Tag Archive | "Yardena Schwartz"

Bronx-born artist leads $7 million art center restoration

Gail Nathan, director of the Bronx River Art Center, at a fundraising event at the Bronx Art Space. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Gail Nathan, director of the Bronx River Art Center, at a gallery exhibition at the Bronx Art Space. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Dressed in a crisp, button-down shirt, khaki cut-offs and Keds, her ginger bob peeking out from under a white fedora, Gail Nathan looked something like a 62-year old hipster as she climbed the four flights of stairs up to her messy office at the Bronx River Art Center in East Tremont.

It was 90 degrees in early September and there was no air conditioning. Nathan felt as determined as she was cranky.

Someone had left the center’s garden gates open the night before, and Nathan was livid. She grabbed the phone and fumed to an employee on the other end: “You never know what could have happened,” she said. “Leaving the center in that vulnerable situation was irresponsible and dangerous.”

The 23-year-old art center on East Tremont Avenue and Bronx Street is her baby, one she is about to transform into a state-of-the-art cultural force after seven years of lobbying for $7 million in restoration funds. And if Nathan doesn’t take care of it, no one will.

Driving her work is a fiery determination to provide quality art education to low-income families. She sees the center as a diamond in the rough, providing free art classes and events for children in an area where, according to the Citizens’ Committee for Children, 54 percent live below the poverty line.

“The arts got me up and out of the Bronx and into my profession, so I know it can be done for others,” she said. “The arts are what divide humans from the animals, and people of limited means need to have that same opportunity.”

It’s a cause to which she has dedicated her life. Nathan has never been married or had children, and now lives alone in City Island. She doesn’t mind.

“I was too busy,” she said. “I’ve done what I do best, which is making sure underserved communities have opportunities to expand their lives through the arts.”

Nathan was born and raised on 149th Street between Grand Concourse and Walton Avenue. Her Jewish father worked as a Morse code and Teletype operator and her Catholic mother waited tables at Schrafft’s, a once-glamorous Manhattan restaurant.

Nathan spent her childhood playing on the streets in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, earning her and her friends the nickname, “The Stadium Kids.” Her father knew all the guys at the gate, so they went to games for free and sat in box seats.

“Now I can’t go to a Yankee game because I can’t afford the seats,” she said. “Sitting way up in the bleachers is not my style.”

Becoming an artist was Nathan’s earliest dream, and although it was an unlikely pursuit for a Jewish girl from the Bronx, she had plenty of support.

“My father was a latent artist of sorts,” she said. “So he lived out his desires to be an artist through me.”

After attending Public School 31 and Junior High School 22, both in the Bronx, Nathan attended the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

As a teenager, all of her Jewish friends escaped the Bronx for the suburbs, but Nathan, her parents and her older sister, Jeanne, stayed.

“It was the white flight,” she said, “but we weren’t suburban, so we never moved out.”

To fill the void left by her friends, Nathan took dance classes downtown and worked in the West Village theater scene. Yet despite her admiration for the performing arts, she yearned to become a visual artist.

After earning her Bachelor’s degree at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, she realized that painting was her true calling, and so became a painter, taught painting at New York University and commuted to New Jersey for her Master’s of Fine Arts at Rutgers University. All the while, she lived in an artist studio in SoHo, back when it was cheap.

“My first loft was $80 a month,” she said, “and my last one was $125 a month.”

In 1977, she was drawn back to her old streets when they became decimated by drugs, violence and poverty. Until 1980, she worked for the Bronx Museum of the Arts, organizing satellite gallery programs and painting public art murals. It was her first taste of community development through art, and after spending the next 18 years traveling the world as a visiting artist and professor, it was what brought her back to the Bronx.

In the interview for her job as center director in 1998, she raised the idea of restoring the building. Now, 12 years and countless hours of grant-writing later, Nathan is finally making the center’s appearance a reflection of what goes on inside of it.

“Gail had aggressive chutzpah to really put this renovation together,” said Daniel DelValle, a board member of the center since 1996. “She has an insightful vision of the future for us. Art classes existed here before her, but they were primitive.”

