A show hits the road to explore a changing Hunts Point

‘Provenance of Beauty’ asks what South Bronx’s revival means to residents

By Sasha Wortzel

THE PROVENANCE OF BEAUTY. from Sunder Ganglani on Vimeo.

Hunts Point resident John Tyson maintains that the South Bronx is a place to be proud of. He didn’t always feel this way.

“The Bronx now is a beautiful place. It’s a nice community,” says Tyson, a construction worker, as he gestures towards a row of well-kept brick houses lined with young trees on Longwood Avenue. “We didn’t have this back then. We had vacant lots, burned up buildings. All of this was abandoned, but it’s coming up.”

Julio Lebron, who calls himself “Lebron from the Bronx,” agrees. “Back in the 70s, the South Bronx looked like the wild west,” he says.

The changing landscape of the South Bronx is not only a topic of conversation among residents, but is also at the center of a new theatrical production from the Foundry Theatre called “The Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue.” The show takes people on a bus ride through Hunts Point and Longwood, as well as Mott Haven, to see the neighborhoods as they were and as they are, with the help of the people who live in them.

“One perception of the South Bronx was stuck in the 1970s,” says poet and playwright Claudia Rankine who grew up in the Eastchester section in the Northeast Bronx. “But throughout the 90s, there was a renewal by the people who lived there. That story was not being told.”

The performance highlights the people who stayed through the hard times. It salutes the role they have played in the revitalization of the South Bronx, while pondering whether this rebirth will lead to gentrification.

The audience boards the bus in East Harlem, crosses the Willis Avenue Bridge, and is taken on a 90-minute tour, guided over headphones by voices, both live and recorded, that share personal stories and provide historical background.

Rankine and the production’s director, Melanie Joseph, began the process of developing the show simply by speaking with residents. They set up interviews with local artists who took them on their own tours, sharing places of significance.

“We became fascinated. People were showing us all these paradoxical and odd sites, and the story began to tell itself,” Rankine says.

The bus idles by The Point on Garrison Avenue, its walls covered with murals by Tat’s Cru. When it pauses at Barretto Point Park, the narration notes that the city spent millions to build it, yet there is no public transportation to get there and at times the air is so thick with ghastly smells from the nearby NYOFCo fertilizer plant and the Hunts Point sewer plant next door that people are forced to stay away.

The tour draws attention to the jail barge and the parking lot of the nearby Fulton Fish Market where the city wants to build a larger jail to take the barge’s place.

The bus also drives slowly through the Longwood Historic District. The audience gazes at the well-maintained blocks through the windows and at images on monitors of the same streets in ruins during the 1970s.

“At one time you couldn’t even sell one of those brownstones,” remarked Anthony Dickinson, a Hunts Point resident. “Now you can’t even buy one.”

Also highlighted on the tour is the American Bank Note Building, known locally as the Penny Factory, but recently rechristened BankNote by the developers who purchased it. The voice of a narrator notes that its new owners aim to transform the space into the “cultural and commercial hub” of the region. Meanwhile, rising rents are pushing artists and other long-time tenants out of the building.

Mareno Morales, age 73, says he read about the BankNote in the Daily News. He believes that Hunts Point is being built up for the rich.

“Our renewal has set in motion gentrification,” the guide’s voice tells the bus riders.

Two microphones attached to the outside of the bus bring sounds from the street to the passengers, so the feel of the show is affected day to day by real people and events. On a rainy day, there may be few people out and about, but on a clear day, bus riders may be pulled into an impassioned baseball game.

One audience member, Ray Wofsy, a former high school teacher who lives in Brooklyn, had only been to the Bronx a handful of times. “The way the play addressed me helped me to see a connection between myself and this place,” he said. “It felt like a very safe and almost consumerist way to become familiar with a place, but now I do feel like I have some knowledge.”

Just as the bus in “Provenance” is in motion, so is the South Bronx. The performance argues: Neighborhoods are always evolving.

For Jeanine Wiggins, who works in the neighborhood as an MTA station agent, contends, “The South Bronx to me can be anything you want it to be. This is a place where you can unwind and eat out and have a great time. It can be a place of refuge after a long day at work to a place where you have family and friends.”

As the character of the South Bronx changes, she is sure of one thing: “This is a place where I’d like to be always.”

A version of this story appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Hunts Point Express.

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