Vacant Jamaica storefronts turned into art galleries

By Tammy Scileppi

Discovering and exploring the many art exhibitions on display in Queens offers a great creative outlet for the entire family—from adults to often-bored kids and teens.

Downtown Jamaica is playing host to an increasing number of those exhibitions. Following on the heels of JamaicaFlux’s success, engaging, interactive performances and works by arts nonprofit “No Longer Empty’s” “artists gone wild” are becoming a welcome sight in the neighborhood.

Since 2009, NLE has presented dozens of exhibitions celebrating the rich histories of local buildings and neighborhoods through cultural themes, commissions and programming. This time around, it has partnered with the Jamaica Center BID to present Jameco Exchange, which runs through July 17. The project revolves around the art of storytelling about Jamaica.

“‘No Longer Empty’ is thrilled to be here, in the heart of downtown Jamaica. We’ve learned so much about the rich history and cultures of Jamaica through dialogues with community members and artists,” Associate Curator Rachel Gugelberger, said. “We’re excited to learn more as stories continue to unfold through the artists’ works, upcoming programs, and our ongoing engagement with visitors of all ages.”

As part of Jameco Exchange, an exhibition of works by artists Addam Yekutieli and Richard Parker is being held at tattoo studio Think Before You Ink on Hillside Avenue. It is open Thursdays through Saturdays, from noon until 8 p.m.

In addition, more than 20 local and international artists and collectives have invaded Jamaica, taking over 165th Street in the heart of downtown. They explored themes of commerce, movement, and travel—the positives downtown Jamaica is known for.

Despite occasional grumblings by some locals about the state of things in their neck of the woods, the Jameco Exchange folks have taken a positive attitude, drawing inspiration from the retail vernacular of their two-story storefront and the cobblestone pedestrian mall in which it is situated, as well as the social culture of Jamaica Avenue and the histories of the community.

For example, downtown Jamaica’s rich history of jazz and hip-hop is well established, but few people know that it also sits on an old trade route. The community also boasts notable entrepreneurs who opened businesses along Jamaica Avenue back in the 1930s and 1950s. In August 1930, Michael Cullen launched America’s first supermarket on the Avenue in a vacant garage. Does the name King Kullen ring a bell?

Aaron Schwartz of Francman Realty, vice president of the Jamaica Center BID and president of the 165th Street Mall BID, is responsible for giving “No Longer Empty” the use of the prime storefront location on the pedestrian mall.

“Working together with and accommodating “No Longer Empty” in this endeavor was an easy decision. This location is at the heart and soul of Jamaica and already attracts thousands of pedestrians on a daily basis. It is a pleasure to collaborate and highlight Jamaica’s unique history and culture,” Schwartz said.

“No Longer Empty” has collaborated with a top-notch group of people, according to Co-founder and Executive Director Naomi Hersson-Ringskog.

She is referring to the Community Advisory Council, a network of community partners and experts who shared ideas and made recommendations: Richard Hourahan at Queens Historical Society; Saiku Branch, director of Afrikan Poetry Theatre; Kim McNeil Capers, outreach coordinator, Queens Library; Stephanie Davis, poet and poetry editor of Newtown Literary; Heng-Gil Han, director and curator, Jamaica Flux; Cathy Hung, director of Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning; and others.

Saturday’s opening reception featured an exhibition of youth artwork curated by local teens in collaboration with NLE and an education hub for visitors of all ages, with art-making weekend family workshops and exhibition tours, created by 26 area high school students.

“There are many places I have never been, but I still know they exist. I know from postcards, keychains, the stories people share, photographs and other mainly physical items,” said artist Azikiwe Mohammed, who talked about his work, “Jimmy’s Thrift.” “By creating all of the items found in this place am I able to curate the stories, and tell a tale of a place I long to visit and am with the help of others trying to make real.”

If You Go

“No Longer Empty”

When: Through July 17, Thursdays to Sundays, noon – 6 pm

Where: 89-62B 165th St. and Think Before You Ink, 167-16 Hillside Ave. — Closed Sundays, Jamaica

Website: www.nolongerempty.org