Alejandro Tavarez didn´t expect to sell much early in the afternoon, but not even two hours after the exhibition started he barely had time to talk to visitors. Instead, he was on his knees, picking T-shirts and jumpers from below the table. “Give me the brown one,” someone demanded, as Tavarez pulled clothes from a box.
“To see so many local people attending an exhibit for the Bronx community,” said Tavarez, a 23-year-old photographer, videographer, and designer from the borough, “it’s amazing.” His pictures and collages were hanging on the wall. One showed a friend as she sunbathed in the nude with the warm sunlight cutting through the windows of her Miami apartment. Another frame displayed a dollar with his logo sprayed on it
While photographers dominated the reception area of the Bronx Art Expo, in the main space hundreds of young people mixed with all kinds of artists, designers, and painters—most of them from the Bronx. The garage’s grey concrete walls had been covered with colorful graffiti and sketches.
The second edition of the Bronx Art Expo, on the evening of Saturday Feb. 4, was on its way to success. The venue, a garage next to Hunts Point, was packed with local residents. Everything from the property, to the beer, to the equipment “was locally owned” and the staff was local too, according to a Facebook post that advertised the event. And that was the point: “to promote borough unification and empowerment by highlighting the talents of the Bronx community.”
Small local businesses were also part of the scene. The designer JAR set up an improvised tattoo saloon in one of the corners, hidden behind a white curtain; several young designers exhibited their eclectic clothes; meanwhile, dozens of teenagers crowded at the rear end of the building were dancing as several Bronx rock and punk bands played.
Hydro Punk is the platform that organized the Bronx Art Expo. It was founded in 2014 by Monica and Jose Flores, two siblings from the East Bronx, who aimed to create a space that that local youth could identify with. “We love punk and hip-hop music, and we had to go to Manhattan or Brooklyn” in order to hear it, said Monica Flores, 21. “But it was hard for us to identify with the type of show and people there.” So she and her brother decided to create an event for the Bronx—for and by the local community. The subtext was to do something to try to protect the borough´s identity against market forces.
The family backyard, in Van Nest in the East Bronx, hosted the first event, a small concert featuring three local bands in 2014 that gathered friends, neighbors, and relatives. “The turnout was amazing,” remembered Flores, “and backyards and basements became our comfort spaces for the first two years.”
“Our neighborhood is not for sale”
Many Bronx residents feel their borough is often stigmatized by the media and by other residents from New York City, as an insecure borough that lacks entertainment. Hydro Punk aims to defy that image, by building a network for a new generation of young local artists and activists and amplifying their voice.
Young activists like Jessica Martinez, who had a stand at the expo to promote the group Save Uptown. She was wearing a jumper emblazoned with these words in Spanish: “Our neighborhood is not for sale.” Martinez, 24, created Save Uptown with friends in 2016 to raise awareness about the rapid changes affecting their neighborhood.
“It was born out of emotions, out of anger,” said Martinez. She and her friends, all daughters of Dominican migrants, were seeing residents moving away as rents climb, businesses closed, and the environment they grew up in the upper areas of Manhattan and South Bronx rapidly mutate. “We felt intruded and we got sick of it,” said Martinez. But, as Save Uptown’s Instagram account points out, “We are not against change, we are against displacement of people and expulsion of culture.”
“Art and gentrification goes together,” acknowledges Martinez, “but we need spaces like this exhibition, curated by people from here, with artists from here.” Problems increase, she said, when outside galleries and artists pour into the borough.
Many exhibitors at the Bronx Art Expo seemed to share concerns about the changes in the borough—changes that could enrich the community but also disfigure its identity and increase the cost of living there. Development is a driving force. For example, Keith Rubenstein, a real estate developer, purchased in 2014 and 2015 a total of five acres of industrial space in the South Bronx. He is developing a $400 million residential and retail project with some 1,300 units to attract young professionals.
For some Bronx residents, building a community is the key to safeguard their shared spaces. “This expo is a good opportunity to know other young people doing interesting things,” Mike Hamlett, 28, said at the exhibition. He is from The Bronx Brand, a platform that serves as a hub for artists from the Bronx to market their clothes, and to promote their paintings or sell their drawings. An exhibition like the Bronx Art Expo, says Hamlet, “serves to unify the artists in the Bronx” that haven’t really made a connection.
The organizers of the Bronx Art Expo learned how to curate, promote, and raise funds from their previous experience. Monica Flores worked at the Bronx Museum two years ago, where she was an art teacher assistant. Recently, she said, more people have joined Hydro Punk, and they plan to expand its projects and bring art to local kids.
But in the midst of what feels like combat to keep the borough’s identity, she says, the pleasures of the struggle sometimes come from simple things. “When people come and thank you because they thought they had to go to Brooklyn or Manhattan to get these events,” says Flores, “that is what is the most fulfilling.”