It went thataway: the art scene that just won't stand still

No city does cutting-edge galleries and installations quite like New York. But, says Philip Hoare, it's a moveable feast and you need to know where to find it

Ever since the Museum of Modern Art's premises in central Manhattan closed temporarily in 2002, cultural tourists to New York have been joining a pilgrimage of hip kids and Upper Eastside dames whose Converse-sneakered or Jimmy Choo-shod feet have bravely forsaken the high-rise-strewn granite island for the city borough of Queens.

Ever since the Museum of Modern Art's premises in central Manhattan closed temporarily in 2002, cultural tourists to New York have been joining a pilgrimage of hip kids and Upper Eastside dames whose Converse-sneakered or Jimmy Choo-shod feet have bravely forsaken the high-rise-strewn granite island for the city borough of Queens.

Such an expedition is far more trepidatious than any transpontine trip for a Londoner going south of the Thames. There's a lurch of disconnection as the subway tunnels under the East River, to reappear in an apparently godforsaken zone memorably recorded in the work of the photographer Rudy Burkhardt, whose post-war scenes of Queens recall the episode in The Great Gatsby when the protagonists drive through the wasteland that separates jazz-age New York from their hedonistic playgrounds on Long Island.

Here, MoMA spent $30m converting a former staple factory into a two-year home for its collection. It was the equivalent, noted The New York Times, of buying an apartment to live in while your town house was being gutted - only here the apartment housed some of the greatest works of art of the past century, from Rousseau to Beuys and Warhol.

Disgorged into this nether region, foreigners gathered warily - as if seeking safety in numbers - under the elevated train tracks before crossing the highway and gaining the familiar sanctuary of a world-famous art collection and, of course, its attendant café. The more intrepid visitor to this terra incognita makes a further trek: to the MoMA- affiliated P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. This is a former school building whose winding white-painted classrooms and glazed corridors now house video art and, at the weekend, the Saturday "Warm-Up" from 3pm till 9 pm, with DJs and general hanging out. So much so that The New York Times remarked, "If art is your main interest, it might not be a good idea to visit P.S.1 on a Saturday afternoon. The music booms off the courtyard walls and the hallways and galleries can fill up with people. Still, it is gratifying to realise that some of them came to dance and then stayed to look ..."

But this November, Manhattan dames will breathe a sigh of relief as MoMA reopens on West 53rd Street in fabulous new headquarters, revamped at a pretty price of $850m. In the meantime, New York's artistic topography has altered irrevocably. In the 1980s, the scene centred on the warehouses and lofts of SoHo (South of Houston Street), a downtown area overshadowed by a thousand fire escapes and every other building a cutting-edge gallery. But now the restaurants and shops have moved in, and hotels such as the SoHo Grand - artfully designed to look like an industrial loft-space - cater to well-shod visitors who drift through its sepulchrally deluxe lobby with the gleanings of the upmarket shopping mall that SoHo now is. Here you're more likely to share the lift with a supermodel than an artist, on her way to its rooftop suites to party with such Manhattan celebrities as Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe and Moby.

Art shifted its focus instead to Chelsea where, from West 29th to West 18th Street, warehouses now accommodate prestigious gallerists such as Matthew Marks and Paul Kasmin.

A few blocks down, gentrification has turned the former Meat Packing District into a retail and eating opportunity for the achingly fashionable. Here, in an area roughly equivalent to London's Smithfield, the Soho House (a UK import) was joined this year by the egregiously modern architectural addition that is the Gansevoort Hotel.

So much for the rich kids. Avant-garde New York has already moved on to Williamsburg, an area of Brooklyn just beyond Dumbo (acronym for another upcoming area - "down under Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges"). This is a truly surreal adventure, even for a Hoxtonian such as me. You emerge from the L train at Bedford Avenue into what looks like a post-apocalyptic cityscape. The main drag resembles the funkier edges of the East Village but the graffiti-strewn streets running off it (where the galleries and most fashionable restaurants and shops are) have the ambience of a metropolis in an advanced state of decay. Car workshops abut houses seemingly clad in PVC; elderly women, their eyes turned cataractic in the sun, sit out on rickety plastic chairs in mockery of the lack of green spaces. There is little to be seen of the Hasidic Jews who once populated the area; the road is being dug up; the smell of asphalt hangs in the air.

