MOTT HAVEN — With its rumbling dryers and stinging smell of detergent, the Blue and White Laundromat on East 140th Street is a fine place to wash clothes, but an odd one to dream about a river.
But that is what two Mott Haven artists are asking patrons to do as they conduct interviews outside the laundromat and invite passersby to fiddle with a whimsical model of the South Bronx waterfront, where popsicle sticks stand in for bridges and blue tape signifies water.
“Feel free to touch things and put things here,” said artist Hatuey Ramos-Fermín as locals approached the tabletop river. “Make your own little place along the water.”
Through the model, the recorded interviews, maps, photographs and riverside walks, Ramos-Fermín and his creative partner, Elizabeth Hamby, want to draw their neighbors’ attention to the South Bronx waterfront, which sits just a mile south but often feels a world away.
“There is a disconnect between people’s everyday experience here and the waterfront,” said Ramos-Fermín, noting that many locals travel some nine miles northeast to Orchard Beach or walk along the Manhattan bank of the Harlem River to spend time near the water. The piece, which will culminate with a public presentation in October, was commissioned by The Laundromat Project, a citywide nonprofit whose residency program gives artists $4,000 to launch interactive art projects inside laundromats in the neighborhoods where they live. Other artists have converted sections of laundromats into yoga studios, reading rooms and English language classrooms for immigrants — all with the blessing of the storeowners, who are not paid by the artists or the nonprofit.
The Mott Haven pair hopes their piece, called “Mind the Gap/La Brecha,” can connect residents with the ongoing efforts of local activists, city officials and urban planners from as far away as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge to convert stretches of Bronx waterfront from their old industrial uses into public spaces. “A lot of plans already exist,” said Hamby, including ones for new riverside parks, pathways and a long-delayed footbridge to Randall’s Island. But, she added, there is a need to carry “that conversation out of those meetings and onto the ground.” Riverfront access gained new attention this year when some Bronx residents loudly opposed FreshDirect’s plan to build a new 500,000-square-foot facility in the Harlem River Yards in Port Morris.
But when the art project began this month at the laundromat on East 140th St., talk of the water was far less contentious and much more personal. After shoving her clothes into a dryer, an elderly woman told the artists that she loves dipping her feet in the water. A man passing on the sidewalk pulled out his cell phone to share a picture of his favorite beach in Puerto Rico. Alex Alonzo, 9, played with the river model until he had designed his dream waterfront, with pipe connectors as telescopes, a plastic badge as a police station and a pack of pink wafers as a cookie factory. Alex’s older brother, Alberto Alonzo, stopped folding clothes for a moment to imagine fishing and picnicking by the river. “You sit by the water and feel the breeze and you feel relaxed,” Alberto Alonzo, 25, said. “You forget about the city.” When the artists asked their neighbors about their visions for a reclaimed South Bronx waterfront, they mentioned shade, bright colors, swimmable water, security and, of course, restrooms. “What this exercise reveals is that everybody has feelings about water,” said Hamby, while some young children pushed plastic fish through the blue-tape river. “It’s elemental.”