The Kingsbridge Armory Is Going Hollywood

by Sarah S. Sumler

Bronx Journal Staff Writer

Originally published December 2006

The Kingsbridge Armory on the corner of Jerome Avenue and Kingsbridge Road was abuzz with action on a recent November afternoon. A group of high school kids had just finished digging trenches in order to plant 25,000 daffodil bulbs in front of the massive brick structure.  Meanwhile, tee-shirt-clad grips from a movie crew were noisily unloading equipment into the drill hall of the building – one which, with its fairy-tale towers and mammoth green roof, looks strikingly out of place, sitting, as it does, across the street from the subway stop and from a nail salon, pet store, and busy market.  Even so, one thing seems clear: the Armory is slowly waking up from a long and lonely sleep.

In fact, after 12 years of virtual abandonment by the city and almost a decade of political strife and multiple dead-in-the-water proposals, that white elephant, the Armory, finally may be set for a facelift. It won some respect in September when the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) asked a group of commercial developers for their visions of how to renovate the site. While none has yet been chosen, the EDC is taking advantage of the down time by allowing Warner Bros. to film “I Am Legend,” a feature starring Will Smith, in the building’s drill hall until early spring.

The New York Sun reported in October that the studio is “paying the city $350,000 to use the Kingsbridge Armory for seven months” and is building a huge set to recreate Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park for this apocalyptic thriller starring Smith as the last man on earth.

The building certainly has ample room to become a studio backlot. The 30,000-square-foot drill hall is only a portion of the 575,000-square-foot fortress, which is thought to be the world’s largest armory.

The landmark building has had an erratic history. Built between 1913 and 1917, it housed the Bronx National Guard until 1993.  During World War II the Army became a registration site for immigrants who came from Axis nations. Over the years, boxing matches, film shoots, dog shows, and even a Beach Boys concert were held here.  For a time in the mid-1980s the Armory was also designated a homeless shelter. But in 1998, The Norwood News reported, city officials deemed the fortress “unsafe and [in] imminent peril.” It was transferred to city ownership, where it languished, an empty castle in the middle of Kingsbridge Road.

The filming of “I Am Legend” has brought attention and a smidgeon of glamour to the Armory, but those who have been fighting for years to transform it into a viable economic and cultural part of the neighborhood pledge to remain focused on that battle.

One such activist is Phyllis Reed, who, on a recent afternoon was sitting on a folding chair behind the chain-link fence separating the Armory grounds from Kingsbridge Road. Despite the blustery wind, she was working tirelessly on a set of flyers. She has campaigned for the Kingsbridge Armory since 1996, envisioning what she calls “an international village garden” that will meet the needs of the community.

Unable to simply sit by and watch the lawn remain a vacant lot, she said, “I wanted to do something more immediate.”

As a consequence, her organization, the National Foundation for the Applied Media Arts and Sciences, is partnering with volunteers from Walton High School and Samaritan Village, a substance abuse treatment center, to plant the flowers, and the group is awaiting delivery of five Christmas trees to decorate the Armory for the holidays.

Since schools in the Kingsbridge area have been plagued by severe over-crowding, the Educational Development Counsel has slated two annex buildings on the south side of the Armory to be demolished to eventually make way for new public schools after the few remaining National Guard units that currently occupy them find a new home.

When the Economic Development Corporation issued its request for development proposals this September, its interim president, Joshua J. Sirefman, released this statement: “Realizing the potential of this unique building is a very high priority for the Bloomberg Administration.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, a grassroots organization that took on the Armory project in 1993, wants assurance that residents also have a voice in the building’s future. After numerous rallies and public meetings, the Coalition partnered with the local department store union to convene the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance. “[We] will continue to work with all community members to see that our Community Benefit Principles are addressed by any development,” said the Coalition’s president, Ron Jordan.

“The building has just sat here for so long,” said Domingo Feliz, who runs a small kiosk on the northwest corner of the Armory. “Having more customers will be good for the business owners.”

The past has shown, however, that if the projectloses momentum, it could be years before renovations are completed.

Filming of “I Am Legend” will be in full swing this winter, with its release set for November of 2007.  If all goes well, the Armory will get its day in the spotlight next spring when the daffodils bloom and the EDC chooses a new owner for the property.

Kingsbridge residents like Feliz hope both will be worth the wait. Yet there are still hurdles. Despite the benefit of new guidelines, the chosen developer must navigate a six-month land use and be subject to review by City Council District 14.

While the EDC expects the Armory site to be sold and renovations to begin by spring of 2009, many, like Jordan Moss, the editor-in- chief of the Norwood News, who has covered this saga since 1998, are warily optimistic. “It’s the most hopeful situation we’ve had,” he said. Still, “I wouldn’t place a bet on anything.”

2 Responses to The Kingsbridge Armory Is Going Hollywood

  1. roslyn sternberg willett August 23, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I went roller skating there many times and led Bronx House clubs there to roller skate also when I was an adolescent club leader and Hunter College student — seventy years ago.

  2. Sarah Sumler September 17, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I bet it was great to have such a huge covered space in the Bronx to use for skating, especially in winter. Thanks for sharing your story!


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