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Both a declaration and the name of the organization, at the “Defend the Bronx” rally (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Last weekend, the rapper and record producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, along with Bacardi — for which he’s reportedly the new “global chief of culture” — staged an art fair in the Bronx. According to Remezcla, the event, titled No Commission, was first produced last December in Miami, where artworks were offered without the participation of galleries or other middlemen, earning a million dollars for the artists who participated. Perhaps that’s why Dean, himself an art collector, thought the fair might be a way to support the communities of the Bronx, the borough in which he was born and raised.

Dean’s plans, however, were mired in controversy from the start. To launch the event, he arranged a party in a property newly acquired by developer Keith Rubenstein, who’s head of Somerset Group, one of the leading commercial interests seeking to rebrand and build out the Port Morris section of the South Bronx. Rubenstein is notorious among local residents for having thrown a widely reviled, star-studded party last year, which featured bullet-riddled cars and flaming trash cans to illustrate its theme, “Bronx is burning.”

Then there was the artist list for No Commission: according to the Welcome to the Bronx blog, only about a third of the participants had significant connections to the borough, and no Latino artists were included (the full list of artists appears here). So, although another son of the Bronx, A$AP Rocky, played at the opening night party on Thursday, August 11, for many activists, artists, and concerned citizens, the entire event seemed like a sales tactic to provide street cred and cover for rapacious developers. Ed García Conde of Welcome to the Bronx was reportedly able to meet with Dean for several hours and express his concerns that “artists [are] being used as pawns for developers.” He secured a promise from Dean that the producer would collaborate with Conde on a future event that will include local artists in a “more neutral location.”

The protesters flanked by a few police officers (click to enlarge)

Nevertheless, many longstanding local activist groups decided to stage a protest on opening night of the fair, spurred by artist Shellyne Rodriguez, a member of Take Back the Bronx who also spoke with Dean. According to Rodriguez, her sit-down with the rapper was unproductive. Essentially, she said, Dean pleaded ignorance of Rubinstein’s significant role in the gentrification of the South Bronx. Dean claimed that he just wanted to give back to his community, and that Knicks star Carmelo Anthony had suggested Rubenstein when Dean was looking for a No Commission venue. Rodriguez went on the say that Dean dangled the option of a closed-door meeting between Rubenstein and the activists, but only if the protests did not go forward. Rodriguez refused the bait — unlike Conde, she said, who ended up endorsing the fair — because “our position is that no artists should be involved.” She thought a forum with Rubenstein would need to be public, or it would essentially function as PR for his interests.

Artist Shellyne Rodriquez of Take Back the Bronx, who was a leader in organizing the protests

Rodriguez spread the word about the protest to other organizations and reached out to Hyperallergic, which has been reporting on the competing agendas of pop-up art exhibitions, commercial real estate developers, and activist groups in this economically depressed area. In fact, it’s the area I live in, so when Rodriguez contacted us, I decided to walk down to 101 Lincoln Avenue, where the on-ramp to the Third Avenue Bridge and Bruckner Boulevard meet and Lincoln begins its southeast turn to skirt the Harlem River. When I arrived, around 6:45pm, I saw some 12 protesters carrying signs and sporadically addressing people heading into the party. They were accompanied by a few police officers standing off to the side, looking completely uninterested. One woman was speaking into a microphone attached to a portable speaker: “ … will appropriate your culture, disrespect and replace you!,” she chanted.

Pilar Maschi of The Bronx Is Not For Sale clearly expressing her sentiments

I spoke first with Pilar Maschi, who was affiliated with The Bronx Is Not for Sale; she was holding a sign that read “Fuck You Keith Rubinstein.” “They are trying to get buy-in with the community,” she replied when I asked her why the protest had been organized. “They’re bringing in their tokens, their sellouts, people who are not necessarily from the Bronx, but I guess they are of color. They are legitimizing and selling out their community by participating in an event like this.” The theme of “selling out” was repeated by several protestors. Wanda Salaman, executive director of the local nonprofit Mothers on the Move, told me she knew the one-bedroom apartments in the buildings that have yet to be constructed would cost $3,500 per month, a price point she believes would drive out longtime residents. She claimed to have heard during tenant meetings that owners of buildings in the district are already offering residents thousands of dollars to move out so that they can raise rents. This starts a cycle, she said, “and in less than two months, they may be homeless.” She thinks the art fair is connected to this process. “Do not use artists to sell our community out,” she added.

