Local passport: South Bronx

11 February 2011

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE OF THE SOUTH BRONX was sometime in the eighties, as seen from the driver’s seat of a Toyota Celica hatchback packed to the top with my worldly possessions. I was with my older sister, and we were driving from Vermont to Washington, D.C., where I was about to move.

So, the Bronx isn’t really on the way to D.C. But we hit a traffic jam caused by an accident and through a series of ill-advised detours, ended up there, in the pouring rain and on the edge of nightfall. We weren’t too impressed with the neighborhood charms. But a gas station attendant gave us instructions through his Plexiglas-protected booth and my fogged-up car window, and we got back on the highway.

My second experience there was in December 2010. I had been assigned a story on Mott Haven, and trudged up with a friend, notes, map and GPS-enabled iPhone in hand. It wasn’t exactly “bleak” we kept telling each other, but it wasn’t lively, either. We wandered around a lot looking for the heart of the neighborhood.

Many shoes

The antiques district we’d heard about was down to two stores—one that looked like it had a well-heeled but absentee clientele; the other was a secondhand shop. The owner of that was nearly lost in the jumble of junk, but once she caught sight of us, she merged from the stacks and donned a little salesmanship. I was sort of keen to buy something from her, but my goodwill quickly dissipated with her astronomical pricing, which she seemed to pull out of thin air after giving me the once over.

We found a funky community garden—first drawn by its enormous tee-pee, then sort of captivated by its odd caretaker. We walked by a group of people hanging out in a makeshift sidewalk lounge. Someone else attached himself to us and followed us to the subway. We tried not be nervous ninnies but were relieved once on the other side of the turnstile. And disappointed.

I might have been more charmed on my first visit.

I recounted the failed fact-finding trip to my editor, and like all good city editors, he told me to go back and find the story. Argh.

This time, I brought along a six-foot-two friend, an urban planner with better radar than me. We started at the Bronx tourism office, and equipped with a map and recommendations, I felt more intrepid. Having a big guy with me helped.

We snapped shots along the Grand Concourse, the Bronx’s version of the Champs D’Elysee, sans arc, but stately nonetheless.  We found some art galleries and some cool street art. We stopped in on a multi-media group show at the Bronx Art Space that was as fine as anything you’d see in Chelsea. We had a good meal at the Bruckner Bar & Grill (I enthusiastically recommend the turkey burger and sweet potato fries). I met with Juanita Lanzo, the energetic and articulate director of the Longwood Gallery @ Hostos Community College, the premier gallery for showing artists of color.  She was in the midst of hanging a show titled “EYE AM A MAN,” which celebrates “man-hood in the gay-hood by the art-hood.”

Along Lincoln Avenue

This time, when night fell, we were transfixed by the way the light changed. The low-rise neighborhood has a very human scale that allowed us to see large expanses of sky. Structures that looked derelict by day, took on clean silhouettes against the setting sun—a reverse Colorforms of sorts.

We left, and while I had a better idea of what was happening here, I still didn’t have an impression of who was behind it. Mott Haven is in disguise as an artist neighborhood. There are scarce signs of artists at work: few storefront galleries, no art supply stores, frame shops or hangouts.

Juanita recommended a few people to contact, and after a few calls and emails, I had a pretty big list of people willing to talk to me about making art in the South Bronx—in fact, more than I could get on the phone before deadline.

The artists I spoke with all spoke about their sense of place—that unique, organic thing that makes the art community in this borough unlike other “art ‘hoods.” The conversations ranged from pride at making art in a rough and tumble neighborhood to frustration that artists here don’t get the same attention as those in hot art clusters.

Everyone with whom I spoke credited the Bronx Council on the Arts‘ promotion efforts for helping put the South Bronx on the arts map (BCA runs a monthly culture trolley). Everyone here had a local hero whom they cited as an inspiration—artistic or otherwise. And nearly everyone expressed concern over rising rents, which eke up each time a story about “the next Bushwick” appears in print. All of the sudden, I had three very different community stories: urban renewal, an under-the-radar arts scene and the threat (or promise) of development. We merged elements of all in amNewYork’s City Living feature. If you scroll to the end, you’ll see artists in their studios in the terrific slideshow by photojournalist Michael Kirby Smith. PDF download of the print version here.

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