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.
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?”
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.