Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Will The Recession End in June 2009? Who Are Economists Kidding!

Will The Recession End in June 2009 ? Who Are Economists Kidding!!

" If the recession ends in June 2009, as many economists are forecasting, it would have lasted 18 months, making it the longest recession in the post-World War II period".

Article by By MARTIN CRUTSINGER AP, December 23, 2008

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham University

One of the most frustrating things about reading economic news these days is the disconnect between published reports on the health of the banking system, the housing market, manufacturing and retail sales and the timetable economists are offering as to when the recession will end. I have yet to see a single piece of encouraging news coming from any of those sectors, yet it is hard to find a single economist willing to say that recovery won't begin until 2010, and possibly not then!

I'm not an economist, but I can put two and two together and they don't make five! With job losses just starting to spread to retail trades and government employment, and with problems with commercial real estate and credit card debt inhibiting banks willingness to lend no matter what bailout funds the federal government provides, where is the revival of consumer demand needed to pull us out of the recession going to come from?

Let's look at employment. Consumer demand has already taken a huge hit because of the freezing up of credit and losses in stock portfolios and retirement funds , But nothing hurts consumer demand like unemployment and the big jobs losses have just begun!. Let's take government employment. Generally, there is a lag of at least a year between when an economic downturn hits the private sector and when it impacts the public sector. Almost every state, and many city governments are suffering budget crises that will require them to lay off workers. Most of those layoffs won't begin until next spring- some won't take place till next fall. How, pray tell, is the economy going to pull out of a recession at the same time that hundreds of thousands of government workers are joining the ranks of the unemployed

Now look at retail sales, especially those specializing in "big ticket" items like automobiles, electronic appliances, entertainment systems and the like. Unless consumer credit is miraculously unfrozen, how many consumers, traumatized by job losses, salary freezes and declining home prices, are going to go out and buy automobiles and flat screen tv's. Declining sales are going to force many auto dealerships and
retailers into bankruptcy, creating a major new addition to the jobless ranks, along with people who work in hotels and restaurants.

These are all job losses that, for the most part, haven't taken place yet! How consumer demand is going to rise in the midst of such radical shrinkage in the labor market is a mystery I have yet to decipher l.

But wait a minute, thanks to the infusion of $300 billion dollars in bailout funds from the federal government, plus the Federal Reserve lowering interest rates to near zero, won't the banks start lending to consumers again so that Americans can resume their old habit of "shopping till they drop."

That would be nice present for the new year, but for that to be possible, one would have to believe that most of the bad loans and toxic financial products on bank balance sheets have already been written off and that they ready to start fres In fact nothing could be farther from the truth! Not only are here still hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars in credit default swaps still unaccounted for, but banks face a new wave of defaults on credit cards and commercial real estate that may equal the looses they took on home mortgages!. An article in yesterdays financial section estimated that bank write offs for bad debt in 2009 are likely to double those in 2008! Given what's coming, to imagine that banks are going to loosen restrictions on credit, especially for consumers, in the next 6 months, is to defy credulity!

So folks, to quote from one of my favorite rappers, Eminem -- "let's do the math" If unemployment continues to rise, stock portfolios continue to shrink, and commercial and consumer credit remain frozen
at current levels, where is a new burst of consumer demand going to come from?

The stimulus package the Obama administration proposes, if it passes without substantial modification, will create 2.5 million new jobs, but it will take at least two years to fully implement and replace only half of the jobs lost in the current recession. It is a valuable and necessary step to take- but at bestit will stop the bleeding, not lead to a new period of economic growth.

We have to face facts. Nothing policy makers can do will bring back the era of easy consumer credit that has fueled economic growth during the last twenty years.

We are going to face a long period of economic stagnation that will require new ways of thinking about what a healthy economy is and generate new forms of enterprise, undergirded by a new value system, that avoid the kind of waste and profligacy of an society that made the SUV and the McMansion the symbols of collective economic well being

American consumerism, in its current form, may be a casualty of this crisis. If we want something better- and equally dynamic- to replace it, we need to start thinking about alternatives now..

Mark Naison
December 23, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

How High School Students Saved the 1968 Columbia Strike

How High School Students Helped Save the Columbia Strike– And Why the Gentrification of Manhattan Bodes Ill for the Success of Future Protests

April 26, 2008

One of the most important explanations for the length of the building occupations at Columbia, and one that I have rarely seen mentioned in histories of the event, is the role that high school students played in protecting demonstrators during the early days of the occupation.

