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Breaking the Art Rules

by Matthew Huisman

Four surrealist paintings hang on Luis D. Rosado’s wall in his South Bronx apartment. The sequence of paintings by Rich Rethorn depicts a horrific version of the four seasons. Skin slowly melts off a zombie’s head, eventually revealing a skull set in front of a post apocalyptic backdrop. An eyeball dangles from the skull, still connected to the socket, and stares back at the viewer.

“I wanted to put together a show that was thought provoking imagery,” Rethorn, 45, said of the paintings. “It might be disturbing to some peopl. But usually when they’re disturbed, that’s when they’re going to start to ask questions.”

The paintings were part of the November exhibit at LDR Studio Gallery, a gallery that operates out of the 28-year-old Rosado’s apartment at 134th Street and Alexander Avenue. For Rosado, its more than just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.

“I feel like my calling was in the South Bronx and I wanted to do my own thing,” Rosado said of his gallery. “I wanted to break all the rules. Call me crazy, but I think I’m doing it.”

Rosado’s gallery, which bears his initials, is celebrating its second anniversary in December with champagne. But before he can pop the cork on the affair, Rosado has to remove the previous month’s exhibit with help from artist and curator Rethorn.

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

To maintain his artist’s lifestyle, Rosado holds down two jobs, runs his own architecture photography business and sleeps four hours a day. Rosado is emblematic of the diverse artistic community of the South Bronx that seeks independence from the restraints of large, corporate galleries while exploring alternative outlets for their creative energy. The South Bronx gives artists the canvas to develop their unique style and exhibit their work the way they see it.

Seven blocks north of Rosado’s apartment gallery is another apartment-turned-gallery, the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project, started two years ago by Blanka Amezkua. Born in Mexico and raised in California, Amezkua left the Golden State five years ago for the Bronx.

Amezkua’s idea for the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project was a creative reaction to the emotions she felt after losing her nephew in a car crash in 2006. Amezkua took the death hard since she had never before experienced losing a loved-one who was so dear to her. A year later Amezkua painted her Mott Haven bedroom robin’s-egg blue and thus was born the Blue Bedroom Project.

“In retrospect, that was part of my healing,” Amezkua said. “It was an opening up of the most intimate space in my apartment.” Amezkua now lives with her husband in Queens and makes the daily commute to her studio where she once lived.

Amezkua has invited Bronx artists like Laura Napier and Matthew Burkaw, whom she met through Artists in the Marketplace, a program run by the Bronx Museum of the Arts that provides artists with practical knowledge, to be part of her project. December’s artist is Napier and she is planning a bit of trickery for gallery-goers.

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Two floors above Amezkua’s blue bedroom, Napier is running a cable from her fifth floor bedroom window down the front of the building to Amezkua’s gallery. The wire carries a live feed of Napier’s bedroom – identical in size, shape and painted to match the original blue bedroom – to be transmitted on a television inside Amezkua’s gallery. The bedroom door in the gallery will be closed with a sign posted that asks guests to keep the door closed. Patrons will be able to watch what’s happening on the other side of the bedroom door on the television, or so they think.

“The idea is if people go in there and people are expecting to see themselves on the screen, they won’t,” Napier said of the exhibit. “I’m really interested to see how people behave.”

Napier is using her lunch break from her job at the Bronx Council for the Arts to set up her upcoming December exhibit in the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. The blue bedroom serves as a place where artists and the community interact and share art.

The South Bronx has a long artistic history dating back to the 70’s when Stefan Eins founded Fashion Moda, a storefront art studio and melting pot where artists and the neighborhood mingled.

“There was hip hop, there was break-dancing, there was dj-ing and there was graffiti,” said Lisa Kahane, a photographer who documented the Bronx during the 70’s. “What happened at Moda was these people met with artists from downtown, so there was definitely a cross pollination of different art forms.”

While The Bronx was experimenting with Fashion Moda, SoHo was becoming a booming art scene where galleries lined the blocks south of Houston Street. The same happened in Chelsea, as philanthropists poured more money into the Manhattan art scene.

