Bayonne Steps into the Spotlight with The Bridge Arts Festival

Pull over any Hudson County bohemian, ask them which cities here set the standard for art chic, and you’ll probably get a list of places lining Jersey City and Hoboken. But there’s a growing artistic engine in Bayonne, and residents can hear it revving. “We are on a peninsula, but it is a hotbed here,” said Cheryl Mack, co-founder of Bayonne’s Bridge Art Gallery in the city’s Bergen Point neighborhood.“Since we opened, we realized just how large the Bayonne creative community truly is.”

Mack said she’s seen a cultural shift since she and her husband, Chris, moved to Bayonne years ago. Visual artists, musicians, muralists, dancers, and theater performers have come out of the wood work once the art scene picked up steam.

The Bayonne Theater Group, for one, has picked up traction recently by hosting two consecutive renaissance festivals, with the second bigger and better than the first. “We want to expose Bayonne to things they haven’t seen before,” said festival organizer Adam Semanchik. His vision for the festival could be a mantra for the collective art community.

Meanwhile, the Scribbler’s Writing Circle has been hosting poetry readings, open mics, and writing workshops throughout the year at The Bridge Art Gallery, and will continue to do so. Art galleries in Bayonne, both public and private, are celebrating and showcasing visual art exhibitions from local, national, and international artists. It’s those cross-cultural and cross-community bridges that artists help build – a metaphor embraced by Cheryl, and her husband Christopher, when they opened The Bridge Art Gallery last September. Through the gallery, the couple brings the community together through hosting regional and international artists, and residents alike.

Now, the Macks are debuting The Bridge Arts Festival, a cultural event for arts, music, dance and food. The festival, which will take place at Dennis P. Collins Park on September 9, is the latest development in the Bergen Point art community.

Artist-Government Partnership

In June, the Bayonne Urban Enterprise Zone put out a call for artist proposals to paint over call boxes and fire pull boxes in the peninsula’s southernmost neighborhood. Co-incidentally, Mack will sit on the committee reviewing concept design submissions. The annual Bergen Point Fall Festival, featuring live music and entertainment, also draws very large crowds each year.

“We wanted to kick it up a notch on what we were doing,” Mack said. “In the year that we’ve been open, we’ve created this synergy with other artistic entities—including the Dance with Me Dance Studio and the Bayonne Scribblers—and we realized there’s a need to have a platform where everyone can participate and create.”

As open space in Bayonne has been growing in demand over the last few years, Mack says it is important to take advantage of the rejuvenated local parks, for all purposes. “Bayonne is very unique in the sense that it has a lot of green space, parks on all sides of the peninsula; families and individuals definitely enjoy it,” she said.

“And that’s why it’s important for us to take the arts festival to Dennis Collins Park, because Bayonne is known by the Bayonne Bridge. If you’re not from Bayonne, that’s pretty much the extent of what you know about Bayonne. So we purposely selected the 1st Street park location as the home for the festival – to let people know that Bayonne is more than just a bridge.”

Mack is taking advantage of Bayonne’s open space, which the city is not known for, but has been dramatically improving in recent years, with renovations to most parks, making them more useable and accessible, as well as new developments that boast public-private spaces.

“Green space is so beautiful and easily accessible, no matter where you live within the city,” said Mack. “You can walk 10-15 minutes and you can see the water way. That kind of tranquility in an urban environment is very soothing and it allows you to clear your mind and let your creativity thrive and flourish.”

She noted that Bayonne is home to plenty of authors, Broadway actors and even award-winning musicians.

For instance, George R.R. Martin, whose epic fantasy novels “A Song Of Ice and Fire” were the basis for the now-legendary “Game of Thrones” series, is a Bayonne native. So is Alpana Mittal, a visual artist whose work went as far as the renowned Art Expo in New York this year.

There’s also Frank Langella, who won critical acclaim for his starring role in the Broadway play Frost/Nixon, along with other on-stage successes—he’s won four Tony awards through his 50+ year career. Not to mention, Zack Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist—who is on the Hollywood Rock Walk of Fame—is also originally from the peninsula.

So yeah, Bayonne definitely has quite a bit of artistic prestige that is only now growing in recognition. “Bayonne is not the end of Hudson County, but the beginning,” according to Mack. “There’s so much creativity that exists here and this festival is a manifestation of that.”

Bayonne Director of Recreation Pete Amadeo, who has been instrumental in finding multiple purposes for public spaces of all kinds, lauded Bayonne residents that are following suit.

“It’s positive how the parks are being used,” he said. “The festival is going to be a great place for the community. Bayonne’s fortunate enough to have such great space.” Amadeo also is a fan of Dennis Collins Park. “First Street is a great setting for a festival,” he added. “It’s right by the water, with a great atmosphere.”

Performers expected to rock the festival include Bayonne’s Dave Watson,; NYC based sextet Beninghove’s Hangmen; and Son 3 y Mas. featuring Grammy-award winner Ralph Irizarry, who played for 14 years with Ruben Blades, the internationally renowned Panamanian salsa and jazz musician.

“Bayonne is a city that embraces all genres of music,” said Irizarry. “And sometimes you have to take baby steps to get people out and about.”