As neighborhoods across New York City have cycled through change, the South Bronx, once cast as the poster child for urban blight, is now in the sights of the next wave of real estate speculators. Yet preceding and outlasting these outsider definitions, the South Bronx has held sway as an extraordinary cultural capital. Hip-hop, born in the area’s community centers and parks, is arguably the most influential cultural development of the last forty years, reverberating nationally and internationally in music, visual art, dance, and activism. And rather than supplant what came before, hip-hop commingled with a long and active history of exceptionalism in salsa and jazz in the many clubs and theaters that once dotted the Bronx.
One incubator of the great cultural wealth of the South Bronx — the 80-year-old Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education — is now embarking on an initiative to make sure that this history is marked and remembered. Started in 2012, the South Bronx Culture Trail consists of yearly festivals that celebrate arts and community advocacy in the area and, very soon, physical markers that recognize twelve landmark sites in a walkable trail. Casita Maria’s Elaine Delgado and Christine Licata sat down with us to talk about how the South Bronx’s cultural history relates to the devastation it suffered in the 1970s; the community-based process of identifying, selecting, and marking sites on the trail; and how these sites nurtured the area’s deep tradition of creativity. –J.T.
Tell me about the history of Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education.
Casita was founded in 1934 by two sisters and public school teachers, Claire and Elizabeth Sullivan, in their East Harlem apartment. They realized a need for educational, recreational, and social services, particularly among members of the Puerto Rican community starting new lives in the city. The organization expanded very quickly from there. In addition to its community centers and summer camp, Casita ran senior centers up until the 2000s. It has always tried to respond to the needs of its community, so when many Puerto Rican residents and Latino immigrants started to move to the South Bronx, the organization moved here in the 1960s and established its main base in a former synagogue. Throughout the 1970s, as the Bronx was burning, the community needed an organization, a beacon of light, like Casita Maria. We’ve heard often that in that era the three buildings that were left standing in the neighborhood were the police precinct, the Church of Saint Athanasius, and Casita Maria.
In 2009, Casita opened this new building. The Department of Education needed space for a school, so we partnered with them to build this six-story building that we share with the Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists. We have a gymnatorium, dance rooms, music rooms, galleries, and a number of spaces that allowed us to expand our after-school and educational programs as well as start a visual and performing arts program for the community. Arts have always been central to Casita Maria, and we want them to always be part of the daily life of the community. Students receive academic support while learning about music, visual arts, and dance. We have an internship program for middle and high school students to gain real world work experience in arts or design, with clients like Roberto Cavalli, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. We offer two artist residencies, exhibitions, and free performances at Casita and throughout the community.
We have many alumni who transformed their lives, their community, and, in some cases, the whole world through the arts. Hip-hop was born in the Bronx; salsa was nurtured and really developed here. Many of their pioneers were Casita kids.
Most people do not think of the South Bronx’s rich cultural history when they think of the area; the association for many is of a place of poverty and the destruction of the 1970s. Tell us a bit more about its cultural history.
As Elaine said, so much has come out of the Bronx. Many of the buildings in Hunts Point were concert venues and movie theaters hosting nightly live acts. The Hub, the area around Third Avenue and 149th Street, was known as “Little Broadway.” And there was just so much crossover among different types of music and culture. Most of the theaters were hubs where you would have both emerging hip-hop artists and Latin music, especially at the Hunts Point Palace and Boulevard Theater.
The birth of hip-hop also brought about a broader culture beyond music. Intertwined with artists you have community leaders, writers, and activists. The reverberations from salsa, mambo, and hip-hop in the Bronx extend across the city, then nationally and internationally. It gives us much to work with here at Casita. Tito Puente, Machito, Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Melle Mel — legendary artists like these are so much a part of the Bronx.
The Bronx’s creativity was not born out of difficult times. Those problems just brought people together and made those qualities more apparent, because they had to make do and move forward.
Here, there was and still is incredible energy from self-starters with the initiative to create without having to follow any rules but their own. I’m constantly amazed that the more you peel back the layers of the Bronx’s history, you see that the stereotype of what the Bronx was is so far removed from what the artists, community activists, writers, and thinkers were actually doing. Even during an extremely trying sociopolitical situation, the community didn’t crumble. People came together and said we’ll support each other and build and create on our own.
Seeing how culture in the Bronx really flourished during that time and afterward, do you think that the culture came out of those troubles in a certain way?
I’m thinking about one of Lisa Kahane’s photographs of a woman on Charlotte Street surrounded by burnt-out, abandoned buildings. She is standing with a hose next to a make-shift greenhouse with flourishing vegetables and fruits. The devastation did not bring out that incredible woman’s green thumb. That’s part of who she inherently is.
