What started as two people talking about how to spend $2,200 to improve the atmosphere of a bleak urban space, resulted in a vibrant public arts project that is now valued at $50,000, attracted a visit from a Supreme Court Justice, and, most importantly, has spurred pride and positive engagement in its neighborhood.
Eliezer Rodriguez, Association Executive of the Bronx-Manhattan North Association of REALTORS® (BMAR) explains that he’d learned about the REALTOR® Party’s Placemaking Grant program at a Smart Growth training seminar at the National Association of REALTORS®. “My immediate reaction was ‘Of course! Why wouldn’t we?!'” he recalls, upon hearing about the modest grants intended to create places to bring people together. He reached out to several Bronx Community Boards, and challenged them to come up with a project in response to the opportunity; one representative sprang forward.
That was William Rivera, then chairman (now district manager) of Bronx Community Board 9, who had already launched an ambitious neighborhood improvement project, the first of its kind in the Bronx. Rivera took Rodriguez to the underused stretch of street adjacent to the Soundview/Morrison Avenue train station that was slated to be developed into a pedestrian plaza, a collaborative project between the New York City Department of Transportation and a neighborhood non-profit, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. “There was this awful-looking wall…” says Rodriguez. Standing there looking at it, they realized it could be transformed into a theater of sorts, projecting a vision that would leave viewers feeling good about where they were.
In fact, decades before, the neighborhood had spawned a number of renowned ‘aerosol artists’ who had gone on to earn international reputations. Though busy and in high demand, the members of TATS CRU were easily persuaded to return home to take on the project, free of charge; BMAR applied for and received a Placemaking grant of $2,200 from the REALTOR® Party for materials; and the mural was soon a work in progress. As Rivera explains, “This particular neighborhood has so much to be proud of: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is from Soundview, and so is hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa. It is distinguished by the subway itself, and by its shaved ice vendors. We asked the artists to celebrate all these elements, and they went to town!”
The community came out in force to support the artists as they worked, watching and cheering every day over a two-week period this past summer as the wall came to life. “The mural is wonderful,” says Rodriguez. “It says, ‘This is your community. These people come from your community. Take pride in it. Preserve it.'” The unveiling of the new work of art coincided with the annual Morrison Avenue Festival in mid-August; in attendance was honored guest Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose likeness is prominently featured on the mural. Rodriguez notes that Soundview’s most famous native daughter spent about an hour at the event, chatting and friendly, and clearly proud of her neighborhood.
Because the mural is highly visible from the train, BMAR has received calls of interest from other local boards and from people who don’t even live in the neighborhood, but who simply travel through on their daily commute. “They see what we’ve done, and ask ‘How do we do this, too?'” says Rodriguez, adding, “I want everyone who made this possible, all REALTORS® across the country, to know that this $2,200 investment in our neighborhood has realized not just a significant monetary value, but incalculable benefits of placemaking and community building. We got so much more than we ever expected from the grant, and we are so grateful!”
On the heels of this success, BMAR has stepped-up its engagement with the community even further: it is now working with a Smart Growth Action Grant from the REALTOR® Party to involve increasing numbers of community stakeholders in planning the development and growth of this Bronx neighborhood.
To learn more about how the REALTORS® of the Bronx-Manhattan North are helping to build pride in their neighborhoods, contact BMAR Association Executive Eliezer Rodriguez, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 718.892.3000.