In front of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Health Center stands an untitled steel sculpture. This work of art was created by a Bronx native named William (Bill) Tarr. Born in 1925, Tarr was interested in magic from an early age and went on to write many popular books on the subject. Tarr served in the Navy during World War II and developed an interest in art when he became a civilian, inspired by shapes in rotten wood. Self-taught, Tarr’s day job was working in advertising but his passion making sculptures, which he welded himself. By the sixties, his works were exhibited and bought by museums. In an 1967 interview Tarr said “art is made to be looked at” and his metallic compositions of words, letters and numbers could hardly be avoided.
The Segundo Ruiz Belvis heath center opened in early seventies at a time when Puerto Rican residents of the South Bronx wanted greater autonomy and improved social services. It’s purpose was to improve healthcare to families and offered improvements like playrooms and improved scheduling. The center’s ambitions were challenged by a long fight over where doctors would come from and despite potentially serving 50,000 residents, the clinic struggled to reach full capacity. Only the patronage of city councilman Ramon S. Velez saved it from closing.
The namesake of the center, Segundo Ruiz Belvis (1829-1867) was born in Hormigueros in western Puerto Rico, later to be the hometown of Velez. Belvis spent his childhood in Puerto Rico, then went on to higher education in Venezuela and Spain. Returning to settle in Mayaguez, he founded a secret society to abolish slavery in Puerto Rico and actively worked to free many Afro-Puerto Rican slaves. In 1866, he and other Puerto Rican nationalists planned a revolt against Spain, but Belvis died while fundraising in Chile in 1867. Slavery did not legally end in Puerto Rico until 1873.
How did Tarr get connected to the Belvis Center? Unclear, but he was always looking for places to display his work. Tarr had dedicated a sculpture to a public school in Morningside Heights and would dedicate another in front of Martin Luther King Jr. High School in the eighties.