Well before the social and political problems with the city and local landlords came about, you had a community that was already incredibly resourceful and intelligent. Communities like the Lower East Side, East Harlem, or the Bronx have huge populations of immigrants that are sort of starting from zero, but brilliant thinkers, artists, scientists, and musicians are also coming. Immigration is what makes our country great, and I don’t think that is respected or acknowledged until you see situations like ours. That creativity was not born out of that difficult time. Those problems just brought people together and made those qualities more apparent, because they had to make do and move forward.
What is the South Bronx Culture Trail?
It is an initiative we started in 2012 to create a virtual and a physical trail documenting our cultural history. We wanted to start a conversation with our young students, the community, and Casita alumni about the South Bronx’s cultural currency. Because this community is always in transition, it’s easy to forget what took place or came out of here, and we want to bring back those memories.
One of the moments that proved the importance of the project came during the naming of a local street after Arsenio Rodríguez, a revolutionary figure in salsa music who founded the conjunto style of Cuban music. Casita’s executive director, Sarah Calderon, invited some students along to the ceremony, and she told them how Arsenio had come from this community and gone on to greatness. The students told her that they didn’t know anyone important came from their community. We want our youth to know that they are part of an important tradition, that they can achieve their goals just like those performers did.
The trail celebrates this history in part through festivals with performances, talks, and other events. We started it with Dancing in the Streets, a Bronx-based group that presents free public performances, and over the last year have worked with City Lore, an organization that fosters the cultural heritage of New York City. For the first year’s festival, and our first “trail,” we presented a performance called Paseo with Dancing in the Streets. It focused on celebrating Latino music that was nurtured in the Bronx. Joanna Haigood, a gifted choreographer who bases her projects on the history of places, worked with Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria as music director to create a site-specific piece with poetry and different styles of dance and music that literally took to the streets. It started at Casita Maria and went eleven blocks up to 52 Park where we held a big concert. On each corner, and even on fire escapes, you would see a piece of history: doo-wop singers; bomba, salsa, and plena dancers. We had amazing performers, like Arthur Aviles from BAAD! and Milteri Tucker from Bombazo Dance Company. We put out a call for community members to participate, so we had professionals dancing with community members. We thought it was very important for people to embrace and represent that story. We also presented Home, an exhibition curated by Christine, that featured objects from community members that represented what “home” meant to them.
The second trail was The Bronx Revolution and the Birth of Hip-Hop. We had a week-long festival with a series of events put on in collaboration with other Bronx organizations that celebrated each of hip-hop culture’s pillars: DJing, MCing, Breaking, Graffiti, and Knowledge. That’s not just knowledge about hip-hop; it’s deeper awareness about yourself, your community, and your place within it. Then we had an incredible culminating performance led by Dancing in the Streets and Joanna Haigood that told the story of hip-hop through five of its pioneers: Grandmaster Caz, GrandWizzard Theodore, Rokafella, BG183 of Tats Cru, and Joe Conzo, Jr.
For the most recent trail, CineMusica City!, we celebrated many of the closed concert and movie houses by projecting footage of the performances that used to happen there onto the buildings and hosted live performances by the next generation of young artists in front. At Teatro Puerto Rico, we had La Lupe, Tito Puente, Machito, and Celia Cruz with the South Bronx Kids St. Mary’s Youth Dancers performing salsa and mambo; at People’s Park, where early hip-hop jams took place, we projected Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Melle Mel, and Lisa Lee. Meanwhile, a group of young MCs from the Betances Community Center performed. The programming always comes from whatever the spot is. It’s integrated — the place, the achievements of past generations, and then today, our next generation of emerging artists.
What’s the physical trail that goes along with this programmatic side?
We’re in the process right now of creating physical markers for what will be a walkable trail. There will be a series of walking tours and an educational curriculum to accompany it. In addition to marking these important historical sites for the community, we hope the trail will also bring visitors to the Bronx so they can see that it’s on fire with creativity and cutting edge arts, but it is no longer burning.
The trail is an economic development tool in that way. There will be something physical for people to visit, and we’ll continue to create buzz and bring people together with our events.
You could call it placemaking, but placemaking just means community members, community leaders, and artists coming together to make their neighborhood more livable and engaging. That’s been going on in the Bronx forever.
How did you go about identifying the sites, and what are some that will be marked on the trail?
To guide the process, we started our South Bronx Culture Trail Advisory Council, which is an exceptional group of artists, local community leaders, and community residents. Something we realized immediately was that people really wanted to tell their story. Not only that, they were ready to roll up their sleeves and work with us.
