There weren’t many protesters — just seven — but they were loud. As the guests, many of them white, clutched their cups and cans and milled about the unfinished space, the protesters, mostly black and Latina women, began shouting: “Do not use art to pimp us out!”
“How many people are here that live in this neighborhood?” yelled one, while others handed out flyers. “How many people from this neighborhood are here?”
It was an April 23 opening for No Longer Empty (NLE), the New York nonprofit that stages art exhibitions in formerly abandoned buildings and vacant spaces. Organized by guest curator Regine Basha, the show was titled When You Cut Into the Present the Future Leaks Out, and it was taking place inside the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse, a towering Beaux-Arts building that straddles Brook and Third Avenues at the intersection of East 161st Street in Melrose. The courthouse had been closed to the public, before this day, for 37 years.
“Those protests took us by surprise, as nothing like that has occurred before,” the NLE team (which does not include Basha) told me over email as a unit. The nonprofit was founded in 2009, during the recession, and prides itself not only on its exhibitions but on “community engagement.” Its staff members — of whom there are also seven — were hardly expecting protesters. “We understand in hindsight, and from our partners, that NLE was a foil of sorts for long-standing community issues.”
More than a foil, one might say that NLE and its Bronx show have become a crucible for long-standing community issues — ones like displacement and gentrification, property ownership and development, and the role of the arts in those things. Over the past few months, these conflicts and questions have descended on the courthouse in the form of protests, conversations, and artworks (a piece by Melissa Calderón illustrates “The South Bronx Gold Rush of 2015” with gold embroidery thread atop an abstracted birchwood plot of land). They have taken up residence and burrowed into the crevices of the musty old building. They are, however, only the most recent layer to settle atop decades of frustration and neglect.
* * *
The Old Bronx Borough Courthouse was once simply the Bronx Borough Courthouse, when it was built in the early 20th century. Designed jointly by architect Michael J. Garvin and artist Oscar Bluemner, with a statue of an enthroned Lady Justice by Jules Édouard Roiné on the façade, the regal four-story building was erected between 1905–14. Unfortunately, it served as Bronx County’s primary courthouse for just two decades. “Because it had only one courtroom, and the Bronx’s population exploded rapidly, it was supplanted by a new court on the Grand Concourse and operations were transferred to other civic courts in the 1930s and ’40s,” explains the New York Times. By the late 1970s, when the Bronx was “burning,” the once-grand granite building with the tile floors, chandeliers, and marble staircases had fallen into serious disrepair. When the courthouse was landmarked by the city in 1981 (and added to the National Register of Historic Places the following year), its primary contents were graffiti and pigeons.
In the early 1990s, according to the Times, a conglomeration of local community groups, most prominently Nos Quedamos (“We Stay”), banded together to try and gain control of the courthouse. Envisioning the building as “a kind of town center” for Melrose, the groups petitioned the city for a lease and raised roughly $6 million to put towards the creation of a library, museum, and after-school programs. But the city declined — “Mayor Rudolph Giuliani put a thumb in the eye of his rival Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer,” is how the Mott Haven Herald describes it — and in 1996 the courthouse was sold at auction to Gus Kitkas and the Five Borough Electrical Supply Corporation for $130,000.
Two years later Kitkas had done nothing and the city auctioned the building again. Nos Quedamos bid on the structure but lost to Henry Weinstein and Benjamin Klein of Liberty Square Realty, who paid $300,000. The pair set off neighborhood flares once again when they put the courthouse on the market for $1.8 million in 2000, though they never succeeded in selling it. In the years since they’ve advertised their rehabilitation and renovation efforts and tried to entice tenants with federal tax credits, all to no avail. The building remains empty.
* * *
Or rather, it did, until April, when NLE filled it with art. And that was really the first problem — art used as an advertisement for private development — although no one picked up on it until the second problem emerged and immediately galvanized people: a planned party for real estate brokers in the courthouse during the run of the show. “Future Tenant – A Broker Party,” the event was called, scheduled for June 16 and advertised on NLE’s website. The listing, which is now gone, read:
NLE will promote cultural and economic vibrancy in The Hub, using the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse as a springboard to gauge interest in its long-term future use. To increase the neighborhood’s visibility, NLE and SoBRO [South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation] will introduce people to the neighborhood, and have created a tailored map highlighting sites of interest.
Utilizing its long-standing presence in the community, unique to No Longer Empty’s holistic model, NLE and SoBRO will host a tenant attraction event to convene entrepreneurs, real estate brokers, and business owners interested in the area.
