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.

Cyclists Plan a Month-Long Celebration of Bronx Biking for May

by Patrick Wall for DNAinfo

 

GRAND CONCOURSE — Waves of helmeted cyclists could come rolling down the Grand Concourse next month as part of a project meant to draw attention to the Bronx’s fleet of riders, while also highlighting the work that remains to make The Bronx a true bikers’ borough.

A pair of Mott Haven-based artists enlisted some of the borough’s most committed cyclists to help power the project, called “Boogie Down Rides,” that will include a series of free bike tours, workshops and town hall meetings throughout May, which is national bike month.

“There’s tons of people who ride in The Bronx,” said artist Elizabeth Hamby, who hatched the cycling series idea with her creative partner, Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, as an extension of their transportation-themed installation in the Bronx art show, “This Side of Paradise.”

Boogie Down Rides, added Hamby, is designed “to take what’s already happening and ramp it up a few notches.”

The series is set to kick off May 6 with a pedal-powered “history ride” past landmarks along the Grand Concourse.

Other events include a free fix-a-flat-tire training, a Mother’s Day ride to the New York Botanical Garden and a brainstorming session about the Sheridan Expressway, a stretch of South Bronx freeway that one community group would like to close to automobile traffic on summer weekends.

Meetings are also planned to discuss reviving car-free Sundays along the Grand Concourse, the Bronx version of Manhattan’s Summer Streets, an annual event in the early 1990s that reserved several miles of the avenue for walkers and cyclists on summer Sundays. The event was discontinued in 1996, then reinstated on a trial basis a few years ago, but has since fizzled out.

Mel Rodriguez, a Bronx cyclist who in 2010 formed an advocacy group called Bike the Bronx, said he joined the Boogie Down Rides planning committee because he believes the month-long series could lead to longer-lasting changes.

“They’re bringing together leaders not only to discuss the event,” Rodriguez said, “but also how the event can be a catalyst for bigger things.”

Rodriguez and other Bronx bikers say cycling conditions in the borough have improved in recent years, but that more quality bike lanes are needed to make local riding safe and convenient.

Since 2006, the city has added 56.5 miles of new bike lanes in The Bronx — far fewer than the 102.8 miles added in Brooklyn, but more than the amount established in Manhattan or Staten Island during that period, according to the Transportation Department.

Several major Bronx roadways, including the Grand Concourse, Park Avenue and Lafayette Avenue, now feature dedicated bike lanes — though most of the so-called protected bike lanes, which are physically separated from vehicular traffic, are located in the north and east Bronx.

The Bronx also boasts 6.75 miles of Bronx River greenways, which are paved trails running through riverside parks such as Concrete Plant Park and Soundview Park.

But large gaps divide much of the greenway into a patchwork of disconnected trails, and plans for a similar greenway along the Bronx-bank of the Harlem River are still in their infancy, said Maggie Greenfield, spokeswoman for the Bronx River Alliance.

“The current infrastructure in The Bronx is not very bike-friendly,” said Greenfield. “There’s not as much connectivity as you might want.”

joint study by several city agencies of bike accident data from 1996 to 2005 found that Hunts Point was one of three locations citywide where a cluster of fatal bike crashes had occurred in close proximity, while the Central Bronx made the list of top three areas with a concentration of cyclist injuries.

(Since the study was published in 2006, the city has added hundreds of miles of bike lanes in an effort to improve cyclist safety.)

Though biking conditions may not be ideal in the Bronx, advocates say, many residents choose to pedal to school or work, as well as ride for fun and fitness.

Karen Rojas began cycling in college when she realized it was cheaper and faster to bike the few miles north from her home on 167th Street near the Grand Concourse to Lehman College than it was to take a train or bus.

Just a few years later, Rojas now interns with the bicycling nonprofit Velo-City, attends Bike the Bronx events, changes her own tires and leads long weekend rides with her family on her vintage cruiser, which she calls “The Transporter.”

“Before, you could count [Bronx cyclists] on one hand,” said Rojas, 23. “Now, you see them everywhere: families, ladies, people commuting to work in the morning.”

