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What Will Become of the South Bronx?

Bullet ridden cars at the Macabre Suite bacchanal. Photo courtesy Will Davis at Nadine Johnson.
Bullet ridden cars by artist Lucien Smith at the Macabre Suite bacchanal (all photos courtesy Will Davis at Nadine Johnson)

The South Bronx is quickly becoming a nexus of competing interests vying for control of a housing and arts frontier that could become the next Brooklyn — with a similar trajectory of rampant business development, gentrification, and the displacement of long-time residents. The main battleground is real estate property. Among the chief protagonists are developers who have pressed into service promoters-for-hire, that is, celebrities and artists. Another potential principal, though playing a much smaller role, is Spaceworks, a nonprofit organization formed three years ago with the express purpose of developing long-term studio spaces for artists to have that security to pursue their practices. The residents are the chief stakeholders, and it is not yet clear what role they play in the development plans that are unfolding.

The developers made their rowdy PR pitch last week at 2401 Third Avenue, in a warehouse soon to be demolished, under the party title “Macabre Suite.” The nighttime soirée was A-list in an overdetermined, pop culture, shock-and-awe kind of campaign. In attendance were Carmelo Anthony, Odell Beckham Jr. Kendall Jenner, Cynthia Rowley, John Varvatos, Baz Luhrmann, Adrien Brody, Gigi Hadid, with Travis Scott the rapper performing, along with MC Kool Herc. (Pro athletes: check; designers and filmmakers: check; actors and models: check and check.) The party’s hosts were developer Keith Rubenstein and Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn, founder of the gallery Salon 94 and spouse of Nicholas Rohatyn, whose father, Felix, an investment banker, once helped saved New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s.

According to Greenberg-Rohatyn, the party was curated by the artist Lucien Smith, who arranged paintings in the space, and outside, cars pocked with bullet holes. What annoyed and angered many local residents was all this dystopian staging, including open fires in metal bins, and the encouraging of revelers to hashtag their experiences with #bronxisburning — though few actually posted with it. While she did not attend the party, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district encompasses the South Bronx, thought the arrangements to be in poor taste, saying, “Our community, my constituents, deserves respect, not that.”

The event seems a bumbling piece of marketing: asking residents to accept the inanely nostalgic moniker of “the piano district” for the area, which hardly anyone seems to recognize, while at the same time reminding them of a time when presidential candidates held it up as a national sign of urban blight.

Despite this inauspicious coming out party, the property at 2401 Third Avenue and 101 Lincoln Aveneue have already been purchased for $58 million by Rubenstein, head of Somerset Partners, and Joseph Chetrit, who leads the Chetrit Group. The Chetrit Group has previously appeared in the news due to its ownership of the Chelsea Hotel and the lawsuit filed against it in 2011 by long-term tenants who demanded that Chetrit repair unsafe conditions at the building. The indications are that the development being planned by Somerset and Chetrit, that could be as big as 1.2 million square feet of residential space with 1,200 units, is only the pointy tip of the spear. Several other projects by private developers are also in the works for the South Bronx. It seems inevitable that the Bronx will change considerably in the next few years. The question is what shape it will take.

Lucien Smith, Keith Rubenstein at Macabre Suite. Photo courtesy of Will Davis at Nadine Johnson.
Lucien Smith and Keith Rubenstein at “Macabre Suite”

The two districts that make up the southernmost areas of the South Bronx and where Somerset and Chetrit are building are Mott Haven to the west, which is bounded by the Harlem River and the Bronx Kill. Port Morris lies to the east, flanked by the East River and the kill over which one can walk via the Robert F. Kennedy bridge to Randall’s Island. Port Morris already contains a few industrial spaces that function as garages, manufacturing and craft shops, and work spaces for artists.

Tamara Greenfield, the deputy director of Spaceworks, spoke with Hyperallergic and laid out a contrasting vision of what the South Bronx could become. Greenfield related that Spaceworks is interested in the opportunities presented by the South Bronx and is actively pursuing them, (in fact, recently hiring a community organizer, Raul Rivera, to work with their potential partners) and that these projects will hopefully come to fruition in a few years.

Spaceworks was inaugurated with the remit to acquire long-term work spaces for artists. There are three main strategies they utilize to secure this space. One method is to use public properties, that is properties owned by the city, to secure them as spaces designated for public use. Their most recent project, the Williamsburg Library is an example of such a project. This edifice is now a protected building that Spaceworks manages under a 20-year lease that is renewable. Another strategy the organization employs is to use capital funding, that is money offered by the city under the stipulation that the funds must be used for a public purpose. Often these monies are applied for renovation of existing buildings, which in the case of city-owned properties, or those owned by non-profits, is relatively easy. However, for privately owned properties, the landlord has to agree to the stipulations, thus entering into a covenant. Adding more complexity to this case, the landlord must thereafter offer a lease to the property managers that are ultimately affordable for the potential lessees. According to Greenfield, this highly-affordable access model is hard to negotiate and the market works against the goal of long-term control of such property. Lastly, Spaceworks is willing to work with large residential developments to find small plots of studio space within their plans.

What might make Spaceworks plans more resistant to the gentrification that has taken place in other NYC neighborhoods is that it works with artists in their own communities, rather than seeking to bring in new groups from outside. Though Spaceworks does not work to protect residents, its model for development looks to create a kind of anchoring population to a district.

The South Bronx is an attractive option for several constituencies. It represents a kind of Goldilocks zone, where there are buildings dedicated to manufacturing or crafts far enough removed from a residences to not disturb neighbors but close enough to have access to food, public transportation and necessary shops. It is a particular combination of underutilized warehouse space that may be appropriate for configuring into studios and an area that underserves its populations, offering few spaces for art production and display. Ultimately the cliché narrative of artists entering poor neighborhoods, establishing spaces for themselves while changing the local economy and thus making the ground fallow for economic investment and residential development does not have to be the story of the South Bronx. Many do not want it to be. The more pitched battles are still to come.

Correction: This article originally stated that City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito lives in the South Bronx. That is incorrect and has been fixed.

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