When artist Lisa Conrad first moved to Newark from Philadelphia five years ago, the city’s downtown was still affordable.
She paid just $187 a month in rent for a share in a combined residential loft and artists' studio above a fried chicken joint on Broad Street across from Military Park.
Since then, Military Park has been completely refurbished, Prudential’s new office tower has opened and the long vacant Hahne & Co. department store is being transformed into an residential and retail destination anchored by an upscale Whole Foods supermarket.
You might guess where the story is going next: The 33-year old starving artist was driven out of a gentrifying downtown by rising rents. While that’s certainly still a possibility, Conrad is working to make sure her story doesn’t follow that plot line.
“I always have to think five steps ahead,” said Conrad, an art teacher at Columbia High School in neighboring Maplewood. “That's how artists have to survive, and hopefully thrive, in the face of downtown development everywhere.”
Though Conrad was forced to leave her original digs where she founded the Newark Print Shop in 2012, she ended up moving a few blocks away to a second floor space on University Avenue near the corner of Market Street.
With the help of friends from the nearby Kilkenny Alehouse, where Conrad used to bartend, she refurbished and rewired the space. A discarded Charles Brand etching press left outside of the Newark Museum, described by Conrad as "the BMW of printmaking presses," found its way to the new location.
Donations of additional aesthetic material flooded in from artists from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Jersey City and Newark, including from the downtown Aljira Art Contemporary gallery, who heard about the print shop's plight.
Through word of mouth, the Newark Print Shop became a hive of artistic activity, stuck like honey smack dab in the heart of Newark's downtown.
Among the programs available at the print shop include a wide-open Wednesday night printmaking event, where all members of the community are welcome to try their hand at one of the finest arts.
A recent mid-week art-making session saw over 30 people jammed into the print shop's second floor space, etching images and slogans on colorful cloth and other tableaux.
Marta Tchorzewska, a native of Poland, came to the print shop last Wednesday night with her sister Maggie for the first time and was instantly reminded of home.
"This is the type of thing we used to do back in school in Warsaw," said Tchorzewska, 24, a resident of Newark's Ivy Hill neighborhood and a graduate of Newark's Mount Vernon Elementary School and East Side High School, as well as Rutgers University in Newark.
"This is so good for the community to make art together, and so good for the whole city,” Tchorzewska said. “I love Newark and I'm not leaving anytime soon. And now that I'm here, I don't want to leave the print shop, either."
During a recent event high above downtown at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Indigo, Conrad looked down at a district where squatters used to live in buildings soon to be developed into condos.
The story of artists who reoccupy and renew downtrodden downtowns, then are driven out by rising rents, has been well played out in other cities. But Conrad, a New Jersey native who studied at Kean University, believes artists can carve out a different destiny for themselves and their creative communities.
Conrad said she is learning to play the corporate partnership game as she prepares to approach major Newark business players such as Prudential, Panasonic and Audible Inc. on the Newark Print Shop's behalf.
Her eyes light up as she shakes the hand of former Newark Mayor and now-U.S. Senator Cory Booker as he left a recent press conference held at the hotel, seeing another potential source of aid for the city's artists.
Conrad recounts a recent conference held by current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka for the Newark art community in which he encouraged artists to radiate throughout the city.
"I can see Newark Print Shops in every ward. And if we are going to have a Teachers Village, why can't we have an Artists Village, too?" said Conrad, referring to major downtown development project on Halsey Street.
"We need artists to stay here,” Conrad insists. “Do you want a boring, sterile city? I know I don't. What I want is for the Newark Print Shop to become an institution in Newark. And if we play the game right, we will get what we want."