Still, some advocates say that the borough’s many bikers have set to form a cohesive community, which means that, for now, they are often overlooked by citywide cycling groups.

“A lot of people in The Bronx bike, but I feel like the mainstream biking culture doesn’t see them as part of their culture,” said Samelys Lopez, co-founder of Velo-City, which uses bike tours to teach students about urban planning.

Lopez said The Bronx teems with “biking subgenres,” micro-cyclist communities such as professionals who commute to jobs in Manhattan by bike, families who leisurely cruise together or young people who roll around skate parks on BMX bikes.

Boogie Down Rides presents an opportunity to unite the borough’s riders, which is a necessary first step, Lopez said, before they can push for more cycling resources, such as bike share stations, which the city is in the process of locating based on local demand.

“The people want it to happen,” Lopez said of the bike share and other Bronx cycling programs. “It’s just a matter of galvanizing the forces.”

Works by 32 artists show borough’s many sides at Freedman Home

By Amora McDaniel for the Hunts Point Express

Once known as the “home for poor millionaires,” an elegant mansion on the Grand Concourse has burst to glittering life as the home of a new art exhibit featuring 32 artists whose work meditates on the Bronx’s past and future.

Connoisseurs and artists mixed with hundreds of ordinary Bronxites at the April 4 packed-house opening of “No Longer Empty/This Side of Paradise,” which will run through June 5. Work, transportation, immigration, aging and the tension between reality and fantasy are some of the exhibit’s driving themes, all with local flavor as the common denominator.

“Art is about the community it is serving, and it’s very much a celebration of the Bronx’s culture,” said Manon Slome, the exhibition’s chief curator.

The show re-imagines the public rooms and bedrooms of the Andrew Freedman Home, built in 1924 as a haven for rich people who had lost their fortunes. Artists use broken glass and falling plaster, along with images of the burnt-out Bronx to symbolize the destructive years, and use cast-offs, including silverware and crockery, along with murals, videos, paintings, sculpture and photographs to create images of hope.

In a bedroom taken over by The Point Community Development Corporation, a video of “Village of murals,” the mural-lined route leading from residential Hunts Point to the South Bronx Greenway, plays on walls stenciled with flowers and foliage. As the video plays over the stenciled image of an African American girl, she appears to be walking down the industrial streets.

The brainchild of Carey Clark, the Mott Haven-based artists who heads The Point’s arts program, working with Lady K Fever, Alejandra Delfin, Sharon De La Cruz, Chen Carrasco, David Yearwood, Danny R. Peralta and the House of Spoof Artists Collective, the installation combines the pastoral with the political.The little girl is derived from the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old who integrated the New Orleans public schools. Amid the flowers are stencils denouncing the deal to give FreshDirect a huge subsidy to relocate to Port Morris and demanding an end to violence against women.

In “Trades/Oficios/Metiers,” undertaken in collaboration with The Point, French photographer Martine Fougeron uses photographs to underscore the city’s reliance on the industrial waterfront of Hunts Point and Port Morris. Her photographs are mounted on baking sheets to emphasize their connection with artisanal trades like baking and canvas stretching. They portray a worker in a recycling plant walking toward his crane, a fish handler slicing open a huge fish, a baker posing with one of her cakes.

“Through art I believe you can aim to bridge a knowledge gap,” Fougeron said. “Show what are inside the trades, how they work, to the residents—first by the photos, and I hope soon with a large scale installation of the photos outside the industries.”

The multi-media piece “IRT,” by Elizabeth Hamby and Hatuey Ramos-Fermin of Mott Haven examines transportation in the borough, with a spotlight on commuters and the workers who shuttle them from Point A to Point B.

“IRT” encompasses a video installation focusing on livery cabs, maps visitors can fill in with specific routes to see how to get around and interviews with passengers and the drivers and motormen who get them to where they’re going.

Other artists focused on the younger crowd.

The well-known sculptor John Ahearn collaborated with children from a Head Start program housed in the Andrew Freeman House to create plaster casts of their hands as a way of introducing the kids to their creative capabilities early on.

