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In the Bronx, Art Fills an Abandoned Neighborhood Landmark

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The Old Bronx Borough Courthouse, a NYC Landmark, is now open to the public as part of a new art exhibit by No Longer Empty. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

For the first time in over 35 years, residents of the South Bronx have been invited to revisit the gutted ruins of a neighborhood landmark. This past weekend, the arts group No Longer Empty revealed its latest site-specific installation to the public, throwing open the doors to the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse, which has been boarded up since 1978. Saturday was family day, and the long-unused structure was filled with baby strollers, screaming children, teenagers with pitbulls, and curious locals. The curator of the exhibit was on hand to personally welcome visitors into the building's lobby, while an artist conducted an intense purification ritual around her, pounding herbs into the floor and spraying spirits into the dark corners. Decades of dust, cobwebs, and rubble had been swept aside, and gusts of spring air carried a sense of rebirth through the space.

"It's about bringing in the light and opening the windows," said Lady K Fever, one of the participating artists. "It represents bringing light to a dark space. Because even in the daytime, this place has a dark energy." As word of the exhibit spread through Morrisania and Melrose—the two Bronx neighborhoods that border the courthouse—residents began to trade stories of long-ago weddings, drunk driving arrests, and teenage run-ins that had taken place here. For a community that has only in recent years emerged from the fires, blight, and civic neglect that once scarred the South Bronx landscape, the courthouse's reopening felt a bit like a homecoming. "It's like they are seeing an old family member, long lost," observed Regine Basha, who curated the exhibit for No Longer Empty. "This isn't our building—it belongs to the community. We just set up the structures through which we could listen to the stories."

Just ten years ago, the area surrounding the courthouse was known as a desolate no man's land, undeveloped since the conflagrations of the 1970s. "When I was there in 2004, it was a couple block radius of abandoned buildings and vacant lots," recalled Moses Gates, the author of Hidden Cities: A Memoir of Urban Exploration, who stumbled across "The Grey Lady" while wandering through the Bronx with fellow Urban Explorers Satan's Laundromat and the LTV Squad. "I was just walking down Third Avenue, and there was this giant, beautiful Beaux-Arts courthouse in the middle of nothing," Gates remembered. "It was mid-renovation. It wasn't super abandoned when we were there."

Built between 1905 and 1914 by architects Oscar Bluemner and Michael Garvin, the courthouse was closed down and sealed off in the late 1970s, as schools, churches, and homes in the surrounding area were abandoned and burned. Despite being designated a New York City Landmark in 1981, the renovation of the courthouse has been mired in delays and failed construction schemes ever since. By 2004, several jail cells and a grand staircase were still intact inside the building, but most remnants from its past had been removed. "We didn't find any court stuff, we didn't find any judge's benches or courtroom set-ups, or old seals of the city of New York," said Gates of his visit. "There were a lot of holes in the walls, and it was really beautiful during the day, because there would be these weird streams of sunlight everywhere. Other than that, the building was pretty empty."

Within a few years, even the rusted jail cells would be gone, and a guard dog had been stationed inside, cutting short visits by other Urban Explorers. In 2007, expecting that the courthouse would soon be renovated, the arts group Ars Subterranea decided to hold a funeral for its past, and staged an event inside titled House of the Marble Mistress, where 50 guests were invited to "experience a landmark ruin before the lights come back on." Participants arrived in formal wear, wore masks, smoked cigars, ate strawberry cake, whacked "a piñata in the shape of the building," and roamed freely through the space. "It was a very formal wake for the building," recalled Nate Dorr, a visitor to the event. "There was a casket, actually, and a lot of people in dark suits." After the ceremony, however, the courthouse remained empty and stubbornly undeveloped.

In contrast to these earlier, somewhat private explorations of the building, No Longer Empty's exhibit offers up a much more community-based public art installation. Their group show, titled When You Cut into the Present the Future Leaks Out, features the work of 26 artists, many of them Bronx-based, and the participation of numerous neighborhood groups. The exhibit makes a staggering array of references to the area's colorful cultural heritage, including the Bronx's role in the birth of hip-hop and the popularization of graffiti, the local tradition of Puerto Rican-style casitas, and the renewal of the Bronx River. "This is a mingling of projects specific to the Bronx and more abstract elements," said curator Regine Basha. "Some of it's about storytelling and history, some of it's about communing with the building, and some of it is just pure experiential sensorial immersion into the physicality of the space." Walking through the courthouse today is a playful adventure, with sculpture, light, sound, and film scattered through every available corner of its first three levels.

The exhibit also delves into the troubled past of Melrose and Morrisania, with one piece based on Fort Apache, The Bronx—a controversial 1981 Paul Newman film about urban decay, police brutality and riots that was filmed at the nearby 42nd precinct—and a monumental new sculptural work by Bronx-born artist Abigail DeVille. Partially created from debris found in the building, the work presents a disturbing vision of dismembered body parts, dead Christmas trees, rubble and disorder, and was inspired by the artist's childhood in the ruins that once surrounded the courthouse. "I remember when the Bronx was burning," said one local resident, while considering the new buildings that now circle the courthouse. "It smelled like smoke everyday. There was nothing left around here. Now there are so many buildings we don't even have a place to breathe. There's nowhere left to build."