Many commentators on the strike point out that Columbia was reluctant to bring in police to clear out demonstrators, particularly from Hamilton Hall, because of fear of provoking a riot in Harlem, but they don't really talk about why the students from the "Majority Coalition," who surrounded Hamilton and Low Library during the first two days of the strike, ultimately gave up on trying to pull demonstrators out of the buildings or prevent food from getting in.

As someone who was part of the group of radical athletes and neighborhood youth who tried to get food through the Majority Coalition barricades (my girlfriend was in Hamilton Hall) I had first hand exposure to how volatile the situation was. Majority Coalition members, several hundred in number, exchanged ugly racial epithets with the demonstrators in Hamilton Hall, and tried to punch and tackle members of our Food Committee when we broke their barricade around Low Library.

But it was not members of our fifteen person "SDS Goon Squad" that persuaded the Majority Coalition to end their barricade around the occupied buildings, it was the group of 500 high school students from Harlem and the West Side who came up to confront opponents of the strike the third day of the occupation. The majority of these students came from Brandeis High School, a notoriously tough school located on 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenue located in what was then a working class, mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood. As they marched through the Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue gates onto the campus chanting Black Power slogans, many of the Majority Coalition students began to think twice about whether they were willing to get involve in what could easily turn into a race war with neighborhood teenagers. From that point on, the demonstrators no longer had to worry about their fellow students; it was police action that was their major concern.

Why is it important to emphasize this incident? Because without the passionate support of people in the working class Black and Latino communities adjoining Columbia, the strike and occupations would not have lasted seven days, and would not have produced the major policy change the strike induced, which was halting construction of the gym in Morningside Heights.

Sadly, many of those working class neighborhoods are gone. The blocks surrounding Brandeis have become prime Manhattan real estate, with some of the highest rents in the city. Manhattan Valley, the tough mostly Puerto Rican area bordered by Amsterdam Avenue, Central Park West, 110 Street and 100th Street is gentrifying at breakneck speed, only saved from a complete turnover in population by the public housing project in its borders. And Harlem is in the midst of a development boom that is radically changing its racial and class composition.

Today, should Columbia students decide to seize buildings on their campus in support of an important objective, be it stopping Columbia expansion, or ending the war in Iraq, one would be hard pressed to find, much less mobilize, a critical mass of high school students living close enough to the campus to be a factor influencing university policy. And as for the people of Harlem rioting to defend their community from outside forces, as they did to protest police brutality in 1935, 1943 and 1965, that, I am afraid is something the class and racial diversity of the neighborhood has rendered most unlikely.

Without worrying about pressure, and possible violence, from residents of neighborhoods outside the the campus, the Columbia administration will have a relatively free hand to deal with its own students if they protest university policies.

That is why the current University expansion plan, unlike the gym project in Morningside Park, is likely to go forward with little opposition.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creating Opportunity Out of Tragedy-Occupying Abandoned Commercial Space Will Be the Next Phase of the Civil Rights Struggle

Creating Opportunity Out of Tragedy- Occupying Abandoned Commercial Space Will be the Next Phase of the Civil Rights Struggle

Whether or not auto bailout legislation passes, the US economy is about to experience an abandonment cycle, comparable to what took place in the South Bronx in the 1970's and in rustbelt cities throughout the 1980's.. Beginning in January,, the US retail sector,, which is desperately trying to get rid of inventory during the holiday season, will suffer a wave of closings, bankruptcies and foreclosures the like of which has never been seen in modern US history. All over the nation, as layoffs and the credit freeze take their toll on consumers (who are haivng their last "splurge" between Thanksgiving and New Years), thousands of stores and restaurants will be closing their doors, turning commercial districts into ghost towns and forcing many malls and commercial buildings to the edge of bankruptcy. When you add to this all the auto dealer ships that will be closing, and all the new office buildings and luxury apartment complexes that will remain empty because they can't attract tenants, Americans will be confront an extraordinarily demoralizing, visual evidence of their economy's failure to prepare for a devastating and possibly permanent decline in consumer demand.