Wanda Salaman of Mothers on the Move

Trying to get more clarity on the precise connection between an art fair and selling out, I turned to the artist Alicia Grullón, who founded Percent for Green. She explained that the argument the groups were mounting was not against the artists themselves — and here we were interrupted by Pilar, who yelled and insisted that they were protesting the artists. When Pilar allowed her to continue, Grullón explained that she, at least, was there to protest the developers, both because the artists in No Commission were not from the South Bronx community, therefore Dean and company were not actually welcoming locals, and also because the mix of art, development, and real estate often leads to gentrification and displacement. How that happens, according to Grullón, is speculation. She contended that when wealthy people come to a neighborhood to buy paintings, they don’t just purchase art — “they are also speculating the area to make further investment, to make their money grow. That’s how the process works.” It’s a story that has played out in many Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Bushwick, and is now happening in Harlem as well.

Of all the people I talked to, Shannon Jones of Why Accountability — the one who’d been speaking into the microphone when I first arrived — had the most comprehensive conception of how all the distinct issues swirling around Dean’s fair related to each other. “It all goes hand in hand: the militarized police state, greedy developers pushing you out of your neighborhood, horrible housing, miseducation of black and brown children,” she said. “A classic move of white supremacy is to use black people to further what they want to do,” she continued, seeming to suggest that Rubenstein was using Dean to further his own aims. Shannon claimed that Bronx politicians sold out the community by “rezoning these areas and not mandating any new housing built here be affordable for the people who live here,” and pointed out that the South Bronx “is the poorest congressional district in the entire country” (a designation corroborated by The Economist earlier this year). She said it made no sense for her to go to an art fair party when her friends and neighbors were at risk of being displaced. “6,000 evictions [take place] every year in the Bronx,” she said. The statistics I found paint a worse picture: 11,000 evictions took place in the borough in 2012. Given such dire numbers, which indicate the slim chance the working poor have of surviving, it’s no wonder that Pilar said to me, in referring to the fair and party, “this is violence.”

Protesters questioning the economic future of the South Bronx

It struck me that all these women (and it was mostly women at the rally) were determined and principled, and refused to see themselves as powerless in confrontations with developers who have already secured contracts and agreements and will start building soon. It’s a difficult task they’ve taken on, but a crucial one: to convince artists, politicians, landlords, and tenants not to participate, not to take the money and run, to forgo the ostensible, immediate profit for a long-term plan that’s sustainable for the majority. Their struggle reminds me of a phrase Deep River, an alternative exhibition space run by a group of artists in LA, used to print on its stationery and send out with its emails: “Resistance is futile, except when it isn’t.”

The No Commission fair took place August 11–14 at 101 Lincoln Avenue in the South Bronx.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...

56 replies on “Activists Protest Swizz Beatz’s Art Fair in the Bronx”

  1. Recolonization at work, targeting those in society with the least political clout. A shameful affair!

    1. The alternative is to just let all the property rot until its even more of a mess then it currently is. When you want improvement – you bring in events that draw the pioneer class. The same who reinvented Williamsburg and now all throughout Brooklyn. It had no color because playing monopoly is open to all in NYC. Many in Brooklyn that bought properties when and where NO ONE would dare like in Ft Green – now find themselves with valuable properties. Whats wrong with that?

      1. Might the people concerned have thought of reaching out to the local community to discuss the possibility of future development before jumping in with big bucks and bigger boots?