The Bronx River Art Center as it stands now. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

The Bronx River Art Center as it stands now. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Nestled on the bank of the Bronx River, the center’s classes in drawing, painting, sculpting, cartooning, digital photography and filmmaking, some of which are held in the garden or on the riverbank, encourage students to gain artistic inspiration from and respect for the local environment. To Nathan, the center is a “Community-Based, 21st Century Bauhaus.”

Yet until now, it has been a destination for beauty on the inside, and an eye sore on the outside. The structure it calls home is a drab gray warehouse with no elevators. Aside from a small sign above the door proclaiming the center’s name, it’s hard to tell that an art center lies inside.

“Seven million dollars is not a lot of money to restore an 18,000 square foot, nearly 100-year-old building that sits next to a river,” Nathan insisted one recent afternoon.

On Sept. 30, the center closed its doors to prepare for the renovation that kicks off in January. The building itself is to stay, but elevators will be installed, along with LEED-certified central heating and cooling. There will be a full floor and a half dedicated to arts classes, another floor of artist studios at below market prices, an expanded gallery space, and a theater for performances and presentations of students’ and artists’ work. Visitors to the neighborhood should have no trouble finding the center, as its blue prints display a vibrant white exterior covered with giant green graphics of the center’s nickname, “BRAC.”

Architectural illustration of the renovated center. Photo courtesy of the Bronx River Art Center

Architectural illustration of the renovated center. Photo courtesy of the Bronx River Art Center

Yet, rather than feeling exalted about the renovation she’s worked so hard and long for, Nathan could only do what she does best: worry and plan her next endeavor.

Fear crept in that with the center closed for the next two years, people would assume that it had moved on.

“We stand here as a committed community-based cultural center,” she said, “and we’re not going to abandon the people who’ve come to trust us.”

So, for the next two years Nathan and her art center will travel like nomads throughout the borough, holding gallery events at The Bronx Art Space in Mott Haven, and free art classes at schools and community organizations across the Bronx. The center’s offices will assume temporary residency in another old building on Boston Road and East 179th Street until the center reopens. And once it does, Nathan will finally allow herself a moment of pride.

“This new and beautiful building will be a keystone of the revitalization of this neighborhood,” she said. “We’ll be the thing that turns this area into a destination.”

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New birth certificate law for Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans in the Bronx are worried and confused about a new birth certificate law. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Like many Bronx Puerto Ricans, Nando Hernandez is worried about a new birth certificate law that could affect his mother, Maria. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Maria Delia Hernandez suffers from failing kidneys, gout, high blood pressure, asthma and a chronic liver disease. In her apartment on the Grand Concourse, the 75-year-old lies in bed hooked up to the dialysis machine she depends on to do her kidneys’ work.

But Hernandez worries more about her latest ailment: the invalidation of her legal status in the United States.

Hernandez is joined in this predicament by more than 105,000 other native Puerto Ricans in the Bronx.

On Thursday, Sept. 30, all birth certificates issued by Puerto Rico before July 1 will become null and void. The Puerto Rican government announced the new law in December 2009, in collaboration with the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, to curb massive fraud and theft of Puerto Rican birth certificates.

Home to almost half of all island-born Puerto Ricans in New York City, the Bronx boasts one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans outside of the island, according to the Department of City Planning.

A birth certificate from Puerto Rico is valuable property for Hispanic immigrants seeking a quick path to U.S. citizenship, and until now it has been quite easy to get.

Puerto Rico was unique in the way its birth certificates were used in the past, said Sarah Echols, spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. “Parents signing their kids up for school, Little League, church camps, anything part of daily life, had to turn over an original birth certificate,” said Echols. “I’ve heard stories where 10 to 12 original copies of one person’s birth certificate were floating around different organizations.”

This practice left certified original birth certificates sitting in largely unsecured offices, and criminals took advantage.

“There were cases of fraud rings breaking into schools, finding the files, and taking the birth certificates out to sell them on the black market,” Echols said.

