Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Bronx Is Turning

Adam Davidson wrote a short piece titled “The Bronx Is Yearning” which appeared on July 15, 2012 in the New York Times Magazine. As a resident of the south Bronx, I instantly was drawn to this article. In it, Davidson focuses on the Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator, which bills itself as “the first City-sponsored, privately operated incubator, created to bring entrepreneurs to the south Bronx.”

As I investigated this interesting project, I also encountered some curious discrepancies. The article that I had read in the Sunday Magazine under one title also had been published five days earlier under the title, “Why Can’t the Bronx Be More Like Brooklyn?” Adding to this curious title change is the fact that, in August of 2009, Sonya Chung had written an article for The Millions under the same title as Davidson’s second piece: “The Bronx Is Yearning.” Chung’s article was more a meditation on being a writer in the Bronx, in which she concludes that the Bronx, as a “crossroads,” actually is a great place for a writer to live and gather material, even if it lacks those quaint wi-fi coffee houses of Brooklyn.

After reading Davidson’s article, I decided to supplement it, particularly for readers not familiar with the Bronx: thus this blog post.  The first thing to note is the location of that Sunshine Bronx incubator.  Davidson makes no mention that it is housed in the BankNote Building. Even though there may be plenty of nondescript architectural stock scattered around the Bronx, the BankNote Building is hardly one of these.

BankNote Building, Bronx, Hunts Point, view from southwest
Everyone who has driven north on the Bruckner Expressway has seen, off on the right, its hulking mass of red brick piers and industrial-scaled, segmental arched windows. This is not a building one can ignore. For almost seventy-five years since its completion in 1911, it produced stamps, bonds, stock certificates, checks, and even the new American Express Company “Travelers Cheques;” and its customers included China, Cuba, and several South American and European countries.   The BankNote Building was designed in 1909 by the New York architectural firm of Kirby, Petit & Green, among whose many other designs were the Bush Terminal Company, the Hearst Building in San Francisco, and Dreamland in Coney Island. 

I decided to wander up to Hunt’s Point and see if I could find Sunshine Bronx in the BankNote Building.   I took the #6 Subway to Hunts Point Avenue Station, crossed under the Bruckner, and walked south on Garrison Avenue (see map).   As part of my supplement to Davidson’s article, I detoured onto Barretto Street, which borders the BankNote on the north. Barretto Street has many great murals, sponsored by The Point, and the one pictured here actually shows the BankNote Building looming in the distance behind the painted wall.

Bronx, Hunts Point, Barretto Street, Mural, 2004 BAAD! ASS WOMEN Festival
I intend to write a future blog post featuring the many murals of Hunts Point, so for now this single image will do as an example of the wealth of street art to be found in the vicinity of the BankNote Building. It was done in 2004 as part of the BAAD! ASS WOMEN Festival. 

BAAD! stands for the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance.   It was founded by Arthur Aviles and, with the help of the Point Community Development Corporation, it has converted some 9,000 square feet of the BankNote Building into its performance and workshop space.

Upon entering the BankNote Building, I saw a directory and recognized the name of a painter friend of mine, Robert Seyffert, so I first visited him in his studio.  There are several studios like this one, all well-lit by those old, industrial monitor windows. I found him at work on a painting and left him after getting directions to Sunshine Bronx.

Robert Seyffert in his studio, Bronx, Hunts Point, BankNote Building
Because the BankNote is a complicated, multi-storied, T-shaped structure, getting from Robert’s studio in one section to Sunshine Bronx in another necessitated first going down a floor, then across to a different section of the building from where I took an elevator up to the top floor.   On my way, I passed The Wine Cellarage.   It provides retail sales of fine wines with climate controlled storage for its customers. It moved from its original location in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to the BankNote building in 2005.  

The Wine Cellarage, Bronx, Hunts Point, BankNote Building
The Wine Cellarage stores wines for private collectors, retail shops and clients of Christies, among others, and boasts “more than 20,000 cases of the rarest and priciest glories of the vinous world, residing in a 150-foot-long, temperature- and humidity-controlled vault.”   Who would have thought!

