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“This Question Is Loaded”: South Bronx Artists and Organizers Imagine Their Neighborhood’s Future

The Willis Avenue bridge being towed up the Hudson (photo by Robert Acevedo/Flickr)

As we’ve reported previously, large forces and competing interests are struggling to define the future of the South Bronx. Some of the battleground issues include housing, commercial development, availability of workspaces, gentrification, the establishment and growth of local services, and the nurturing of a burgeoning arts scene.

In order to bring a local perspective to these concerns, we canvassed longtime residents and organizations in the neighborhood, asking: What is your ideal vision of the future of the South Bronx? Below are their responses. (Despite repeated attempts, we did not receive comments from the office of the Bronx Borough President, Rubén Díaz, Jr., or the office of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council member for the 8th District, which includes the South Bronx.)

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Lisa Ortega, a member of the community group #TheBronxIsNotForSale who has lived in the Bronx for 22 years: “My ideal vision of the Bronx is a non-corporate, non-politican, non–police run borough. A Bronx that is completely community led. I also think that a one- or two-sentence response to this question is part of the reason the Bronx is up in arms regarding the violent urban displacement happening across the city: Things are pushed upon us and then we’re asked for a meek response to it, and anything more from us is viewed as hostile.”

Darío Calmese, an artist who has had a studio in the South Bronx for the past two years: “This question is loaded, because despite my desire for an idealized world, I’m too aware of the realities of living in New York, and I am quite certain that the future of the South Bronx is already spoken for, by the same ilk of visionaries who had the grand foresight to tear down the old Penn Station in favor of the architectural albatross that is now Madison Square Garden — but I digress. My ideal vision for the South Bronx is for [it to welcome] a diverse enclave of creatives and talented individuals who actually nurture and enrich the surrounding community, instead of just enriching the powers that have always been.”

Charles Said, owner of Charlie’s Bar & Kitchen, which has been in the Bronx since 2012: “A vibrant and cultured community with less industry and more parks and residential buildings that cater to all, with a wide selection of restaurants and amenities for the locals. Plus, we have a wonderful waterway with no real access to it.”

Christine Licata, director of performing and visual arts at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, which has been in the South Bronx since 1961: “For the past 80 years, Casita has worked toward our ideal vision of the South Bronx every day: to continue to foster and support our youth and families in building a vibrant, strong, sustainable, and equitable community that actively builds upon the neighborhood’s diverse cultural legacy and history.”

A section of the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx. Photo by The All-Nite Images via Flickr
A section of the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx (photo by The All-Nite Images/Flickr)

Anna Matos, director of Wallworks, a gallery that opened in the South Bronx in 2014: “My ideal vision for the future of the South Bronx is one where those who are already here will be able to reap the benefits of the industry coming into their neighborhood instead of being forced out due to pricing. They have been the ones who have put in the time in this area, and no one more deserves the benefits of new money coming in than they do.”

Evelyn Hey, principal of South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures and the Arts, which has been in the Bronx for 10 years: “I welcome the renewal of the South Bronx. I see the change bringing opportunities for families, increased housing, entrepreneurial ventures, job opportunities, and leisure activities, many of which are presently lacking. Even more than that, it will cast a new light on the name South Bronx, which to many people conjures up a dangerous place. What is happening here is bringing on a whole new feeling to our area and neighborhood, and all that makes it familiar and vibrant!”

Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, a group that has been actively organizing for four years: “Our ideal vision for the future of the South Bronx is economic upliftment, an end to environmental degradation, and quality-of-life enhancement without displacement. We envision a community deeply rooted in a respected cultural heritage that ensures community members who have suffered through decades of government neglect and bank redlining are not pushed out by people who now recognize the value in the neighborhood.”

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