“That was what really sparked everything,” says Wanda Salaman — “that” being news of the brokers’ party, which reached Salaman, executive director of local nonprofit Mothers on the Move (MoM) and one of the seven protesters, via concerned artists and activists in the community.
“What triggered me is I’m hearing about this attraction party at the Old Courthouse, and then when I’m going to the location of the event, I see all these people coming from all over, not from the neighborhood, going to the opening …. It was very overwhelming, for me and for people in the community. They were asking me: ‘Who are these people, and what are they doing here? We didn’t know of an art opening — what are these white people doing here?’ Some people were like, ‘I’m getting scared.’ Most of the time when I see a lot of caucasians, I see them at Yankee Stadium. At 161st Street, in the middle of the hood, it’s rare. What is going on? Who are those people coming to the neighborhood? And why did no one know about it?”
Some people, of course, did know about it. No Longer Empty received a grant for the show from the Department of Small Business Services, and through that and their own efforts they developed a number of community partners — including Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, Ed García Conde/Welcome2TheBronx, and the Percent for Green project — all of whom presumably knew about the opening.
What people didn’t seem to know about was the brokers’ party. The artists in the show didn’t (or else didn’t care) — they only learned about it when one of them, Shellyne Rodriguez, stumbled upon it on NLE’s website a few days after the opening. “No one saw it; it was just quietly announced on their website,” she says. “So I screenshot-ed it and I emailed it to all the artists. I was like, you guys, what’s going on here?”
Between the opening night protest and Rodriguez’s email to the artists in the show, pressure began mounting on NLE to take some sort of action. The point of contention was not only the brokers’ party, but also NLE’s relationship with SoBRO, a nonprofit that, despite being based in the South Bronx since 1972, has a less-than-stellar reputation among the people I spoke with. “I’m hearing that they are the ones that are opening the gates to big developers to do whatever they want in the Bronx,” says Salaman. Nobody I spoke to could offer specific examples of the ways in which SoBRO is facilitating the borough’s gentrification. Nevertheless, that SoBRO and NLE were evidently planning to hold a private event to market a building whose private ownership is itself a longstanding soreness in the community did not help.
And so a series of emails and phone calls and exchanges ensued. Representatives from Nos Quedamos, MoM, and other community organizations wanted to meet with NLE, not at the courthouse but on their own turf. Radical grassroots group Take Back the Bronx wrote a letter: “We are very disheartened — and honestly, very angry — that artistic engagement with our community is being used to push the agenda of developers and financiers: gentrification.” Rodriguez delivered the letter, and she spoke with one side and then the other, acting as a messenger between the art people and the community. It was a role that both suited and weighed on her.
“Me being from the Bronx but being an artist, I wear two hats,” she says. “I am critiquing the show and talking shit, but I’m in the show. You see what I’m saying?” Rodriguez’s relationship to the courthouse runs deeper than just being from the Bronx (like a handful of others in the show). The last time her mother was in the building, she was pregnant with Shellyne. And during the summer of 1977, Rodriguez’s uncle was briefly locked up there during the blackout riots. Two of her pieces in When You Cut Into the Present harken back to that time: magnetically expressive small-scale ceramic sculptures that portray her family members as allegorical figures. They’re among the works in the show most carefully attuned to their surroundings.
Still, Rodriguez has no illusions about what it means to be a working artist in New York today — even one from the Bronx. “Artists are not the root cause [of gentrification]. But artists are well aware at this point that we are the bees to the honey. We’re strike breakers, is what I say. The New York tenants, they’re on strike. They’re fighting for their lives, and we’re coming in as scabs for developers. So, if you know that — you know that’s the model — then are you using yourself as bait to developers in order to gain access to interesting spaces without really fully thinking about the repercussions?”
* * *
In the middle of May, fed up with all the back-and-forth, the groups Mothers on the Move, Nos Quedamos, Take Back the Bronx, Banana Kelly, and Rebel Diaz Arts Collective invited staff members of NLE, as well as the artists and partners involved with the show, to a community meeting at Nos Quedamos’s headquarters on May 30. NLE President Manon Slome, Executive Director Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, curator Regine Basha, and some of the artists attended. It was there that Slome quietly announced NLE had ended its relationship with SoBRO and canceled the brokers’ party. “I would say that was a community victory,” reflects Salaman.
In its place, NLE said it planned to hold a tenant attraction event, which would be, rather than private and only for brokers, an “open event, for the community.” According to Rodriguez, that event was planned for the afternoon of June 16 — the same date and time as the original brokers’ party — but when she emailed the day before to check on its status, she was told that NLE had pushed it back to mid-July.
