How the Bronx is Building a Vibrant Literary Community

Five people and organizations supporting writers and readers in New York’s oft-neglected borough

The reputation of the Bronx, New York’s northernmost borough, is often eclipsed by a narrative that includes violence, drugs, and a wave of arson and riots that occurred in the 1970s. But the Bronx is unique. It’s artistic. It’s a place that lifted up some of the best musical artists of our time as well as literary artists: Don DeLillo was a Bronxite. Newly published writers like Lilliam Rivera and Jamel Brinkley have also called the Bronx home. The Bronx is also one of the most diverse areas in the nation.

The Bronx is no longer engulfed in flames—it’s thriving, especially in the literary world thanks to the artist communities showcasing the richness of the area’s heritage and evolution. We cannot and should not ignore the contributions being made to the larger literary canon from this borough. That’s why I wanted to spotlight several people who have been working to increase Bronx representation and offer the communities, most notably communities of color, the opportunity to access work about their hometown but also contribute to the arts.

Charlie Vazquez, Deputy Director, Bronx Council on the Arts

(Charlie Vasquez [photo credit José Ramón])

How Charlie engages the Bronx literary community: Charlie is the Deputy Director at Bronx Council on the Arts (BCA), which has supported the development of artists and art organizations in the borough since 1962. He directs the Bronx Writers Center program there, which has served local writers since being formed in 1996. ​Events are free and open to the public!

When you think of the Bronx what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

How rich our culture is! The Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop as well as home to many arts and culture institutions such as our Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos Community College, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, BronxArtSpace, the Andrew Freedman Home, Bronx Music Heritage Center, Poe Park Visitor Center (adjacent to the legendary writer’s final residence), BAAD! (Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance), and Pregones Theater — are just a few. The Bronx’s creative legacy has been informed and deepened by the diverse groups of immigrants who’ve settled here as well as through the efforts of cultural leaders serving some of the nation’s poorest districts. The Bronx is a people-of-color/immigrant-majority county.

The Bronx’s creative legacy has been informed and deepened by the diverse groups of immigrants who’ve settled here as well as through the efforts of cultural leaders serving some of the nation’s poorest districts.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve noticed people don’t realize about the Bronx?

How green it is. I was born and raised here in the 1970s and 1980s, during the burning buildings era people still think of. And although I didn’t grow up in the South Bronx, where the majority of the devastation occurred, I witnessed the heroin, AIDS, and crack epidemics firsthand. Bronxites are survivors who’ve contended with negative stigmas for most of our lives. The Bronx is also the greenest of New York City’s boroughs despite this. Van Cortlandt Park, Mosholu Parkway, the NY Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo combined with the Pelham Parkway Greenway that runs all the way to Pelham Bay Park, has sustained urban wildlife in the borough since its very beginnings.

What can the literary community do to support you and the Bronx?

The best way for anyone to support arts and culture activities in the Bronx is to make a donation to Bronx Council on the Arts. No gift is too small and will go directly toward the various artist services and public programs we provide year-round to under-resourced communities being targeted for development. This puts countless artists at risk! Our programs include art exhibits at our Longwood Art Gallery @ Hostos, Bronx Writers Center events, and various project funding grants we award yearly to an average of 75 community-based arts initiatives, bringing the arts to the people. You can help out here or sign up for our newsletter to learn more about our amazing exhibits, workshops, and offerings here.

What’s next for you and Bronx Council on the Arts?

BCA has an amazing new executive director, Viviana Bianchi, as well as a headquarters under renovation in Westchester Square, which we hope to move into later in 2018 — so lots of change to come. As an author I’m wrapping up a new supernatural mystery novel and short story collection set in Puerto Rico.

Saraciea Fennell, Book Publicist and Founder of Bronx Book Festival

(Saraciea Fennell [photo credit Brandon King])

How Saraciea engages the Bronx literary community: Saraciea is bringing a book festival to the Bronx on Saturday, May 19. Her dream is for Bronxites to discover a love for reading and to engage with authors, illustrators, and creatives. The Bronx isn’t burning anymore, the Bronx is reading! It’s never too late to cultivate a culture of reading. The festival will also host school visits on Friday, May 18 via The Bronx is Reading literacy program. Select authors from the festival will visit Title I schools and the festival will provide free copies of their books to students.