It would have been very difficult to gather and select the sites without the council, but it was very easy when we have members like Benny Bonilla, Bill Aguado, Arthur Aviles, and Bobby Sanabria, to name a few. Benny’s a Casita kid, and we celebrated his 80th birthday last year along with Casita’s 80th anniversary. Most people can claim they have danced to the rhythm of Benny’s drums on “I Like It Like That.” Bill Aguado has been one of the most important arts and culture leaders in the Bronx, and he makes sure we don’t miss any important places or facts. Fortunately, many of our pioneers and community leaders are either still active or of a generation that can remember.
So we have hundreds of sites now and, thanks to our partnership with City Lore and Elena Martínez, one of the most brilliant historians and folklorists we have ever worked with and another member of our council, we just keep getting more.
We’re marking twelve sites to start, but the goal is to eventually do more and spread throughout the Bronx. Twelve was something achievable, and at Casita we deal with achievable. We like to make sure that we do what we say.
The very challenging process of picking twelve sites to mark was led by the council. Casita is one site. You have the Hunts Point Palace, which is now a Duane Reade right across from the Hunts Point 6 station. Tito Puente, La Lupe, Afrika Bambaataa, and Jazzy Jay all played there. Then we have Casa Amadeo, one of the oldest music shops in New York that remains an important hub for musicians. There’s 52 Park — 52 People for Progress, a community group led by Al Quiñones, got together in the ’80s and fixed up the park into a dynamic place for music, dance, and play. For over 30 years now they’ve produced a music festival that draws people from all around the world to see the best performances of Latin and jazz music. Right across the street you have Public School 52, where Eddie Palmieri used to play stickball with Benny Bonilla, Ray Barreto, and Orlando Marin. You can’t make this stuff up. There isn’t a Hollywood movie that can capture this; that was just the reality of the time.
Also on the trail we have United Bronx Parents, founded by Evelina López Antonetty, which still is a crucial organization in terms of community leadership and social services. Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street I (Frieda, Javette, Towana, and Stacey), a mural by the artists John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres, is one of the sites, and we are currently looking to restore it back to its original state. It is made from life castings of local residents and capture an intimate portrait of our community.
On the corner of 156th and Fox Avenue we have Rafael Ferrer’s Puerto Rican Sun sculpture. Then we have two of the closed theaters that I mentioned earlier — the Lowes Boulevard Theater and the Olympic Theater. The Patrolman Lynch Community Center of the Police Athletic League is another one — like Casita it was a beacon in challenging times, a safe place where you could learn, create, and grow. And finally, we have Casa Alegre, an important music label from the 1950s created by musician and producer Al Santiago. It’s now a Rite Aid. There’s nothing there that would remind you that this was a pivotal place in the history of Latin music, and that needs to be remembered.
There are many different kinds of spaces on that list: theaters, parks, community centers. In combing through these hundreds of sites, do you see how different kind of spaces supported different cultural growth?
I’m going to quote the Bronx-born artist Vito Acconci on this one. He is not only an incredible artist, architect, writer, and designer in his own right, but also one of the artists nominated by our council to submit a design proposal for the markers. When visiting the sites, he said, “it’s not buildings and sites that make places; it’s people.” He’s right, of course. The type of space didn’t matter, and I still don’t think it matters. It’s people turning any space into a cultural space or a place for progressive change.
Tell us about the markers that will be installed. How were they developed?
Once the sites were selected, we took the opportunity to get a lot of different views. Artists see things in ways we don’t, so rather than defining what the markers were going to look like, our council nominated artists, designers, and architectural studios to create proposals for the design of the markers. We got so many beautiful ones: from John Ahearn, who I mentioned earlier, Bronx artist and Bronx Art Space founder Linda Cunningham, Keith Godard of Studio Works, emerging artists Chat Travieso and Yeju Choi, Acconci Studio, Cooper, Robertson & Partners, and Beyer Blinder Belle.
During the last trail festival, we held an exhibition of the proposals. The exhibition postcard doubled as a voting ballot, so community members could vote right then for their favorite three or do so online. We brought the results to our council, and those will weigh very heavily on how they make their final decision. We’re in the process of gathering final votes, and then we will work with the Departments of Transportation and City Planning to produce a final design. We would be thrilled with any one of the proposals, so it’s already a win for us. We’re hoping that in another six months we’ll have the first prototype and start installing.
Is there another trail and festival on the docket?
There is! And we want everyone to get involved. The next trail will be about arts activism in the Bronx — our legacy, pioneers, and contemporary leaders. We’ll continue to work with our amazing council and alumni, who have such dedication and investment in the Bronx. Sometimes we ask ourselves, how do we get to have this kind of incredible opportunity? I think it’s because they’re Bronxites. I don’t think all this could have happened anywhere but the Bronx.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.