‘For us and by us’: South Bronx advocates celebrate progress on new community center

A mockup of the future H.E.A.rts Community Center was on display at the press conference on Feb. 22, 2024.
Photo Emily Swanson

A project that South Bronx community leaders have envisioned for over a decade is inching closer to fruition.

On Feb. 22, leaders from South Bronx Unite, the Mott Haven Port Morris Community Land Stewards, Alembic Community Development and other groups gathered for an outdoor concert and press conference to celebrate the vision of the future H.E.A.rts Community Center — and to remind elected officials of the hefty funding required to make it happen. 

The H.E.A.rts Community Center was the winning concept selected from a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the abandoned city-owned site, put out by the city in October 2022. H.E.A.rts was selected in summer 2023 and the project remains in the “pre-development” stage. 

Members of the local nonprofit UpBeat NYC performed at the gathering. Photo Emily Swanson

The 22,500-square-foot yellow brick building at 349 East 140th St. has sat vacant for over a decade. The new center is a long-term collaboration between a number of local nonprofits, developers and architects who have long understood the positive correlations between health outcomes and the arts.

South Bronx nonprofit organizations have a vision for the new building that blends services for holistic health, education and the arts all under one roof — hence the name “H.E.A.rts.” 

According to information from South Bronx Unite, the future center will have a kitchen and cafeteria, black box theater, meeting rooms and other shared spaces that will provide a home to several local nonprofits and ample space for community gatherings. 

South Bronx Unite said that not only will the center become a hub of services designed by and for the community, but the land itself “will be fully community-controlled and held in perpetuity for public use.”

However, rehabilitating the long-abandoned structure won’t be cheap. Project leaders said H.E.Arts Center is an estimated $44M investment — and at the Feb. 22 event, they implored elected officials to not only support the idea, but also to make good on promises to secure funding. 

At the press conference, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson pledged “mo money, mo money, mo money” for the center and City Council Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala, a longtime supporter of the project, also vowed to use her role as a “middle person” to find funding. 

When the new center is eventually rebuilt, several existing nonprofits intend to make it their future home, including the youth music program UpBeat NYC; Green City Force, which trains young NYCHA residents for green jobs; and Community Health Network, which provides medical, dental and wellness care to over 65,000 New Yorkers. 

Elected officials including Borough President Vanessa Gibson (back left), City Council Member Diana Ayala (center) and Assemblymember Amanda Septimo (right) have thrown their support behind the new center. Photo Emily Swanson

The building at East 140th St. near Alexander Avenue used to be a drug detox center run by Lincoln Hospital and has a notable legacy of hyperlocal community service and activism.

The former detox center was born out of protest: a Puerto Rican group called Young Lords took over Lincoln Hospital for 12 hours in 1970 to demand better health care for the community and better working conditions for staff. 

The detox center at East 140th St. was among the concessions by the city following the occupation. At the center, staff administered a highly effective acupuncture technique that helped many South Bronxites curb their drug cravings and quickly recover from addiction. 

But the program was shut down later in the ’70s, according to Bagchee architects, who helped produce plans for the H.E.A.rts Center. The building continued to serve as a recovery center until 2012, but the building, still under management of Health + Hospitals, has sat vacant since. 

This dramatic history did not escape Assemblymember Amanda Septimo, a native of nearby Hunts Point whose district includes Mott Haven, who said that the new center exemplifies “the community fighting back to reclaim its story.”

“For far too long, this structure has been empty and the community has been without a vital interactive space,” said Christopher Roker, CEO of Lincoln Hospital in a statement. “Sustainability is essential to redevelopment and I congratulate all who participated in bringing this space back to life.” 

Borough President Gibson said that the new center will house a variety of services that the community deserves and will likely become a model for similar grassroots efforts throughout the city.

“We have been leading in everything bad — those days are over,” she said. 

Reach Emily Swanson at eswanson@schnepsmedia.com or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes