A Cultural Hothouse in an Unlikely Locale

A Cultural Hothouse in an Unlikely Locale

By David Gonzalez New York Times City Room Blog

The notion of popular art must have seemed like a really hard sell in the South Bronx 30 years ago. The blight all around was the least of it. Fact is, what usually passed for objets d’art in apartments with plastic slipcovers and plaster saints were ornate, flamingo-bedecked mirrors or renderings of the Last Supper.

Yet it was among these neighborhoods reeling from neglect and devastation that an intrepid assortment of artists, musicians and actors forged creative outposts intent on creating — and sharing — their vision. What outsiders saw as an urban wasteland turned out to be a cultural hothouse that nurtured homegrown artists and entranced visitors.

I was among them in 1979, when I returned to the South Bronx to teach photography on Charlotte Street while working for En Foco, a photography group that also sponsored exhibits at street fairs, parks, libraries and banks. It was just one in a variety of groups that made up in energy what they lacked in funds. If anything, the heady idea that people there were pioneers provided a kind of energy that propelled artists and audiences alike through lean times.

The streets may not have been paved with gold, or even decent asphalt, but there
were oases of theater, poetry and art.

At Roberto Clemente State Park in Morris Heights, photography shows were set up featuring poster-size reproductions of images from Puerto Rico. They made for an odd stage set, as parkgoers stopped to pose against the pictures, or others peered down on them from above.

One week, curiosity-seekers were invited onto the Floating Foundation for Photography, whose barge had pulled into the park along the Harlem River. Upstairs, an alfresco photo studio had been set up, complete with carnival-style painted canvases that allowed guests to poke their heads into an underwater scene.

Downstairs was a freak show of a different sort: excerpts of what would become Larry Clark’s controversial “Teenage Lust” series, featuring photographic portraits of young hustlers and runaways. Not that the kinds of kids shown in these images from Times Square were unknown in these parts of the Bronx. But the images left some of us with an uneasy feeling that Mr. Clark had come down on the wrong side of the line dividing exploration from exploitation.

The South Bronx had its own allure for more than a few outsiders, with the most adventurous finding their way to Fashion Moda, just south of 149th Street and Third Avenue in the Hub. The storefront featured a graveyard scene painted by Crash, a local graffiti artist who has gone on to exhibit internationally, and still keeps a studio in the South Bronx.

While lanky B-boys like Frosty Freeze hung out there with his friends in the Rock Steady Crew, downtown artists came to the space to share new works. Graffiti writers flocked to the place, including one named Toxic, who one afternoon talked at length about how his subtly hued pieces were influenced by Josef Albers’s writings on color theory.

One of the most haunting pieces came from David Finn, who in 1983 converted a nearby abandoned building into a sculpture gallery. In apartments where decades of paint had flaked off, turning walls into abstract canvases, he hung torsos made from plastic bags stuffed with garbage.

In the basement, one room was lined with life-size figures cobbled from wood scavenged from the empty apartments upstairs. He topped them with masks made from painted boxes. The effect in the dimly lighted space was jarring.

Such has been the legacy of Fashion Moda — and its era — that a young Bronx artist named Hatuey Ramos-Fermin will mount an exhibit later this month featuring some of the gallery’s original collaborators. It will take place inside one of the storefronts that housed Fashion Moda and now houses a school for security guards — a setting that is more apropos than absurd, given how art thrived in an unlikely locale.

These days, developers want to carve out artist colonies in Port Morris or Mott Haven, thinking they can give the area cachet by calling it SoBro.

Yo, no.

What the marketer’s contrivance cannot convey is the fact that art and music thrived in the South Bronx long before any refugees from Williamsburg discovered lofts along the Bruckner. It flourished when it was needed most, when much of officialdom wanted to walk away and forget that this moonscape was anybody’s problem. Before anyone thought of cashing in, art was freely shared, demanding nothing more than attention and appreciation.

Survival wasn’t just an art. It was art.