“From a very early age, it boosts their confidence and lets them know that they can,” said Marcia Fingal of the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens council, which owns the Andrew Freedman Home.

Not only artists and connoisseurs were welcomed to take in the exhibition. Passers-by were encouraged to see the show, and many did so, joining the standing-room-only gathering.

“The lady said ‘Come, come in! Bring your girls! So I did,” said Maria Bibar, a mother of two. “We liked everything inside.”

Built to house elderly people who had been wealth but had lost their fortunes, the Andrew Freedman Home closed in 1983, and has since served as a community center. Across the Grand Concourse from the Bronx Museum of the Arts, it is now being recast as an arts and cultural space, and will also include a Bed and Breakfast.

“We want an inclusive and interactive relationship with the community,” said Fingal. “We want to make art and culture more inviting.”

The “This Side of Paradise” exhibit is open to the public Thursdays through Sundays between 1 and 7 p.m. For more information on Andrew Freeman House events, visit www.nolongerempty.org.

ArtistS of the Week: Elizabeth Hamby and Hatuey Ramos-Fermin

By Cathleen Cueto for Swings and Arrows

My dear friends Elizabeth Hamby and Hatuey Ramos-Fermin, two Bronx-based multimedia artists, are gearing up for a couple of fantastic projects this month. First, they’re going to be a part of a group exhibition at the Andrew Freeman Home, a former retirement home for the formerly well-to-do ladies and gentlemen of old New York. This Side of Paradise will consist of site-specific work that will reference the space, sometimes using objects that were left behind by residents of yore. It is produced by No Longer Empty, an organization that uses vacant spaces around the city for exhibitions, it opens TONIGHT!, and I can’t wait to poke around and see what everyone’s done with the place. Liz and Hatuey will be presenting IRT, a multi-model installation that explores transportation issues in the Bronx, including a video installation about livery cabs, maps, and interviews. You can read more about it here and here, but if you’re in the NYC area, you should definitely come check it out in person at 1125 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY. The opening is from 6pm to 8pm, with regular exhibition hours Thursday to Sunday, 1pm to 7pm, until June 5th.

In conjunction with their piece at the Andrew Freeman House, Liz and Hatuey will also soon be launching Boogie Down Rides, a temporary bike shop and public education hub on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. It will be open throughout the month of May hosting educational events, something they call “community visioning sessions,” and group rides, as well as providing information on ongoing cycling projects in the Bronx that include the development of greenways, bike paths, and bike shares. Visitboogiedownrides.tumblr.com for more details.

It’s more than just art—these two crazy kids are deeply involved and in love with their community, working hard to reach out and make a difference in people’s lives by teaching them that there is more to their neighborhood and history than they might realize; more out there that connects us all. I really admire them as artists and people and friends! And I can’t wait to see what they do to the world next.

– Cathleen

Uptown Palazzo Project

By RANDY KENNEDY for the NY Times

When the Andrew Freedman Home opened in the Bronx in 1924, it looked like a limestone luxury liner sailing up the Grand Concourse, a grandiosity that advertised its odd function: a privately endowed retirement home for the formerly well-to-do, those who might have lost their money but not their manners or manorial tastes.

“They were expected to have attained a state of reasonable culture,” commented an article in The New Yorker at the time, “and not to eat peas with their knives.” Freedman, who died in 1915, had been an owner of the New York Giants baseball team and a financier of New York’s first subway lines, and his unusual will created a retirement home as palazzo, with plush carpets, plentiful servants and formal dress required at dinner.

By the 1980s the home had fallen on hard times. And though the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, which came to own it, has made good use of parts of it with a day care center, community programs and an events space, much of the rest of the vast building has been kept sealed off like a tomb, a time-capsule monument to the Bronx’s grand past, awaiting a new kind of future. In other words, exactly the sort of place that site-specific, history-scrambling, entropy-obsessed contemporary-art dreams are made of.

