Reports of art scene’s death are exaggerated

Hatuey Ramos Fermín sits in front of the Blue Bedroom

Artists say change defines their relationship with Mott Haven

Hatuey Ramos Fermin sits in the most famous apartment in Mott Haven, recording a podcast called “South Bronx Filter.”

Fermin is the current tenant of Apartment 3A at 309 Alexander Avenue, which housed the Blue Bedroom where for two years his friend Blanka Amezkua displayed the work of contemporary artists who agreed in exchange for the show to offer a workshop or discussion in the neighborhood.

When Amezkua moved out of the Bronx, many took her departure as a sign that the art scene in Mott Haven was withering. More recently, AM New York and The Wall Street Journal have written its obituary. But artists who live or work in Mott Haven disagree.

For people like the seven artists gathered around Fermin’s dining table to record the first of his “Hubs and Spokes Conversation Series,” the turnover in Apartment 3A symbolizes the Mott Haven art scene.

They say that galleries and artists may come and go, but the creative energy remains.

“The Bronx is very transient place,” says Ellen Pollen, director of the Bronx Council on the Arts South Bronx Cultural Corridor. “People come here on their way to other places a lot.”

After six years of showcasing local work, the Haven Gallery on Bruckner Boulevard closed in 2009.

More recently, noted Pollen, who runs the Bronx Council’s Culture Trolley, the Iron Works Gallery, at 259 East 134th Street, closed. But, she emphasized, a short time later the trolley added LDR Studio on Alexander Avenue to its itinerary.

“To run a gallery takes a lot of time, and money,” said Barry Kostrinsky, founder of the Haven Gallery, who said the weak economy after the real estate bubble burst hurt. But Kostrinsky can now be found at the Bruckner Bar & Grill on Monday evenings, offering a version of the life drawing classes that used to be a staple at the Haven.

Bronx Arts Space, on East 140th Street, opened a year ago, and draws artists from outside Mott Haven. Avery Syrig, a sculpture and jewelry designer, found it through craigslist.

“It’s looking different, from a newer perspective than a lot of things I see in Manhattan,” she said.

“There seems to be a commitment to get people out to see different work, and not just visual arts,” said Amee Pollock, who displayed pop-up books at Bronx Arts Space during the Bronx Council on the Arts Fifth Open Studio Tour, where sculptures, photographs, video installations and a jazz performance, were highlights.

In May, a new kind of showcase was born, when Bronx artists displayed their work for four days in a pop-up museum created by the Mott Haven-based business From the Bronx in a renovated landmark building on Courtland Avenue in Melrose.

“There’s an emerging sense about culture and people,” says Bill Aguado, who headed the Bronx Council on the Arts for three decades. “What’s important is we have alternative spaces.”

Mott Haven also continues to attract artists to live or work in the neighborhood. When Fermin gathered seven of them to inaugurate his conversation series, the relationship of artists to the community was one of their subjects.

Fermin, a multimedia artist and educator at the Teen Council Program at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and Hostos Community College, devised the South Bronx Filter as a way for Bronx-based artists to express themselves in their own voices. He says he was inspired by Bronx hip-hop photographer, Joe Conzo, who advised: never let outsiders document you.

Recorded in Fermin’s living room, as the open windows captured the noise of cars whizzing by and sirens from the nearby 40th Precinct, the conversation included Libertad Guerra and Monxo Lopez of Spanic Attack, Rayzer Sharp and Yelimara Concepción of the Welfare Poets, and artists Elizabeth Hamby and Laura Napier, the curator of the first Hubs broadcast.

Napier vigorously disputed the notion that when artists arrive, gentrification arrives with them. A white woman who has lived in the Bronx for seven years, she said she’s constantly encountering and fighting against being stereotyped. Too often, she feels “I don’t exist anymore; it’s about the larger social issues,” she said.

Interviews with Bronx based artists, many of whom live or work in former warehouses and manufacturing spaces near Bruckner Boulevard, and with curators and gallery owners showed that they’re fed up with the label SoBro, conceived by real estate sales people to attract clients looking for a hip placed to live.

Recognize us for our work, not our location, they say.