When you think of the Bronx what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

When I think of the Bronx, Fordham Road comes to mind. It might seem odd, but walking up and down that area is where I purchased a ton of urban fiction books from street vendors. It’s where I went to pick up books from The Bronx Library Center because my local library had been shutdown.

Places I’d recommend people support:

  • Bronx Library Center — it’s the most beautiful library in the Bronx!
  • Poe Center & Poe Cottage — Named after Edgar Allan Poe, the cottage is a literary landmark. You can’t possibly be a writer living in NYC and not have visited the center and the cottage at least once.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve noticed people don’t realize about the Bronx?

According to the New York Times, “The Bronx remains the poorest county in the state, and one of the poorest in the United States.” And it really is poor. It’s also no coincidence that the borough’s demographic is largely Latinx and Black. There are over 600,000 children and teens living in the Bronx and many don’t read, can’t read, and/or can’t afford books. I’m hoping to change that with the festival and with The Bronx is Reading program.

What can the literary community do to support you and the Bronx?

The literary community can support the Bronx Book Festival by donating to our Kickstarter campaign (launching in mid-February), donating books, following us on social media and spreading the word about the festival.

What’s next for the Bronx Book Festival?

We’re gearing up to launch the Kickstarter campaign. Shortly after that we will release the exciting author line-up!

Yahdon Israel Is Making Literature Camera-Ready

Ron Kavanaugh, Founder/Executive Director of the Literary Freedom Project

How Ron is engaging the Bronx literary community: From its Bronx lair, the Literary Freedom Project (founded in 2004) publishes Mosaic Literary Magazine, one of a handful of Black literary print magazines; creates social engagement lesson plans for high school educators; and presents the Mosaic Literary Conference, an annual event that places literature as the nexus for discussing social and cultural issues that inform and influence its South Bronx community. He is also on the planning committee of the annual Bronx Book Fair (lead by Lorraine Currelley).

Recently, Ron launched a new initiative, One Book One Bronx, as a way to create book clubs throughout the borough. Each would select a book that reflects the culture of its specific community. The goal is to get more families and friends focused on reading together.

He also is the social media manager at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

When you think of the Bronx what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Of course Yankee Stadium is the iconic landmark that everyone thinks of but I see new art spaces as being the next big draw. There’s Hell Gate Arts gallery, BronxArtSpace, Andrew Freedman Home, 6Base, Bronx Documentary Center, Wallworks, Longwood Art Gallery—the list continues to grow. And within walking distance of most of these new spaces are restaurants with eclectic menus: sushi, Italian, Latin, Nigerian, American, and plenty of breweries. The challenge is that there isn’t a critical mass of institutions in close proximity to each other so visits require pre-planning or finding a Bronxite that can help navigate the borough.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve noticed people don’t realize about the Bronx?

Its diversity. We have vibrant Pakistani, Ghanaian, Albanian, Mexican, Dominican, Garifuna, Nigerian, and Puerto Rican. And each community has wonderful international restaurants. There’s an “I like to eat” theme here.

What can the literary community do to support you and the Bronx?

Everyone professes to love paper—subscribe to Mosaic (subscribe to any print literary magazine). Mosaic is full of curated literary content. New York artists such as Nicole Dennis-Benn, Javaka Steptoe, William Melvin Kelley, Jamel Shabazz, Lucille Clifton, and Saeed Jones have all been featured in the magazine. Each issue is also supplemented with a lesson plan focused on cultural and social engagement.

Mosaic, which was founded in 1998, and turns 20 this year. It’s amazing that when you consider all the lit mags that have come and gone Mosaic is still publishing. As readers gravitate to digital and apps, each year becomes more of a challenge. We’re online and have vibrant social platforms but I still believe in print and still see some upside potential—yes, I’m in denial and may need therapy. That said, I think this is the year that I will have to decide to stop printing or find new markets for the print mag. Otherwise it has to be full-on digital, and something will be lost.

Also, folks should get on the train and attend an event in the Bronx. Stop claiming you’re a New Yorker if you never go above 14th St.

Folks should get on the train and attend an event in the Bronx. Stop claiming you’re a New Yorker if you never go above 14th St.

What’s next for you?

