Artist Culture Thrives in Mott Haven

By Lisa Gomez

Few things attract attention more than a big vintage trolley cruising through the South Bronx. However, this is the case the first Wednesday and Saturday of every month when the Bronx Culture Trolley makes its rounds to artistic and cultural hot spots in the borough.Facilitated by the Bronx Council of the Arts, the Bronx Culture Trolley is one of the Council’s many efforts to promote cultural events in the borough. The Council also hosts craft fairs where local artists can sell their creations.

“It’s integral in teaching anybody who’s outside of the borough or even within the other side of the Bronx to let them know that the South Bronx is not what it used to be. It still permeates that old stereotype of ‘oh, you can’t go to the South Bronx, the South Bronx is scary, the South Bronx is burning’ and that’s not even true, that’s the furthest thing,” said BCA Special Projects Manager, Leenda Bonilla

Though the crack era of the 1980s is almost three decades past, many people still view the South Bronx as a dangerous, drug-ridden wasteland.  However, in recent years, dedicated residents – both old and new- are striving to change that stereotype and foster a safe community of art and culture.

“I’m meeting more and more artists everyday that want to help or want to be back in their communities and also little businesses, too that are also opening their doors up for artists and they respect the fact that they’re promoting culture and art, not just for profit,” Bonilla said.

At the center of the effort is the neighborhood of Mott Haven, bordered by E. 149th Street, the Bruckner Expressway, the Harlem River through to E. 138th Street.

Mott Haven was once an important industrial area, containing many piano factories and manufacturers, earning it the nickname of “Piano Town.”

For years, these massive, red bricked factory buildings were left vacant and abandoned until recently when real estate developers began renovating the buildings and creating loft spaces.

The Clocktower, one of the loft buildings at the foreground of Mott Haven’s transformation, has attracted not only Bronx residents, but has piqued the interest of Manhattanites as well. Families and artists have recently moved to Mott Haven to take advantage of the spacious properties and cheap rent prices.

“A lot of artists move into the area, a lot of older people moving from Manhattan to the area, a lot of young people…” said Amir Chayon, general manager of Bruckner Bar & Grill, one of the entertainment staples of the neighborhood.

Its close proximity to Manhattan doesn’t hurt either, with it being one subway stop away from 125th Street on No. 6 train.  Many residents see the changes in the neighborhood in a positive light, having gone years without much progress.

Peppered with art galleries, Mott Haven has begun to draw comparisons to Williamsburg with real estate agents even giving it the new, trendy nickname of SoBro.

“Everybody knows each other, it’s like a small town right in the middle of New York City and it’s great,” said local artist Eva Lucien.

Despite all of this, the South Bronx’s stigma still keeps some at bay, keeping the full revival of Mott Haven on a laggard uptick.

Chayon commented on the difficulty businesses have had trying to establish themselves in the area. “It’s like the chicken and the egg. What comes first? People want to move in to a place where you have a lot of restaurants and places to hang out, but nobody opens ‘til there will be enough people here to hang out.”

Because the area comprises of mostly large factory buildings, it has been difficult for businesses to attract foot traffic.

However, the neighborhood’s close proximity to various thoroughfares allows for more commercial revenue. “I mean for the type of business that we do, we don’t get a lot of retail foot traffic, which is kind of okay…We have a tremendous amount of exposure on this corner and have actually picked up quite a bit of business,” said Vanessa Polanco, owner of Verde flowers on Bruckner Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue.

Though change has been slow, it is definitely making a long overdue, positive impact on this community.

268 responses to “Lisa”

30 11 2011
Lisa (20:10:51) :

Thanks very much for your kind comments. This was just a one-time project, but I run my own Bronx culture themed blog, The Bronx Socialite (