        1. There’s lots and lots of property rotting away up there. This isn’t massive development yet BUT clearly what many are hoping happens is a creeping gentrification that over a period of many years can really take over a neighborhood and yes, people are priced out but the alternative is if you think everything lasts forever, you will discover thats just wrong. Or continue to allow the area to sink more and more and more until exactly what a developer or two is attempting to do now happens anyway. I guess its called evolution in NYC real estate where first the area sinks and sinks and sinks until it has no value and then some people begin to see potential with a reasonable price tag. There’s some enormous warehouse spaces up there and my guess is they will become condos some with water views – OR they will stay rodent infested warehouse space. But yes milk will still sell at a reasonable price at the corner Bodega The community doesn’t use those spaces. The community is concerned that their corner bodega will begin to sell milk at double the current price. Should the entire section of NYC suffer because of that? Should the area have a shot at improvement? Just my opinion

          1. Anybody else got any thoughts on this? I tend to oppose blaming the poor for poverty and especially for failing to have any future vision. There are reasons why real estate loses value and it’s not just because of the people who live there, much more because low-quality investment by landlords encourages impoverished expectations by tenants and by the community as a whole. Research into London slums in the 18th and 19th centuries showed that there was always a market for the most wretched accommodation, a market filled by those with the least to give, until properties were subdivided into the minimum square footage supportable. Good news for landlords, bad news for tenants, but, eventually, a great opportunity for ruthless investors able to scoop up semi-derelict real estate at bargain prices, and to clothe such profiteering in the specious language of urban regeneration.

          2. I think Mr. Loeb has an idealized view of real estate developers as people interested in the common good while earning themselves a living just like everyone else. I think that is nonsense. I also don’t romanticize the poor as always being good people who are just down on their luck and also systematically oppressed from outside forces.

          3. Dear Chris,

            It is complex. I lived in London a few years ago, where the rental market is still largely unregulated and yes, the accommodations for rent at relatively high prices were often revolting, so given the demand of the market and the absence of the state as a regulatory authority, London for the poor and working class can be miserable. I am very much in favor of the state stepping in to mitigate the devil-take-the-hindmost machinations of the marketplace, particularly because the market is not a level playing field; it is skewed towards favoring and benefiting those with inherited wealth (and social capital) to the detriment of people without these resources.

            That said, there is also the issue that was brought up by Kalefa Sanneh in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/is-gentrification-really-a-problem), which consisted of his finding that the arguments against gentrification MAY be shortsighted in that they value place over people. It’s very possible that people will have better lives outside of these districts that swing between the poles of rampant urban decay to shiny, new bourgeois outpost, if they are forced to leave. Perhaps things just are better in Jersey City.

            And there is a poverty of imagination on the part of developers, state organs, and yes, the residents of these economically depressed neighborhoods. We keep thinking of neighborhoods as either/or as opposed to both/and. Having lived in London, I know it’s possible to have public housing next to million pound flats and the de facto segregation of our cities in the US is poisonous to our civic lives and public discourse.

  2. am reminded here that for every person on earth there are FOUR habitable acres of land.
    except it is all OWNED by the 1% and so there is nowhere to go.

    1. There are a lot of places to go, but no one wants to be in them. In the case of New York City, the Federal Government continues to give money to the rich at 0%, and foreign oligarchs have their own even more unpleasant farming methods, and for some reason they all want to be here in New York, so they constantly push the lower orders outward. In this arrangement, artists are the shock troops of gentrification and they have long since landed in the South Bronx, having served well in the Village, Little Italy, Soho, Chelsea, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Gowanus, Dumbo, etc. etc. etc. I am beginning to wonder if Alaska is safe. Probably not. But fear not. Affordable slave quarters will be made available to well-connected and exemplary proles. Someone has to sweep the floor and do the dishes.

      1. Safe??? Is the alternative of rotten slums rat infested really preferable? What a crazy inside down idea. I have a better idea – organize the neighborhood, walk into the neighborhood bank, find all the people in the hood that have contraction skills like plumbing, carpentry etc etc – want a model? Research Detroit and instead of whining about evil developers – get with the program. Find a way to fit in the new reality and stop trying to stop it because you won’t. You may not like it but its the way of NYC for decade after decade ….

