And if I play a damn good set in a lobby, the next day I’m gonna play it in the park.”
Harder added: “And then people will kiss.”
You can catch Harder in the Marx Brothers musical I’ll Say She Is at the Connelly Theater in the East Village; previews begin on May 28. Find her other shows here. Check out Layton MCing the Poetry Brothel at the House of Yes this Sunday, which is maybe a nice date for Mother’s Day.
Would you play a gig like this? If you’re an artist or musician, where do you draw the line of what gigs to turn down? Let us know in the comments!
Follow Tim, whose picture has surely been used as the face of gentrificaiton at some point: @timdonnelly.