But interspersed with these blue-collar dwellings are cavernous galleries with art priced at thousands of dollars. One of the first to stake out a claim on Williamsburg was Jessica Murray, who's been here for seven years now. The concrete façade of her gallery looks more like a nuclear bunker, but inside, you'll find work not only by local but also international artists. Go to Williamsburg on a midweek afternoon and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Turn up on a weekend (the third Friday of each month is a good bet - many galleries are open till midnight), and you'll be treated to a parade of hipsters wearing T-shirts from the local designers Brooklyn Industries (with the area's trademark water towers reproduced in camouflage print) and checking out the latest art volumes in the Spoonbill bookstore.

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, the New Museum of Contemporary Art - established in SoHo in 1983 when its art scene was at its height - closed this spring with a suitably blockbusting final show by the cult director John Waters. With its move to the historically dissolute and dangerous Bowery - the skid row that was once home to McGurk's Suicide Hall, where, in the 19th century, despondent prostitutes went to kill themselves by drinking carbolic acid - comes the latest signifier of another new art zone. "We're trail-blazers," says the museum's director, Lisa Phillips.

One steamy afternoon, the museum's PR, Chelsea Scott, took me on a tour of the new site. It sits next to the Sunshine Hotel - the kind that rents rooms by the hour - with the Bowery Mission to the down-and-out close by. But soon this vacant parking lot will exude an angular white assemblage of Post-Modern boxes, teleported into a street better known for supplying restaurant fittings.

The new building, designed by the Tokyo architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, will cost $35m - little more than MoMA spent on its staple factory. Yet when it opens in spring 2006, it will be a permanent site, and inevitably, it will change the character of what lies around it.

Indeed, it already has. Perhaps to prepare its unwitting neighbours for the oncoming hordes of fashionable New Yorkers, the New Museum commissioned five artists to set up site-specific pieces in the locality. These include a bright yellow periscope erected by Julianne Swartz on the façade of the Sunshine Hotel, enabling passers-by to engage with the inhabitants on its third floor. There is also Narnian construction in a martial arts emporium where, having given the shopkeeper the correct password, visitors push through a curtain at the back of the store into a cupboard built out of packing-cases. Here, video screens issue instructions by the art collective Flux Factory for impossible missions to be undertaken in the area. A third artist, Marion Wilson, has solicited contributions from the Bowery Mission clientele (one donated his newly cut dreadlocks) which she touts round the streets on her "art-vendor cart" - rather like a tramp wheeling his or her worldly possessions in a supermarket trolley.

Perhaps there's a kind of decadence to this aesthetic appropriation of run-down neighbourhoods. In Hoxton, I've witnessed a similar transformation - from the early-1980s recruiting ground for the National Front to a street whose residents now include Jarvis Cocker and the YBA painter Gary Hume. It's a familiar inner-city dynamic of our age: art blunts the grit, and smooths the way for the bourgeoisie. It has happened in Berlin, where former East Berlin is the only place to go; while as John Waters comments, in Los Angeles, they've run out of places to colonise: "There isn't a bad neighbourhood left."

Typically, and exasperatingly, the Bowery scene has already happened, says Waters; the condominiums (at $1.3m each) are going up even before the New Museum has arrived. Nor should you go to Williamsburg to discover the next big thing. The fickle finger of fashion now points to the lower West Village, between Houston and Christopher Streets. Here Gavin Brown's Enterprise gallery - generally regarded as the art barometer - has relocated from Chelsea to a site at Greenwich and Leroy. Brown "always chooses a neighbourhood that's inconvenient", says an insider. "It means that people going there really want to go there - they're not stupid tourists." That rules out the rest of us, then.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com) is offering flights for £199 if you book before 28 September for travel between 25 December and 30 April. Otherwise return flights cost from £314. The SoHo Grand, 310 West Broadway (00800 7646 4726; www.sohogrand.com) offers rooms from $343 (£190) per night.

Where to go

MoMA QNS, 33rd Street at Queens Blvd, Long Island City, Queens (001 212 708 9400; www.moma.org). From 20 November it returns to 11 West 53rd Street, New York. P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens (001 718 784 2084; www.ps1.org). New Museum of Contemporary Art, Prince Street and Bowery (001 212 219 1222; www.newmuseum.org; www.williamsburggalleryassociation.com).

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