        1. Detroit is, or was, different, because the cost of land is much lower. There are lots of schemes to ward off evil developers, like community land trusts, but first you have to get hold of some land. In New York City, that’s going to be very difficult under present financial and political conditions, and who knows when the Collapse will arrive? It could be tomorrow, could be several years off.

          For the present I prefer the rats to the gentry, as they aren’t any dumber and they don’t run my rent up, but it’s getting hard to find a good old rat-infested slum except in places like Patagonia and Staten Island.

  3. Perhaps for the sake of fairness, the writer might have interviewed some attendees of the fair? Maybe, like, one even? Maybe there are opposing viewpoints? Maybe some insight might be gained? So there were twelve protesters? How many people were inside the fair? Dancing, drinking, looking at art, having fun? I was there briefly, and I would estimate thousands.
    I know this is nothing more than “advocacy journalism”, but perhaps there is another side to this story that your readers might want to know about.

    1. Dear MiamiDanny,

      I appreciate you asking the question. I did not interview any people who attended the fair, because the point of my piece was to attempt to understand the issues that animated the protest, not the experience of those at the fair. I don’t quite think it’s accurate to call this work advocacy journalism, but I’m also not clear what you mean by this precisely.

      I also think that the subtle suggestion you are making that more people enjoyed the fair than protested its staging is besides the point. Just because people enjoy something doesn’t mean it’s not problematic.

      There are several sides to the issues of gentrification of the South Bronx, but in this case, it’s crucial that the many, nuanced views of the protesters are brought to light in order to understand the confluence of art exhibitions, real estate development and the organized responses by local activists and residents. Do you see how whatever the attendees experienced in the fair is just not relevant to the above concerns?

        1. Dear MiamiDanny,

          I’m not sure you’ve figured out the proper use of quotation marks.

          And the just because an opinion is different, doesn’t mean it’s relevant. Again, the opinions of attendees MIGHT have been so, if they were able to address the intersection of art exhibition, real estate development, gentrification and displacement. But as you said yourself, they were there just to dance, drink, look at art and have fun.

          1. “the opinions of attendees MIGHT have been so, if they were able to address…” Which of course, again, you don’t know if they were “able to address”, because you didn’t ASK ANYONE. Your attitude towards the fair-goers stinks of elitism.

          2. I personally think skip the flotsam jetsam and investigate further the conditions of the community, the collusion of city officials, developers, and cultural institutions involved in perpetually displacing Black and Latinos across New York.

          3. There are thoughtful and legitimate reasons a person would not comment here with their actual names.

          4. Karen Bergen: ” While I may seem heartless, I’m not. These folks just haven’t been in NYC long enough (second generation immigrants?) to know everyone’s gotta move when rent goes up.everyone’s gotta move when rent goes up.”

            Sure, back in the day, yes white slave owners decide when and where to move blacks, and where to push-out native Americans, and Latinos off their land… I get it, it’s part of what gives you this sense of entitlement today.

            But this is here and now, and we are gonna fight your transparent racist city planning and gross white supremacist attitudes (disguised as a fair and free market for white landlords and developers)

            We have a right to the city, and your veil of nyc as the “cultural capital
            and most diverse city of the world” will crumble when the world sees
            how you *use* art as shallow financial investment and maintain NYC as
            the most SEGREGATED city in the US.

          5. While your defense of your writer is noble, his, and your, I’m assuming, inability (unwillingness?) to address the issues I’ve brought up speaks volumes. Additionally, my identity is extremely well-known through my screen name, as I have been using it for over a decade. Try Google. Or, you could always simply click on my profile. But then that would mean engaging in honest discourse.

          6. Thanks Hrag, I figured this person had some agenda with their tone and dishonest use of quotes. I keep assuming that people will be amenable to rational, reasonable argument. Clearly that’s not the case.

