a brief Bronx story

Some of my colleagues spent their summer interning in Israel, South Africa, San Francisco, Jamaica, Moscow. Ten or so of us interned here in NYC for “New York’s Hometown Paper,” the News. We were scattered in Brooklyn, uptown Manhattan, City Hall, and in different areas of the paper. On day 1, when I walked in wet from the rain, they sent me to the Bronx.

When I was 19 in 2006 I moved to lower Westchester with my father after he married. We lived in a condo in a gated community wedged between Yonkers, Mount Vernon and Bronxville. I commuted to City College taking the Metro North through the Bronx into Harlem. For six years I hardly entered the Boogie Down on foot.

One of the first times I did though, was in early 2010 when I went alone to a food justice meeting in a storefront space in Hunts Point, near well-known community center The Point. Dennis Derryck was there, recruiting local mothers to a CSA program. Tanya Fields stood up at the end and asked people to join her in reclaiming a guerrilla garden.

On my first day in the Bronx office, my colleague was reporting on a study that had just come out on the rate of diabetes in the city. As the Bronx had it the worst she naturally ran with it but it was stolen by City Desk. I said I knew some people in that field, thinking of Fields who I knew was starting a bus that would go around the South Bronx and set up shop on corners as a farmers market.

My colleague did her story the next day anyway as a follow-up and in the second week or so I finally caught hold of Fields, days after Fast Company did a story on her, and interviewed her about the bus. I asked her intern, Shantrice, who is really a Brooklyn girl transplanted between college away and Paris, if she wanted to come with me to Soundview Park one day.

I knew about Soundview because the summer before J-school I profiled the Bronx River Alliance and reported on the “missing link” of the Bronx River Greenway by my home in Yonkers. For those stories I borrowed my father’s bike and rode it 12 miles from home on the river north to the Kensico Reservoir and dam and 12 miles south through Bronx Park and side streets to Soundview Park where the estuary opens into the Long Island Sound. That restored park was so beautiful and serene to me I couldn’t help but to compare it to heaven whenever I told people about it – or when I blogged about it. It might have in part felt that way though because of the trek on bike.

In the first semester of J-school I almost wound up on the North Bronx beat when asked by the school if I would switch classes to help even up the number of students in each class but had already started to like the class I was in, which had me cover the Upper West Side. This resulted in an awkward last post for my blog Finding the Bronx River, in which I tried to suggest the waters flowed down into the East River along Manhattan, as if back to the beginning where I started or something. But I wound up back in the Bronx for the second semester covering the FreshDirect controversy and other things.

But oddly my internship would end at Soundview, where Shantrice and I finally went after a bunch of other stops, including the Pregones Theater block party with Lincoln Center Outdoors. This was on the last weekend I had before my last week interning, in which one of my two Bronx colleagues had just taken off for my remaining days, leaving only two of us to cover the borough (minus crime stories*).

Teatro Pregones, I learned, was a traveling theater troupe of the 1970s Nuyorican arts movement. It was a Latino, Caribbean and Afro-caribbean bohemian performance group based in the South Bronx.

The block party merely preceded the next cycle of the theater season. Politicians were there, including Melissa Mark-Viverito, Julio Pabon and John Liu. I only spoke to the first two. Mark-Viverito had given me a good quote for a piece about Rebel Diaz and small non-profits struggling to have a space in the South Bronx – so I got to thank her in person.

Also a woman who I’d met at City College, Lynn Hill was there to read poetry about veterans and her experience in the air force. Veterans issues don’t get enough attention, said Shantrice’s brother’s gf when we walked back to the Concourse.

That day, the News reported a cop shot to death a 14 year-old boy who was chasing someone through Melrose, only blocks away from where the Block Party was hours later.

Trayvon Martin had run as a theme through the summer – for all of us – but also for my internship as I paid a lot of attention to these kinds of stories (search Quran Lucas) that unfolded in the Bronx, and saw Trayvon’s face on posters hung up around the South Bronx. It also started with this blog, when I happened to be in Florida watching with my family the case conclude, and then tried to cover a Trayvon Martin basketball game**, and tried to go see Fruitvale Station at Angelica, but it kept not happening.