Perhaps the most poignant piece included in the exhibit is "Growing Older in the South Bronx," a documentary created in 2011 by artist Nicolás Dumit Estévez. This 44-minute video traces out the history of the local community, presenting testimony from a group of senior citizens living at La Casa de la Felicidad, a low-income apartment building just a few blocks from the courthouse. Built in 2006, their home is just one small part of the award-winning Melrose Commons, an impressive community-designed redevelopment project that has replaced empty lots with "a model community of sustainable urban revitalization." This rough-hewn film, screened inside a crumbling neighborhood landmark that somehow survived decades of abuse, fully explores the cycles of aging, death, recovery, renewal, and pride that the Bronx has lived through. Viewing it inside the old Grey Lady, while neighbors wander through, recognizing themselves projected onto the wall, is a powerful experience.

In recent years, a growing number of large-scale site-specific exhibits have been mounted inside similar abandoned or underutilized New York landmarks, including Creative Time's Kara Walker exhibit at the Domino Sugar Refinery, PS1 MoMa's Rockway! exhibit at Fort Tilden, and Come Together: Surviving Sandy at Industry City. Of these exhibits, only No Longer Empty's presentation at the Bronx courthouse has truly succeeded in creating a meaningful connection to its building's history, and in forging important connections with the diverse community nearby. The depth of engagement and layers of reference presented in this exhibit are what other site-specific curators should aspire to. "When You Cut into the Present the Future Leaks Out" will be on view at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse until July 19th, 2015.

On the opening weekend of No Longer Empty's exhibit, the old courthouse was swathed in scaffolding and families were invited inside to explore its first three levels. A temporary graffiti piece created by Bronx-based graffiti artist Lady K Fever was installed outside of the building.

"It's an idea of these forgotten architectural icons," said Lady K, whose piece was inspired by a large sculpture of Lady Justice that was hidden behind the scaffold. "I really love Lady Justice. She is this beautiful goddess. I want people to remember that she is here."

Visitors enter the exhibit through the courthouse lobby, which contains the most intact architectural elements in the building, including original decorative work, pillars, doors, and gates.

Inside the main entry hall, marble columns, tile floors, and other details are still in good condition. Artist Ellen Harvey has installed a collection of over 4,000 postcards from other neo-classical structures here.

A visitor and pitbull examine Harvey's installation of "The Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington D.C.," which sits in a ground-floor room half-filled with piles of leftover building debris.

Down in the basement, several larger installations have replaced piles of debris. In the 2000s, several Urban Explorers found their way into the building here, through darkness and guard dogs.

Abigail DeVille's monumental sculptural installation "...and justice for all?" fills a large section of the basement. "It's like a period piece," said Regine Basha. "She grew up in the Bronx, so she makes installations that are often about her childhood and the environment of that moment."

"I think a lot of the artists were inspired to be here," said Basha. "What happened is that people were coming a lot to the building, and then just exploring around and understanding how this courthouse has been almost like a bookmark in history. We call it the time capsule."

A sound installation deeper into the basement is accessed through a low arch. "The sound artists downstairs spent time banging and listening and seeing what kind of noises the building made and composed from that," said Basha.

The resulting piece, by Daniel Neumann and Juan Betancurth, is a chest-rattling, evocative installation. "We knew that the building in itself was part of the exhibition," said Basha. "It's another character."

On the second floor lobby, Lady K Fever was holding a workshop for families. "Kids running around is totally what it should be," said Moses Gates, when told of the opening day activities. "It's landmarked, so you can't really do a whole heck of a lot with it. You can't really turn it into apartments"

A sound installation by Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere is also installed in the lobby, and explores the history of hip hop and break dancing in the Bronx, with a spoken word narration by B-Girl Rokafella and MC Lady L that includes reference to South Bronx luminaries like Afrika Bambaataa.

One of the only open windows in the entire building became its own installation piece, luring in viewers. "The biggest thing is just the neighborhood is completely changed," observed Moses Gates. "This was really the last place in the South Bronx to get redeveloped."

An affordable housing complex was built across from the courthouse in the last five years, one of many new buildings in the area. "I started working in the neighborhood ten years ago. It felt very very much like a no man's land," said Lady K. "In ten years, it's changed a lot. It's almost like watching them rebuild a community from scratch."

In the meantime, the upper floors of the courthouse remain empty and unused, with little signs of renovation. "We have no idea what's going to happen," said Naomi Hersson-Ringskog, No Longer Empty's executive director. "I hope this doesn't become a bureaucratic depot."

Future plans for the building, which is owned by Henry Weinstein, remain unclear, although many hope it will become a positive part of the community. "No Longer Empty's role is about activating these sites," said Ringskog, who also helped create a 2012 installation that opened up the Bronx's Andrew Freedman Home. "When we take over, it's all an organic process."

A single new window has been constructed on the upper floors of the building, flooding light into this once-dark space. For Regine Basha, reintroducing the neighborhood to the courthouse has been a rewarding experience. "It's been an honor to work with the building and with the neighborhood," she said. "Seeing a lot of happy faces and excited comments… it's really moving to watch."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· No Longer Empty coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]