As someone who witnessed the effect of a devastating abandonment cycle on the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn in the 1970's, I am acutely aware of how a tragedy of this kind can produce demoralization, division and and paralysis. It took nearly ten years for community organizations to begin rebuilding devastated neighborhoods, of the South Bronx and nearly thirty years for those neighborhoods to approache their previous levels of population growth and economic vitality. But we have two big advantages over the residents of the South Bronx and Brownsville in the 1970's- first, we know this tragedy is coming, even thought it's probably unavoidable,, and second, it will affecting the entire nation not just the poorest neighborhoods in a single Northeastern city.

But what should we do about this?

The strategy that I would recommend, following the model created by activists in Berlin after the fall of the Berlin wall is "temporary occupancy. When Berlin became one city afterreunification,, an enormous number of state owned enterprises failed when forced to compete in the private marketplace, leaving in their wake a huge number of abandoned factories, warehouses, apartment houses and storefronts. Into the breach stepped thousands of political activists, artists, students and ordinary citizens, who without legal sanction took possession of abandoned spaces and set up living cooperatives,,art and music studios and community owned clubs, bars and restaurants, doing their own construction work and taking electricity and water from the street or adjoining buildings. So large was this movement (soon fueled by participants from all over Germany and all over Europe,) that the police were powerless to evict the occupiers. But more the point, the movement began generating succeesful new enterprises and began to revive decaying portions of the city. Within several years, the Berlin city government actually gave legal recognition to the movement by allowing groups to occupy buildings free of charge for up to three years provided theycould fund the costs of making buildings habitable.

This model, I suggest, is well suited to the abandonement cycle that is about to hit large sections of the nation. If community organizations, artists cooperatives, trade unions, and student organizations start preparing now, they can begin occupying abaondoned stores, warehouses, car dealerships and luxury apartment buildings en masse when the economic crisis hits. From the very day they seize abandoned space, these groups should be demanding legal recognition of their efforts, whether they be using the space to create youth centers, housing for homeless families, art and music studios, food cooperatives, research centers for green technology or health center using alternative medicine Initially, some of the groups seizing space may risk eviction or arrest, but once authorities see the benefits of such occupancy in terms of safety and economic vitality for the communities they are taking place in ( nothing contributes more to crime and vandalism than permanently abandoned structures!), authorities well follow the model of Berlin and give such efforts legal sanction.

Given what is happening in our economy, we have little to lose in trying such a strategy. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs, millions more are losing their homes, or apartments and a generation of students will be leaving college and graduate school without meaningful job prospects. To wait till credit markets expand enough, and consumption revives enough for the market to restore abandoned space to commercial use, may involve waiting for ten years. Why not circumvent this process and create our own enterprises outside the conventional credit system and force markets to adapt to us?. In the process, we will energize a generation of young people who face idlleness and demoraliization, create living space for the homeless,, turn abandoned commercial strips into centers of activity and quite possibly, spawn a musical and artistic renaissance.

We can't remaiin passive in the face of the worst eocnomic crisis to hit us since the Great Depression.:Let's start organizing now to turn tragedy into opportunity. Occupying abaondoned space can be the Civil Rights- and Human Rights- cause of this era.

Culture Is Politics in the Bronx and Berlin

Mark Naison: Culture is Politics in the Bronx and Berlin
Falll 2007

I just came back from another amazing trip to Berlin. I was there, with my wife Liz, to give a speech on Bronx Music and Migration at a Conference on Berlin and New York sponsored by the House of the Cultures of the World, but also was able to spend three additional days touring the city, talking to conference participants, and reconnecting with friends I had made on my last trip. Thanks to the efforts of conference organizer Susanne Stemmler,and the amazing staff of the House of The Cultures of the World, we were given tours of Berlin neighborhoods, and an explanation of the city's remarkable history that will forever remain etched in my memory. I will give you a brief summary of some of the things we learned about the city because there is much New Yorkers can learn from the Berlin experience