          7. Dear Karen Bergen,

            I state the aim of my article in my first reply to MiamiDanny: to understand the issues that generated the protests.

          8. I suppose it is relevant to interview them but grossly insufficient. They’d better be used as the “human interest” lead to a more researched article, as much of what they’re saying is naive. For example, their neighborhood can’t be “sold out” when they don’t own any of it. The “white supremacy” bit is a canard, since the Bronx was 98% white in 1940 and now down to 40%, just below the black population of 43%, which is well up from 2% in 1940. You have emotions and sentimentality, but who owns what isn’t determined by anyone’s emotional investments. While I may seem heartless, I’m not. These folks just haven’t been in NYC long enough (second generation immigrants?) to know everyone’s gotta move when rent goes up.

          9. • ownership doesn’t give anyone the right to send people to homeless shelters.

            • white supremacy is when decade after decade white city officials and white developers work to displace black and latino communities.

          10. “….black and latino communities”

            The Anti-Defamation League puts antisemitism rates among foreign-born Hispanics at 36% and blacks at 20% (both well over the 5% of whites). James Baldwin tells you why:

            “When we were growing up in Harlem our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the building. A coat of paint, a broken window, a stopped sink, a stopped toilet, a sagging floor, a broken ceiling, a dangerous stairwell, the question of garbage disposal, the question of heat and cold, of roaches and rats–all questions of life and death for the poor, and especially for those with children–we had to cope with all of these as best we could. Our parents were lashed to futureless jobs, in order to pay the outrageous rent.”

            The problem with Keith Rubenstein is the poor hack apparently didn’t have the budget to pull off a Kara Walker “Sugar Baby” duck decoy or geographic proximity for a Brooklyn Museum/Elizabeth Sackler/Anne Pasternak party about feminism/black lives matter/anti-patriachy whatnot to keep you agitated and fighting “white supremacy” while you lose your home. Rather, you are playing the pawn. If you wise up and call a spade a spade, rather than flail in the air at bogeymen set up for you by them, you will then be called an anti-Semite if you are lucky enough to be noticed at all. Likely, your sad anti-Semitic protest will not be covered by Hyperallergic, as that’s very bad taste, much less will they be sympathetic. You don’t have the budget or knowledge to keep your apartment and it’s got nothing to do with redneck white nationalists or rich WASPs or anyone else you think is fair to publicly blame, shame, curse and call out. You’re just screwed and I’m sorry.

            You can leave your apartment now or leave it later with the ADL in your face.

          11. True or not (and it’s not), you are still flailing in the wind.

            Call anyone any name you like; it just doesn’t matter here. (Bye.)

          12. If by “not fooling anyone” you mean bringing up some points that you and your writer are unable to dispute in any meaningful fashion, then, yes, “I’m not fooling anyone”.

          13. Why didn’t you finish Baldwin’s quote?
            “I also know that if today I refuse to hate Jews, or anybody else, it is because I know how it feels to be hated. I learned this from Christians, and I ceased to practice what the Christians practiced.

            The crisis taking place in the world, and in the minds and hearts of black men everywhere, is not produced by the star of David, but by the old, rugged Roman cross on which Christendom’s most celebrated Jew was murdered. And not by Jews.”

          14. I didn’t finish it because he stops drawing on first-hand experience (his area of expertise), then theorizes about White Christians without much argument or support for his conclusions and claims. If they were supported, it would not change the point at hand, which you seem to have understood by creating this red herring.

            (No more responses from me to topic-dodging posts.)

          15. BS. You left in all the Jew-hating stuff, but left out Baldwin’s conclusion that the plight of his people was NOT caused by Jews, but by Christians. I suppose that little swipe at the ADL also was not intended as an anti-Jew remark either? You see the name Rubenstein and the hate comes out.

          16. I beg your pardon?? What on earth can you be saying? I can assure you my home is an entirely prejudice-free (and insult-free) zone…

          17. I was not referring to you but to the previous commenter who stated, “You can leave your apartment now or leave it later with the ADL in your face.”

