The Beekman Street Arts Districts will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a slate of events this weekend – 20 years that have seen a westside neighborhood revitalized and artists sometimes becoming the victims of their own success.
While the district’s founder, its supporters and local artists tout the benefits the district has had on improving the westside neighborhood, they also lament how rising rents and limited zoning protections have made it hard for many artists to make their own space on the street.
This weekend the district plans to celebrate 20 years with pop-up artist sales, gallery events, panel discussions, food and music. Activities start Friday night and run through Sunday.
When clay sculptor Amejo Amyot returned to living full time in Saratoga Springs over two decades ago, she knew what she needed in the city: an arts district. She and a small group of other artists set out to find an area of town where affordable buildings could be converted into artist studios and galleries.
They eventually landed on the Beekman Street corridor, an area with a deep history as a mix of residential and commercial areas, that had become largely derelict by the end of last century. They began by renovating three abandoned buildings, earned the formal district designation from the city and started to attract artists to the area.
“We call her the diva of Beekman Street, but she’s really the founder,” Cecilia Frittelli said of Amyot. Frittelli runs the Textile Studio, which makes handwoven products, with her partner Richard Lockwood.
The arts districts had over a dozen studios and galleries at one point in the early years, but the Great Recession forced many artists to choose between paying rent on their home or their studio. By the time artists were ready to return to the Beekman studios, many were priced out of the neighborhood that their presence had helped improve.
“Landlords rented it out and by the time the art world recovered artists could not afford the rent,” Amyot said. “That was the beginning of a big change.”
Over the years, Amyot owned multiple buildings in the arts district, noting that the best way to ensure that artists used the space was for artists to own the spaces – not always an easy proposition.
“My niece kept saying you’ve got to own the buildings, you’ve got to own the buildings,” she said, noting that her niece worked as an arts advocate in Boston.
Fritelli and Lockwood bought their studio and retail space in 2007. At the time it was a condemned and vacant building that had a long history since it was built around 1850, serving as a general store that sold ice cream under the name Dake’s Ice Cream, the precursor to the now-ubiquitous Stewart’s chain of stores.
After working with a contractor for a year-and-a-half to renovate the structure, they moved their antique looms into the new workspace in spring 2009 and opened their shop to the public that July.
The antique looms sit in the main salesroom, giving shoppers a chance to see first-hand how the old-fashioned approach to textiles works.
“Everything is done right here in house,” Frittelli said. “It’s got good karma because we have had a good run here.”
Frittelli and Lockwood live in Greenfield, but during the pandemic they would often sit in front of their Beekman Street store for a chance to interact with others who live or work in the area.
“We are a close neighborhood,” Frittelli said.
Beekman Street has a long history in Saratoga, serving as the home of Italian immigrant families in the early 20th century and also a home base for many African American families midcentury. The historic Frederick Allen Elks Lodge, which has roots in the city’s Black community, still anchors the corner of Beekman and Oak streets. The lodge on Sunday will host an open mic event for people to share stories about the impacts of the city’s “urban renewal” projects of the 1960s and 1970s, which displaced many Black residents.
More recently, the Beekman Arts District’s advocates have sought a formal designation and zoning protections as the city works through its uniform development ordinance. While the still-in-the-works citywide zoning proposal classifies the area as an arts and culture district, the district advocates said they were hoping that the district would have been enlarged and that uses would have been more tightly restricted to artists, studios and the kind of boutique stores that generate foot traffic and match well with the artists.
“We do have hope that these buildings can revert to art use in the future,” Lockwood said.
Painter Eden Compton moved to Saratoga Springs about five years ago. She is now president of the Saratoga Springs Arts District. She works from a well-lit room in her studio space, showcasing the work of other artists, along with some of her pieces, in a front room that looks out onto the building’s historic front porch. Compton on Friday will host a gallery opening for artist Lisa David, who works as a Shenendehowa Central School District art teacher, showcasing her paintings of life in 1972.
“It’s a real sense of community,” Compton said of the neighborhood. “As much as we would like to have more people coming up, it’s nice and quiet to work.”
She said she could envision closing part of Beekman to car traffic and stringing lights across the road to create a pedestrian mall of sorts full of artists and other local shop owners selling their wares. In the meantime, she and others hope to attract more tourists and locals to the district, noting that many longtime residents are still unaware of what Beekman Street has to offer.
“I can’t tell you how many people come in and say, ‘I’ve lived here 30 years and have never been on this street,’” Compton said.
She said studio space is at a premium and that it can be hard for artists to compete with other potential tenants. “We do hope we can get more artists to come to the street,” she said.
Cassie Fiorenza, owner of Collective 131 at 74 Beekman St., is a member of the new generation of store owners settling on Beekman. She opened her studio, which sells a mix of art and goods produced by locals, in the midst of the pandemic. She said the holiday season brought in a lot of locals and the summer season has brought in tourists – especially those looking like they were trying to avoid the track. But it’s still a challenge drawing people from the crowds that swarm the Broadway area.
“It looked like a really cool street,” Fiorenza said. “It’s good to be a little off Broadway, but part of the challenge is getting people over here.”
She has run an online business for a while and relocated from Hoboken to Albany, where she grew up, during the pandemic. She thought opening her own storefront would be too expensive but found that she could make the Beekman Street location work.
“I always wanted to open a space, but I never thought I would be able to,” she said.
Amyot said she thinks that other artists will find their way to Beekman Street, and she called on city officials to adopt zoning rules that will foster the district.
“I think we are due for a renaissance,” Amyot said. “The City Council has to be behind an arts district and help us move forward with supportive planning and zoning.”
Here’s a schedule of this weekend’s activities:
Friday, 5 to 7:30 p.m.:
- Pop-up artists and shops and galleries open late
- Opening reception for artist Lisa David at Eden Compton Gallery, 79 Beekman
- Principessa Elena Society Italian dinner at 10 Oak St., take-out or dine-in
Saturday, 2 to 8 p.m.:
- Live model session open to all artists at the garden at Eden Compton Gallery
- 20th-anniversary reception at Living Resources, 70 Beekman St., 5 to 8 p.m.
- Presentation on the history of the area from city historian Mary Ann Fitzgerald
Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m.:
- Erasing Spaces and Faces at the Frederick Allen Lodge, 69 Beekman: an open mic for community members to share stories about displacement during the city’s urban renewal; jazz quartet also to perform.