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Spotlight on the Arts in Communities

Bronx Music Heritage Center

Through Spotlight on the Arts in Communities, MAS will highlight the organizations and individuals making New York City a more livable city through arts and cultural work.  We invited the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) to contribute the inaugural post for this new series on the MAS blog.

WHEDco has worked for twenty years to build a more beautiful, equitable and economically vibrant Bronx. Reaching over 35,000 people annually, WHEDco employs a holistic approach that includes developing and operating affordable, green housing; providing early childhood education, youth development and family support services; advancing community and economic development; and promoting the role of arts and culture in fostering vibrant communities. 

Disinvestment in the Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s destroyed many performance venues, devastating the music scene, and making access to arts and cultural programming more scarce. With its soon to be opened Bronx Music Heritage Center (BMHC), WHEDco will provide arts programming and restore pride of place by channeling the dynamic music history of the borough. Read more about the BMHC in WHEDco’s blogpost below. 

Highlighting a Forgotten Music Legacy to Spur Arts-Based Community Development 

The New York Times recently reported that for the first time since WWII, the Bronx’s population has grown, reflecting the revitalization slowly taking place across the borough.  Some areas, like the South Bronx, are still working to recover from the catastrophic legacy of the 1970’s when disinvestment and arson devastated the area, so this statistic is good news: it shows that people increasingly see the Bronx as home.

Despite this progress, ghosts of the past loom large, leaving many residents with a lingering feeling that they live in a bad place.  But shared memory can also be a source of pride.  What longtime Bronx residents know, and what many newer residents have yet to discover, is that the area’s history wasn’t always so dire.  In fact, the South Bronx was once home to one of the world’s most vibrant cultural communities.

A haven for new immigrant populations since the early 1900s, the Bronx became a melting pot where music and culture were shared.  From the 1940s to the 1970s, new types of music grew when Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Puerto Ricans converged in the South Bronx among Irish, Italian, and Jewish European immigrants.  Cutting-edge musicians like Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Tito Puente, Machito, the Chantals, and others launched their careers in the borough.  Jazz, bebop, mambo, salsa and R&B emanated from hundreds of clubs and street corners.  Even in the 1970s, as the Bronx burned, a new generation of local innovators – Grandmaster Flash, Cold Crush Brothers, and others – sparked the hip hop movement.

This incredible history – and the recollection of it among Bronxites and music fans across the globe – can be a powerful “secret weapon” for community development.  Yet there has never been a central, public place to share and learn about the Bronx’s rich musical history.  That’s why in 2010, with the help of Bronx musicians, historians, and educators, the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp. (WHEDco) founded the Bronx Music Heritage Center (BMHC) as an outgrowth of 20 years of community development work in the South Bronx.

The BMHC will be situated within a new housing and mixed-use development WHEDco is building in the Melrose neighborhood, and will feature a performance space, recording studios, and Bronx cultural archives.  It will be a hub for celebrating the music genres that came about through the Bronx’s cross-cultural fusions and support the creation of new sounds. The BMHC will be a cultural destination for outsiders and a source of pride and economic growth for the local community. By creating a home for Bronx culture, we are drawing on local assets to empower residents, create opportunity and re-educate people about what the Bronx means to us all.

Until the permanent complex opens in 2016, the BMHC is presenting arts programing at a “laboratory” space in a WHEDco storefront located in Crotona Park East – and helping to activate another neighborhood that is coming back to life with revived retail spaces and new residential buildings.

The arts is already driving revivals in other parts of the South Bronx, like Mott Haven and Hunts Point, where a growing number of artists are collaborating with environment activists and community organizers to transform their neighborhoods with striking public art and lively festivals and performances.  The BMHC will expand the scope and reach of this arts renaissance, restoring memory of the Bronx’s cultural legacy to renew place-based pride and, ultimately, accelerate the borough’s return to greatness.