In a bright white gallery just off the Third Avenue Bridge in the South Bronx, barely decipherable beats bumped under the chatter of a crowd surveying an all-star roster of portraits. Missy Elliott stared straight on from behind a glassed-in frame, hands crossed in thought; a black-and-white Nas bowed his head, holding a dove in each open palm; and a lone, zoomed-in chin was instantly recognizable as Snoop Dogg’s.
With a flash of their gold paper wristbands, the gallery’s anointed guests were whisked past a colossal bouncer into a room full of VIPs biting shrimp and fried chicken off of toothpicks. They were here to celebrate the opening of a retrospective by the hip-hop photographer Jonathan Mannion.
“Yasiin is out eating,” announced a man wearing Hood By Air sweatpants and a gold septum ring—that would be Yasiin Bey, the musician and actor formerly known as Mos Def. He’s a partner in the gallery, known as the Compound, which could work at once to embrace and erase the neighborhood’s cultural fabric.
Opened in mid-September by Set Free Richardson (or “Free,” as he’s more commonly known), the Compound intends to showcase the arts of hip-hop culture, including mediums like graffiti and streetwear, with a goal of impressing their value upon an art establishment that has, until now, largely excluded them.
While some street artists have previously broken into the mainstream art world—Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, most famously, in the 1980s—Richardson hopes to catalyze a broader embrace of “street” mediums among collectors by consecrating hip-hop and its accompanying art forms in the borough where they were born.
“I want to stop the segregation in art galleries, [and] help everybody get looked at as an equal from the start,” says Richardson. “If the Compound can grab some emerging artists and say, ‘This is the next person,’ it would be a dream come true.”
Richardson, a longtime connector in the hip-hop world, has plenty of experience spinning artistic ventures into commercial success. After working as an emcee in the 1990s, he took a job at the a basketball apparel label And1, where he embarked on a creative project setting streetball highlight reels to music. That experiment would become the And1 Mixtapes, the wildly popular series that, after its launch in 1998, would come to define the cutting edge in the worlds of basketball, hip-hop, street fashion, wrapping them all into one unified culture.
The Mixtape series created celebrities of local street players and placed emerging hip-hop talent—Mos Def appeared early on—alongside greats like Snoop Dogg. It also came to symbolize a commercial inflection point, exposing basketball fans to new music, hip-hop fans to And1’s lines, and sneaker aficionados to new on-court icons, leveraging the cultural influence of each industry to an amplifying effect in the others. One of the first campaigns of its kind, the Mixtape series laid the foundation for the cross-vertical celebrity sponsorship culture that’s prevalent today.
Richardson has continued to usher this advertising style into the mainstream. After leaving And1 in 2005, he pursued independent projects aligning brands with hip-hop stars’ cultural capital. Take the 2011 Uggs ad in which Tom Brady struts to Mos Def’s “Twilite Speedball.” Or the 2016 Jim Jones and Joey Bada$$ song, “Lost Ones,” commissioned in partnership with Magnum condoms.
To solidify his grasp on both the creative community and his world of advertisers, Richardson moved from Philadelphia to Mott Haven in 2008, where he established a studio, also called the Compound. There, in a veritable playroom where a Supreme beaded curtain separates a sitting area from artfully shelved Nikes and KAWS figurines, he would assemble his creative collaborators to record studio tracks, shoot photos, and spitball ideas—an apt setting for meetings with ad executives willing to take the train to the Bronx.
While the original Compound remains open, the Compound Gallery constructs a new arena for Richardson to exercise his skills in packaging hip-hop culture for consumption by the uninitiated. And its location in the South Bronx makes it even more interesting.
In the 1970s, the Bronx was, as they say, burning. White flight, urban decay, and arson at the hands of landlords changed the landscape of the borough, which was underserved by basic public resources like firefighting and law enforcement. Gang culture thrived where opportunity had vanished.
At the same time, DJs Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash were pioneering the techniques of breakbeats, cutting and back spinning at block parties thrown by The Black Spades gang. Those skills and their accompanying dance styles quickly became popular, and sensing a need for a creative alternative to gang activity, Bambaataa morphed the Black Spades into a hip hop collective called the Zulu Nation, offering an opportunity for his peers to construct identities around art, rather than violence. Together, the group defined the four pillars of hip hop—rapping, deejaying, breakdancing, and graffiti—and a genre was born.
Today, the birthplace of hip hop is rapidly changing. While gradual urban renewal has been underway since the 1980s, the last 10 years have seen high-rent residential developments welcome their first tenants, with many others breaking ground. Nearby, new bars, boutiques, and restaurants are poised to accommodate the new residents to come.
If the neighborhood’s shift is visible outside The Compound Gallery, which is flanked by a shiny new espresso shop on one side and a gastropub on the other, it was even more pronounced on the guest list at its opening in September. One notable presence was the gallery’s landlord, Keith Rubenstein, a founder of Somerset Partners, the real estate company that has spearheaded a forthcoming seven-tower, 70 percent market-rate development nearby on the banks of the Harlem River. Somerset recently sold that site to another large developer, Brookfield Properties; both companies sponsored the gallery’s opening.
