Adrian Walker

Ousting of South End artists sounds a sour note

Painter Paul Goodnight, shown in 2004, moved into the Piano Factory building 44 years ago, long before the South End was chic.
Globe Staff/File
Painter Paul Goodnight, shown in 2004, moved into the Piano Factory building 44 years ago, long before the South End was chic.

Paul Goodnight was an artist in the South End long before the neighborhood was fashionable — before million-dollar condos became commonplace, before chic restaurants became the norm.

Goodnight moved into his artists’ space in the Piano Craft Guild building — universally known as the Piano Factory — in 1974. Often described back then as an artists’ colony, the Piano Factory was a state-subsidized building that combined residential units with workspaces for artists. He was part of an artistic community in a neighborhood that was widely shunned as undesirable.

Now, that community is fighting to survive. The architect who owns the building, Simeon Bruner, has notified the tenants of the last five workspaces in the 174-unit building that their time is up at the end of the year. In a historically tough real estate market, they are scrambling to figure out where to go.


It’s part of a larger and distressing trend of artists being pushed out of the city. Against long odds, the Piano Factory tenants hope to find a way to push back against their displacement.

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“This is happening pervasively across the country,” Goodnight said, “And part of the problem is that a lot of the people don’t stand up and say things about it. They just move on to the next phase.”

The evolution of the Piano Factory has mirrored the changes in the neighborhood around it. The building — once the home of the Chickering Piano Co., hence the nickname — had fallen into elegant squalor by the 1970s. It was renovated as a combination of artists’ space and subsidized affordable housing.

In 1995, Bruner paid off a $3.4-million mortgage and sought to immediately convert the building to market-rate rents. A group of tenants went to court and successfully blocked their evictions. Bruner eventually offered his subsidized tenants $10,000 each to clear out, and many took the deal.

Meanwhile, the number of artists working in the building has steadily declined as well. At some point in the past few years, Bruner simply stopped renting any more workspaces to artists. He has continued to promote himself as a friend of the arts community — with little basis, as far as I’m concerned.


Wayne Strattman, an artist whose studio has been in the building for more than 30 years, notes that what is at stake is not simply a group of workspaces, but a community.

“We take care of this building, because we feel a very definite sense of community. We have worked very, very hard supporting each other in all ways.”

Of course, Bruner has a right to make decisions about his property. Obviously, it has exploded in value. And clearly, he has made the decision to maximize his investment. But the original image of a building where residents and artists would exist side by side has been abandoned.

Karen Schwartzman, a spokeswoman for Bruner, said the decision to kick out the artists was made so he can fulfill his vision for the building.

“Mr. Bruner wants to finish the project he began 45 years ago,” Schwartzman said. “It’s understandable that the change is unsettling and upsetting. It’s probably not a good time if you are one of them. But I don’t know that there is ever a good time.”


Schwartzman said Bruner was open to making some kind of accommodation for Goodnight — but not the other artists. That’s nice, but hardly a remedy for the situation.

Goodnight sat in his studio on a recent day, surrounded by hundreds of pieces of his art. He can’t imagine not being in the South End, and many of his neighbors can’t imagine the place without him.

“I’m making art, but art is truly making me,” he said. “When you find that you’ve contributed to the community, that you’re an asset, you realize that your goal in life is not to make a whole lot of money, but to continue on the path where you’re going. And you don’t want all of these kinds of interruptions.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.