Author Archives: Jonah Garnick

About Jonah Garnick

Jonah Garnick is a rising senior in the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. He is an urban studies major, public policy certificate, and geography minor. Jonah has a passion for cities and the environment and hopes to become an environmental urban planner.

Art in the Bronx, of the Bronx

 

On November 20, Intersecting Imaginaries, an art exhibition curated by the community art group, No Longer Empty, opened in the South Bronx. The exhibition explores the intersection between culture, change, and community in the South Bronx, and falls at a particularly relevant time.

A few weeks before the show opened, Brian Lehrer of WNYC reported on the “rebranding” of the South Bronx as “The Piano District,” a reference to the piano factories that were plentiful in the area in the late-19th century. As part of this rebranding a controversial and exclusive Halloween party was hosted in the area under the theme of “The Bronx is Burning.”

The neighborhood is changing fast – new condos are sprouting up, and bidding wars are being waged on historic pre-war properties around Yankee Stadium. Simultaneously, many long-time residents are left below the poverty line, are deprived of adequate access to open space and quality schools, and struggle with the environmental hazards, such as poor air quality, that are inherent to the neighborhood. These residents also fear the disruption of a neighborhood where tenants are being priced out and then bought out; it has been reported that some landlords already have been trying to buy residents out of their rent-controlled apartments.

Adding complexity to the situation, the South Bronx is home to a large concentration of the city’s affordable housing, built to resurrect neighborhoods on city-owned land acquired after the fires and large-scale abandonment of the 1970s. But even these policies have had their flaws.

In a city with such an aggressive and competitive real estate market, gentrification is almost inevitable. However, there is hope that new, market-rate redevelopment of the South Bronx will not be entirely destructive to the existing community, as long as development practice is conscientious and self-effacing.

Intersecting Imaginaries attempts to evoke conversation about this complexity. The show includes many pieces by artists of the community, which speak to the lives of the people that reside there, like a series of photos telling the stories of local residents, and a wall-hanging mural made of items found on the street. Other pieces address issues of gentrification and redevelopment head-on, such as a video of a performance piece where local teens confront tourists leaving a Yankee game.

Drawing by So Yoon Lym, part of Intersecting Imaginaries.

Drawing by So Yoon Lym, part of Intersecting Imaginaries.

Despite its good intentions, the exhibition in some ways reflects and contributes to the changes in the community. A significant share of the people who attended the opening were not from the area, and arguably would not have ventured to the South Bronx if not for the gallery opening – or a Yankee game. However, the curators are aware of this, and actively incorporated local artists into the exhibition and artists from other neighborhoods whose work expresses a similar narrative.

And the curatorial team built the exhibition around public programming; in addition to inviting local community groups to the opening, they are hosting private viewings and workshops for the neighboring senior center as well as hosting several “family days” to involve local families and youth in the dialogue around the exhibition, as well as providing art-making workshops. Most notably, the exhibition presents a graffiti wall in the gallery for free expression by the patrons. Grievances are not only expected, but also welcomed.

Intersecting Imaginaries is an important show that uses the narrative force of art to tackle a tough dynamic – income polarization, inequality, and the gentrification that follows – that threatens the South Bronx and much of the integrity of New York City. Too often art is a one-sided venture, aimed at one affluent audience, and this one-sidedness can be dangerous to the spaces in which it is imposed. Intersecting Imaginaries is a multi-faceted visual conversation that encourages thought and criticism while paying homage to the vibrant community that hosts it.


 

The exhibition will be open until December 13th, 2015 in the historic and abandoned lobby of 900 Grand Concourse.

 

Why I love the QueensWay

Jonah Garnick interned for the Trust for Public Land, and while there, fell in love with an idea for NYC.

“I (Heart) The QueensWay.” During my internship for the Trust for Public Land (TPL), I accumulated about fifty of those buttons. Now that my internship is over, those buttons aren’t just sitting in a drawer collecting dust, serving as memories of a fun year and a half spent working for TPL – they sum up a genuine feeling.

I LOVE the QueensWay. This love affair started one chilly March evening in Richmond Hill, Queens. I was two weeks on the job, and so far had only done little odds and ends of intern tasks: proofreading letters, editing PowerPoint presentations, making copies – all the classic intern duties, with the exception of coffee runs (we had a communal coffee pot at the office and a large supply of pretty delicious coffee).

