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Massive Bronx Art Exhibit Reignites Borough's Gentrification Debate

By Eddie Small | April 24, 2015 7:56am | Updated on April 24, 2015 8:00pm
 The art show "When You Cut into the Present, the Future Leaks Out" will take place at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse from April 23 to July 19.
Courthouse Art Exhibition
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SOUTH BRONX — A massive new art show in a long vacant Bronx courthouse has sparked more debate about gentrification coming to the borough.

The free show features 27 artists and is called "When You Cut into the Present, the Future Leaks Out," a quote from famed writer William S. Burroughs. It will be on display in the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse at 878 Brook Ave. from April 23 until July 19 as part of an effort spearheaded by arts group No Longer Empty to revitalize the dormant space.

The neighborhood's accessibility to Manhattan and less expensive housing has attracted artists, which have cultivated a creative community but has brought higher rents.

"I'm really conflicted," said Abigail DeVille, who is featured in the exhibit and has a studio in Mott Haven. "Because being an artist you're always a part of the forefront that happens, that ushers in this really dubious change."

Ideas on gentrification are built into some of the artwork on display, such as a piece by Melissa Calderón featuring several golden strands entitled "The South Bronx Gold Rush of 2015" and DeVille's sprawling pyramid-shaped sculpture partially made up of debris from the courthouse and trash from the neighborhood ranging from a sandal to old Christmas trees as a way to pay tribute to the area and its people.

"This isn’t just all promotion and celebration," said Regine Basha, curator of the exhibition. "Some of the works in this show very, very pointedly speak to gentrification."

Calderón, who said she got priced out of the South Bronx in 2006, described dealing with gentrification through art as a responsibility that comes with her profession.

"I am a part of my own community, but yet I am also a part of the community that’s driving up prices, and unfortunately it has an effect," she said. "I feel like it’s a part of the artist’s duty to bring to light that we are a part of the problem."

However, not everyone sees "When You Cut into the Present" as a sign that the South Bronx is on its way to becoming the next Williamsburg.

Ed García Conde, founder of the blog Welcome2TheBronx and a community partner of the show, maintained that gentrification concerns only crop up around events like this because people are unaware that The Bronx already had a vibrant arts scene for years.

He pointed to borough establishments like the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Bronx Documentary Center as evidence that strong cultural institutions will not immediately transform The Bronx into Brooklyn.

"It will bring attention, of course, but as far as gentrification, I don't think that's the case," Conde said.

Manon Slome, No Longer Empty's chief curator, acknowledged that there has been a historical trend of artists moving into a neighborhood and making it fashionable, followed by more people moving into the neighborhood and rents going up, but she vigorously disputed that this was the main cause of gentrification, attributing it more to a lack of living space and landlords eager to get more rent money.

"Art cannot be regarded as solely responsible for gentrification," she said. "It’s one of the tiny features that contributes to gentrification."

She stressed that the exhibit would only be in place for three months, which would make it difficult for it to permanently alter the South Bronx, and that it will help support local businesses by driving in tourists.

Skowmon Hastanan, a Morris Park resident who reconstructed a timeline of the Lindbergh kidnapping as part of her exhibit, said that regardless of how artistic the borough becomes, it will not follow the same path as other parts of the city.

"The gentrification is not going to happen as in Brooklyn or anywhere else," she said. "Because The Bronx is quite different, psychologically and geographically."