Photo: Kiara Thomas. Raymond Figueroa, Jr., advisory board member of South Bronx Unite and co-founder of Brook Park Youth Farm Alternatives-to-Incarceration program speaks to Bronx residents about the proposed H.E.Arts Center on Nov. 6 near the abandoned Lincoln Rehabilitation Center.

South Bronx residents who have been fighting for years to turn an abandoned rehab center into a creative and educational space argued at a community meeting earlier this month that such a place would have been a blessing at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lincoln Rehabilitation Center on East 140th Street closed down 10 years ago, and advocacy groups like South Bronx Unite and the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards have since proposed plans to turn the building into a space for local organizations focused on health, education and the arts. But the project has remained at a standstill.

“Could you imagine what this could have been during the pandemic in terms of providing services, (for) our children going to school hungry, how we could be feeding our kids on their way to school?” said Mychal Johnson, a co-founder of South Bronx Unite, said at a Nov. 6 meeting near Willis Playground.

“An infrastructure that is vacant — that is publicly owned — this is ours!” Johnson told dozens of local residents, as a model of the proposed center sat on a table next to the abandoned building.

South Bronx Unite began a study in 2014 to evaluate the economic sustainability of the 22,750-square-foot facility. If the proposal were approved, the new building, named the H.E.Arts Center, would have “offices, meeting areas, a culinary arts kitchen, classrooms, and performance spaces,” according to the organization’s website.

The project is estimated to cost $15 billion, and would be funded in part by the city, private foundations and the state’s Regional Economic Development Council, according to the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards. Several politicians have already expressed their support for the community center.

On Nov. 6, residents lamented the lack of arts opportunities in the area, and said they wanted the new center to have a mentorship program for teenagers and programs for workforce development, along with an arts space.

“There wasn’t really a platter,” Cecil Brooks Jr., a Port Morris resident, said. “You couldn’t choose from other arts programs. You either fell into one that was nearby or there was just no one that ever reached you.”

“Access to low-cost arts programs saved me as a kid, and I think that parents should have that in this neighborhood,” Cardenas, a Mott Haven resident of eight years, said. “A lot of parents can’t afford to take their kids to fancy dance schools or fancy arts schools, and I got lucky as a kid that we had it in our neighborhood and it opened the world up for me.”

Attendees also discussed ways to expand green spaces, getting access to the waterfront and creating cleaner streets, repeating some themes from last month’s meeting.

And organizers honored the legacy of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, a political activist and member of the Black Panthers who fought for improved health services for Black and brown people in the South Bronx.

The Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Stewards and South Bronx Unite said they would continue their capital campaign on the H.E.Arts Center with the hopes of getting the site awarded in the summer of 2022.

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