From Bronx with love

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

In the working-class, poverty ridden New York City borough called the Bronx, violence was king for many decades. There were street gangs, drug addicts, prostitutes, and drifters from all over New York and beyond. They settled in abandoned properties in the bankrupt and decaying district. 

Friends and relatives warned me to stay away from the place when I went on a solo trip to The Big Apple more than a decade ago. 

But the warnings made the district more intriguing to me, so I stubbornly took the train to the area for a quick visit. True enough, Bronx was indeed as what the warnings said it would be – dark, hostile, and somewhat alienating.

Economic development through arts

But the Bronx I saw is much different now, I learned recently, thanks to creative placemaking – an urban renewal of sorts spearheaded by artists – that started in New York in 2010. 

Shepherded by a group called ArtPlace America, creative placemaking is regarded as the use of arts and culture to shape the physical and social character of a place to spur economic development and promote enduring social change. 

It is an artist-led approach to improve cities and communities. 

This movement swept through New York and changed the image of boroughs like the Bronx. 

Music, arts and hip-hop replaced drug trafficking, prostitution and other crimes in many areas in the once violent district. Real estate investors started to come in.

Of course, it may take a lifetime to change a place’s past, but things have changed significantly with creative placemaking.

From Bronx to Calle Industria

Interestingly, such approach in revitalizing a place or district has now found its way to the Philippines, thanks to scholars of the Thames Entrepreneurs School of Asia and the Apl.de.Ap Foundation. 

The scholars initiated and conceptualized the Industria Art Walk Project which aims to improve the industrial district of Calle Industria in Libis, Quezon City, which is home to Thames itself.

Thames is along Calle Industria across the facility of the Gokongwei-owned Universal Robina Corp. (URC) and alongside the famed carinderias in the district.

The project seeks to empower community stakeholders and make the area more attractive to visitors through arts, food, music and culture. 

Listening to Thames president Jaime “Joel” Noel Santos during the project launch, I found the endea-vor very interesting.

Inside the library of Thames, artists, social entrepreneurs and rappers gathered to join the launch.  The crowd was wild and energetic and ready to paint the town red. The vibe was almost tangible. Sitting in the room with them, I felt that this whole community can change the world, one street at a time.

There would be three objectives, Joel explained to the crowd. One is to improve the community livelihood by upgrading the Industria carinderias to make them tourist friendly like Singapore’s hawker centers or the street food alleys of Bangkok. Food safety and presentation are top priorities, he said.

Another objective is to beautify Calle Industria with “street art” starting with Thames. 

On the day of the launch, artists led by American-Filipino artist Apl.de.Ap of the famed Black Eyed Peas, and scholars kicked-off the project with the unveiling of an art installation along Thames – a portion of the school’s wall was broken as a symbolic gesture of being one with the community. 

Artists included Jun de Leon, who put up a photo installation, and Eric David for the installation art, and Tripp63 for the Industria mural.

The third and last objective is to create livelihood workshops for the community such as mural making, photography, theater, fluid art, shoe-making, sewing, and writing. 

I wondered what inspired Joel and the Thames’ scholars to pursue the project. He said it’s part of the Thames students’ DNA of “giving back to the community.”

Calle Industria, being their home, is the perfect place to start. Joel said they wanted a project that would help develop the community, but without alienating the locals – the carinderia owners, the street children, and factory workers who go there for work.

During the launch, many chimed in to support the project including the local government and Thames’ corporate neighbors. Representatives from different companies doing business in the area, including the Gokongweis’ Universal Robina, EEI Corp., D&L and the Belmontes’ The Nuvo Land, also joined the launch and other stakeholder meetings.

Joel is excited and I totally get why. Calle Industria will be the first creative placemaking project in Asia. 

I share the anticipation. I’m looking forward to visiting Calle Industria again soon to see the redevelopment. I hope the local community will fully cooperate and strongly benefit from the transformation. I hope the changes will indeed spur economic growth.

There will be murals with stories to tell, music that will drown out the noise of factories, and soon, a gastronomic adventure for visitors and locals alike.

Props to the artists for pursuing such an endeavor. Calle Industria is your canvas and the world will be waiting. 

Indeed from Bronx to Calle Industria, artists have shown that an arts-based approach to urban planning and renewal is possible.  

Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales.



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