Newark converts old bank into artist live-work space to help spark neighborhood revival

Published: Mar. 29, 2022

Officials are hope that a $9 million investment in Newark’s South Ward will soon start paying human and economic dividends, with the mixed-use redevelopment of an abandoned bank building into apartments plus work and performance space for artists.

Seven years in the making, the Gant-Gilbert Arts Collective includes 27 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, 10 art studios, a performance space, and a café in a four-story beaux-arts building on Clinton Avenue in what was once home to Howard Savings Bank.

The project, which marked its opening with a ribbon-cutting on Tuesday, is a long-awaited lynchpin in the effort to rejuvenate the city’s faded Clinton Hill neighborhood, in the hope that — as has happened from Soho in Manhattan to Deep Ellum in Dallas — artists will lead the way.

“The moment is finally here,” Roy Southerland, interim president and CEO of Invest Newark, the city’s economic development corporation and the project’s sponsor, told a crowd of more than 100 local officials, artists and others on Tuesday.

Mayor Ras Baraka, who grew up a few blocks away, cut a red ribbon to formally open the building, though officials said tenants won’t start moving in until June or July.

The old bank is catty-corner from the sprawling Donald M. Payne Sr. Public Safety Complex, including Newark Police Headquarters and the department’s Fifth Precinct station house. But despite the multi-million-dollar complex’s looming presence, it’s had a limited impact on the neighborhood’s economic development.

Baraka, a spoken word recording artist and author, entertained the crowd with a memory from his youth before making a more serious point about the special power of art and artists to spark a transformation of even the roughest surroundings.

“This is my neighborhood. I was born and raised up the street, hung out here, walked up Clinton Avenue to the Chicken Shack,” Baraka recalled with a grin. “This neighborhood has been displaced for a very long time. And we’re right across the street from the precinct. And it’s just proof that the neighborhood could never be able to change unless artists change it.”

The building is named for a pair of late artistic collaborators and fixtures of the Newark arts community: Rodney Gilbert, an actor, producer, and LGBTQ advocate who founded the Yendor production company for murals and performances before his death in 2018; and visual artist Jerry Gant, who died the year before.

Would-be residential tenants must apply through a Bronx-based company, Innovative Property Management & Development Inc., demonstrating they meet maximum income requirements. There is also a preference for conceptual, fine, or performing artists, under which applicants must submit resumes and references.

A 1-bedroom apartment measuring 642 square feet will rent for $903 a month, while a 1,093-square-foot two-bedroom unit goes for $1,1132. The rear of the ground floor included one of each of the units, both featuring nearly-floor-to-ceiling windows.

The middle of the first floor has a meeting/performance space, where a standing-room crowd of 120 people gathered for remarks by Southerland, Baraka, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development Allison Ladd, and several members of the borough council.

The front of the building includes the Rhythm & Food Vegan Café, which will officially open in May. It’s run by Rasheena Burroughs, founder of the Blueberry Café on Central Avenue, who was offering samples of Walnut Tuna and Beet Balls and other plant-based fares at Tuesday’s event.

Artists and arts promoters were on hand to scope out possible new homes or venues. Malcolm Rolling and Andrew Binger, proteges of Gilbert who now work at Yendor, were there to pay homage to their old mentor, look at the space, and network.

Ishmael Blakewood, whose production company Vibes in the City stages a Wednesday night open mike at La Rouge Lounge, was there to check out the performance space and find out how to book it.

In the spirit of the public art that brought together Gilbert and Gant, muralist Elijah Minton worked on a large piece titled “Detox the Heart” in front of the collective, where he hung a large canvas over the old bank’s wrought iron fence. Minton, 30, who lives in Irvington and has a studio in Newark, used spray enamel to paint a globe, a heart, and the work’s title phrase.

Despite a chill that drove the event indoors, J. La Rock performed a belly dance, or Baladi, on the sidewalk accompanied by E La She on conga drums. Drumming as she spoke to a reporter, La She said Gant-Gilbert was already proving to be place a to meet and collaborate with fellow artists.

“We met today,” she said without missing a beat.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-03-30 02:45:35 -0700