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Finding Beauty in the South Bronx

by Lisa Levart

The great photographer Ansel Adams wrote: “Art is both the taking and giving of beauty.” No doubt about it, as a photographer, I get immense joy from finding, seeing and sharing the exquisite beauty in our world, both in my commercial and art work. But try as hard as I could, I could not find anything remotely attractive about the notorious Spofford Juvenile Detention complex in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx.

Majora Carter, the Bronx born urban revitalization strategist, and I were in discussions to create her portrait for Goddess on Earth. She wanted it be in her own backyard, which just so happens to be The Spofford Juvenile Detention Center, a horrifically ugly, closed up, white behemoth that until last year housed troubled young men. Surrounded by barbed wire, with windows spattered with gun shot holes, and rusty old signs declaring “No Guns Beyond this Point,” it takes a pure visionary like Majora to see the possibility of transforming this vessel of pain and suffering into a green, sustainable, mixed income housing complex.

I have had the pleasure to hear Majora speak in public several times, and have been truly inspired by the passion and determination she brings to her lifeʼs work of connecting ecological and economical degradation with social inequality. “As a black person in America, I am twice as likely as a white person to live in an area where air pollution poses the greatest risk to my health,” Majora said in her renowned TED Talk. “I am five times more likely to live within walking distance of a power plant or chemical facility — which I do.”

For Goddess on Earth, Majora chose to embody Green Tara. In Tibet, Green Tara is known as The Goddess of Compassion and the Mother of Liberation. In Buddhist theology, she helps individuals overcome obstacles with energetic action. Majora shared with me why Green Tara is a source of inspiration to her as she fights for both her neighborhood and environmental equality. “Green Tara embodies the pure wish to protect and support something — or someone – -that has been through so much,” Majora said. “She is love, wisdom, and fierceness all rolled into one, qualities I want to live up to.”

On a hot, sweltering night in July, we photographed at various locations around the locked up facility on Tiffany Street. With Majora as a guide, I found grandeur in this neglected corner of the city. I discovered, as the English poet and painter William Blake wrote: “exuberance is beauty.” With Green Taraʼs energetic action, and Majoraʼs passionate and transformative commitment to her community, the beauty of the South Bronx was revealed to me — its splendor is in its people and their capacity for rebirth, renewal and creativity. With great joy, I share what I found in the South Bronx with you.

Lisa Levart is an award winning photographer whose images have appeared in numerous publications and exhibitions worldwide. Her book of portraits, Goddess on Earth, received the GOLD Nautilus Book Award and features many women from the Rockland area. Goddess on Earth can be purchased at Saffron and Sanctuary in Nyack, The Outside In and Ned Kelly & Company in Piermont and online at

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