The faces and spaces may change, but the networks forged by artists through the Culture Trolley and Open Studio Tour remain “the social capital” of the Bronx, Pollen contends.

“Artists are looking for community, and take advantage of it when they find it,” she says.

A version of this story appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

Published in The Mott Haven Herald:

Pratt Graduates Catch the Food Biz Fever

Pascale Tran prepares an order at Tigerlily. Photo by Cheryl Chan

Several small food businesses around the neighborhood share a common thread — they were started by Pratt Institute graduates. Mago Crepes & Delices, a crêperie on Grand Street, Tigerlily, a bánh mì shop in Clinton Hill, and The Stand, an artisanal lemonade and homemade fruit preserve brand are delicious business ventures with Pratt alums at the helm.

These artists and designers with Pratt degrees have used their creativity to become their own bosses and to make more than just food — they’ve each used their design skills to craft the identity of their business, from interiors to labels.

Pascale Tran, who owns Tigerlily, designed and decorated her store’s interior. The siblings behind The Stand, Nathalie and Jake Weisner, illustrate the labels and tags attached to bottles of their homemade syrups and marmalades.

Paul Bongoy and Roodolph Senecal reflect on business at Mago Crepes.

At Mago Crepes & Delices, which opened last August, the sweet and savory French crepes are not the only things whipped up from scratch; all the furniture was handcrafted by Paul Bongoy, a Pratt architecture alum and Roodolph Senecal, a 17-year Fort Greene resident who used to have a metal shop and now owns Park Slope Bikram.

The large wooden table that is the centerpiece of the shop, on the corner of Fulton, is crafted from pine structural beams sourced from a house on Long Island.

“We took it from scratch, built it up, collected some material from different projects, and put it together,” said Mr. Bongoy, 37.

Mr. Senecal, 45, co-designed the steel bar stools that line the right side of the shop and the glass tube lights hanging overhead. The flooring at Mago is ipe timber from the Brazilian rainforest, donated by a friend who makes rooftop water tanks with the wood. Paintings decorate the walls, a mix of art by friends and Mago staff members — all of whom happen to be painters. “Maybe it’s a hidden criteria to work here,” Mr. Bongoy joked.

Those painters serve up crepes folded with Jacques Torres Chocolate, filled with the classic ham and Swiss cheese, or stuffed with smoked bacon, fresh spinach and gorgonzola.

“We wanted to do a place we like, enjoy the food, and hopefully in some future time, if we start to actually make some sort of profit, we would turn around and donate part of that profit to the Rural Haiti project,” said Mr. Senecal, who is originally from Haiti.

Over at Tigerlily on Greene Avenue, Ms. Tran’s past as a former art director is evident in the interior of the Vietnamese sandwich joint. She decorated her take-out space with dark wood furniture juxtaposed against a bright orange back wall, to create the feeling of a Vietnamese plantation.

Ms. Tran moved to Clinton Hill for a degree in graphic design at Pratt, and has made the neighborhood her permanent residence since graduating in 2002. Last May, Ms. Tran opened Tigerlily in her neighborhood after an eight-year career in advertising left her feeling burned out.

Like her fellow Pratt-pedigreed entrepreneurs, Ms. Tran took on the task of curating a menu as an extension of her artistic inclinations, developing a number of non-traditional and experimental sandwiches, including grilled eggplant, curry chicken and tofu bánh mìs. This January, she launched an East Village Tigerlily outpost on East 10th Street.

From its roots as a gourmet lemonade stand, started last April on the corner of DeKalb and Washington Avenues, to a winter stint at the Brooklyn Flea selling homemade preserves, The Stand has become the full-time job of the Weisner siblings. They spend three days a week at a commercial kitchen, where they develop fruit-infused marmalades, syrups, and garnishes such as candied citrus peels, spiced cranberries and brandied cherries.

Ms. Weisner said that overtures from grocery stores influenced them to turn their summer lemonade stand into a more permanent business endeavor.

Ms. Weisner, 28, studied architecture at Pratt and has lived in Fort Greene for the past seven years. Mr. Weisner, 26, studied film for his undergraduate degree in Boston and moved to Brooklyn to run The Stand full time. Neither have had any formal training in the food industry, but both agreed that there is some overlap between creating art and developing whimsical flavors like mint-rosemary-cucumber limeade and syrups flavored with blueberry, maple and rosemary.