Rubenstein and his company have a complicated history in the neighborhood. In 2015, they attempted (and failed) to rebrand Mott Haven as the more suit-friendly “Piano District.” As part of the effort, they hosted an event that’s become known as the “Bronx Is Burning” party, an A-list affair that placed shot-out cars and trash can fires in a derelict piano factory that Somerset would later demolish to make way for the new waterfront development.
The event was met with widespread scrutiny, notably from Melissa Mark-Viverito, then-Speaker of the New York City Council, who represented Mott Haven at the time.
Despite the complicated optics, many local businesses have accepted investments from Somerset, including the new South BoX boxing gym and Nobodys Pizza, an offshoot of the Bronx streetwear brand Famous Nobodys. The stars behind those businesses—boxing champion Eric Kelly at the former, and former NBA star Carmelo Anthony at the latter—both attended The Compound’s opening, and Anthony has since been named a Compound Strategic Partner. One more Somerset investment, a locally owned Puerto Rican fusion restaurant called Empanology, hosted the after-party.
A common thread between these businesses is their embrace of the Bronx’s culture—its history, its stylings, and its people. But as they proffer their cultural artifacts in spaces that you might as easily find in Soho, underwritten by a developer whose projects are actively driving up the neighborhood’s rents (Rubenstein also recently established a new residential brokerage in the Bronx to fill the new units), there’s a fear that they’re packaging only the romantic parts of Bronx history to sell to new residents who have never faced hardship, and will likely displace those who have.
Questions of ownership aside, some community activists see these businesses as offering amenities—regardless of their funding sources—in a neighborhood that hasn’t provided its long-term residents with jobs, facilities or, broadly, reasons to stay.
“I wish that when the Bronx was burning, people had thought about how to create wealth and business opportunities for the people there, but they didn’t,” says Majora Carter, a MacArthur-award-winning urban revitalization strategist in the Bronx. “Where else do people get financing?” Drawing on her experience opening the borough’s first Birch Coffee and helping FreshDirect relocate their facility to the neighborhood, she added, “We should be thinking about how to expand options in our communities rather than accepting poverty as a cultural attribute.”
In the short term, however, the price points of these new businesses can be inaccessible to many current South Bronx residents, from the $6.50 dirty chai at Double Dutch Espresso to the $150 Moët & Chandon bottle service at Nobodys Pizza. The Compound is no exception. For comparison, nearly 28 percent of the borough’s residents live in poverty, with the per capita income at $19,721; the median household income in the borough is $36,593. Mannion photos on the night of the Compound’s opening sold for up to $20,000.
Still, the infusion of newcomers’ cash feels promising to borough-born business owners. “In the words of Jay Z, we’re playing Monopoly with real cash,” says Alfredo Anguiera, a Bronx native and co-owner of the hip-hop-themed restaurant Beatstro, which catered the Compound party. “If I don’t do it, who is going to?”
Indeed, whereas other neighborhoods have gentrified in a way that simply displaces long-term residents, The Bronx is making stronger moves to “gentefy”—developing new, higher-priced businesses owned by locals.
And Rubenstein is leading the charge. Building on his current portfolio, he recently announced a $200 million South Bronx investment fund under the new federal tax law’s “opportunity zone” provision, intended to support small businesses and new residential developments.
Encouraging as it may be to see locals to profit from shifts in their neighborhoods, money in the hands of a few business owners is not money in the hands of all.
Notably missing from the Compound’s guest list were neighborhood residents without high profiles—those who don’t own restaurants, haven’t won sports championships, or haven’t produced a Grammy-winning album. Bodega workers down the street haven’t heard of the gallery, and neither had a handful of young men outside the public housing complex half a mile north.
Blanka Amezkua, who runs a nearby space for Bronx-based art and community involvement called AAA3A, attempted to visit the weekend after the opening, but was unable to do so. “I called them, they have no hours on their site, it’s very difficult to [visit]... They feel like they’re not open to the general public and that’s just very discouraging.”
Richardson confirms that the Compound will show by appointment only. “We are a business,” he says, “so we do want to sell some work.”
Every time a new business opens in a developing area, it’s natural to wonder who it’s for. Richardson insists that the gallery is for everybody, but its opening hours indicate otherwise.
A Compound that’s open to the public would be a beacon, creating a space for the local community to celebrate its own cultural value. But in limiting public access, the gallery makes its case only to the historic arbiters of worth: people with money.
Back in the VIP room at the opening, Mandy Aragones, the Bronx-born wife and manager of the rapper Slick Rick, was meditating on the state of the neighborhood. “This is the new area,” she said, pausing to consider her words. “I want it to grow, but without pushing out these people.” Asked how that might work, her voice dropped: “That, I don’t know.”
For details on upcoming shows at the Compound, visit their website, and reserve an appointment by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.