For me, the tone for the entire visit was set by a pre conference bus and walking tour led by an architect and community organizer named Matthias Heyden. Matthias was part of a whole group of artists and revolutionaries who came to Berlin after the fall of the Wall to try to create a new society which retained the egalitarian traditions of socialism while opening up space for free expression in politics and the arts. His tour took us to many of Berlin's best known historic sites, from the Brandenburg Gate, to the Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Museum, the Pergamon Museum , to "Checkpoint Charlie," but he also took us to abandoned apartment buildings, factories, and warehouses in the formerly Eastern Sector of the City which had been occupied by young artists and musicians and turned into galleries, studios, and discos under a remarkable city ordinance that allowed for temporary occupancy of vacant stores and buildings by cultural groups FREE OF CHARGE until those facilities could be rented to commercial users! This was Berlin's response to the wrenching economic dislocations that took place after the fall of Communism. Rather than leveling abandoned factories, stores and apartment buildings, or selling them off to developers at a fraction of their value, which was done in New York after the fiscal crisis of the 70's, Berlin created a formula for grass roots occupancy which has helped turn Berlin into a mecca for young artists from all over the world. In neighborhood after neighborhood, young migrants to Berlin have reclaimed abandoned spaces, created cooperative living arrangements, generated new enterprises and,in more than a few occasions, reached out to disfranchised youth living in immigrant neighborhoods or in depressed sections of former East Berlin. It was inspiring to see how people throughout this remarkable city, which has an extremely high unemployment rate and a nearly bankrupt local government, were using culture as an engine of economic development and a vehicle to organize and unite communities. Music, theatre, dance and the visual arts, all seemed to be thriving. Rather than sinking into depression and despair, Berlin, under prodding from political activists and creative urban planners turned its deficits into assets by attracting young people with cultural capital willing to take advantage of the city's low rents and abandoned commercial spaces.I think New York has a lot to learn from Berlin's approach!

Now for the Conference. The House of World Cultures an organization created by US foundations and government agencies during the Height of the Cold War, created this gathering as part of a three month long New York/Berlin cultural festival. The Conference brought together academics, urban planners, community organizers, artists, and political activists from both cities for presentations comparing the history and cultural life of two cities known for their cultural vitality. My role was to give a paper about the role of immigration and migration in shaping musical creativity in the Bronx, a subject of great interest to Berliners who have seen their city transformed by immigration, and have watched Berlin become one of the world's great musical centers. with hip hop, dancehall and techno all thriving, along with ethnic musical traditions of Africa, Turkey and the Middle East.

My paper began with a discussion of two Bronx neighborhoods, Morrisania and Hunts point, where a mix of African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Puerto Ricans, who migrated there from Harlem during and after World War II, created, a unique culture of live performance music, in which mambo, be bop, rhythm and blues, doo wop and calypso not only thrived individually, but influenced and cross fertilized one another. I talked about the many clubs and theatres along Boston Road Westchester Avenue and Southern Boulevard, the great music programs in the local public schools, and the influence of street corner singers and congueros who created a music soundtrack to the rhythms of daily life. But I also spoke of the role of public housing in cementing the Bronx's multicultural character and creating spaces for cultural creativity. Not only were the first public housing projects in the Bronx thoroughly multiracial, having Blacks, Latinos and Whites, living together in the same developments, but they all had community centers which sponsored talent shows and musical performances. When Bronx neighborhoods suffered arson and abandonment in the late 1960's and 1970's,these centers played a critical role in maintaining and reinventing local musical traditions. Most of the early Bronx hip hop jams, led by pioneering dj's like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambatta, Charley Chase, and Disco King Mario took place in the community centers and public spaces of bronx housing project and subsidized middle income housing developments created under the Mitchell Lama program. The Bronx's legacy of cultural creativity, I argued, was not only a reflection of the immigrants and migrants who came into its neighborhoods it was fostered by enlightened government policies which created affordable housing for the Bronx's working class and middle class residents of the borough.

To reinforce my argument that culture is political, and that cultural creativity is responsive to government initiatives ranging from liberalized immigration laws to the construction of affordable housing, I played a video at the end of my presentation that brought all these themes together. Called "Which Side Are You On," the video was produced by a South Bronx revolutionary hip hop group called "Rebel Diaz", composed two Chilean immigrants , an MC and DJ,, and a Puerto Rican rapper and poet. The video, which begins with a famous Depression Era labor song, shows how hip hop can become a vehicle of expression for the world's struggling people, whether African Americans fighting police violence, immigrants resisting exploitation and deportation, or peoples around the world challenging the power of the US Government , and how hip hop rhymes and beats can convey powerful messages Many of the more than 300 people in the audience, most of whom were Berliners had never seen hip hop linked to politics with such powerful words and images . But some people in the audience drew legitimacy from this video for their own community work. People from three important Berlin organizations, the Street University, Gangway Berlin, and the Kreuzbeg Museum came up to talk to me about possible Bronx/Berlin exchanges and collaborations that would link the youth of both cities. And several community organizers and planners from New York came up to ask me if they could get groups like Rebel Diaz to participate in movements like the campaign to stop the Atlantic Yards construction project in Downtown Brooklyn.

