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.