When I finally located the Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator, it was in a brightly-lit wing (of course, most of the BankNote is well-lit) in what I think is the taller, Lafayette Avenue section of the building.  It is an elegant, well-appointed space offering a variety of modern work areas.  I talked to one of the young entrepreneurs there, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is the founder of the Brook Avenue Press. The goal of her press is to develop urban stories for kids, whether in the Bronx or in other cities, such as Chicago.

Alexandria does not yet have a webpage for her press, but here is a brief presentation that she has placed on YouTube.   She also told me that she has found her experience at Sunshine Bronx quite worthwhile and rewarding.   Unfortunately, Sunshine Bronx preferred that I not to take my own photographs of their space, and they never sent me photographs as promised, so the best I can do is offer this web site, the photographs of which don’t do their space justice.

Davidson had followed a different entrepreneur at Sunshine Bronx, 
in his article, Miguel Sanchez.  In it, he quotes Sanchez as saying “finding lunch in the neighborhood is a big problem.”  This is true, at least if the neighborhood is defined as a radius of a few blocks.  I think that one would have to walk north to Hunts Point Avenue to find lunch places; the only place nearby is a McDonalds at the corner of Garrison and Tiffany

And this is where my supplement of Davidson’s article takes us a little further south, to Mott Haven.  We Mott Haven residents certainly do have more choices in eating establishments, and our standard for years has been the Bruckner Bar and Grill.  

Bruckner Bar & Grill, Bronx, Mott Haven, seen from 3rd Avenue bridge on-ramps
Here is the place to encounter all one’s friends as well as, with some frequency, our local councilwoman and her family.  It has a back room for special occasions, and there, on Monday evenings, a group of local artists meet to draw from the model.  

However, two new venues have recently opened their doors and offer Mott Haven residents expanded choices of good places to eat. 

A block from The Bruckner Bar & Grill is The Clock Martini Bar and Bistro, which opened for business on March 1, 2012.  It is located within “The Clock Tower” on Lincoln Avenue, a building built in 1886 that once was home to the Estey Piano Company Factory.  

The Clock Martini Bar & Bistro, Bronx, Mott Haven, Lincoln Avenue and Bruckner Avenue
The A.I.A. Guide to New York City calls this the oldest remaining of the Bronx piano factories, “the grande dame of the piano trade; not virgin, but all-together and proud.”  The Clock Tower is now residential lofts and houses many artists and their studios. 

The Clock Martini Bar & Bistro, Bronx, Mott Haven, Painting by Sofia Bachvarova
This photograph of the interior of The Clock shows one of ten paintings by the artist, Sofia Bachvarova in a show curated by another Bronx artist, Jeanine Alfieri.  The title of this painting is She Often Found Herself Tethered between What Wasn’t There and What Was to Be.  Her work evokes a surreal and mystical environment in which ancient myth, literature and a suspension of time create a compelling and personal iconography.  The Clock hangs new shows each month done by local artists, and its owner, Charlie Said, is intent upon “bringing a little of downtown uptown.” 

Another block further on is Ceetay, which opened two months ago. Its owners, Alex Abeles and Amir Chayon, call it Asian Fusion, but I find their sushi, sashimi and hand rolls so wonderful that I have yet to try those fusion dishes.  

Ceetay, Sushi Bar & Asian Fusion Restaurant, Bronx, Mott Haven, Alexander Avenue
With Ceetay right here on Alexander Avenue, there is no need to look for sushi in Manhattan; and if you did, you wouldn’t find better anyway.  Here (below) is sushi chef, Dorgi Tsheiring, preparing some of his wonderful dishes. 