A button belonging to the author. (Photo: J. Garnick)

A button belonging to the author. (Photo: J. Garnick)

In the midst of my mundaneness, my boss, New York State Director, Marc Matsil, approached me and enthusiastically extended an invitation for me to join him in facilitating a community workshop for the QueensWay at the High School for Construction, Trades, Engineering, and Architecture. I happily agreed, hoping to make a good impression and seeing it as a chance to see some urban planning in action. At this point I still had no real grasp on what the QueensWay actually was. I had heard about it around the office, and various TPL staff had given me small pieces of QueensWay projects to help them with, but had no clue of what it was, how big it was, and how important it was.

I arrived at the school apprehensive, not knowing what to expect, and not knowing how I could help facilitate a workshop that was meant to get feedback on a project that I knew hardly anything about. Somehow it all worked out. Two hours later, after a presentation by the designers, some disruptions by protesting opponents, and many residents’ valid concerns raised and addressed, I was helping to pack up maps and models, and walked away with a much better understanding of the project, and a sense of excitement.

I should probably pause here to tell you what exactly the QueensWay is.

The QueensWay is a proposed 3.5-mile linear greenway. It crosses through six neighborhoods (Rego Park, Forest Hills, Glendale, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill, and Ozone Park), and will add forty-seven acres of parkland to Queens upon completion. At the heart of the proposal is the conversion of the abandoned Rockaway Beach Branch of the Long Island Railroad into parkland. Service on the line was discontinued over fifty years ago, and since then the tracks have fallen into complete disrepair, some parts have been overtaken by nature, others have unfortunately become a dumping ground, a favorite spot for addicts, and an informal settlement for the homeless. The city currently owns all of the land, and divides it between two agencies–forty acres is owned by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, and the other seven (that passes through Forest Park) is owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

This abandoned railroad line, here running through Forest Park, Queens, would transform into the QueensWay. (Photo: Jonah Garnick)

This abandoned railroad line, here running through Forest Park, Queens, would transform into the QueensWay. (Photo: Jonah Garnick)

The plans for the QueensWay are grand. In the recently released feasibility report, the park would not only provide a much-needed pedestrian walkway and bikeway connecting northern and southern Queens, it would include space for outdoor classrooms for abutting schools, playgrounds, space for community and cultural programming, and most importantly serve as a monument to Queens in park form.

Returning back to my desk at TPL a few days after the workshop, I become immediately engrossed with the QueensWay. TPL New York City Director, Andy Stone, quickly assigned me to several long-term community outreach projects in which I had a lot of responsibility and autonomy over. This included a youth-leadership program at Richmond Hill in which we partnered with the non-profit, South Asian Youth Action, and led a series of workshops on public space, park equity, and asked for student input on the QueensWay.

At the southern section near Rockaway Boulevard, proposed features include exercise and environmental education stations. (Image: QueensWay)

At the southern section near Rockaway Boulevard, proposed features include exercise and environmental education stations. (Image: QueensWay)

The other community outreach project was the hungry brainchild of Marc Matsil, a food map of the best restaurants within a one-mile radius of the QueensWay. QueensWay Eats, as it was eventually named, was more than just a delicious guide to six neighborhoods in Queens, it was a great way to engage the local business owners. And as a college student and unpaid intern, I particularly liked this project and the many tastings that I was funded to do. The project just recently launched with an endorsement from the Queens Tourism Bureau and support from many of the restaurants featured on the map.

I recently officially left the Trust for Public Land, and that is one of the many reasons why I am sitting down to write this piece. I’ve had some time to reflect on my time there, on all the projects I’ve worked on, and most importantly, on the QueensWay.

The QueensWay plan passes through central Queens. (Map: Queensway)

The QueensWay plan passes through central Queens. (Map: QueensWay)

In short, here’s why I love the QueensWay. The QueensWay is a dream of an idea that can actually happen in reality. It provides park space to thousands of residents who desperately need it; it turns a piece of urban blight into something beautiful, and all the while does so with the community in mind. Will gentrification happen? Perhaps, but no more than any other urban renewal project, and this will certainly not have a “High-Line” effect and turn Queens into a commercialized chic wasteland of trendy clubs and microbrews.

Does Queens need more transit options? Yes, but it also needs another park, and the logistical and fiscal nightmare of building transit on that abandoned strip of land is unbearable (and trust me, there are better options to bring better transit to Queens). And finally, this internship has made me love not only the QueensWay, but also Queens. It has been the neglected borough for far too long. The QueensWay is not only something that Queens needs; it’s what it deserves.