Meet the Artists of "Piano District," the NYC Neighborhood Invented by White Developers

Meet the Artists of "Piano District," the NYC Neighborhood Invented by White Developers
Source: AP
Source: AP

If you've never heard of the "Piano District" in New York City, don't be embarrassed — it doesn't exist. Even the people who live there didn't realize it until a billboard popped up telling them they did.

But that hasn't made it any less controversial. Since the billboard's appearance in October, at the intersection where Bruckner Boulevard meets the Third Avenue Bridge in the South Bronx, the Piano District has been the subject of heated debate among residents, fueled by an eyebrow-raising, star-studded Halloween party that's been the talk of local media ever since.

At the center of the controversy is an unlikely group of community artists and art curators. Their perspectives — which Mic has collected here through multiple interviews — reflect an often complex relationship between art and gentrification.

But first, the basics. The Piano District is the brainchild of Keith Rubenstein, a New York City-based real estate developer. Rubenstein gave the name to a southwestern corner of Mott Haven, a region of the South Bronx that wraps around the borough's Manhattan-facing waterfront overlooking the Harlem River.

Rubenstein's company, Somerset Partners, has spent $58 million buying land in Mott Haven over the past year. The firm plans to rebrand the area as the Piano District and build out an upscale art scene in the shadow of two new luxury high-rise apartment buildings, comprising 1,200 units between them.

If the Piano District takes hold, Mott Haven stands to be the latest in a torrent of rapidly gentrifying New York City neighborhoods.

"[There] are already people living here who have lived here for decades. There is already culture here." — Mitsu Hadeishi

Needless to say, many South Bronx residents are not happy.

"The idea of rebranding an area that already has a name gives the impression that the developers look at the Bronx as an uninhabited wasteland, ready for colonization," Mitsu Hadeishi, a South Bronx-based artist and co-founder of the gallery BronxArtSpace, told Mic. "[There] are already people living here who have lived here for decades. There is already culture here."

Members of the BxArts Factory, a local arts advocacy organization who would only speak to Mic as a collective, added, "We can't speak for the entire community, but we do believe that a majority of the community feels frustrated by the way their needs are frequently ignored by developers."

Matters got worse when Rubenstein hosted a Halloween party on Oct. 29 in a warehouse in the neighborhood of Port Morris. The event featured an installation by multimedia artist Lucien Smith called "Macabre Suite," and the theme of the night was "The Bronx Is Burning" — a detail not lost on residents who understood the reference.

The party reportedly featured bullet-ridden cars and burning trashcans, nods to a tumultuous time in Bronx history. In addition to birthing what would become known as hip-hop culture, the Bronx of the middle of the last century was marked by extreme poverty and an epidemic of arson and other building fires. Much of the borough burned to the ground between 1970 and 1980, leaving 44 census tracts with more than half their buildings reduced to rubble.

"There it is, ladies and gentlemen," said Howard Cosell, a sports announcer calling the 1977 World Series at the Bronx's Yankee Stadium, in an apocryphal remark made after a fire broke out at an abandoned school nearby during a game. "The Bronx is burning."

The Bronx, July 14, 1977
Source: HG/AP

In many ways, that legacy is still felt today. The South Bronx is persistently ranked among the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and has been called the poorest congressional district in the nation. Anxiety around gentrification is growing evermore pronounced for residents, as Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens become increasingly unaffordable for young professionals.

In this context, Rubenstein's Port Morris party — which attracted the presence of models Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, actor Adrien Brody, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony and others — was a stark change of scenery for many. Some saw it as an insult.

"It was frustrating to many South Bronx residents and all residents of the Bronx because it displayed a lack of empathy to the people who lived through the fires of the '70s and '80s," Karen Pedrosa, a Bronx native and artist who works under the name KayLove, told Mic. "For the many families who do not leave and lost family members, neighbors and businesses this was a mockery of what they endured."

According to Sarah Kendzior, a writer and scholar based in St. Louis, the use of art in this context can have more sinister connotations. In May 2014, Kendzior published an essay for Al Jazeera called "The Peril of Hipster Economics," where she examined developers' attempts to erase urban blight through art and how the process paves the way for gentrifiers.

"Urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticized," she wrote of this phenomenon. "Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people."

She added:

"In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout ... to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighborhood is 'cleaned up' through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in 'urban life' — the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit — while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced."

Kendzior told Mic the "Bronx Is Burning" party was a clear example. 

"There's a gap here between artists and the community or place it's supposed to represent," she said in an email. "I think people have a nostalgia for a grittier, destitute New York, but without compassion for the people who live there. They're turning hardship into art in a trivial way. Art can have a powerful political impact, but [those who make it] have to show sensitivity and compassion for those who suffered from it."

This sentiment is echoed by Bronx creatives as well. 

"It is the responsibility of all Bronx artists to take a stand on issues that affect the community we live in and serve," Pedrosa, the artist KayLove, said. "Art is often used as a launching platform for gentrification and, unfortunately, many times we are used as pawns if we allow it. We must create art that speaks out against displacement, fresh air and the lack of resources the community is given."

Members of the community are already pushing back. Pedrosa launched the hashtag #WhatPianoDistrict shortly after the party to draw attention to Bronx residents' opposition. The Piano District billboard at Bruckner Boulevard and the Third Avenue Bridge was defaced in early November using large splotches of paint.

"My hopes are that the developers, politicians and civic leaders take notice and address the needs of the people who already live here because there is no new Bronx," Pedrosa said. "Our history is what made us who we are and they cannot erase us."