In Yonkers, a Shuttered Jail Becomes Part of a Budding Art Scene

The NY Times


YONKERS — Mayor Mike Spano looked out at the waterfront here and decided it was no place for a jail. So last year he put the Yonkers City Jail up for sale.

The two-story brick building, which held prisoners from 1926 until it was shuttered last fall, sits on the Hudson River in an area the city has long tried to revitalize. Mr. Spano thought someone might turn it into a restaurant or a brewery.

The prospective buyers were more exciting than he had hoped for: Daniel Wolf, an art collector and dealer, and his wife, the artist and architect Maya Lin. Mr. Wolf was enchanted by the building and wanted to transform it into a home for his expansive collection and a space for studios and a gallery.

“I just thought it was a really beautiful building,” Mr. Wolf said as he walked through the jail on a recent afternoon. “It kind of looks like a museum. It has that feel to it, although it’s a jail.”

With metal bars on the outside windows and rooms inside with heavy double doors, Mr. Wolf said the jail would be “a fortress” for the contemporary paintings, 19th- and 20th-century photography, prehistoric American art and ancient Chinese ceramics that he has amassed over four decades, most of which now sits in boxes in storage. He plans to keep one of the jail cells intact “just for fun.”

Otherwise, the building will get a major makeover, with renovations expected to cost more than the $1 million he paid for it in December.

Mr. Wolf, who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, envisions a Jean Lurcat tapestry in the stairwell and a chandelier in the entryway. Eventually, he plans to add two more floors for art studios designed by Ms. Lin, whose work includes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

For Mr. Spano, who has been mayor since 2012, it is a triumph that the pair is investing in Yonkers, a city known more for its blue-collar industrial past and struggle over desegregation than for its art scene. The sale of the jail is part of the mayor’s ambitious plans to develop the waterfront and make it a place where young people want to live.

The mayor argues that if Yonkers, the state’s fourth largest city, can attract artists and technology companies, then those who might otherwise head to Brooklyn will follow. He often notes the arrival of Mindspark, a tech company owned by the media company IAC, which recently moved into a historic building downtown that was once an Otis Elevator factory.

At his annual state of city address last week, Mr. Spano announced that the New York artist David Hammons had purchased a warehouse on the city’s southwest side for an art gallery. Mr. Hammons is known for using found objects and focuses on themes related to African-American life.

The city is beginning a marketing campaign this spring called Generation Yonkers, with “Gen Y” highlighted in the logo. Its pitch to millennials is that Grand Central Terminal is only 30 minutes away by train, and apartments on the river are more affordable than comparable apartments in Manhattan or Brooklyn.

“When you look at what has been developed, we’re the next frontier,” Mr. Spano said in an interview at his office in City Hall. “We’re the next natural place for people to go.”

Mayors have been promising the waterfront’s revival for at least the last decade. Before the recession, there were growing investments in the area, in apartment complexes and a $35 million public library, but the economic crash halted that push. Plans for a minor-league baseball stadium downtown fell apart.

The city has also worked to change negative perceptions after Yonkers was forced by the courts in the 1980s to desegregate housing and schools. It has grappled with corrupt politicians and an embarrassing episode last year when the last mayor, Phil Amicone, as part of a defamation settlement, had to apologize on the steps of City Hall to a local newspaper publisher and strip-club owner.

Another obstacle surfaced this winter when the school district was found to have a $55 million deficit because of an accounting scandal.

Mr. Spano, a former state assemblyman, is part of one of the most politically powerful families in Westchester County. His brother, Vincent E. Spano, is the city clerk, and his brother, Nicholas A. Spano, is a former state senator who was released from prison last year after serving 10 months for income tax fraud.

One selling point of Yonkers that the mayor often mentions is public safety. The crime rate here is one of the lowest among large cities, and the violent-crime rate decreased 7 percent last year from 2012, according to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Yonkers Police Department.

At a restaurant near the jail called Waterfront Cafe, workers from Mindspark and other offices grabbed lunch on a recent afternoon.

Dan Romal, 64, a caseworker for the county who has commuted to Yonkers for 30 years, said he was skeptical about plans for growth. The waterfront lacks access to a major highway, he said, and basic amenities like shopping. “I think it’s going to be a tough sell,” he said.

The cafe’s owner, John Khader, is betting on a turnaround. “People are seeing just high-rises and not a lot of activity,” he said. “We need more bodies down here.”

But there are signs of progress. Two of the city’s most prominent abandoned buildings are in the process of being redeveloped: The cathedral-likeGlenwood Power Plant is to become a convention center, and the city is talking to potential buyers of the vine-and-graffiti-covered Boyce Thompson Institute. Both have sat derelict for years.

As for the jail, it needs a lot of work. City officials transferred prisoners to another municipal building and gave it a sweeping before handing over the keys. The two dozen or so cells each still have a simple cot, toilet and sink. Long-term prisoners were not held here; the jail was usually just a stop on the way to the county jail in Valhalla.

As Mr. Wolf passed a door inside the jail reading, “Women’s restrooms: no prisoners,” he acknowledged, “Sometimes, it is kind of creepy.”

But he added, “It will be so much fun to see art everywhere.”

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