Artist collective makes its mark at local library
When Rafael Ramos moved into a building on Alexander Ave. eight years ago, he remembers the courtyard of the Mott Haven Branch Library across the street was an abandoned, lot filled with garbage.
Now when Ramos, 63, relaxes on his front stoop, he sees Piazza Gratissima, a public space where people can gather to share ideas or just shoot the breeze.
“As they were building it, people would pass by and mention how nice it is,” said Ramos. “It’s very creative and an effort worthwhile.”
The five artists who designed the site call themselves BroLab when working jointly on projects like Piazza Gratissima. They hope the 250-square-foot courtyard flanked by plywood seating, and eventually by greenery, will become a prominent gathering space for the community.
The artists proposed the idea for the piazza as part of an exhibition at the Bronx River Arts Center in the fall, and presented their idea to a public gathering at the library in March.
“We walked around and saw this part of the library in disrepair and we knew we wanted to build it out for community use,” said BroLab artist Travis LeRoy Southworth.
“This is the oldest library in the Bronx, it has amazing architecture and history to work with,” he said, pointing out that the project showcases the century-old building’s striking exterior.
The original idea later grew into conversations with neighborhood residents, community activists, and library-goers about what people wanted to see replace the ornate building’s empty lot.
The group then turned to Kickstarter, a website that allows people to raise funds to finance their pet projects. The artists raised $5,180 for construction of the piazza through the site, but, according to Southworth, fundraising was the most troublesome part of the project. Kickstarter allows fundraisers a maximum of 60 days to finance their projects, and BroLab’s piazza got off to a rough start.
But the Bronx River Arts Center came to the rescue, using its non-profit status to ensure all donations to the cause were tax deductible, and by promoting the fundraising campaign.
BroLab worked with another small arts group, the Bronx Green Machine, to incorporate two small vertical gardens into the Piazza. The artists hope the new green spaces will help prompt the library to offer gardening classes.
Branch manager, Jeanine Thomas-Cross, said the timing of the project is perfect. Crumbling debris had been falling into the courtyard from the facade of the building next door for some time, but recent renovations have finally ended that.
“It was a great empty space not being used,” said Thomas-Cross. “We hope to have movie nights, garden workshops, and read aloud for kids here.”
The project’s June 30th public unveiling coincided with the library’s summer reading program for kids and adults.
“Sometimes it gets loud in the library, with all the kids,” said 13-year old Kareem Gupton, a regular at the branch. “But over there it feels quieter and calmer. It’s a nice place to chill and do my homework.”