Before it shut down last March, Bridges Juvenile Center in the Bronx was described by some, generously, as Dickensian. With dark cells, abusive guards and deficient rehab programs, the juvenile center had a reputation for turning its residents into hardened criminals.
But today, the white-brick building conjures a cheerier mood. Thanks to a local community group and the Inside Out project, created by the French artist JR in March, the center’s outer wall is covered with black-and-white portraits of those who live in the neighborhood.
“After we did that, we received emails from organizations thanking us,” said Paul Ramirez, co-founder of Mainland Media, an organization dedicated to enhancing the overall image of the Bronx.
Inside Out Project
In July, Mainland Media worked with the Inside Out Project to produce and put up portraits throughout Hunts Point.
“What we see changes who we are,” said JR, who has ventured to some of the poorest countries in the world to install oversize portraits of their inhabitants, after receiving the $100,000 Ted Prize this year.
“When we act together, the whole thing is much more than the sum of the parts. So I hope that, together, we'll create something that the world will remember.”
With Inside Out, JR hopes to inspire others to pick up a camera and take part in a “global art project.”
He has set up shop in a donated studio in Manhattan, where a team of volunteers collect the digital photographs uploaded to the Inside Out website, print them out as posters and send them back to the photographers to install outside.
Close to 10,000 photos have been uploaded to the project’s website, from an arts group in Cincinnati to gay and lesbian rights activists in Berlin.
Hunts Point Area
But perhaps none is more inspirational than the project in the Hunts Point area of the Bronx, organized by Mainland Media, which was founded by Ramirez, his brother, Anthony, and a high school friend, John Martin.
To get to the neighborhood, you have to venture below the Bruckner Expressway into a vast industrial park.
That’s where you first get a glimpse of the project. It’s a portrait placed on a water tower high atop a distant warehouse.
You will also find photographs on the low railings of a steel bridge. They are on the sides of businesses in the area and on the wall of a local community center, The Point, which helped with the project.
Ramirez, who grew up in the Bronz, came up with the idea of photographing the neighborhood inhabitants holding photographs over their eyes of the eyes of the mothers in the community.
“The women hold the entire Hunts Point down,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s a lot of resilience and strength in them.” He named the project “South Bronx ‘S’ Heroes.”
While JR helped with printing the photographs, he said, Mainland Media and volunteers were responsible for photographing the subjects, securing locations and installing the posters.
The response has been so tremendous that Mainland Media is hard at work on another poster project.
“We have this idea called idle hands,” Ramirez said. “Taking away from the portraits and focusing on the hands. We want to focus on the importance of keeping young people busy.”
For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter: @r_s_c