This Side of Paradise: A Bronx Art and Culture Hub

by Christine Licata for Artlog

Through June 1, the once insular and exclusive Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx has been transformed by site-specific exhibition facilitatorsNo Longer Empty into This Side of Paradise, a progressive arts and culture tour de force of thirty-two emerging and established artists, local cultural institutions, and community collaborations. Offering a rare historical and contemporary overview of the Bronx and its eclectic neighborhoods, the project expands the traditional notion of a site-specific exhibition space into an inclusive borough-wide experience.

In 1924 investor Andrew Freedman bequeathed much of his fortune to build and sustain a retirement home for the less fortunate—relatively speaking. These needy were defined as aging, wealthy individuals who had lost their capital worth. Known as the “poor house for rich people,” the Andrew Freedman Home was a free-of-charge, elite sanctuary where the once well-to-do could live out their lives without sacrificing their opulent quality of life. Located on the Bronx Grand Concourse and occupying a full city block complete with gardens, ballrooms, library, dining hall, industrial kitchen, and three floors of accommodations, the home maintained the illusion of wealth and status for its residents.

This sequestered reprieve came to an end in the early ‘80s when the Freedman Foundation depleted its funds. The Mid Bronx Senior Citizen’s Council then bought the building and currently uses parts of the space for Head Start youth programming and party rentals. The rest of the real estate has fallen into disuse, and despite the visible signs of dilapidation, its former affluence is still apparent.

Now, through the initiative of the art nonprofit No Longer Empty, the Andrew Freedman Home once again offers a wealth of opportunity, this time revitalized as public place for local and international contemporary art, as well as a participatory cultural hub for Bronx neighborhood projects, awareness, and education. For No Longer Empty’s President and Chief Curator Manon Slome and Executive Director Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, This Side of Paradise is an impressive testament to the organization’s mission to utilize “the history of spaces to unite communities and act as a springboard for artists.”

What remains of the Andrew Freedman Home embodies the paradoxical nature inherent within the concept of any “ruin.” Within the abandoned site, the crumbling failures of the past confront the aspirational possibilities of the future. As such, this fragmented, complex place echoes nostalgia while whispering the potential of becoming and renewal. The participating artists inThis Side of Paradise not only engage in this dialogue but also extend the discussion beyond the specific location to encompass the Bronx’s diversity, politics, and socio-economic issues.

Some of the artists focus on the phenomenology of architecture, combining the Andrew Freedman Home with experiences of its long-gone tenants, investigating their circumstances and environment with both poignant insight and ironic humor. Federico Uribe’s hypnoticPersian Carpet, on closer examination, reveals that the interwoven patterns of the 22 × 12’ floor rug are made from quotidian materials including hairpins, dominos, golf balls, cutlery, and crutches. These remnants of the independent life the seniors once had are seamlessly merged with tokens of their interdependent existence in the retirement home.

In contrast stands Linda Cunningham’s haunting, ten-foot-long installation of deteriorated drywall, peeling canvas, and broken windowpanes in Paradise Lost/Regained? Utopia to Survival that incorporates photo transfers of excavated ephemera and personal documents that were left behind by the residents. The work powerfully manifests the sentimentality and loss embedded in the Andrew Freedman Home while alluding to the overall perseverance and tenacity of the Bronx.

Other artists employ The Andrew Freedman Home and its founder as a reference point in investigating the present day Bronx and interacting with local Bronxites. Freedman’s pivotal role in developing The Interborough Rapid Transit, NYC’s first subway and the Bronx’s main line, is alluded to in IRT, a collaboration between Elizabeth Hamby and Hatuey Ramos-Fermín. A complex psychogeographic project that ingeniously explores alternative modes of transportation, IRT contains a documentary of local Dominican livery cab drivers discussing their professional challenges accompanied by an installation of the roof of an authentic taxi cab that broadcasts real-time local dispatch radio transmissions. The other component is Boogie Down Rides, an interactive map with video interviews that survey neighborhood cycling experiences, as well as an offsite temporary bike shop for the community with rentals, tours, and educational workshops.

Influenced by the Andrew Freedman Home’s custom of appointing coordinators for leisure activities, Laura Napier and Carmen Julia Hernández have formed the congenially educationalActivity Committee. Throughout the duration of the show, all are welcome to discover the Bronx with organized social clubs like the Bird, Plant & Fish Committee and the Eating Committee, or even to start new clubs.

Artists also activate the Freedman Home by creating archetypical spaces that exist in their own spatio-temporal reality, somewhere between the past, present, and future. These works unite viewers in the experience of universal states of humanity. Gian Maria Tosatti’s Spazio #05contemplates the ephemeral nature of memory, the fleeting physicality of life, and the stark loneliness often experienced in communal spaces and crowded city dwellings. Erased by sunlight and the passage of time, the room is bare except for sterile metal furnishings and broken glass covering the entire floor.

This Side of Paradise presents an appreciation of the Bronx that challenges pervasive negative stereotypes and preconceived notions of violence and urban blight. For its size, the borough contains a greater percentage of parks and historical landmarks than any other urban area in the country and is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse counties in the nation. The Bronx has also long been an incubator for revolutionary, vibrant art and music scenes that are supported by historically important alternative and institutional organizations, many of which are collaborating with No Longer Empty, including the Bronx Documentary Center, Casita Maria, Lehman College Art Gallery, Longwood Art Gallery, The Bronx Children’s Museum, The Bronx Council of the Arts, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, The Bronx River Art Center, and The Point.

The exhibition opens the doors to all who wish to experience a broad cross section of the eclectic arts in the Bronx, either for the first time or perhaps to rediscover it anew. That sentiment, underscored by Nicky Enright’s vivid blue and green The Free Flag on the main lawn of the residence, declares the site a territory for all “global citizens” without borders. The Andrew Freedman Home now has a future enriched through artists and art education, cooperation, and outreach, once again demonstrating that cultural currency is the most enduring sign of prosperity.