A new billboard in Port Morris dubs the neighborhood the Piano District.

Developers’ Halloween bash enrages Bronxites

First, developers posted a billboard pronouncing Port Morris the Piano District, without community consultation. Then they threw a Halloween party featuring Naomi Campbell, Carmelo Anthony and other media darlings, provoking cries of “Enough already,” from artists and residents.

A new billboard in Port Morris dubs the neighborhood the Piano District.
A new billboard in Port Morris dubs the neighborhood the Piano District.

A-list soiree in Port Morris stokes fears of gentrification

A massive billboard posted by developers near the Third Avenue Bridge calling Port Morris the “Piano District” was the first spark to set off already simmering tensions between real estate moguls and nervous local gentrification-watchers in October.

The Somerset-Chetrit Group took a page out of Port Morris’ colorful history by referencing Port Morris’ role as a 20th century piano manufacturing hub, to advertise two luxury high rises planned for the waterfront.

The appearance of the billboard was followed by a pre-Halloween gala party thrown by developer Keith Rubenstein, celebrity artist Lucien Smith and art dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn in an old piano factory, with bullet riddled cars and trashcan fires serving as the backdrop. The Macabre Suite, as the one-night exhibit was called, attracted A-list guests like Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, supermodel Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner. It received notice in Vogue, and drew backlash from residents.

“The ‘Piano District’ was never a thing,” said Rosaly Ruiz, founder of the arts organization, Bronx Blaqlist, which organized a protest nearby with a defiant, artistic Halloween celebration of its own that night.

“I don’t know where these new Columbuses come up with these names. It was always the South Bronx, Mott Haven and Morissania. Not SoBro or NoBro,” Ruiz said.

Artists throw anti-development party

By Adam Shrier

Members of the Bronx Blaqlist arts collective met at the Port Morris distillery to protest the party thrown by developer Keith Rubenstein, saying it was symbolic of the looming threat gentrification poses for residents of the South Bronx.
The organizers encouraged those in attendance to dress up as stereotypes of common gentrifiers, though there were few costumes to speak of.
“What’s scarier than someone coming into your home and destroying your neighborhood,” the organization asked in the group’s invitation.
The Blaqlist and the 25 young people and local artists who gathered spoke about real-estate development in their communities.
“It feels like an invasion,” said Sasha Smith, co-founder of the Bronx Blaqlist. “Outsiders are coming in but it doesn’t benefit us. They’re not creating businesses or centers for the community.”
Smith and her partner Rosaly Ruiz, both from Williamsbridge, founded Blaqlist to create a network of Bronx artists and provide a venue for them to showcase their art. The event featured local writers, spoken word and hip hop artists.
Smith and Ruiz say artists in their neighborhoods lack resources and representation.
“We need to invest in the Bronx to reclaim our identity,” said Ruiz. “Local artists are not seeing the light of day. Our focus is opportunity.”
The Blaqlist would rather see theaters, community centers and educational programs than more new high rises.
“People think New York City needs more luxury,” said Smith. “At what point are we gonna start investing in people rather than in real estate?”
According to the founders, many artists and young people leave the Bronx because opportunities and resources are scarce.
“The Bronx is a pit stop. You’re raised to escape the Bronx,” said Ruiz. “You live here for cheap and when you’re old enough peace out.”
Many performers shared Blaqlist’s anger about the widely publicized party taking place that evening as well as efforts to rename the neighborhood the Piano District.
“How are you gonna tell a person making $9 an hour, with two children that pays $1,000 dollars for a one bedroom apartment that they can one day own a luxury apartment?” said Jay Espy, a poet and member of the local activist group the People’s Power Movement. “The message is not relevant to me. It’s relevant to the wealthy.”

Later, tweets began circulating, showing well-heeled party-goers posing against symbols of the borough’s arson-plagued past. The hashtag #WhatPianoDistrict gained traction on Instagram and Twitter. One person tweeted: “NYC burnt the Bronx to the ground in the 70’s”and asked “Now the rubble is decoration?”

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Others criticized the party’s choice of imagery and its insensitivity to longtime locals. One message read “Tasteless mockery of the nation’s worst urban catastrophe, suffered by people-of-color.”

As celebrities partied, Ruiz brought together 25 young people from around the borough at the Port Morris Distillery, where they spoke about the changes they see threatening their neighborhoods.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito entered the fray unprompted, tweeting a link to an article about the party with the message: “Trivializing legit concerns not welcome. Neither are attempts to erase neighborhood’s culture & history.

Commenters on social media were quick to note that Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. had attended the developer’s bash. Diaz has championed the waterfront development but has said that Port Morris is not the Piano District. Diaz, who frequently speaks out about outsiders unfairly using the Bronx’s checkered history to denigrate the borough, declined to comment on the Halloween party.

After attending the party, SoBRO’s manager of special projects Michael Brady said that although the festivities were “very good,” they included optics that were “in poor taste.” He has scheduled a meeting with the developers to discuss community relations.

As the local development organization that is working with Somerset-Chetrit on the waterfront project, SoBRO had urged its partner not to use the Piano District monicker, Brady told Mott Haven Herald staff earlier this fall.

When asked about Rubenstein pushing the “Piano District” rebranding, Brady sighed.

“He has beaten that horse to death,” he said.

“You can’t change a neighborhood identity by renaming it, and as much as Keith wants to rename it the Piano District, we have a steering committee that has 92 percent of the property owners and they think he’s crazy,” he said.