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SoBro's revival stuck in the slow lane

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sobro Photo Credit: The Clock Tower building is a symbol of Mott Haven. (Michael Kirby Smith)

First on the edge of despair and then on the brink of discovery, a swath of the South Bronx was poised to be rechristened as the next Williamsburg or Bushwick.

But despite the hype, that hasn’t quite happened.

The South Bronx, aka SoBro, first appeared on cool-hunters’ radar in 2004 when Carnegie Management converted the Clock Tower, a former piano factory at 112 Lincoln Ave., in Mott Haven into lofts.

The neighborhood, indeed, is seemingly set for success given its waterfront access, excellent subway access and flourishing art scene.

Yet, the once-thriving antiques district on Alexander Avenue is now down to just two shops. Fledgling galleries closed before they could take flight. Loft conversions prompted a real estate surge that drove prices up and artists out.

Hype meets reality

Mott Haven, for now and some suggest for years to come, is in a state of semi-repose. A few things may have slowed a transformation: the recession, real estate-driven hype over a neighborhood that lacks amenities, and the lingering stigma of the Bronx as a badlands. People living and working here felt the hit when rents began to soar amid fresh interest in Mott Haven.

“There were a few articles in the paper and it felt a lot like Dumbo did in the ‘90s. Real estate developers immediately attached to that idea and the rents skyrocketed,” said Chad Stayrook, gallery director of the Bronx River Art Center.

Artists such as Matthew Burcaw, 41, had no choice but to leave when the lease on his river-view apartment expired, his landlord raised his $1,450 rent by $250 and no longer included utilities.

“We put the place on the map, then we got priced out,” said Burcaw, who had to move elsewhere in the neighborhood.

But that wasn’t the only artists struggle faced.

A stigma for arts scene

“Gallerists couldn’t make it even if the rent was less … fancy collectors are used to going to Chelsea — most of them would never think to come to the Bronx,” says Barry Kostrinsky, curator of the gallery at Bruckner Bar and Grill.

He is but one of several artists who feel both pride and prejudice about being labeled as a Bronx artist.

“People ask me ‘how is the Bronx’ and stare at me instead of asking ‘what kind of artwork do you do,‘ said Laura Napier, 35.

Her frustration is echoed by long-time resident and artist Vidal Centeno, 50, who also sees a certain bias.

“People tend to be kind of myopic curators. When they find out we’re in the Bronx, they back down,” he said. “I think artists are here for a reason— its makes them tougher. That’s also that branding of being a Bronxite and that lends itself to being able to tough it out.”

He added, “We could use a good wine store, though.”

A catalyst for revival

That speaks to lack of amenities some say has slowed gentrification. But that wine shop may yet come. If the vacant Kelly Furniture building, a 181,500-square-foot factory at 20 Bruckner Boulevard is converted to residential, that, said Kostrinsky, “will turn the neighborhood.”

But the cost of acquiring the site is high says Mario Brodden, an assistant vice president at South Bronx Overall Development Corp: “For now it’s the white elephant and will just sit there until someone can make it work.”

Change in the slow lane

Whatever change does occur, observers say, will be slow.

“Gentrification won’t be an issue any time soon, and if so, it won’t be for another generation,” said Brodden, adding that for now, Lincoln Avenue area, site of the Clock Tower, remains the likeliest place for immediate development.

And indeed, last summer the Clock Tower added 22 new apartments, all of which have been rented. Says Carnegie vice president Isaac Jacobs, there are “always people looking to get a bigger loft for a better price. It happened in Williamsburg and other places, and it happens here.”

But artists such as sculptor John Ahearn, here since the late 1970s, say artists shouldn’t worry about Mott Haven becoming another Bushwick.

“It’s not a hipster place,” he said. “I think there are aspects to art in the Bronx that are fashionable, but the idea that artists would have cool neighborhoods [and] cool places to hang out—that never ever happened. Our art was all about the exact opposite of the gentrification.”

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SoBro artists speak out

Part of what made Mott Haven generate buzz as the next “It” neighborhood was its thriving arts community. Here are some of the voices from that scene:

People say its like Williamsburg used to be. It’s so close to the city but also so removed from it and that appeals to some people.

Barry Kostrinsky, curator, Bruckner Gallery

I think [we] have a more tight-knit community and people who are connecting more and exchanging ideas more than you’d see in other areas.

