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Documentary Project Will Literally Shed Light on the South Bronx

“It’s not just going to be, hopefully, thought-provoking and beautiful, but also useful for the community.”

Ed Alvarez of the Bronx Photo League photographed this meeting at the Bronx Christian Charismatic Church for the Claremont Illuminated project. (Photo: Ed Alvarez courtesy Bronx Photo League)

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This summer, empty spaces in the Claremont Village section of the South Bronx will be lit up at night with images of community life.

The images are already being captured by at least a dozen photographers, says Rhynna Santos, coordinator of the Bronx Photo League and a member of the Bronx Documentary Center, which is presenting the project, called Claremont Illuminated. Once the photographers are done shooting, the Center will work with the artist Ethan Vogt to create illuminations that will be projected on to empty spaces, like vacant lots or public stairwells. The illuminations may range from projected digital photos to lit-up prints to audio and video interviews—whatever technology will allow, Santos says.

Some of the artists are focusing on senior citizens living in the extensive public housing projects in the neighborhood. Others are zooming in on community health issues, or schools, or fatherhood, or, as Santos says, “the horrible issue of rats.”

“It’s functional art,” says Santos. “It’s not just going to be, hopefully, thought-provoking and beautiful, but also useful for the community.”

The combined public art and street lighting project is one of seven proposals to receive funding this month through the Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact, an outgrowth of New York’s first comprehensive cultural plan, called CreateNYC. Selected organizations get $50,000 from the Department of Cultural Affairs, plus $25,000 in either cash or in-kind support from a partner city agency, including the Departments of City Planning, the Department of Probation, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. In all, it adds up to $500,000 in city support for diverse cultural organizations in far-flung New York neighborhoods.

And that was always the goal of CreateNYC. Under the de Blasio administration, New York has been reexamining the way it funds cultural activity, which it has done since the 19th century. As part of that re-examination, the city has begun to collect data on the diversity of boards and workforces at the city’s major cultural institutions, and has plans to tie future funding to diversity goals. The senior staffs of the city’s biggest cultural organizations are much less diverse than the city as a whole, according to the plan. Creating partnerships between city government and smaller organizations is a way for the city to broaden its support for culture beyond the theaters and museums that have national reputations.

Other cultural impact grantees include a bilingual theater project for Spanish-speaking youth, literary programming for people on probation and their neighbors, a dance project focused on preventing teen violence, and a reading program that will connect the National Book Foundation with the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development. The city also recently announced four new public artists in residence focused on social issues from domestic violence to discrimination.

“Mother and Child,” another image that will be part of the Claremont Illuminated project. (Photo: Adeline Lulo, courtesy of Bronx Photo League)

“The basic lens of the entire thing had to do with equity and inclusion,” says Tom Finkelpearl, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

CreateNYC involved more than 400 public meetings and 188,000 online comments from New Yorkers. What the department learned in the process was that residents want arts and culture in every corner of the city, Finkelpearl says. And pairing city agencies that are working to achieve various social outcomes with cultural groups that are deeply involved in communities “puts theory together with practice.” Artists and cultural organizations have a way of “thinking around corners,” Finkelpearl says, and also sometimes have communication skills that government agencies don’t have.

For the Claremont Illuminated project, Bronx Documentary Center is partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. The project will improve community safety while highlighting community challenges. Santos says the project is intended to “give the community a voice” while also lighting up areas of Claremont Village that are simply too dark.

“It’s this thing that art can do,” says Finkelpearl. “It delivers important ideas in maybe a softer way than city government does sometimes.”

The artists documenting Claremont Village are using a wide range of media, from film and digital photography to audio and video interviews. They started shooting last summer, and are hoping to get illuminations up around the neighborhood in June.

“When you show people, respectfully, how they are seen, it really has an effect,” Santos says.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: new york cityarts and culturepublic safety

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