Pine Street gallery owner, neighborhood advocate evicted
COURTESY NICK LEVITIN
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Pine Street is known for its stoops. That’s how Mary Z. Scotti, a stoop-sitter herself, knew she would fit right in.
“While other parts of Montclair are investing in parklets, we have our stoops to stop, sit and talk about the day,” said Scotti, whose stoop, which also serves as the entrance to her 73 See Gallery, is covered in art.
Nine years ago when she moved into the gallery, tucked in an alleyway off of Pine Street in a former refrigeration and ice warehouse, no one knew that Scotti would bring a lot more than art to the neighborhood.
The gallery owner has long worked with her Pine Street neighbors to create strong relationships and increase public awareness of art, which she views as a "change-maker.”
Scotti may be right about that, but her neighbors insist that it was her undying love of people that really brought about change to this tight-knit part of Montclair tucked away in the Fourth Ward.
Nevertheless, after nine years, Scotti, who is on a month-to-month lease, will be closing the gallery — and leaving her stoop — after her landlord, Lexington & Concord, alerted her in April that she would have to vacate the space by the end of May. She was given no reason for the eviction, but was granted an extension to remain until the end of July so she could hold one more Pine Street ArtsFEST. This year’s festival is planned for this Saturday, June 8.
No one knows what will become of 73 Pine St. and no applications have been filed with the building department. Mark Jaworski, one of the partners at Lexington & Concord and the operator of a photography studio in the front of the building, did not return an email requesting comment.
A BOUNTIFUL THING
One of the first things Scotti did when she moved to the block, which contains many Section-8 rental properties, was to set up a food pantry of sorts by her front gate. Food, clothing, books and more are kept stocked for her neighbors, many of whom who live paycheck to paycheck or are on Social Security.
Much of what she organized for her neighbors centered on food. She partnered with Toni's Kitchen to cook and deliver weekly home-cooked lunches to residents. She organized potluck dinners, and Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
She tapped the Northeast Coalition and Cornucopia Network of New Jersey for funds to cultivate a community demonstration garden, which has taken over the driveway entrance to the gallery. Not only did her neighbors learn about nutrition, composting and how to grow their own vegetables, but the bounty that was produced was distributed to area families.
After one donation of three cases of apples, she gathered up local residents to help peel hundreds of them, making 80 pounds of applesauce for the neighborhood.
And as it has been the case for the past seven years, the street will be shut down to traffic for the ArtsFEST this Saturday. The festival, termed an “afternoon and evening of hands-on jollity,” is, in reality, an old-fashioned block party that gets everyone off their stoops. There’s live music, a parasol parade, art, face-painting, puppetry, a chalk art contest and, appropriately, lots of free food.
“There’s no vendors,'' said Scotti. "No buying or selling, just hands-on engagement. Come relate with us!”
ART, MUSIC AND BUTTERFLIES
Last week, as Scotti worked on the final exhibit at the gallery, 8-year-old Levi Givens ran in and hugged her. He has grown up around the gallery, attending art shows and meeting artists connected to the gallery — most recently, there was a March exhibit paying tribute to both Black History Month and Women’s History Month — while also helping with the gardens and learning how to play the violin through a music program that Scotti partnered with.
Levi ran into the back room and then reappeared with a piece of fruit. His mother and grandmother arrived, not wanting to discuss Scotti’s departure. But the inevitability of that moment hung heavy in the air.
Still, for now, they said they wanted to keep things positive -- for Scotti's benefit.
Another Scotti fan is artist Nick Levitin.
“She is an artist with the soul of saint,'' he said. "It was her good work that was such an integral part of the gallery.''
Levitin wandered into Scotti's gallery years ago, witnessed her interaction with her neighbors and wanted to document it through his photography. He created an exhibit called “Homage to Pine Street,” that reflected the year he spent photographing the people who sat on her stoop, played chess at her chess nights, and attended the open mics, book events and other art and music projects she organized for the neighborhood.
Last year, the neighborhood and the gallery were even part of a documentary on Monarch butterflies, entitled "Aiden's Butterflies.'' The film follows 11-year-old local butterfly enthusiast Aiden Wang as he travels the country meeting with others who share his passion of raising Monarchs including Montclair resident and Monarch butterfly expert Trina Paulus.
Visiting the gallery, Paulus felt an instant connection to Scotti, as both had worked with children overseas, Scotti serving in the Peace Corps and Paulus as a teacher. Through Scotti, Paulus brought her love of Monarchs and children to the Pine Street neighborhood teaching the art of raising milkweed that the Monarchs flock to. Soon the neighborhood was raising Monarchs.
The last scene of "Aiden's Butterflies'' is filmed outside Scotti's gallery, with Aiden and other children from the Pine Street area releasing the butterflies.
"Some of us help around the edges,'' Paulus said of her own efforts in the neighborhood. "But Mary has been an inside catalyst.'' She said it had been a "privilege” to work with Scotti who always saw "the good, the beautiful, in the people and the neighborhood.''
PINE STREET’S FUTURE?
Greg Pason, coordinator of Montclair Make Music Day, said Scotti was an integral part of the three-day event that brings hundreds of free musical performances to town. Pason also arranged the youth music programs held at the gallery in which Levi learned violin.
He admits being “angry” that Scotti is being forced out and is worried about the future of Pine Street. Pason sees it as a sign that gentrification of the neighborhood is not far off.
In 2015, when 73 Pine St. was listed for sale at $375,000 by 260 Alpine Refrigeration, Scotti attempted to buy it, but couldn’t raise enough funds. Lexington & Concord bought the building in 2016 for $300,000.
Over the last few years, Scotti said she has witnessed a change in the neighborhood. New landlords are taking over the apartment buildings and the Section-8 renters are slowly leaving, she said.
“I am worried that the development that brings new people into Montclair will not be serving the residents that have lived there for decades,” said Pason.
Although Scotti said she was hurt that Jaworski did not approach her directly about the eviction, Scotti does credit him with being “her angel” after the 2016 sale of building, as she was able to stay and flourish.
“All of this has been accomplished on a wing and a prayer, by the hard, but willing, work of our neighbors. Imbued with an intangible quality, so beautifully manifested over and over, of cooperation, respect and recognition of the value and dignity of all,'' Scotti said. "There are so many people to thank. So many who shared my dream, enhanced it, cultivated it and aided in its growth. So many indie groups who came together to support each other and our shared missions.''
Although the gallery will be gone come August, Levitin’s exhibit is now housed at the headquarters of HOMECorp, 17 Talbot St. Residents wanting to see the impact Scotti had on Pine Street can stop in and take a look.
“You see Mary’s remarkable respect for human beings and the respect they showed her in return,” Levitin said.
And Paulus hopes for one more celebration on Pine Street.
“We may actually have some flying monarchs to release by the end of July,'' she said.