Three years ago, Timothy Lum spotted his dream apartment—three thousand miles away.
Every day for six months he scanned The New York Times apartment listings from his San Francisco home. Every day he spied the same ad for a 5000 square-foot loft space. After a few weeks he wondered why no one had jumped on such a prime piece of real estate.
“If it’s a place that big and no one wants it, well, I want it,” he said. Having already lived in Oakland, Baltimore, and Richmond, he knew that kind of a large space is extremely hard to come by; it would be perfect for a working artist like himself, and is extremely hard to come by. Not knowing how long it would go undiscovered, he rented the space for an astounding $2400 per month.
Once he arrived in New York he quickly realized why the place had remained vacant for so long. He had not moved into one of the traditional hipster neighborhoods, tailor-made for artists and their hangers-on, a yuppie enclave, or even an old-school, working-class locale. Timothy Lum had unwittingly moved one of the last bastions of urban hell—the South Bronx.
Not that Lum would agree with that assessment. He is one of a growing group of artists who have embraced this toughest of neighborhoods as their own. If this looks like the beginning of the same gentrification-cum-displacement song and dance, look again. Many of the artists who now call this area home have themselves escaped from once artist-friendly enclaves like SoHo, Fort Greene, and Williamsburg, and have committed themselves to breathing new life into an area that has long been stagnant—without displacing the people that give the South Bronx its character. The artists have encouraged and provided venues for local neighborhood artists to show their work, spoken out against the health problems that plague the area (the South Bronx has the highest percentage of juvenile asthmatics in the nation), fought to preserve community gardens, and teamed with existing community groups to spark action.
“We want to create a nexus of community involvement so that people can find volunteer opportunities to plug into right away instead of smoking the night away at some bar,” says artist and community activist Harry Bubbins. “We should always welcome new people and new ideas.”
The good intentions of the nascent South Bronx artists’ collective may soon be tested, however. Brooklyn-based developer Carnegie Management Corporation is putting the finishing touches on the conversion of the long-neglected Estey Piano Factory at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard into the first of 155 loft spaces, topping out at about 1500 square feet, and renting for $950 to $1700 per month—rents absolutely unheard of this far uptown.
The first tenants moved in in September. By November 1, 54 units were completed, with the entire building to be finished within a year. Plans are in place to open restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and even a 3000-square-foot art gallery on the first floor of the building. Carnegie co-manager Isaac Jacobs has already been “inundated with phone calls” for applications, and boldly predicts that 121 Lincoln will be the center of the area. “The South Bronx will be the next Williamsburg,” he said. “This is the new frontier.”
In an era where home is less where the heart is than where the cool people are, Jacobs’s words are enough to strike fear into those lucky few whose neighborhoods haven’t already been overrun by Cosmo-sipping trendoids and bohos with platinum cards. As many of the South Bronx’s newer residents have experienced displacement firsthand, they understand all too well that improvement breeds popularity. It may be inevitable, as many other neighborhoods such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Astoria have suffered the same fate due to their relatively cheap rents, available living space, and proximity to Manhattan. The South Bronx already experienced a mini-boom in the 1980s due to a burgeoning art scene and the growth of the already well-known Antiques District along Bruckner Boulevard.
“I know people here are afraid of [being forced out of their neighborhood because it has happened in so many other places,” says Carol Zukaluk, who, except for college in Binghamton and a five-year stint in San Francisco, has lived in the South Bronx for all of her 46 years. “We do not fear gentrification; we fear displacement. We want the drug dealers to leave. We want the people with severe mental problems to be taken care of. We welcome gentrification and its benefits for all these reasons.” The truth is that displacement is probably not a great threat, simply because housing projects and highways circle the area around 121 Lincoln. “We don’t want the hardworking, blue-collar people to leave, no way.”
Many of those hardworking people, like Zukaluk, have seen the South Bronx through some very hard times. The neighborhood became infamous in the 1970’s when news crews beamed pictures of the 40 to 50 blazes the New York fire department battled per day into the living rooms of middle America. City services abandoned the area, elevated trains began skipping stops there, and, worst of all, landlords began burning down their own buildings to collect insurance, to the delight of destitute tenants eligible for public housing as a result. Parts of the area were razed for parking lots. A wrong turn through the South Bronx even cost a self-proclaimed Upper West Side “master of the universe” his livelihood in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel Bonfire of the Vanities (the film’s pivotal scenes were actually filmed underneath the Bruckner Expressway). Before long, the area became history’s most familiar image of urban blight—an image, Zukaluk says, that will not be easily erased from the minds of New Yorkers. “It’s stigmatized, the name South Bronx,” she says.
That stigma is the only thing keeping the South Bronx from becoming the city’s newest yuppie enclave, at least for the time being. “Frankly, I don’t think people will be able to overcome the reputation of the South Bronx,” states local artist Tia Phillips, who co-owns Storage Art Space gallery on Bruckner Boulevard, soon to relocate to 121 Lincoln. “It’s going to be a certain kind of person who would be willing to settle [here], someone who wants the space, not the trendiness. I think there will be a slew of people who will take advantage of the storage space but it will only go so far.”
In addition, the area’s current lack of amenities, coupled with its decidedly industrial feel, have not helped the would-be boom. Even as the neighborhood’s art scene grows, many downtown artists still regard it as a curiosity, and are content to show there but not to live there. Some who do reside in the area use their homes as little more than a mailing address, to the chagrin of the artists who call the South Bronx home.
“Most people are still very Manhattan-centric, attracted to the cheap rent here and still doing shows in Manhattan,” says Bubbins. “It’s very important for conscious people to reach out to each other. You have people holed up in their loft space, creating insignificant art and are only out for themselves. It’s happening already.”
On the other hand, Phillips, who herself found Williamsburg overpriced and “really out of hand with the trendiness” finds her home of three years to be charming and romantic. “The people here were really nice. It was just people, not just a scene.”
“I was scared when I first moved here, because you hear so many things about the South Bronx,” says Storage Art Space co-owner David Graham. “But the people here were so nice and encouraging, supportive and fantastic.” Often, he says, lines have formed around the block for shows at Storage, complete with salsa blaring (on request) from an upstairs window. Hopefully, such community interaction will be the hallmark of a partnership between socially aware artists and a neighborhood long in search of creative stimulation.
“Living in Williamsburg is basically all about saying you live in Williamsburg, sort of like a label that people wear now,” says Phillips. I think [the South Bronx boom] will be a small boom, a nice little community. It’s going to be a positive thing, a more sincere thing, because there will be more artistic integrity.”
“It’s just starting,” says Lum. “This is a real up-and-coming space.”
“This is not a gentrification,” says Graham plainly. “This is a revitalization.”