You can see the telephone number plastered across the side of the handsome old brick building at 728 East 136th Street as you walk from the Cypress Avenue 6-train stop. It might as well be a blinking neon sign heralding the changes taking place in Port Morris, the Bronx, which is becoming the latest postindustrial refuge for people who need studio space. When the Altmark Group purchased the building in 1994, it housed light manufacturing, and in part, it still does. (Its M1-2 zoning doesn’t permit residential use.) But two decades later, more and more artists began looking to the neighborhood.
When a moving-and-storage company occupying the entire fifth floor left for New Jersey, “we had this big block of space available. It was like 15,000 square feet,” says Barry Altmark, who handles leasing for his family concern. “And we weren’t really sure what to do with it.” That was three years ago, when artist and School of Visual Arts faculty member Judy Mannarino was looking for new studio space. She found the building while walking through the neighborhood and rented 4,000 square feet, which turned out to be more than she needed, so she brought in fellow artist and SVA colleague Steve DeFrank. Together, they broke it up into four separate studios, sharing one and subletting the other three. Gradually, word spread about the building.
Today, there are about 50 artists, furniture-makers, ceramicists, and architects — along with NY Sluggers Baseball Academy — in the building. We visited 13 of them, most of whom had come from more cramped spaces in other parts of town. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Bronx was an X factor in my mind,” says artist Derek Fordjour. “When I arrived, I quickly understood why so many artists had moved before me. It feels like Bushwick or Williamsburg in the ’90s.”
1. Renée Cox (top image)
Artist, photographer, and Columbia University professor
Rents: About 1,000 sq. ft.
Moved in: 2018.
Previously: In a subbasement on West 149th Street in Harlem.
How you got here: “I simply called the number on the outside” of the building.
What you like: “The community of artists.” And that her commute is only eight minutes without traffic.
2. Derek Fordjour
Painter and interdisciplinary artist
Rents: 2,000 sq. ft.
Moved in: February 2019.
Previously: Had a space through Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program in Brooklyn, then downtown L.A.
How you got here: “I was looking for a space close to home and consulted with Eric N. Mack and Hugh Hayden, artists who had studios in the Bronx.”
What you like: “I’m able to work uninterrupted.”
3. Firelei Báez
Rents: About 2,000 sq. ft.
Moved in: Fall 2018.
Previously: “I had a live-work space in Inwood near the Cloisters.”
How you got here: She needed more space to create a MoMA commission, and her friend Hugh Hayden said she could take his old space in the building.
What you like: “Coming from Miami, I love how diverse and alive the Bronx is … different worlds just a few train stops from each other.”
4. LeRone Wilson
Sculptor and painter
Rents: 1,700 sq. ft.
Moved in: October 2019.
Previously: On 131st Street, between Park and Madison.
How you got here: Found it online, but it turned out he had friends there already.
What you like: “It’s right off the Bruckner, which means accessing it from downtown is easy.”
5. Lena Carroll
Painter and freelance retail-display coordinator
Rents: 187 sq. ft.
Moved in: October 2019. “I built out the walls myself.”
Previously: “In a corner in my midtown apartment.”
How you got here: “I learned about the building when I visited Andrew [Daines]. It was a big dusty rectangle at that point, but I caught the vision pretty quickly.”
What you like: “I love that the South Bronx is just far enough from home. It takes me about 35 minutes from midtown, so I can get in the right frame of mind on the train. The building is really perfect for creatives because it’s like a blank canvas — people turn their corner into what it needs to be.”
6. William Reardon
Ceramicist and founder of New York Stoneware
Rents: Two spaces: 850 sq. ft. for pottery-making; 700 sq. ft. for packing and inventory.
Moved in: Fall 2018.
Previously: In Williamsburg.
How you got here: Heard about it from a fellow ceramicist in the building.
What you like: “The proximity to where I live and the license agreement the building uses. It gives me the flexibility to increase or decrease the amount of space I rent from them, because I’m not locked into a long-term lease. I also like that the neighborhood is not overdeveloped yet. It makes it easy to get a lot of work done.”
7. Andrew Daines
Founder of Chassie, which makes desks imprinted with original designs by New York artists
Rents: 2,650 sq. ft.
Moved in: July 2019.
Previously: Started Chassie here, after selling his last company to NASCAR.
How you got here: “A friend of mine tipped me off to M2 zoning, so I got a city map out and Port Morris was the closest to my place.”
What you like: “The building is perfectly situated for my life and business. More than half our supply chain is within a couple of miles. I also like that the neighbors are generally friendly and interested in one another’s work. I had an office in Union Square, and I felt like my neighbors were always on their phones. Artists really interact.”
Daines and his staff of two, Edgar Corral and Diana Regal, launched Chassie with five distinct collections, each of which features the designs of 12 New York–based artists (including the legendary Milton Glaser). Each desk will have up to six power ports and a Lucite shelf; the desks’ surfaces will act as wireless charging stations for phones. “The CNC router at our Bronx studio allows us to robotically cut every desk with incredible precision,” says Daines. “We assemble and photograph every piece before it leaves the studio, and source everything we can — about 95 percent of the product — within 100 miles. The legs come off a 70-year-old aluminum press in Philly.”
8. John Sheppard
Ceramicist and lighting designer
Rents: Two spaces, each 360 sq. ft.
Moved in: Late in 2017, originally sharing a space on the fifth floor.
Previously: “A very crowded shared space in Chelsea.”
How you got here: A friend was in the building already.
What you like: “I live in Harlem, so getting over to the Bronx is so much easier for me. It’s an interesting and diverse mix of people.”
9. Tracey Goodman
Sculptor and installation artist
Rents: 800 sq. ft. (and sublets half to another artist).
Moved in: March 2017.
Previously: In Bushwick.
How you got here: Through Steve DeFrank and Judy Mannarino.
What you like: “I love the Bronx; it feels a lot like Brooklyn did before it changed into a destination for tourists.”
10. Steve DeFrank
Artist, sculptor, and SVA teacher
Rents: 800 sq. ft
Moved in: 2017.
Previously: In Bushwick for 15 years.
How you got here: Through Judy Mannarino.
What you like: “My favorite things about the hood and the building are the people. This is not a cookie-cutter kind of thing.”
11. Maggie Ellis
Rents: 800 sq. ft. (and sublets 480 sq. ft.).
Moved in: Summer 2019.
Previously: From home on the Upper West Side.
How you got here: “I heard about it from a good friend, Judy Mannarino (a.k.a. my fairy godmother).”
What you like: “The neighborhood is very industrial and feels far away from Manhattan (even though it’s only a few stops away). It’s great for focusing and getting work done. I love the community in the building, and I have a job here [as Fordjour’s studio assistant], which means I get to see my studio every day — and that is a dream.”
12. Judy Mannarino
Artist and SVA teacher
Rents: 4,000 sq. ft.
Moved in: 2017, sharing with Steve DeFrank.
Previously: A carriage house in the Hudson Valley.
How you got here: “I was walking through the neighborhood and I see this building and I see this sign and I call.”
What you like: “The building is diverse in that there are some people out of grad school, there are some older artists, Hispanic artists, black artists, white artists — what happens when all walks of life answer the ads.”
13. Christian Breed
Rents: 425 sq. ft.
Moved in: December 2017.
Previously: At the Hunter College M.F.A. program.
How you got here: Through the Listings Project, an artists’ website.
What you like: “I love how vibrant the neighborhood is, and getting to know the cultures of the communities in the Bronx continues to have a great impact on my work. I am fortunate to be part of the artist community in the building; everyone is supportive of one another, and there is always a dialogue available when you want it.”
*A version of this article appears in the February 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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