          18. Since you felt the need to repeat your opinion of my use of quotes, please allow me to explain.
            You said, “Do you see how whatever the attendees experienced in the fair is just not relevant to the above concerns?”
            I replied, “Do you see how the people who may have a different opinion of the event than me are just not relevant?”
            So what I was doing there was re-imagining your line as what I felt you were ACTUALLY saying in your passive-aggressive manner. I thought that was fairly obvious. Anyway, hope that clears that up for you.

          19. @MiamiDanny:disqus I’m curious what kind of story you would like to see? One that says, Hey NY, it’s o.k. to party and have fun when there is a crisis in the Black and Latino communities that are being pushed out of Bronx and Brooklyn at alarming rates.— Suggesting that if the writer interview the party goers would give him the cred of a fair reportage is kind of a joke right?

          20. This is an art-centric site. I would expect artists and the people who support artists to be given the courtesy of allowing their voices to be heard, especially since their motives and actions were impugned by people quoted in this blog post.. So whether any of us agree with them or not, I’m curious to know why we did not hear from them.

          21. Riiiiiiiiight. You and your writer are basically incapable of addressing what I’ve written here. Your intellectual and moral elitism is breathtaking.

      1. Since you appear not to know, let me help YOU out:
        “Advocacy journalism is a genre of journalism that intentionally and transparently adopts a non-objective viewpoint, usually for some social or political purpose. Because it is intended to be factual, it is distinguished from propaganda.”

  4. Good article. Art and music that is of the community (or kind of, in this case) can definitely be used to put a happy cultural face on a project that doesn’t consider the community at all. Jay-Z was the face of the declining Barclays project amid rumors that he was a major owner of the team (he wasn’t). A derelict building in my hood got a cute street art makeover the same day a Corcoran FOR SALE sign went up. It’s cynical, but culture gets co-opted as PR.

    I don’t think Beatz set out to rep a callous developer, but that’s effectively what’s happening. NO COMMISSION is a great idea but if you’re going to talk about The Bronx, have it in the actual Bronx. Don’t ride by 1520 Sedgwick in the promotional video then retreat to a development that literally just landed there and is a force against BX residents. I think his heart is in the right place – let’s see if that “future event” happens.

  5. Thank you Seph for this article. It is not “elitist” to focus on protestors who are concerned about being priced out and displaced from their homes. It’s absurd for anyone to call you “elitist” for not interviewing people drinking & dancing at a millionare hosted event. There was one person commenting here that was extremely rude to you and you handled it with class.

    1. Dear Beagle,

      Thanks for this. It seems like the intent was to invalidate not only my work, but the activism and perspectives of the people who formed the protests. It’s a silly argument, but one that seemingly has traction with some, in this silly election season: the notion that it’s elitist to speak to and seriously consider the experiences and knowledge of people who are trying to resist the incursion of moneyed interests into their neighborhoods. More, there’s the corollary idea which I think devolves from the PR revolution of the past generation: in order to be objective, one has to give room for all opinions, even when they have been clearly discredited, or that all opinions are relevant. They are not. As far as being classy, I think I am just learning how to discern who wants a real dialogue and who wants to tear their putative opponents down, and not to give attention to the latter.

      1. I like that you interact with those who respond to your articles, as that requires a substantial amount of vulnerability. However, I think you should take into account that your article, however explicit it may be to yourself or anyone else, frames within it the very moral and political terms on which any subsequent interaction can take place, and those terms are charged. One cannot have a “real dialog” with you if those foundational terms are already objectionable, and often times they are. To the degree you understand this, surely it is disingenuous for you to believe you are an arbiter of what is real, fair, important, worthwhile, or even honest in what exchanges happen in these comments. In my following the interactions you have, I do not always see the “high road” being taken when you take yourself out of the exchange.

      2. Also, I’ve taken to blocking these trolls, so I just don’t see whatever bile and venom they are spewing. They keep waiting beneath these conversation bridges demanding the coin of our attention for passage through. Perhaps we find another way across …

Comments are closed.