Vidal Centeno, artist

 If any place was going to be talked about, it’s happening there right now. It was always kind of wobbly and never really took shape and it never became fashionable.
John Ahearn, artist    

There is something kind of lovely about the freshness of artists in a small community that isn’t terribly well known, but still an adjunct to something. But in our own community, we really do want those exhibition opportunities and want to provide something to the community we’re in.
Linda Cunningham, artist 

As soon as you say you’re an artist in the Bronx, people can’t process it—they can’t even conceive of it. Or they can’t actually see the artist and their work beyond the image of the Bronx. It’s such a strong symbol.”
Laura Napier, artist 

Serious artists don’t move into a neighborhood and wear it on their sleeves. Some of the best art connections I ever had, I made in the Bronx. But people don’t want to talk about the arts—they want to talk about the real estate.
Matthew Burcaw, artist and educator

I can’t think of the last show here that was about hip hop, graffiti or breakdancing. You see art up here that’s of the caliber of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and conceptual ideas.
Chad Stayrook, gallery director, Bronx River Arts Center

The artists here are like the rest of the Bronx— extremely diverse and all marching together and looking for a better quality of life in NYC.
Holly Block, director, Bronx Museum 

We constantly refer to ourselves as under the radar. We have to be relentless in our self-promotion and we have to be really viral about the ways we get the word out.
Ellen Pollan, Bronx Council on the Arts 

Change is good when the past is recognized in the present and integrated in future projects.  When the people that created any given community are taken into account in order to go forward, then change is good.  But when communities are pushed out for the benefit of others, it creates bitterness and resentment.  This is not good.
Blanka Amezkua, founder of the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project

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Find SoBro's artsy side

Bronx Museum
1040 Grand Concourse, at 165th St., 718-681-6000
The borough’s flagship museum of 20th-century and contemporary art, focusing on artists of color.

Coqui Mexicano
871 Brook Ave.,
718-450-3477

A combination community living room, book swap and gallery, this home-style eatery serves it up fresh.

Peace Love Café
617 Melrose Ave., at 151st St., 347-577-6397
Here you can find healthful food in a quirky café with poetry jams and music alongside your organic smoothie or sweet potato pie.

Bronx Cultural Trolley
The Bronx Council on the Arts runs a free trolley the first Wednesday of each month, taking visitors into artist studios, galleries and artful eateries. www.bronxarts.org;
718-931-9500 x33

Gordon Parks Gallery
332 E. 149th St.,
914-654-5427

This gallery, on the campus of the College of New Rochelle, showcases the works of the renowned photographer, filmmaker and writer Gordon Parks.

The G Bar
575 Grand Concourse,
718-402-6996

It’s Miami meets Manhattan at this sleek bar, which is a safe and sexy bet for date night.

Synthetic Zero Art Space
305 E. 140th St., #1A
Installation art in an apartment gallery, one of several that are the hallmark of intimate art spaces here. 

Bronx River Art Center
305 E. 140th St.,
718-401-8144

Temporarily located here while its permanent building undergoes renovation, this gallery showcases emerging artists and experimental forms.

Longwood Art Gallery
450 Grand Concourse, at 149th St., 718-518-6728
The oldest gallery in the neighborhood exhibits artists of color as well as those who are underrepresented.

Bruckner Bar and Grill
1 Bruckner Blvd., at 138th St., 718-665-2001
The gallery inside the pub shows works on paper and sculpture and also hosts performances.

Rebel Diaz Arts Collective
478 Austin Pl., at 149th St., 718-708-4701
SoBro’s hip-hop community arts center with a dose of multimedia activism thrown in.

Sweetwaters Bar & Grill
2576 Third Ave.,
718-292-9470

The catchphrase here is “Bringing a little SoHo to SoBro.” Watch big-TV sports during the day and kick back with a classic cocktail at night. Solid American pub menu.

LDR Studio Gallery
137 Alexander Ave., Suite 10, 917-558-2389
A walkup apartment gallery featuring a rotating menu of poetry, paintings and multimedia installations.  

Pregones Theater
575 Walton Ave., at 149th St., 718-585-1201
A professional ensemble theater dedicated to performing original Latin American (especially Puerto Rican) musical theater and plays.

Red Roots Community Art Space
503-C Wales St.
Anarchism and the arts mix in this space, which aims to stimulate the creative juices as well as activism. Join the creative co-op or a letter-writing campaign while sharing a vegan community meal.

 


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