Facing a rent increase, it seemed last month that Barnes & Noble would close the only book store serving the 1.4 million residents of the Bronx. Thanks to the public outcry and the leadership of Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. the book store will stay open for at least another two years.
But the episode is another reminder that when it comes to cultural resources, the Bronx still lags far behind other boroughs. Museums and gallery spaces are few, and even movie theatres are rare north of the Harlem River.
It was not always this way. Once, the Bronx teemed with arts and—most especially—music from around the world, in almost every neighborhood. Latin jazz, salsa, doo wop, and hip hop were created or cultivated here, at world-famous venues like the Tropicana, Freddie’s, the Embassy Ballroom or Club 845, at countless small clubs and concerts in the streets. Artists from Willie Colon to hip-hop innovator DJ Kool Herc got their start here.
Then, during the urban decay and disinvestment of the 70s and 80s, the clubs and larger venues closed, arts and music programs were cut from schools, and today, many of the communities that gave birth to world-famous musicians, and even entire genres of music, are now starved of places to see or take part in live music performance.
The Bronx Music Heritage Center was conceived celebrate this artistic legacy and to bring live music back to our neighborhoods. In 2015, we will break ground on the BMHC’s expanded, permanent home in Melrose, part of the Bronx Commons development that will feature more than 270 affordable apartments, 15 percent of which will be dedicated to aging musicians. Other groups like DreamYard, Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, and the Bronx Documentary Center, are working hard to bring other art forms back to the Bronx.
There are reasons for optimism. After years of cuts, Mayor de Blasio has increased funding for public libraries, and steered millions toward teaching the arts in public schools. But there is much more that needs to be done. According to an April report from Comptroller Scott Stringer, nearly half of all the New York City public schools that lack certified arts teachers are located in either the South Bronx or Central Brooklyn, despite growing evidence that arts education can help boost overall academic achievement.
The mayor has also rightly focused on the urgent need to build and preserve affordable housing. Creating sustainable, thriving communities is about more than buildings. Without access to cultural resources—from libraries and bookstores, to museums and galleries, to concert halls—we cannot create healthy neighborhoods. These local institutions not only educate and entertain, they instill community pride and participation, and bring neighborhoods together.
As the overwhelming response to the threatened book store shows, Bronx residents want access to books and other cultural resources. But we must recognize that building and sustaining them in low-income communities takes real investment—and the city, state, and federal government must all do more to play their part.
The Bronx has made tremendous progress in recent years, advances we are right to celebrate. But we must keep working until every resident here can find a book, see a film, and go to a concert or museum in their own neighborhood.