“So you walk around and there are all these galleries all in one place,” Kahane said. “That was the accepted art neighborhood.”

When rent in Manhattan increased, artists sought out cheaper living accommodations and more space in the outer boroughs. Places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn have seen an influx in artists who are gentrifying the communities they occupy. However, the art scene in the South Bronx, though, has never been able to grow quite as fast.

“It’s up and coming but it’s taking its time,” Rosado said of the South Bronx art scene. Along with the tight-knit artistic community comes freedom from the corporate strings–a big selling point for Rosado.

“I just never really liked the fact that you had to pretty much be a prostitute to galleries about your art and yourself,” Rosado said. “I’m not dogging Chelsea. It’s just that I don’t like the attitude within that art world. I know that eventually I would like to show in Chelsea, but I don’t like the fact that it’s become so corporate. They start forgetting about the art itself and it’s all about business.”

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

For Amezkua the stigma that surrounds The Bronx started in the 70’s with the housing crisis and more recently the violence that plagued the borough in the 90’s. This has left the South Bronx with a reputation as an uncultured void in the city.

“It’s a very different thing when you say Bronx or when you say Williamsburg or Chelsea,” Amezkua said. “The Bronx is viewed as the ugly duckling of New York.” She did, however, praise the borough’s diversity. “When you come from a place that is not as diverse, and you land in The Bronx, you see the richness of the culture. It’s mindboggling.”

The downside to keeping corporate money at bay, is that the South Bronx art movement has never gained enough momentum to pull in outside investors.

“It’s like pulling teeth,” said Barry Kostrinsky, a 25-year veteran of the South Bronx art scene. “There are a lot of artists who do their own thing. Everyone has so many things going on in their life.”

Since the 80’s Kostrinsky has been creating art, everything from oil landscapes to acrylic on found objects. He said that art is about self expression and being socially aware at the same time.

“Art is about blasting parameters,” Kostrinsky said. “If you draw on garbage, you put it in perspective. It’s not the Mona-fucking-Lisa, it’s very real.”

It’s opening night for Rosado’s gallery and he is popping another bottle of champagne for his guests. He smiles as he refills empty glasses and begins to take another stroll through the exhibit.

“I like the fact that I am an underground gallery,” Rosado said. “I wake up in the morning and I eat art. I breathe art. I see art. It’s just all over.”

Rosado and Amzekua have maintained their independence from corporate art galleries, deciding instead to go it alone financially. Their reward is the ability to showcase local art that is free and open to the community while exploring the limits of their own creativity.

“Everybody leaves and I just sit down on the floor, pop a bottle of champagne,” Rosado said, “and just look at the artwork one by one.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods4 Comments

The Soundview Tenants Who Fell Through the Cracks

by Donal Griffin and Matthew Huisman with audio slideshow by Carmen Williams

Martha Castro cannot remember how many mousetraps and glueboards she has scattered around her two-bedroom apartment on East 172nd Street in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. All she knows for sure is that four are in the bedroom where her granddaughter sleeps.

“We’re not really getting heat,” Castro said. “There’s something wrong with the pipeline so we don’t get no heat. The only place that gets warm in this apartment is the kitchen and the living-room.”

Her son wants her to move to Florida, away from the cold weather and her home of 21 years. But that would take Castro away from her case in Bronx Housing Court against Hunter Property Management, the company responsible for managing her building and five others throughout the borough.

Residents living in Hunter-owned buildings have problems like rat, roach and mice infestation. Photo by Connor Boals

Rat holes in an apartment in 1585 East 172nd Street. Residents accuse their landlord of not making repairs. Photo by Connor Boals

On Hunter’s watch, the buildings have racked up thousands of housing violations. Residents have accused the company of not being able to afford the repairs. “I might just say ‘to hell with it’ and leave,” said Castro, who is 65. “But I hate to have started something and leave it half undone.”

Castro’s is the latest chapter of an all-too familiar story in the Bronx after the real estate crash in 2008, one that pits low-income tenants against their debt-laden landlords struggling with bank repayments.