Continue to grind. Go to readings, listen for new voices to document. Read more—would love to read more books. Too busy being an admin to just slow down and read consistently. Twenty years in, I’m finally getting close to shaping this organization in a way that’s sustainable. There’s a core of four programs: Mosaic magazine, Mosaic Literary Conference, lesson plans, and One Book One Bronx, that I feel have a comfortable synergy to build on.

Noëlle Santos, Creator of TheLit. Bar

How Noëlle is engaging the Bronx Literary Community: After the sole bookstore remaining in the Bronx closed in 2016, Bronxite Noëlle started a Indiegogo campaign to open what will be the only independent bookstore in the Bronx. She not only met her goal but surpassed it by 25% last March. The bookstore will officially open in Mott Haven this spring. She’s been honored by the New York Yankees Hispanic Heritage Month Community Achievement Award and been a keynote speaker at various business events on crowdfunding. She also hosts a monthly Movers & Shakers book club in the Bronx bringing together readers of books by underrepresented authors.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve noticed people don’t realize about the Bronx?

That we’re home to 10 colleges and thousands of intellectuals. The Bronx is still stigmatized by the fires and urban blight of the 70s, and while we’re still affected by that history, the Bronx is not to be slept on. We have beautiful communities, disproportionately produce talent, and yes, we read.

What can the literary community do to support you and the Bronx?

Pull up for events and support with your dollars to help me show the world what many fail to see/that the Bronx is no longer burning… except with a desire to read.

The Bronx is no longer burning… except with a desire to read.

Project X, a Bronx based arts organization dedicated to elevating and re-centering the Bronx as an artistic hub.

How is Project X engaging the Bronx literary community?

Project X connects Bronx communities to each other through art and collaborative programming. During our October to May Season, we work with and feature artists of all disciplines in a community effort to highlight and safeguard Bronx and Latinx artists. Our monthly slams bring out some of the borough’s best poets and features a Latinx poet in the writing/performance community. Through monthly artistic partnerships as well as our Poetry Slam Series, held every last Thursday, we are producing the first ever certified Bronx reppin’ Slam Team headed to Nationals, 2018.

In addition, Project X partners with Bronx community organizations, venues, and artist collectives to produce community engagement events throughout the year. So far we have hosted a healing workshop/open mic for our communities affected by DACA with Bronx Native, a local clothing company, a health and wellness workshop led by Chef Gabriela Álvarez of Liberation Cuisine, a DJ Party featuring four Bronx-based DJs at Port Morris Distillery, and #PoetsforPuertoRico: The Bronx, a fundraiser for Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Each collaboration not only connects creative and passionate Bronx natives to each other but also invites those outside of the Bronx to witness our community as crucial and sustainable.

When you think of the Bronx what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

How the Bronx uses its spaces to the fullest potential. Across the borough we have all these amazing parks with nonstop art events happening! From Lucy Aponte at Poe Park Visitor Center curating art and writing events throughout the year to Friends of Soundview Park coordinating their annual music festival, Bronx parks are unforgettably unique and artistic and always a community to explore.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve noticed people don’t realize about the Bronx?

People who still believe the Bronx is as devastated as it was in the 1970s, that we are a failed borough and always will be. Even more, people equate the disenfranchisement of the borough to everyone in it, surprised to find out many of us are successful, creative, and educated. The Bronx is nowhere near where it needs to be in 2018, but we are also nowhere near where we were. The essence of the borough is and always will be grit, passion, hustle, and survival. So we won’t ever stop building a better future for ourselves.

The essence of the borough is and always will be grit, passion, hustle, and survival. So we won’t ever stop building a better future for ourselves.

What can the literary community do to support you and the Bronx?

Project X is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization. Donations for the purposes of Project X are tax deductible by law and can be made online here. Specifically we hope to find monthly donors to support our regular programming efforts. As gentrification begins infecting our community, we need the financial backing of our people to keep the Bronx in the hands of Bronx natives.

We want to continue to branch out. We have some strong partnerships already, from ID Studio Theater to the Bronx Museum of the Arts to the Bronx Music Heritage Center but we know there are so many other organizations we haven’t connected to, both in the Bronx and beyond. We need to bring the art to the people, that means partnering and collaborating with similar groups doing important work across the entire city. This also means exploring a diversity of art forms, from film festivals to art galleries we are trying to do it all. We want to support our gente who haven’t been able to access these artistic platforms before and prove that the Bronx has and always will be a hub of artistic creation.

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