These were just some of the words I kept hearing throughout what many consider to have been the event of the year and perhaps the new century for the Bronx. The event presented by No Longer Empty – the non profit entity that converts empty spaces into art exhibits and connects them to their neighborhoods is “This Side of Paradise” and has transformed the old Andrew Freedman Home on the Grand Concourse into a veritable art scene.
The evening began as I had gathered the troops and we walked over to the Home from my neighborhood. As we approached the massive palazzo, I began to feel a bit anxious for I knew that this evening would be one of the most important in the borough’s history and I wanted it to go smoothly. Here was one of the borough’s grandest buildings that sat so forbidding with its gates for so many years as myself and residents alike always wondered what the history of the building was – which we eventually found out that it was a retirement for the formerly wealthy so that they continue to live in the lifestyle in which they were accustomed to. But that all went out the window as I saw so many people walking in through the front gates of the estate. Ladies and gentlemen wearing period costumes of Prohibition speakeasy era greeted visitors or were seen carefully dusting the gates and signage. Later on through the evening, I noted that dozens upon dozens of ladies and some gents who were just visiting were also garbed in the fashion of the Roaring 20’s as they were getting into the spirit of the Home and the fundraiser at the end of the night.
As I walked through the gates and stepped off the Grand Concourse and onto the grounds of this imposing limestone beauty it was as if I stepped back into time. Already there was a substantial crowd on the front steps, milling about, socializing with drinks in hand. The people were a great, diverse mix of backgrounds and as colorful a palette as the colors of the exhibit indoors. A true representation of the rich, ethnic diversity found throughout the Bronx was well reflected in the throngs attending this opening reception.
We walked through the front doors – gorgeous masterpieces in their own right, and the sheer number of people was overwhelming. Literally hundreds could immediately be seen walking about this way or that trying to get from one room to another. Working our way through the crowd and rooms on the ground floor, we made it to the beautifully appointed bed and breakfast located in the south wing where we learned that you can stay in a room exam for as little as $125 per night.
After leaving the bed and breakfast wing we made our way towards the stairs to ascend to the second floor where all the buzz was with over 30 rooms all designed in their own unique way by each artist. The exhibits beautifully tie in the past history of the Andrew Freedman Home with the present realities of the Bronx. Outside one of the rooms was a board with the original keys to some rooms, along with the names of the former residents of the retirement home of the formerly wealthy who had fallen on hard times. Walking through the halls, you could feel the air thick with history, lore and perhaps the ghosts of some of the original residents walked along with us too.
Photographer Lisa Kahane of Fashion Moda fame who documented the South Bronx during the 80s with riveting photography that showed how bad things were during that dark era, is one of the many artists that you will find here.
Room 246, designed by Silvia Plachy, a photojournalist who had once visited the Andrew Freedman Home over 30 years ago, recreated the room to feel as it had back in the days when she was documenting its storied past. Once again you get that feeling of traveling in time when you walk into her exhibit with furnishings and personal effects of the artist that pertain to that period. While in Room 246 we spotted her son, Academy Award winner, Adrien Brody who was taking in the opening reception and enjoying his mother’s work.
Our very own Bronx Documentary Center has a chilling display where a documentary by the late war photojournalist Tim Hetherington who was killed in the line of duty, is shown on a wall of a room that was created to make you feel as if you were in the middle of action. To say that it made a profound impact and connection with these unsung heroes who risk their lives daily to report the truth is an understatement.
By 8pm, which was closing time of the exhibit upstairs, the crowds had no sign of dwindling. In fact, my friend, Danisha Nazario who was just leaving the event quickly sent a text message stating that, “… TONS of people are begging to be let in – LITERALLY!” She later told us that a second security guard was posted at the entrance of the stairs to prevent anyone from getting in. This was confirmed as well made our way down and saw the hundreds of people still waiting to get in – all disappointed that it was closed too early. No one had anticipated the well over a thousand people who came last night, certainly not No Longer Empty for had they imagined the turn out would be so huge we’re sure the hours would have been extended. Perhaps they underestimated the thirst Bronxites have for the arts?
The evening ended with the fundraiser in the north wing’s ballroom, complete with a latin band playing the dulcet tones of salsa and love ballads. The air was charged with dancing and merry making as the visitors mingled with those alive and the ghosts of residents past who once walked the halls of this mansion. It was a night full of who’s who of Bronx society, every other minute being stopped by acquaintances, friends and colleagues. Beaming with pride were not so much the artists but Bronx residents who came out in full force to support our borough’s moment in the limelight. For many, it felt that finally, our time out of obscurity and darkness had arrived.
This is an exhibit that you should allow yourself ample time to experience and absorb. Should you not be able to fit it all in one day as it happened with me, fret not for it runs straight through June 5th, 2012 so you’ll be able to enjoy this free adventure on multiple visits. You can visit the Andrew Freedman Home on Thursdays through Sunday from 1pm – 7pm. (hours extended on days with special events).
As I stepped off the estate of this grand palazzo and onto the Grand Concourse, the glitter strewn sidewalk gleamed in the street and moonlight as if paved with gold.