Community members listen in on upcoming plans for the H.E.ARTS center in Mott Haven. Photo by Eliot Force.

South Bronx Unite, is one step closer to converting an abandoned building that 50 years ago served as a detox center into a community center with an emphasis on health, education and the arts. 

The Mott Haven-based community advocacy group hosted a community concert and rally on Oct. 1 outside the future H.E.Arts Community Center at 349 E 140th St. in Mott Haven. 

The event celebrated the release of a Request For Proposal for the purchase, renovation, and operation of the abandoned Lincoln Hospital Detox Center to the South Bronx Unite’s Community Land Trust Initiative. The event also honored the legacy of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, a community healer who introduced acupuncture as a treatment for addiction at the detox center.  

“Along the way, it’s important to celebrate the milestones,” said Dr. Melissa Barber, co-founder of South Bronx Unite and founding executive board member of the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust steward. 

South Bronx Unite has been organizing for H.E.Arts for the past 11-plus years, urging the city to release the shuttered building. Fears rose among the community that the space would be used for a methadone clinic or public housing. 

After years of visioning sessions and petitions, the blueprint for HEArts Community Center was born. Plans for the community-controlled center include spaces for public gatherings, a theater, a culinary arts kitchen, and classrooms for education and vocational training. 

The event offered attendees free food and T-shirts, as well as a tai chi session, ear acupressure, and arts and crafts.

“It’s great to see the community coming together for an event like this,” said Luis Pagen, an abstract painter who lives in the South Bronx. “It kind of goes against the system, against corporate developers and it just shows the power of the community,” he said.

For South Bronx residents, renovating the abandoned Lincoln Hospital Detox Center is significant because of the building’s history.

In 1970, the Young Lords, a left-wing Puerto Rican organization, occupied the sixth floor of Lincoln Hospital to demand better healthcare and build a detoxification center for heroin addicts. 

By the next Monday, Lincoln Hospital’s first detox program was born. Members of the Young Lords, the Black Panthers and the Republic of New Afrika formed a large volunteer group that ran the clinic from 1970 to 1978 alongside a small group of medical staff.

The detox clinic was shut down by Mayor Ed Koch in 1978 after an auditor’s visit revealed that only 50% of staff on duty were present and $1 million of unsubstantiated payroll was discovered. The investigation also found that a doctor had overdosed and died in the clinic, although staff and volunteers suspected he had been murdered by police or the National Caucus of Labor Committees. 

A few of the political activists who helped occupy Lincoln Hospital and run the detoxification center have been involved in South Bronx Unite’s battle to gain control of the building. 

During Sunday’s celebration, Mychal Johnson, founding member and advisory board member of South Bronx Unite, spoke to community members.  

“They gave us OUR building back,” he said. 

Johnson motioned towards a group of remaining Young Lords in the crowd.

“We need to keep fighting like they did so that we can tell our children we fought for something, too,” he said.

The organization still has to secure additional funds to begin the permitting and construction processes for the project. The renovations themselves may take years.

The city guaranteed $12 million for the renovation project, but South Bronx Unite estimates the total cost will amount to $42 million. They are seeking an additional $30 million in funding.

Arif Ullah, executive director of South Bronx Unite, estimates H.E.Arts will finally open in late 2026 or early 2027. 

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