How a powerfully-backed festival crumbled

Protesters rally against the “It’s the Bronx” festival in front of the Union Crossing building on E. 141st Street in Mott Haven on March 23. Photo: Brenda Leon

Marco Shalma had once hoped there would be a music festival Saturday, March 23, inside the still-unfinished Union Crossing on 141st Street. What happened there instead haunts him.

Nearly 70 people protested on the steps of the future commercial development, chanting “Fire to the gentrifiers,” and waving signs of Shalma’s face plastered over a conquistador. The text underneath said, “Marco Shalma: Enemy of the Bronx.”

Shalma had planned an all-local music festival called “It’s The Bronx,” featuring 30 musicians and 40 visual artists. But Shalma’s venue dropped the festival at the last minute following community backlash.  

In the doomed festival’s wake rose an explosive community dialogue about gentrification, a discussion in which Shalma feels wrongfully targeted, but one in which many community organizers finally feel heard.

There was something exciting about Marco Shalma when he knocked on the door of the historic Grand Concourse art hall, the Andrew Freedman Home, recalls Walter Puryear, the venue’s executive director. Puryear thought the neighborhood was long overdue for an event like “It’s The Bronx.”

“The Bronx has nothing like Brooklyn in terms of the African festival they do every year,” he said. “There’s no festival celebrating the multiplicity of culture within the Bronx.”

But Shalma approached Puryear only two weeks before the festival. And the Freedman Home’s door was not the only one Shalma knocked on. The event initially was to be held at Union Crossing, developed by Madison Realty Capital. And just like the artists, musicians and organizers, Shalma wasn’t paying Madison Realty. He said that Union Crossing, as a sponsor, would allow him to use three floors of the space for free. But it was becoming increasingly clear that the site, still under construction, would not be finished before the event.

Puryear said Shalma’s last minute proposal raised a few red flags, but the director liked his resume. The entrepreneur founded a marketing company called Round Seven, but more importantly to Puryear, he had helped run the Bronx Night Market, a summer event series that drew large crowds to the Fordham neighborhood last year.

Puryear agreed to host the festival. “It’s the Bronx,” originally a three-day festival, would run for one day on Saturday. And Freedman Home would take 30 percent of the profit.

As soon as the pair announced a partnership, Puryear was flooded with emails and calls urging him to check social media. The community was firing off against Shalma.

“It’s the Bronx” was highly publicized throughout the borough and the city. BronxNet, The Bronx Times and amNY have covered the festival in an enthusiastic light several times since January. But critics say that news outlets have ignored Shalma’s ties to developers or failed to discuss gentrification as a product of the event. 

An arts group called Hydro Punk criticized the 40-year-old Mott Haven resident through a number of Instagram posts for his cozy relationship with Union Crossing, a development that many in the community see as adding to the influx of gentrification in the neighborhood.

“He’s on the side of developers. And he has exploited the workers and the artists,” Hydro Punk co-founder Monica Flores said at the rally on Saturday.

Hydro Punk and other community organizers said Shalma was not fairly treating his volunteers, and that he should pay artists and organizers.

Natalie Lucre, a 26-year-old muralist, happily volunteered to paint an eight-story-high mural inside of Union Crossing for an “It’s The Bronx” preview event in January. But when she arrived just a few days before the event, she saw a few glaring problems.

“It still was a construction site,” Lucre said. “There was no way that that weekend, there was going to be an event there.”

After she painted the mural in the unfinished site’s dust and debris, Lucre opened Instagram to discover that the preview event had been moved to the Bronx Brewery.

“He said he changed the venue because of space issues when in reality, there was no venue to begin with,” she said. “He told artists the day of the show to promote, promote, promote. And then, ‘Sorry we can’t put you in the show because we don’t have the space.’”

Shalma said he was simply trying to create a platform for Bronx artists at the cheapest possible cost to residents. Tickets for the festival were priced at $20. Shalma said he sold roughly 500 tickets and gave 170 away for free.

“Everything that I’ve done in this project was 100 percent with love,” he said. “I can live with the fact that we have to postpone it, but turning it to personal attacks…it’s devastating.”

Shalma, who was born in South Africa but has lived in the Bronx for 10 years, said he has experienced a flood of hateful comments since January. He’s received messages asking him to kill himself. And a number of anti-Semitic comments have been posted under social media posts.

“You try to do something really, really good,” Shalma said, “and you just get crushed by commentary.”

On the Wednesday before the festival. Puryear had made up his mind. He said Shalma never told him how many tickets he had sold or submitted the appraisal on art he was hanging at the festival, and he was concerned that Shalma did not have insurance and was not paying artists or employees. Although Shalma says he had everything in order in time for the festival. This, coupled with the community outcry, sealed his fate.

Puryear broke his agreement with Shalma and instead proposed a town hall discussion, to be held in April. Afterward, Shalma announced that the festival would be postponed.

Puryear said the debacle showed that now more than ever, folks in the South Bronx need to talk.

“When we saw that people were really engaged in this conversation, we were like, ‘We need to open this conversation up,’” Puryear said. “It’s going to be an excellent beginning for groups in the Bronx to come together around what gentrification looks like, and what it is that we are fighting to support.”