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Razing a graffiti shrine to make room for billion-dollar housing

On a brilliant fall day, 25 students on a social justice field trip from Bowling Green, Ohio, visited the South Bronx, but not for the zoo or the Botanical Gardens.

Led by Julian Terrell of the Bronx faith-based group Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, the students made their way to the graffiti Wall of Fame stretching between East 174th Street and West Farms Road. They watched as Long Island-born graffiti giant Phetus, balanced on a ladder, put the final touches to his new mural.

This artistic history, which has existed for decades, is slated to be demolished to make way for a multi-billon dollar housing project by developers Signature Urban Properties. It will be the biggest project of its kind since Co-op City was built in Baychester in the sixties and is expected to provide 1325 units, half of which will be built as subsidized, affordable housing. Building work will begin next year and is planned for completion in seven years.

“This is literally where the Bronx was burning in the seventies,” said Signature principal Robert Frost. “Our goal is to turn around a non-functioning industrial zone by developing affordable workforce housing.”

The project, which allocates land for a new elementary school, children’s playground and two open public spaces, has the support of locally elected official Joel Rivera.

“Affordable housing is one of the biggest issues faced within our community,” said Rivera. “We are excited that this project will help to address this need.” With poverty rates in the Bronx hitting 12 percent and the fear of foreclosure growing as families get priced out of their own homes, the need for affordable housing is growing.

The Bronx borough president said he is pleased that the apartments will provide jobs and housing for a balanced, mixed income community.

But not everyone welcomed the news. “In trying to provide affordable housing, they’re smacking people in the face and stealing their culture,” Julian Terrell told the visiting students. “We call this a shrine, people come here from all over the world.”

The East Tremont and West Farms area has long languished with derelict manufacturing warehouses and graffiti culture. But some locals fear this housing project may be too pricey and will serve to push out the longtime low-income residents.

Terrell believes that the area became attractive to developers because groups like Youth Ministries worked hard to make it that way. On the other side of the Sheridan Expressway, the locally designed Starlight Park is nestled on an old industrial site by the Bronx River.

The 10 high-rise buildings proposed by Signature Urban Properties on a five-acre area could block local residents’ view of the park and the river. The development company, headed by former City Council member Gifford Miller, also promises to provide over 400 jobs in 46,000 square feet of retail space.

David Frost, a principal of Signature Urban Properties, said this location was chosen from a portfolio of possible options that had the necessary open space, transportation links and “ease of assemblage” – or buildings and land that could be bought easily from current tenants. “There are no jobs there; there’s no business there,” said Frost. “Our land is vacant.”

While Frost insists that the developers have support from the local community, some residents think otherwise. Cerita Parker, a retired Board of Education worker who lives on Longfellow Avenue, is worried that the community will be destroyed by the new plans.

“Throughout the Bronx we have seen a rebirth of communities with new building going up and lots of them are not affordable,” Parker said. “When you start building housing that’s out the price rage of local residents, these residents get kicked out.”

At the department for city planning, which is currently receiving funding to research ways to decommission or modify the nearby Sheridan Expressway, the new development is big news. “The way we think of this whole area is different because of this project,” said Ryan Singer from the Bronx office. “We asked Signature if they were worried about the Sheridan and they said they were prepared regardless.”

Plans to decommission the 1.2 miles of the Sheridan Expressway, which links the Bruckner with the Cross Bronx Expressway, reached a stalemate last year when the state cited a study that showed local traffic would worsen if it were removed. Frost, of Signature Urban Properties, refused to speak out against the Sheridan but did say: “Depending on how the Sheridan was decommissioned, it could be something we could get behind.”

The volunteers at Youth Ministries have been lobbying for the removal of the highway for over a decade. “We don’t want their support,” said Terrell at the suggestion that Signature might be able to help.

As for the graffiti, Frost said Signature is thinking of finding a small space in the new plans to designate a canvas. “That’s one of the coolest things up there,” he said.

When the squat manufacturing warehouses, which currently include towing merchants and a hog dog vendor, have been removed, it may be too late to save the graffiti culture here. At Da Bakery, a world-renown graffiti shop on the corner of the site, artists had no idea of what was planned.

Parker said that’s because the developers have not tried hard enough to reach the local community. “The only people that Signature has courted is the community board and the assemblymen,” she said. “They haven’t consulted the community whatsoever. It’s another example of money talking and everyone else following.”

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