Artist James de la Vega is not doing badly these days. With a brand-new East Village storefront and crowds of affluent shoppers drifting in every day, the former East Harlem icon is thrilled with his new gallery.
Although rents along the retail corridor of St. Mark’s Place range from $6,000 to $12,000 per month, de la Vega says the increased foot traffic is well worth the new, considerably higher, overhead.
Despite a recent campaign against gentrification and displacement in East Harlem, the artist sees no conflict in having moved to the trendy, downtown location. “I strive to live by example how to grow beyond the limitations created by our own fears,” he said. “I have no regrets about moving.”
Even so, the sidewalks along the artist’s former storefront on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 104th Street were filled with posters last summer—charging his former landlord, Hope Community, with “bullying poor people out of the neighborhood.”
Famous for his inspirational street murals and upbeat, East Harlem-oriented t-shirts, the 32-year-old Cornell University graduate first gained notoriety in 2003 when he was arrested for painting on the wall of a Bronx building without the owner’s permission. In 2004, he ran as a write-in candidate for state senator to protest his arrest and conviction.
Earlier this year, de la Vega lost the right to renew his five-year lease at the rate of approximately $575 per month when, according to Hope Community, the artist failed to comply with a previously agreed-upon agreement that included full financial disclosure and monthly art donations.
Balking at paying the standard commercial rate of $3,000 per month, the artist and his followers instead embarked on a smear campaign with storefront signs and press releases claiming that the local development agency was “committing a crime against the neighborhood [through a] vicious game of money.”
“Hope Community is the biggest culprit in gentrifying the neighborhood,” read one de la Vega placard–charges which Executive Director Bill Jacoby publicly disputed.
Despite the agency’s offer to assist him in finding another spot in the area, de la Vega instead continued his media relations campaign bemoaning the loss of his sweetheart deal. The “struggling” artist quickly became the media’s darling as they quoted him in dozens of articles on gentrification and electoral politics in East Harlem.
De la Vega’s campaign eventually backfired, however, when he began lashing out against Latino elected officials and political aspirants—blaming them for the “cultural genocide of East Harlem.” His parting shot left an especially bitter aftertaste when he painted his storefront gate with what many perceived to be insulting slogans urging local residents not to vote for any Hispanic candidate and to vote “Bloomberg for Mayor” instead.
“De la Vega speaks for no one but himself,” says one local resident. “I can maybe agree with his statement that local officials are ‘puppets clowning around … hoping for a piece of the pie,’ but his bizarre statement that ‘East Harlem deserves to be taken away’ certainly did not win him any sympathy points here in el Barrio.”
When asked, the artist defended his rationale in a press release. “I do not want to get involved in the petty politics that presently make up the dynamics of the Latino community, there is no victory there,” he wrote. “By exploring a wider audience, I will continue to deliver the same message given birth in the streets of Spanish Harlem.
“I want to forge a new path that takes our people to a spiritual place where we can see beyond the borders imposed by poverty, where we make a place for ourselves in the world. I am sad to leave behind the children who are growing up under these oppressive conditions. For 12 years we brought a magic to the streets, and they will be robbed of this gift.”
Still, it remains to be seen if East Harlem has seen the last of James de la Vega or whether anyone will actually notice that he is gone.