“It’s just a different medium, but very much the same sensibilities of balancing ingredients ” Ms. Weiser said. “Sometimes, I just think of whatever it is as a composition — how am I composing it, what are the elements that are there, is it a light flavor, a heavy flavor, a kind of sweetness. I think that correlates closely to my sensibilities as an artist.”

Published at The New York Times, The Local Blog:

Advocates say: Put the brook back in Brook Park

Kids enjoying the greenery at Brook Park. Photo by Cheryl Chan

Restoring a stream would bring environmental benefits

Brook Park takes its name from Mill Brook, whose waters once burbled through today’s Webster and Brook Avenues.  Now the environmental organization that helps oversee the park wants to bring the brook back.

“What we are trying to do here is make a green park, and a blue park,” says Aaron Petersohn, manager of the Friends of Brook Park’s Brook Daylighting Restorations Project.

Petersohn is heading an effort to bring the buried stream that once ran through Mott Haven back to the park at Brook Avenue and East 141st Street.  If the plan succeeds, visitors will hear the sound of water trickling into a pond that attracts dragonflies, frogs and migrating birds.

The South Bronx has been shortchanged on green space, said Harry Bubbins, director of Friends of Brook Park. It “needs greater access to nature and restoration of our natural environment.”

Not only will the water make the park more inviting; it will make the neighborhood healthier, Petersohn says.

Wetland plants will perform their function as nature’s filtration system, capturing and cleaning storm water before it reaches the sewers, where it would carry motor oil, antifreeze, litter and other pollutants into the Harlem River.

For most of the 19th century, the Mill Brook River flowed through the South Bronx, following the course of today’s Brook Avenue, before emptying into the Bronx Kill, the narrow stretch of water between the Bronx and Randall’s Island.

When the sewer pipes were laid in the 1890s, the river was diverted into them.

“We want to bring back an old river that disappeared,” said Petersohn. Friends of Brook Park has a $45,000 federal grant to design the project and is hoping to raise $300,000 more to unearth the portion of the historic Bronx waterway beneath the park’s soil. The process of bringing that groundwater to the surface is called “daylighting.”

The Friends group partnered with the environmental engineers at the Bronx-based Gaia Institute to locate a source of water for the pond and surrounding wetlands. They found it at the nearby Nehemiah Homes on 140th Street.

Plans call for diverting to Brook Park the 800,000 gallons of water that now flow into the sewers from the roofs, sidewalks and streets of the housing development. Another 700,000 gallons will be collected from the rainwater and snow that falls on the park itself.

Removing 1.5 million gallons from the sewer system will help clean up the city’s waterways, and will ultimately save money, Petersohn said. When storm water goes into the sewers, New Yorkers pay twice. “As taxpayers we are paying to have rainwater cleaned up when it’s already clean,” said Peterhsohn.

What’s worse, even a short storm can overwhelm the city’s wastewater treatment plants, forcing them to dump untreated waste flushed from toilets into the rivers and bays.

One of the Bloomberg administration’s goals is to improve the quality of the water in New York harbor by capturing and retaining storm water runoff before it enters the sewer system, said Mercedes Padilla, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Environmental Protection.

The Brook Park plan has won applause from elected officials and park users. A spokesman for Rep. Jose Serrano, who secured the federal funds for the project’s design, echoed Bubbins, saying the congressman “wants more green and natural space and places for folks to have room to the outdoors, and not just see concrete.”

“We have actually been vindicated with the fact that there is water found here,” said City Council member Melissa Mark Viverito, who has advocated for the restoration of the brook since she took office in 2005. “That reality is going to be integrated with the design of this park. It reflects and acknowledges the history and reality of this community, that there’s a stream that runs under here.”

“It will be fun for the kids, and something different that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the neighborhood,” said Margarita Herrera, who was strolling in the park with her one year old daughter and two little girls of her friend’s on a recent Sunday.

A version of this story appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

Published in The Mott Haven Herald: