Hotel’s legacy conveyed through art, storytelling
In her book “South Bronx Rising-The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City,” journalist and author Jill Jonnes describes the excitement that captivated the borough during the first decades of the twentieth century.
“There was an ebullience to the Bronx of that era,” she wrote. “It was a milieu to aspire to, and its varied population gloried in the opportunities and freedom the wide-open borough represented.”
One of the symbols of those colorful decades, the Concourse Plaza Hotel, was the centerpiece for an exhibition called NLE Lab: Intersecting Imaginaries, that ended on Dec. 13.
The borough’s population was growing rapidly just after the turn of the 20th century, and its transformation into a cosmopolitan metropolis had begun. When construction finished on the hotel in 1923, a few blocks northwest of Yankee Stadium, it helped epitomize the area’s rise, elevating the borough’s status in the eyes of New Yorkers by bringing celebrity and glamor to the once-bucolic area above 132nd street.
For decades, the hotel exemplified the borough’s newfound social status: Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were frequent guests; John F. Kennedy made the Concourse Plaza the very last stop of his 1960 presidential campaign; Tito Puente’s band regularly played in the Grand Ballroom on the hotel’s New Year’s Eve Party.
By the 1970s, however, as the city flirted with bankruptcy and the South Bronx burned, the Concourse Plaza felt the consequences. By the mid ’70s, the prestige was gone and the city bought the hotel, eventually transforming it into a residence for seniors.
On that site, where nearly a century earlier affluent New Yorkers would count down the clock to the New Year under the high ceilings of the chandeliered ballroom, the arts nonprofit No Longer Empty held the exhibition to show off the old hotel’s grandeur, featuring sculpture, video, photography, installation and works on paper by 33 Bronx-based and tri-state area artists. No Longer Empty specializes in temporarily repurposing underused or abandoned spaces and holding arts and educational events, including an exhibition in the Old Bronx Courthouse earlier this year.
The hotel’s cement floors and bare walls, combined with its rich historical bearing, served as the backdrop for storytellers who recounted inspirational stories reflecting the diversity of today’s South Bronx, while examining issues of politics, racism, environment and gentrification.
Among the show’s themes was the notion of conceptual mapping: using memory and lived experience to create points on a map, according to one the show’s curators, Mary Kay Judy.
On Dec. 14, some of the show’s artists came to the exhibition to discuss their work with the public.
The Bronx Photo League, a group of photographers who convene periodically at the Bronx Documentary Center in Melrose, discussed the “Jerome Avenue Workers Project,” a series of photographs depicting the faces and lives of people threatened by the city’s rezoning plans on Jerome Ave. Photographer David ‘”Dee” Delgado talked about the upheaval proposed rezoning could present, as landlords look to push out existing residents and attract more upscale tenants.
The group’s 18 photographers roamed Jerome Ave. for four months to get a sense of the community. Photographer Rhynna Santos stressed how important it was to “master the art of conversation” with the people whose stories she wanted to portray, and to “immerse in your subject and where they live.”
Delgado said that because the group’s members could take no more than 12 shots each because of the special equipment they used, developing a very personal relationship between lens and subject was essential.
The result is a powerful collection of portraits representing a diverse group of residents and business owners who share the same possible outcome: being forced out of their homes and businesses.
In “Sky Above 40°45’6″N 73°59’39″W,” Bronx-based artist Amy Pryor uses recycled mass-produced labels and mailers to create a map of 39 constellations that is visible from 900 Grand Concourse in November and December. In the site specific installation commissioned for No Longer Empty Lab, Pryor poses questions about the intersection of commerce, waste, culture and consumption.
Linda Cunningham’s “Surviving Then and Now: South Bronx Sagas,” examined how the area thrived during tough times. The installation, built from broken drywall panels and torn canvas that represent peeling paint, is a collage of images of the post-Plaza Hotel era of the 1970s Bronx. It evokes the neighborhood’s homegrown poetry through the hip-hop of Afrika Bambaata, as a reminder of the borough’s more recent history, showing how a community can change, adapt and survive.