On the side of the residents is an aggressive non-profit, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), which has helped Castro and other residents organize against Hunter. Based on Wall Street and led by a spiky activist named Dina Levy, UHAB began its campaign in September of this year with flyers accusing Hunter – which is associated with the buildings’ owners, BXP 1 LLC – of not having the funds to repair or even maintain the buildings.

A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest meeting.

A UHAB flyer organizing a tenants' protest.

The tenants and UHAB then held a protest meeting in the lobby of Martha Castro’s building in October, but a Hunter security official called the police, further antagonizing both sides. Hunter’s general counsel, Alice Belmonte, said that the tenants had every right to hold the meeting, but any UHAB activist would be considered a trespasser. “UHAB had already trespassed in the building,” Belmonte said, “by littering it with flyers.”

Conditions in the buildings continued to worsen in November as city housing inspectors noted that the property manager had failed to make even basic repairs to broken smoke detectors and bathroom faucets. UHAB and the residents then decided to march into the Bruckner Boulevard branch of the Dime Bank and Savings, the bank that has backed two sales of the buildings in less than three years. Security officers escorted the protesters off the premises and they then picketed outside, attracting some unwanted publicity for Dime.

The tenants had contacted bank officials before about the buildings’ worsening conditions, but got little in response, according to the advocacy group. “The message at the time was that it’s not our problem,” said Dina Levy. “We got a bullshit letter back (and) this blow-off phone call.” Indeed, the Dime’s chief lending officer, Dan Harris, had previously stated to that the bank could do little to help the situation as it was “just the lender.”

Andreas Rios, a 13-year resident at 1585 East 172nd Street, said he wrote to Dime Bank personally when his request for repairs to his apartment went unheeded by the building’s super. “They explained that if that’s the situation, ‘We can’t get involved,'” Rios said. “That’s your problem.”

But three days after the protest, on Nov. 23, Harris met with the residents and the non-profit. “I think we got their attention,” said Rios.

Getting the bank to the table was crucial to putting pressure on Hunter, according to UHAB, and the militant strategy appears to have worked. “We are optimistic that tenant representatives, the owners, UHAB and the bank will have a follow up meeting soon,” said Harris, “where we can air all the issues and find practical solutions which benefit all parties.”

Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

Sam Suzuki, the property developer behind Hunter Property Management LLC.

But Harris has more to worry about than just negative publicity. Dime Bank had backed the $13.2 million purchase of the six buildings in May 2009 to a company called BXP 1 LLC. This is managed by the same property developer who owns Hunter: Sam Suzuki. This “over-leveraged” position is now a critical problem, according to Levy, while residents like Castro have also stopped paying rent in protest, further weakening the buildings’ financial position. “But (even) if everybody were paying their rent,” Levy said, “the buildings would still have negative cash flow.”

Dime Savings Bank backed the original $16.6 million sale of the six buildings to the Ocelot group in July 2007. Ocelot had built up a portfolio of almost 30 buildings in Bronx, all of which were backed by Fannie Mae – with the exception of the six Dime-backed buildings. Ocelot’s principals then pulled their investment in late 2008 and sought to sell the entire portfolio to Sam Suzuki. But that deal collapsed earlier this year and Fannie Mae was forced to put its buildings into foreclosure.

A portable heater in one of the Hunter buildings is a necessity. Many of the building have infrequent heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

A portable heater in a Hunter-managed apartment. Many of the buildings often go with out heat. Photo by Matthew Huisman

While the clamor surrounding the condition of the Ocelot buildings grew in the Bronx over the summer–even attracting the attention of U.S. Senator, Charles Schumer–Suzuki bought six of the buildings in May. The debt on the other Ocelot buildings has since been sold to another developer in a deal praised by UHAB and the city. But Suzuki’s buildings remain out of the spotlight, despite their decrepit state.

The six buildings have 2,519 open violations with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development as of Dec. 6. The worst conditions are in Castro’s building on East 172nd Street, which has 528 violations. Two of the Highbridge buildings are now listed amongst the 200 most distressed buildings in the city. The violations include everything from the infestation of rats, roaches and mice to lead-based paint peeling from the walls.

