Art in the Bronx, of the Bronx

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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.

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.

Drawing by So Yoon Lym, part of Intersecting Imaginaries.