A trip to East Berlin the next day, organized by my friend Susanne Stemmler, further reinforced my determination to linkages between artists and cultural workers in Berlin and the Bronx. Susanne took me and Liz to an abandoned transformer station near her apartment building, where a reknowned Berlin dj and break dancer, Akim Walta, had created what he called a "Hip Hop Stutzpunkt"- a combination music studio, publishing house and community center where young people of Berlin could express their creative impulses and develop income generating businesses. What Walta and his friends had done with this five story building, without any grants or subsidies, was truly remarkable, as was his determination to make sure that young people from Berlin neighborhoods participate in every one of his enterprises. One of his outdoor festivals that Susanne attended attracted hundreds of Berlin teenagers, demonstrating hip hop's power to mobilize disfranchised youth is as great in Berlin as it is in the Bronx

After visiting this remarkable community center, and feeling the love and energy that Berlin youth workers like Olad Aden(Gangway), ,Gio De Sera(Street Univesity) Martin Duespohl ( Kreuzberg Museum) and scholars like Susanne Stemmler put into their work, I was more determined than ever to create some kind of institutional linkage between people who work with youth in Berlin and the Bronx. I have already set up several meetings with Bronx organizations to explore this possibility and will return to Berlin in May to meet with community organizers and cultural workers there who might want to partner with us.

I can't wait to go back! I love Berlin!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Bronx Comes To Germany- My Visit To Hip Hop Berlin

The Bronx Comes to Germany- My Visit To Hip Hop Berlin
May 2007

My head is spinning after the three days I spent in Berlin. I came to deliver a paper on the Multicultural Roots of Bronx Hip Hop to an international conclave of scholars in Urban Studies, but spent as much time in the immigrant neighborhoods of Berlin as I did at the university and discovered, first hand, how much hip hop has become the chosen vehicle of expression for disaffected and disfranchised youth throughout the world. The experience I had in Kreuzberg- Berlin's largest immigrant neighborhood- had such a powerful effect on me that I decided to bring the spirit of Kreuzberg, and the Bronx neighborhoods my paper was about, into the conference by "performing" my paper with a rapper and an African drummer rather than simply reading it.

This exercise in democratizing academic culture may or may not have been successful, but before exploring it in depth, I need to say something about the events which preceded itMy guide and co-conspirator in my Berlin adventure was Susanne Stemmler, a post doctoral scholar at the Center for Metropolitan Stuides in Belin, who is writing a book comparing immigrant hip hop in Berlin, Paris and New York. Susanne spent two months in New York working with the Bronx African American History and helped arrange several important Oral History Interviews, and I was looking forward to meeting Susanne on "her own turf." Susanne met me at the airport and took me to meet the other organizers of the Conference at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at Berlin's Technical University. The CMS offices reminded me of the Bronx African American History Project center on the 6th floor of Dealy Hall. It was populated by a team of young scholars passionate about their work, but not afraid to have fun. I immediately felt at home and plopped down on a coach to take a nap, so I could handle the demanding schedule Susanne had mapped out for me without succumbing to jet lagWhen we awoke, Susanne took me on an amazing journey into immigrant Berlin.

Our first stop was to a legendary neighborhood called Kreuzberg, which was for the last thirty years has been a gathering point for hippies, radicals, punks, and most recently, Turkish and African immigrants. Susanne said this was the one neighborhood in Berlin that skin heads and neo-Nazis were afraid to venture into and it was a place where dark skinned immigrants could live and socialize without the harsh stares- and sometimes worse- of white Germans who felt threatened by their presenceWhen we got out of the cab I looked around me in amazement. This was very different than the hip, upscale neighborhood Technical University was located in, which reminded me of the West Village or Park Slope. I felt transported into outer borough immigrant New York. At least half of the people on the streets looked like they came from Turkey or the Middle East, supplemented by a small contingent of people from Africa. Many of the whites, especially the younger ones, seemed to sport tattoos, nose rings and multicolored hair. The streets were crowded, noisy and dirty, and there was graffiti everywhere, some of it in the form of tags and some of it in the form of complicated and innovative art work. The Turkish influence was seen in the shops blaring Turkish music, in chadors of Muslim women walking with their children, in the tough chiseled faces of the young men standing on street corners and in the satellite dishes on the terrace of almost every apartment in public housing which allowed their owners to get programs from Turkey.