“The supers used to paint before and they don’t even do that now,” Rios said. “There’s graffiti all over the place. You can even see the lead from the paint chipping out.”

The buildings have the potential for even more violations, but many go unreported. A lot of the residents receive a rent subsidy from the city, said Emmanuel Attram, a Ghanaian resident of another Hunter-managed property on nearby 1268 Stratford Avenue, and don’t protest their conditions for fear of losing it.

This isn’t the only reason. “There are a lot of illegal immigrants in this building,” said Walter H. Clark, another Stratford Avenue resident. “A lot of them won’t complain.”

Castro’s court complaint against Hunter has already resulted in a court order from the Bronx Housing Court requiring Hunter to make various repairs to her building. “Some repairs have been made and some have not,” said Steven Di Cesare, Castro’s lawyer. “We can talk to the landlord more or go back to the courts – they’re the options.”

Hunter’s Alice Belmonte did not respond to questions from about the company, the court case or about Sam Suzuki, as she said the company had an exclusive deal in place with another media outlet, which she would not name.

Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Conditions have deteriorated since Ocelot sold these buildings in May 2009. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Suzuki’s profile on describes him as the principal in Hunter, which was registered with New York State’s Division of Corporations in November 2008. The profile also states that he was a principal until last year in another company called Vintage Group LLC, which was “responsible for the acquisition and development of over $500 million in real estate developments.”

In 2008, Hudson Valley Bank foreclosed on one of his properties in Sands Point, Long Island, NY, in order to secure a $2.7 million debt. ChinaTrust Bank recently secured a $3.3 million judgment against the same property.

“The Daily News” reported last month that yet another entity linked to Suzuki called Venator Capital LLC had purchased the RKO Keith’s Theater in Flushing, Queens, for $20 million. Suzuki more recently told “The New York Times” that he has yet to close the deal. The New York City property registry does not list any purchases by Venator Capital, however, while the Division of Corporations has no record of the company. According to Suzuki’s profile, Venator Capital invests in distressed properties and its expertise is “the acquisition of troubled assets.”

Martha Castro said she cannot afford to make the repairs to her apartment on her own. Parts of the linoleum floor in her kitchen and bathroom caved in after a fire seven years ago damaged the structural integrity of the building. Earlier this month, Castro paid for a handyman to plaster the walls and paint, yet cracks and discoloration caused by leaky pipes still persist. “The things that have improved here,” Castro said, “they’ve come out of my pocket.” But having invested money and time in her home, she is hesitant to change. “You get settled in a place and you don’t want to move.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing1 Comment

1585-1589 E. 172nd St.

By Matthew Huisman

Martha Castro remembers when she moved into 1585 E. 172nd St. in  the Soundview section of the Bronx. “It was a very beautiful building,”  Castro said. “I’ve been here 22 years and this is the worst.”

Between 2006 and 2007, Ocelot bought 1585 and a neighboring building, 1589. After Ocelot ran out of money and abandoned the buildings, conditions deteriorated at a rapid rate. Tenants continued to pay rent, even as they lived with holes in the walls, rat infestations and sparse heat.

“All we want is to get our service done and live decently,” said Castro, 65. “It´s a struggle because you want to live comfortable and not having to worry about, `Are we gonna have hot water?´”

A company connected to Hunter Property Management purchased the two buildings, along with four other Ocelot properties, in May 2009. Since then, residents have been rebelling against their new landlords.

Residents of 1585 E. 172nd Street are organizing against their poor living conditions. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Police were called when residents at 1585 E. 172nd Street organized a protest in the lobby. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Residents’ anger at the decrepit living conditions bubbled over during a tenants’ meeting on Oct. 14. Castro, president of the tenants association, invited the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, a non-profit organization that helps low-income residents collectively own and govern their buildings, to talk to residents about ways to improve their quality of life.
“Management apparently called the police and said there was some disturbance at their building,” said Dan DeSloover of Urban Homesteading.  “We told police the tenants are holding a meeting and they invited us to come. Then they left.”

