Sweet fillings on Sugar Hill
Story by Sherry Mazzocchi
Sugar Hill is ready for its close-up.
New York’s most glamorous affordable housing complex has been rising at the corner of 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue for the past two years.
Now New Yorkers will get a peek inside at a huge art new art show, If You Build It.
The soon-to be occupied building will showcase more than 25 artists and performers. Exhibition spaces include future apartments, galleries, balconies and the surrounding neighborhood.
The multi-floor exhibit is a collaboration between Broadway Housing Communities, the art organization No Longer Empty and several other groups.
The show, said Ellen Baxter, welcomes the community to the building and introduces the building to the neighborhood.
“No Longer Empty’s exhibits would give the larger community a chance to see what we’ve been up to and the kind of housing we’ve had a chance to create,” said Baxter, Founder and Executive Director of Broadway Housing Communities (BHC).
This is BHC’s seventh and most ambitious building. For the past 34 years, they’ve turned existing buildings into permanent housing for homeless individuals and families. Sugar Hill is a brand new building, built with a variety of funding sources, intended for truly low-income individuals from the neighborhood. Residents will move into the 124 units next month. This fall, the onsite pre-school and Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling will open.
The show features work by neighborhood and other New York artists.
Nari Ward’s Sugar Hill Smiles addresses the argument that the Harlem brand is being marketed for the profit of so many that have very little direct investment in the neighborhood. Ward’s project adopts the Sugar Hill brand as Harlem’s own smile manufacturing center. Community members will be invited to smile into 2,000-mirrored interior cans, which will be labeled and sealed. Each smile will then be sold for $10.00 to support a local educational institution.
The Crown by Shani Peters honors visitors with a red carpet walk to the tune of the eponymous Gary Byrd song. A digital animation by artists Aziz + Cucher, Time of the Empress, depicts the rise and fall of civilizations. Blaze of Glory by Raúl Ayala pays homage to the great female African-American writers of the 20th Century—many who lived close by. Dread Scott’s Stop gives voice to young men of color in U.S. and the U.K. who’ve been stopped by police for no reason.
“Stop and frisk was implemented in both countries,” said Scott. In 1996, then Police Commissioner William Bratton went to the UK to talk about zero tolerance policing. “Populations on both sides of the Atlantic were pulled into a symmetry of having similar relations with the police.”
Scott’s installation projects two life-size HD videos on facing walls. Each video depicts three young men of color, one side from East New York, the other from Liverpool, reciting how many times they’ve been stopped. For some, it’s upward of 100 times.
“Seeing these people who are just ordinary guys—that statistic, that personal number adds up to thousands upon thousands upon tens of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of stops,” he said.
Another project, Wanted, starts in mid-July. Sketch artists will draw pictures of neighborhood young people for “Wanted” posters. Descriptions of their so-called crimes include standing in front of buildings or entering an apartment complex. They aren’t armed or dangerous. They’re wanted by families, friends and neighbors. The posters will be placed in neighborhood locations such as barbershops, bodegas and pizza places.
Scott wants to shift the conversation, and ask why young people are wanted for nothing at all. “Kids on the corner are being viewed as up to no good,” he said. “How did kids go from beautiful youths to unredeemable criminals?”
Shani Peters’s video goes for a completely different effect. Her installation has more than 200 gold paper crowns and an animated film short re-enacting scenes from the 1980’s Gary Byrd-Stevie Wonder song The Crown, a rap about the often untold legacies of African history.
It is a song she heard a lot growing up. Her family celebrated Kwanza, and one of its seven principles is Kujichagulia, Swahili for self-determination. “To me, that song is kind of like an audio version of self-determination; an empowering song that makes you feel good and recognizes the power that’s in your ancestry.” Peters said.
The crowns are based on actual headgear—everything from a Miss America tiara to crowns worn by Queen Elizabeth, Nefertiti and Biggie Smalls. Others include a Yoruba headpiece that conceals the face of a divine ruler and a feathered African headdress from the Congo.
“My personal favorite is Queen N’zinga’s crown,” she said. “She’s an African royal who actually fought in the military with her people against the Portuguese.”
People also get to walk down a red carpet with the crowns.
“I really think of this show as being for the residents of the neighborhood—and especially for the residents of the building,” Peters said.
More than 48,000 people applied for the 124 units.
“I figure, if you got one of those apartments,” she said, “it’s probably one of the happiest moments in your entire life.”
“If You Build It” will debut on Wed., Jun. 25th at 7:00 p.m. at Broadway Housing Communities’ Sugar Hill at 404 West 155th Street in Harlem. There will a Family Day celebration on Sat., Jun. 28th. For more information, please visit www.nolongerempty.org.