Throw out your image of a spotlessly clean German city where hausfraus water the streets in front of apartment buildings and stores. Kreuzberg was a funky, dirty, vital urban space that reminded me of Sunset Park in Brooklyn or Corona in Queens, filled with immigrant energy and enterprise with an undercurrent of alienation and rage Susanne and I walked to a community center called "Nanynritze" in Kreuzberg a six story building whose doors and exterior walls were covered with murals and tags. It was as though the center's directors believed that the youth they were working with felt most comfortable in a chaotic environment. Skilled art work and amateurish scrawling were given equal footing

The center was locked and we prepared to go to our next stop when two young white women with bare midriffs, multiple piercings and tattoos walked up to the door of the center and opened it with a key. Susanne asked what they were doing and they told her they were break dancers practicing for a performance We asked if we could accompany them and walked with them to a practice room on the second floor of the center where they had a CD player. Here, the Bronx music CD's I had brought to accompany my presentation at the conference came in handy. When I put Grand Master Flash's "The Message" on the CD players, a huge smile came on the two dancer’s faces. They knew this and several other songs I had in my collection, including Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" and Afrika Bambatta's "Planet Rock" and we spent a few minutes laughing, talking and taking pictures before Susanne and I moved on to our next stop.

After a long ride on Berlin's excellent and very complicated rapid transit system, we came out in another neighborhood where we had a meeting set up with Olad Aden, an African American social worker fluent in German who was working with an organization called "Gangway" which sought to find artistic and athletic outlets for Berlin's disfranchised youth, irrespective of race or neighborhood. Olad was going to take us to a community center in his neighborhood where young people were painting a graffiti mural to mark the beginning of a local cultural festival.Olad, a well built man in his late thirties dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, told us that Berlin had a gang problem in a number of neighborhoods and that the program he worked with tried to bring disaffected youth into organized programs which gave an outlet for their energies. The kids in the neighborhood he worked in were mostly children of Turkish or Arab immigrants, but there were other neighborhoods the program organized which were located in what used to be East Berlin and where the kids involved were mainly skin heads and neo Nazis.

After a brief lunch at a café in a park, where we drew what I though were some unfriendly stares from the all-white patrons, we walked about ten blocks to a community center across the street from a supermarket where two men in their early forties were helping a group of about ten adolescents create a graffiti mural on a wall about 30 feet long and 10 feet high. I asked for a CD player and started playing Bronx Hip Hop and soon we had a crowd around us talking about the cultural festival they were sponsoring and the neighborhoods they lived in. They were very excited about the possibility of any kind of exchange program that could get them to New York and Olad told us that a local organization called “The Checkpoint Charlie Foundation” might be interested in funding such a program. We then left the site and invited Olad, who was a huge hip hop fan, to come to hear my paper on the Bronx origins of Hip Hop which I was giving on Sunday afternoon.

We returned to the Conference very excited and had a great time at the plenary that evening and the morning and afternoon sessions the next day, but were even more excited about the trip we were planning the next evening to a community center in Kreuzberg’s Gorlitzer Park, where we were going to be meeting a Turkish social worker who organized neighborhood youthThe next day, Katja Sussner, one of the main organizers of the Conference and a good friend of Susanne’s drove us to Gorlitzer Park, dropping us off at an entrance about 8 blocks from the Center. As we walked through the park, I felt completely at home. There were Turkish families having picknicking on folding tables, African men gathering in groups of twenty and thirty to talk and play drums, hippies playing hackie sack and throwing frisbees, families with young children and teenage girls in skimpy clothing taking in the sun and walking slowly to make sure they were seen. The park was scruffy, filled with patches of dirt where grass used to be, and trees that needed watering and pruning. Virtually every wall and surface was covered with graffiti- brazen, colorful, almost overwhelming in its sheer command of the visual space. The community center and café, when we finally found them, looked like graffiti monuments, and the shaded spots under their rooves were filled with people. Some of them were immigrants, but some of them were local organizers of protests against the G-8 summit, which was coming to Berlin in two weeks. Susanne and I went up to talk to them and they told us that Gorlitzer Park was the place where protesters could come to get food, get medical attention, or find a place to sleep