Ceetay, Sushi Bar & Asian Fusion Restaurant, Bronx, Sushi Chef Dorgi Tsheiring

Finally, a four block walk up Alexander Avenue from Ceetay brings us to the Bronx Art Space, an artist-run collaborative gallery space with an active schedule of art exhibitions, festivals and special events.   It is located at 305 East 140th Street in a five-story industrial building, the top four floors of which have been converted into condominium lofts. 

Bronx Art Space, Bronx, Mott Haven, 305 East 140 Street, Visions/Re-Visions exhibition, July 2012

When we consider Sunshine Bronx and the many other activities accommodated in the BankNote Building, the on-going contributions to community development at The Point (its neighbor to the north), and the proximity of Hunts Point to Mott Haven and the latter's developing amenities, I think that we can say with some confidence that the Bronx is neither burning, nor is it yearning. The truth is, it is turning.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

A Conversation about Guns and Taking Back America

As soon as I ran across the title of Darcy Burner’s Daily Kos article on my Facebook page today, "An adult conversation about guns," the following, overused clause,   "Let's take back our country," sprang to mind.  Talk of taking back our country is usually associated with the conservative Right or the Tea Party, so I felt slightly uncomfortable in voicing it.  But then I decided that it either should be discarded as an idea too ambiguous to be meaningful, or it should apply to Americans of all political persuasions.

So, allow me, as a progressive democrat, to apply that term to guns--the topic of Burner’s article, and one that should be the concern of every American.   I fully agree with Darcy Burner, who, by the way, is the democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in Washington State’s 1st congressional district: it’s about time for America to have an adult conversation about guns.

And when it comes to guns, what I want to take back is the relative safety of the 1950s, when I grew up.   Back then, we were pretty certain that only the police carried guns in public.   Nobody owned assault rifles.   Nobody had 17+-bullet clips.   Nobody walked around in camouflage as if they were (still) in combat.   Back then, even the NRA mainly served hunters, target shooters, and gun clubs, and its main focus was gun training and gun safety.  More than that, the NRA was on (or near) the same page as governments in regard to local and national firearms regulations.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s, or at least as a white boy in a northern state, I felt free to go anywhere and had no concerns for my safety.  I might take stupid risks that boys tend to do, but being accosted by a stranger with a gun never entered my mind.

Indeed, LET’S TAKE BACK OUR COUNTRY.  Let’s take it back from the NRA, our biggest bully which long ago lost its social conscience.    Let’s take it back from conservative organizations such as ALEC, which write insane laws for states that enable trigger-happy fools to shoot their neighbors and then plead self-defense.    Let’s take it back from fearful, logic-challenged state legislators who have promoted concealed-carry laws for states and communities that even enable people to bring guns into churches, universities and bars.

I don’t want to take us back to the wild west of the 1860s.  I just want to take us back sixty years to the relatively idyllic period of the 1950s.   I want my grandkids to be able to go to a movie, even a midnight showing, and know he/she will return safely.   I want those kids to go to school every day without ever a threat of bodily harm (and they shouldn’t have to pass through a metal detector in order to enter their school).   I want them to be able to go to the mall with friends, or a hamburger joint, or post office, or bookstore after school and not be confronted by someone carrying two Glocks and a duffel bag full of assault rifles and extra ammunition.

Let’s take back our country, a country in which I, who no longer owns or shoots a gun, can live in harmony and agreement with my neighbor who owns three guns (but feels no need to carry them in public).  For sure, Darcy Burner, it is far past time for AN ADULT CONVERSATION ABOUT GUNS. 

How nice it would be were we to start this conversation at the top, with the NRA and with our presidential candidates. But I won't hold my breath waiting for this.  The NRA has refused to join in conversation.  President Obama and Candidate Romney are so far unusually silent about our latest gun massacre in Aurora, Colorado.  So, the initiative is up to us, and we are, after all, impervious to NRA threats.   As Gail Collins wrote today, "everybody, including the gun control advocates, knows that nothing will change unless the people decide to do the leading."  So, let us, let the people, take the lead and start an adult conversation about guns now.