A lawyer for Sam Suzuki, the principal manager of Hunter Management, said her client had no problem with tenants organizing, but the police were called because the UHAB members at the meeting were trespassing.

“The buildings have over 3,000 code violations total,” said DeSloover of the six Hunter-owned buildings. “These buildings were under Ocelot before  Hunter and so the people here have had bad, bad conditions for years.”
DeSloover and his colleagues from Urban Homesteading are chronicling the conditions that continue to exist in the five-story apartment buildings that butt up against one another. DeSloover said he plans to present this evidence to Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburg, the bank that issued the mortgages initially for Ocelot, then for Hunter in May 2009.  ”It will help make our case if we do get a meeting with the bank,” said DeSloover. “Maybe we can work with them to change ownership and better conditions.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing2 Comments

Gourmet Tacos in a Truck

by Matthew Huisman

Medardo Florencio, owner of Taqueria Guadalupe, cooks up tacos for residents living in Soundview.

Medardo Florencio of Taqueria Guadalupe cooks up tacos for residents living in Soundview. Photo by Matthew Huisman

It’s lunchtime on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx and my stomatch growls, reminding me that I haven’t eaten since 9 a.m.  Instead of grabbing a greasy slice of pizza, or stopping in at one of the many fast food joints that litter the area, I opt instead for Taqueria Guadalupe.

The chrome taco truck sits where Manor and Westchester Avenues meet, a shining, silver oasis of food. Medardo Florencio–owner, chef and cashier–greets me at the window. There is no table, no cash register, no building–only Florencio’s truck converted into a mobile kitchen. The sole concessions to traditional dining are two lonely chairs leaning against the brick wall of D&G Fashions, a store that sells ladies wear and plus sizes.

Florencio didn’t ask what I’m ordering, only how many.

“Tres, por favor,” I said, as I was feeling particularly hungry.

Florencio immediately goes to work, dicing onion and pineapple. Together with a fistful of flavored pork, Florencio tosses the mixture on the grill. The meat sizzles, wafting the smell of al pastor tacos to the street curb. The reaction causes my mouth to water like one of Pavlov’s dogs. By this time I am not alone.

Jenny Cosme walks up to the window, glancess briefly at the menu and orders one bistec and one chicken taco and waits patiently.

“Their food is good, and it’s healthy too,” says Cosme. “It’s healthier than the fast food because it’s on a grill.”

Cosme likes crema y pico de gallo, a mixture of raw onion, tomato and cilantro, on her tacos.

“They cut everything daily,” Coseme said while piling on the pico.

Taqueria Guadalupe at the corner of Manor and Westchester Avenues in the Soundview neighborhood. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Taqueria Guadalupe at the corner of Manor and Westchester Avenues in Soundview. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Florencio has been feeding his hungry neighbors in the Soundview neighborhood for more than seven years. He arrived in this country 20 years ago from Guerrero, a state in southwest Mexico known for its tourism and silver. Florencio says he has about 80 customers a day, enough to support his wife and four kids. A fifth is on the way.

But on the streets of the Bronx, where good, cheap and healthy food can be as scarce as a Phillies fan, Taqueria Guadalupe is one of the few places that offer a healthier alternative.

“It’s all fresh,” Florencio says in Spanish pointing to a tray of toppings. “We make it fresh every day.”

Spicy red salsa, avacado puree, pico de gallo and fresh lime are a few of the extras that Florencio offers his customers.

In a few minutes my order is up. I pay the $7.50 and walk back to the chairs. Steam rises from the plate in the cold air. The first bite is packed with pineapple. The sweet juice runs down my chin and I lap it up with a lick of my tongue.

“No sense in being proper when you’re on the sidewalk,” I muse, plowing through the first taco.

I had no problem with the second and third. The spicy pork, tangy lime and crisp onion make a heavenly treat wrapped in two corn tortillas.

Sidewalk dining at its finest.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Neighborhoods, Food0 Comments