For the last several weeks a group of more than 30 artists — some well known, like Mel Chin, Sylvia Plachy and Bronx veterans like John Ahearn and the collective Tim Rollins and K.O.S. — have been at work in the home, turning old bedrooms and bathrooms into installations that mine the building’s eccentric history as a way of drawing in the life of the borough around it.

An exhibition of the pieces — organized by No Longer Empty, a nonprofit art group that got its start in 2009 by using spaces made vacant by the recession — will open April 4, granting the public access to one of the city’s stranger Gilded Age palaces for the first time.

“As a kid I used to walk by here all the time, and I never knew what it was for or what was going on inside,” said the painter and graffiti artist John Matos, better known as Crash, as he worked one recent morning on a subway-theme piece that will cover the walls of a second-floor corner bedroom.

For many years the landmark building, on the corner of East 166th Street, has existed in a kind of open-but-closed limbo. Its ground floor is almost always full of children, in day care and in a Head Start program. Two elegant ballrooms and a book-filled library above have been maintained for weddings and other events, and for several years the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a block away, held outdoor film screenings and other programs at the home.

But Walter E. Puryear, the Mid-Bronx Council’s project manager for the home, said that almost 60,000 of its 100,000 square feet remain closed off, and that art collaborations are one way the organization hopes to draw attention to the building and generate support for plans to make more use of it. The hope is to create a small-business incubator, a culinary training program and other socially minded businesses at the home.

“Beauty by itself is a wonderful thing,” Mr. Puryear said of using parts of the building as a kind of kunsthalle. “But beauty that inspires people to greater endeavors is even better.”

The artists involved in the project, titled “This Side of Paradise,” have been given free rein to rummage through the near-abandoned parts of the building, which have the look of a well-lived-in place left in a hurry: old turntables and VHS cassettes (“Double Dragon in Last Duel”); a black nightgown draped over a closet rod; a pair of plastic leg braces standing together in a hallway; a sheaf of Physicians Mutual insurance papers dated 1974, addressed to a man named Henry Ward.

The artists Elizabeth Hamby and Hatuey Ramos-Fermín plan to use an old hook board where the keys of dozens of the home’s residents once hung, labeled with plastic lettering tape that has memorialized only their surnames: Mrs. Kovacs, Mrs. Whipple, Mrs. Bosky, Mrs. Jimenez, the Echts. In one of the preserved ballrooms, the artist Nicky Enright recently created a musical assemblage out of a badly decayed Walters upright piano found upstairs; it now sits with old Remington, Smith-Corona and Underwood manual typewriters atop it like oxpeckers perched on a hippo. Many of the rooms on the third and fourth floors are filled with broken furniture and covered in snowdrifts of paint chips from the crumbling ceilings.

“When people said to me, ‘Are you going to try to clean up the hallways?’ I said, ‘No, there’s no way you can put a Band-Aid on something like this,” said Manon Slome, the president and chief curator of No Longer Empty, who was introduced to the building with the help of Mr. Puryear and Holly Block, the Bronx Museum’s director. “I think you have to start by working in the decay, and then as this place gets more funding, that kind of work can be done.”

Some is already under way, tentatively. Ten of the home’s old high-ceilinged rooms have been beautifully restored in a wing that will open in April as a small bed-and-breakfast, furnished with original 1930s and 1940s furniture that has been refinished and reupholstered.Cheryl Pope, a Chicago artist whose piece will feature a choir of strangers she met and recruited from Bronx streets and barbershops, recently spent a night in one of the rooms and said being alone in the cavernous building was a little more than what she had bargained for.

“It felt like I was in ‘The Shining,’ ” she said, adding that a caretaker, before leaving for the night, handed her a two-foot-long machete. “I said, ‘What’s this for?,’ and he said it was in case I came across anyone who broke in during the night. Nothing like that happened. There were just a lot of weird noises.”

But Ms. Pope’s installation, which involves an artificial, meticulously gold-leafed version of a paint-flaked ceiling, channels a more benevolent supernatural ethos, transforming two of the residents’ abandoned old rooms into more of a chapel than a corner of a haunted house.

“There’s something about those rooms, left the way they are,” she said. “They definitely have a holy quality.”