A few days afterwards, on June 18, the Center for Bronx Nonprofits hosted a panel discussion at the courthouse. Titled “Shifting Sands: New Dynamics in the Bronx Art Scene,” it convened seven established members of the Bronx art community — including former Bronx Council on the Arts Director Bill Aguado, artist and Percent for Green founder Alicia Grullon, and Edwin Torres, deputy commissioner of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs — to grapple with the challenges currently facing artists and arts organizations in the Bronx. Despite taking place at 11:30am on a Thursday, some 75 people turned up, including members of MoM, Nos Quedamos, and Take Back the Bronx, plus Rodriguez.
Like so many of its kind, the panel consisted more of a series of monologues than a substantial dialogue. The concerns discussed were entirely founded but deeply familiar: fears of displacement, the arts as a force of gentrification, the question of how to bridge the gap between artists and community. “How can the community stay strong in this overly capitalistic environment?” asked Arthur Aviles; “We need to ask funders to uninvest from activities that displace,” said Grullon. Things were proceeding smoothly, if dryly, when Michael Kamber, founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, introduced himself and said: “Frankly, I don’t think we should be in this building today. There are plenty of spaces in the Bronx. We should not be in bed with for-profit developers.” A number of audience members cheered and applauded.
The panel wasn’t meant to be about the courthouse or No Longer Empty, but certainly there was no getting around that we were there — we were sitting in the building, amid a show whose very existence crystallized so many of the issues the panelists had gathered to discuss. It seemed hardly a coincidence that an oversize color drawing of Giuliani by the artist Onyedika Chuke hung on a wall not 10 feet behind us; his arms were crossed and his stern face seemed to taunt the community he had once shunned.
Kamber wasn’t the only one who wanted to talk about the courthouse and NLE. During the Q&A session, a woman from Take Back the Bronx approached the mic. “These issues affect artists but also all people, working-class people,” she said heatedly, before accusing NLE of scheduling a brokers’ party in the space and demanding an answer to the question: “What is the agenda from No Longer Empty?”
“Questions are to be directed to the panel,” countered the moderator, a soft-spoken man from the Bronx Council on the Arts. The young woman, shouting from her seat, retorted, “What is the agenda from No Longer Empty?” The room came to a standstill, and it seemed that others wanted an answer to this question too. Manon Slome stepped up. She laid out the mission of NLE, told everyone that the brokers’ party had been canceled, and added that NLE wanted “the community to come and vision what the building could be.”
Because, she explained, “The fact remains that it is a vacant building.”
The fact also remains that no one besides Henry Weinstein, Benjamin Klein, and Liberty Square Realty knows what the future of the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse might be. During the panel discussion, Mike Kamber claimed that a woman he knows — someone who’s worked in the Bronx for 30 years and runs a nonprofit — offered the owners a large sum of money for the building, but they turned her down. She then offered them “top-dollar rent” to put a school in, and again they said no. “The owner of this building is holding out to cash in,” Kamber pronounced.
When I followed up with him to confirm the story, Kamber said he could tell me only that it was “hearsay” — the woman would not go on the record — but that “I totally trust her.”
“I think we have to be very careful when for-profit developers tell us they’re here to help the community,” he added. “These things don’t happen in a vacuum. If you look at what happened in Dumbo, on the Lower East Side, in Williamsburg, artists become part of the strategy for real estate investors. They use the cachet and the creativity of artists to make money, and in the end the artists are the ones that get pushed out — artists and low-income people.”
I tried calling Liberty Square Realty, as well as another real estate company listed to Weinstein’s name, and I asked No Longer Empty to contact Weinstein on my behalf. I was never able to reach him or anyone else, not even a secretary.
The staff of NLE says now that they have scrapped the idea of a tenant attraction event altogether, in favor of initiating a four-to-six-month “community visioning phase” for the building. “What I’m envisioning is community groups sitting down and talking about how the community can tackle this issue of working with a private building owner, coming up with a plan instead of just throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks,” says Lindsay Smilow, NLE’s director of external affairs.
These efforts are admirable, and Salaman says she appreciates how responsive NLE has been. “They have been trying … they just had no idea what they were getting into,” she says.
But Salaman also makes a good point when she reminds me that Nos Quedamos has “already done a visioning around what people in the community want to see” at the courthouse. They’ve been planning and fighting for that building for 20 years. “I guess there should be a meeting with the community to talk about the space, but the next step is really having a meeting with the owner,” Salaman says. “We have all types of meetings with No Longer Empty, but it doesn’t matter because they don’t own the building.” Maybe in Melrose, art can at least start a conversation between local residents and property developers.