And on Thursday morning, I was supposed to interview an artist but she rescheduled, and I searched Bronx on Twitter and saw Ramarley Graham trending there. A huge rally was about to go down at the Bronx DA’s office on 161st Street to protest the verdict. A jury in a resurrected case on the death of Ramarley Graham set free the cop who shot the unarmed teen in his Bronx apartment without a warrant early last year. The cop apparently argued he thought the teen was taking a gun out on him, but only was trying to flush pot down the toilet and had no gun.

Being so naive about this until then I pitched it but of course City Desk was on it, so I went back to the office, and on my way I asked this guy who works a blue collar job around there and says hi to me sometimes, if he heard about it. “I had just written that name down. Ramarley Graham. Man. I can’t believe you said that. He was just flushing pot down the toilet. I mean, who hasn’t done that kind of stuff.”

“I have,” I said.

“We all have.”

So they put me on briefs, and I wrote about Italian Catholics holding their annual “Giglio” celebration in East Harlem, and about how inner city kids can’t swim, and about a Bronx at-risk youth group performing a show about how the Bronx is not as bad as people think it is, how Hip Hop was born there, and a lot of other creative things have always thrived there.

On my last day I went to a playground on the Moshulu Parkway where a guy showed me how shotty and dangerous it was and needed to be fixed up. I agreed but let the story go when on the bus I saw on the Harding Park Facebook page that a resident caught a massive illegal dumping on tape. I’d never been to Harding Park, but wanted to when I discovered on ScoutingNY there’s a “tiny town” there in the tranquil little neighborhood by Soundview Park.

But they told me to go back to the office so I reported it by phone. Unfortunately the woman who owned the cameras and posted the images to Facebook wouldn’t talk to me at all so I only spoke to the homeowners association. It didn’t seem my editor was going to use it.

The Bronx River was a dumping ground until the mid-90s. A group of people began a clean-up effort that brought cars and other things out of the river, and tires off the banks. That story is massive, involving Majora Carter, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Bronx River Alliance, Concrete Plant Park, Starlight Park, Rock the Boat, the Parks Department and all these people and places that brought a fresh new light to the Bronx River. But still people sometimes dump heavy garbage in Harding Park, and neighbors have been installing infrared cameras to catch it at night. What I reported was a major instance of this, and someone said it was the first caught on camera. Someone dumped shelves, it looked like a library, at the edge of the neighborhood’s largest lagoon, there on the bottom most part of the estuary.

At the end of my last day, my editor didn’t seem 100% pleased with all my sources, since I never spoke to the woman who owned the cameras and saw the the truck come in. She just wouldn’t talk. But on Sunday as I took the 2 train down to Soundview Park to meet Shantrice at the festival set to go on there, I realized while looking at the Google map that Harding Park was right there, and I might as well knock on the woman’s door in case my primary editor, who had been on vacation, called me to go over what happened.

Before Shantrice got there this South Bronx youth group sang a song against gun violence. Someone announced the group had teemed up with the Daily News, maybe regarding the Aug 24  anti-gun violence walk for peace.

When Shantrice did come, we talked to the Friends of Soundview Park, and they asked us to mark down which activities we wanted there. I didn’t check “learn about nature,” but I did check, “picnic.” Then we wandered into greater Soundview, into Harding Park, through the heat, for many blocks, through the “tiny town,” and finally onto Cornell Avenue, down to the ironically named North Street, which opened up onto the little grassy area next to the lagoon, where we saw a view of the Manhattan Skyline so perfect and that can’t even be seen from Soundview Park proper, as far as I can tell. People were fishing there.

Harding Park 1

After a while of peace I asked if she wanted to go knock on the lady’s door. “No thanks,” she said. I said, “But adventure is not just peace. It’s also risk.” And I was trying to get her out of the mindset that I was trying to do “work,” but that this was really an urban/rustic adventure that had really started last year – only I couldn’t explain it so much, nor any sense of a holy subtext as it would sound stupid coming from me.

She watched from the shade near a bush while I walked up the driveway and rung a buzzer.

-

*A reference to Anthony Weiner was deleted because it didn’t make chronological sense.

**Correction: I saw later while cutting out my clips from Daily News papers that I had stacked somewhere, that my brief on the Trayvon Martin basketball game was in the paper (not online) but I somehow hadn’t seen it. The Quran Lucas piece was also in the paper, it turns out.

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