According to federal officials, Puerto Rican birth certificates were selling illegally for up to $10,000 a piece. The U.S. State Department discovered that 40 percent of the 8,000 cases of passport fraud it investigated were tied to Puerto Rican birth certificates.

The new law aims to combat fraud not only by requiring people to apply for the new birth certificate, which means those stolen birth certificates will no longer be valid; it also mandates that no agency can retain a copy of a person’s original birth certificate. People may have to show the document, or provide a photocopy, but the law prohibits anyone from having to hand over an original copy of his or her birth certificate for any reason.

But for elderly Puerto Ricans like Hernandez and others who no longer have the documents they need to comply, the law has become troubling.

Lisa Velez, 44, of Mott Haven, is still trying to figure out how her 65-year-old mother will get her new birth certificate. Her mother, Elba Caraballo can’t find her old birth certificate, and has never had a driver’s license or passport.

Velez didn’t know her mother needed a new birth certificate until the New York City Housing Authority asked for it in order to re-certify her public housing benefits. Velez is afraid her sick mother, who rarely leaves her apartment because of anxiety, will have to go to Puerto Rico in order to prove her citizenship there.

“I really don’t want her traveling, and I don’t do planes,” ” said Velez. “Not after 9/11.”

Critics say that many Puerto Ricans on the mainland, as they refer to the United States, have never heard about the law.

“The Puerto Rican government hasn’t done enough to communicate it to the Puerto Rican community here, so most of them know nothing about it,” said Ana Maldonado, chief operating officer at Promesa, a community development group that works with Puerto Ricans in the Bronx.

Hernandez found out about the law when she was contacted by a city housing representative, and she’s been in a panic ever since. She hasn’t seen her birth certificate in 10 years, and has forgotten her birth date and hometown, information she needs in order to apply for the new certificate.

Representatives of the Puerto Rican government insist they have done everything in their power to inform their citizens in New York about the new law.

“News reports are a result of our outreach,” said Luis Balzac, who heads the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in New York. “We’ve done seminars, presentations, group meetings with nonprofits and elected officials to make sure the Puerto Rican community is aware of the benefits of this law.”

Originally the law stated that old birth certificates would become invalid on July 1, the same day people could start applying for the new one. That would have allowed no time for people or government agencies to prepare for the mass invalidation of their documents. Bowing to pressure from Hispanic advocacy groups, the law was amended in late June, extending the deadline through the end of September.

Some say that still isn’t enough time. “We should have until December,” said Maldonado, “and that extension should be accompanied by an aggressive communications campaign.”

There could be serious consequences for those who don’t know about the law, or who have trouble obtaining the new document.

“Many native Puerto Ricans without the new birth certificate could be denied social services, health care, public schooling, jobs, drivers licenses and public housing benefits,” said Maldonado. In an economy where finding a job is hard enough, not having a valid birth certificate is yet another barrier to employment.

Hernandez is afraid that she could lose the right to her Section 8 apartment, which she’s been living in for two decades.

“They keep bothering us to get the new certificate, but we can’t,” said her son, Louis Figueroa, 51.

Adding to this seemingly endless list of complications is that the Puerto Rican government has failed to send many law-abiding Puerto Rican citizens new birth certificates in time for their own deadline. Ivine Galarza, the district manager of Bronx Community Board 6, who was born in Puerto Rico, has been assisting locals in the application process through appointments in her office. She and the dozens of people she helped to fill out the application in early July are anxiously awaiting their new birth certificates more than two months later.

As the deadline approaches, “we’re starting to wonder what’s going on,” Galarza said. “People are scrambling because this piece of paper impacts almost every aspect of your life.”

As for Hernandez, these frustrations add stress to an already fragile life. Her son, Louis, appreciates the desire to protect his mother’s identity, but said, “The Puerto Rican government didn’t do their job, and now the poor and helpless are paying for it.”

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Riding camels in the Bronx

The Bronx Zoo has been offering camel rides for half a century.

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