Artist panel leads residents in gentrification debate
Artists and residents came together at the Old Bronx Courthouse on Brook Avenue and 161st Street, also known as the “Gray Lady,” on June 18 to discuss the relationship between the arts and the rapid changes underway in Mott Haven and Melrose.
The event, which was organized by the arts nonprofit No Longer Empty, was dubbed “Shifting Sands: New Dynamics in the Bronx Art Scene,” to inspire a public conversation about ways in which the community can withstand those changes.
Before the panel began, Eileen Newman, the executive director of the Center for Bronx Non-Profits at Hostos Community College, sounded an ominous note, informing the gathering about the murder of nine parishioners at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina the previous evening.
“It is art that can heal us as we go through these terrible times,” Newman said.
No Longer Empty, which repurposes abandoned buildings around the city for art exhibitions and educational programs, reopened the courthouse in April for a three-month show. Several of the panelists stressed that Bronx artists should be responsible for reflecting the borough’s character through their work.
“We’re not just here to draw pretty pictures,” said Bronx artist Dennis Redmoon Darkeem.
Darkeem was a contributor on the six-member panel, which also included former Bronx Council on the Arts director Bill Aguado, Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education’s executive director Sarah Calderon, The Point CDC’s visual arts director Carey Clark, award-winning dancer and choreographer Arthur Avilesof the Bronx Academy for Arts and Dance, the city’s deputy commissioner of cultural affairs for the city of New York Edwin Torres, and artist Alicia Grullon.
“Longtime Bronx residents must be represented in the art,” said Grullon. “If the demographics here change too much it won’t be the same and not just because artists won’t be able to afford the rents, but because of the intimate connection between artist and environment.”
Although local arts and artists benefit communities, the panelists said, their presence can also inadvertently lead to gentrification.
“The developers are smart,” said Michael Kamber, a New York Times photojournalist and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center. “They know rich people want to live near artists, they want to be seen as edgy.”
The stately courthouse itself became a topic of the debate. Though some said events like “Shifting Sands” are positive, others argued that activities more geared to serve the community directly would be even better.
“Art is fantastic, but can it create jobs?” said Kamber. “To be honest, I don’t think we should be in this space today.”
Attendees submitted written suggestions for possible uses of the old courthouse: a library, a health center and a museum were among the recommendations. No Longer Empty’s director of external affairs, Lindsay Smilow, reassured the crowd that the group’s ultimate recommendation to the building’s owner, Henry Weinstein, would include a strong community component.
“What about a homeless shelter here? Or somewhere we can send our children?” asked Tanzeem Shaneela, a Hunts Point resident.
Several parents suggested a free educational center or after school program, complaining that St. Mary’s Recreation Center on Saint Ann’s Avenue, overcharges.
Throughout the discussion, panelists and guests exchanged views about the role non-profits such as No Longer Empty have in the borough. Corporations donate to nonprofit organizations, rather than to individual artists. The artists then rely on those organizations for funding. Darkeem who said he relies on funding from groups like No Longer Empty, said that better communication between artists, nonprofits, and corporations would be helpful for all.
“I’d bet that ninety-percent of artists in the Bronx are just not recognized because they don’t register in the nonprofit universe,” said Aguado., adding that “nonprofits can be an amazing incubator for Bronx artists, if they can find a way to be more inclusive.”
But some residents expressed skepticism about the role of groups like No Longer Empty in the community. Pressure from residents and activists caused the arts group to cancel a party it had previously scheduled for real estate brokers in early June.
“We’re not here to gentrify,” said Manon Slome, the group’s president and chief curator. “Tell us what you want here.”
Bronx resident Takisha A. Dozier said she was simply happy to see the space finally being utilized. For twenty years, she used to pass by the historic building on the bus and wonder what it was.
“I came today mostly just to see what’s inside,” she laughed.