We walked into the Kreuzer Community Center in Gorlitzer Park where we were greeted by the Center’s director, Erbil, a Turkish immigrant Susanne has known for many years, plus other community activists. Because few young people were there at that time, we had a conversation about the Center’s work, conducted in German and English with Susanne translating. The story the Center director told was grim. Many of the young people he works with feel they have no place in German society. They are mocked and discriminated against in the local public schools, discriminated against when they apply for jobs, and feel they have fewer economic options than their parents generation. Angry and demoralized, and without organizational outlets for their discontent there is no Turkish NAACP in Berlin—they have seized upon hip hop culture as their major vehicle for expressing their discontent and telling the world that they are not going to quietly disappear. They feel that Germany is their country, but that most Germans don’t accept them, and their frustration could easily morph into the kind of rage that exploded into the suburbs of Paris

In the middle of our discussion, five young teenagers swaggered into the community center, looking at me and Susanne with very skeptical eyes. The community center director told them who we were and told us that one of the young men was a talented rapper. I told Susanne to tell the kids that I was from the Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, and that I wanted to hear them rap. Susanne did so and as soon as she did, the oldest of the youngsters, who called himself MC Abbos, began to rhyme. Suddenly, this quiet young man became transformed into a bundle of energy and passion, spinning out rhymes in German with breathtaking speed while his hands and body moved in rhythm. It didn’t matter that that I didn’t know the exact words. He made me feel his pride, his rage, his determination to be heard and his boastful recognition of his own genius. It was one the most powerful expression of hip hop’s power to give voice to the voiceless that I had ever heard, and I was determined to find some way of bringing the spirit of his performance into my presentation

The next portion of the day provided an element of comic relief to what we saw in the Community Center. Susanne and I repaired to the outdoor café across from the Community where we were to meet Noel Garcia Lopez an anthropologist from Barcelona who was my co-panelist at the Conference. Noel is a pioneer in a new field called “sound anthropology” which involves recording and analyzing sounds in urban settings, comparing them over time, and analyzing what these sounds can tell us about the neighborhoods they were recorded in. Noel was meeting us for a “sound walk” through Kreuzberg and came up to us very excited about a scene he had just recorded in Gorlitzer Park involving ten children playing in a public fountainUnfortunately, when Noel joined us, it started pouring so we had to move to the indoor portion of the café until it stopped raining. There Noel recorded the sounds of the bar, which proved to be much more interesting, when played back, that I could have imagined

When the rain stopped, we headed toward the street under the canopy of the café, where a whole group of Middle Eastern men had gathered. All of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my foot. I looked down and saw that I had stepped on a broken bottle, and that it had gone all the way through my shoe. When I extracted the bottle and took off my shoe and sock, I saw my foot was bleeding fairly badly, but one of the people with us, a paramedic, assured me that the wound was small enough so that I wouldn’t need stitches. While Susanne got bandaids and paper napkins from the café, he used pressure to stop the bleeding and was able to bandage me up enough to walk comfortably. Once the first scare was over, we found the entire situation hilarious, especially when I began quoting from the lines of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” “Broken glass everywhere , people pissing on the stairs you know they just don’t care”I suggested that we tell people that I was “cut” in Kreuzberg and was saved from serious injury only by the intrepid action by my “posse” from the Center for Metropolitan Studies

In fact, my friends did go the extra mile to see that this injury was not more serious. When we got back to my hotel, Susanne spent nearly an hour riding around on her bicycle to find an open pharmacy where they sold disinfectant The next day, Susanne, Noel and I planned to find the most effective way of bringing the spirit of Berlin’s immigrant neighborhoods and streets into our session, which was the final one in the conference. Noel’s suggestion was that we move the panel from a Conference room into a huge adjoining rotunda, where the sounds he had recorded be heard more effectively. My suggestion was that someone play the conga drums during my presentation to duplicate the sounds of Bronx neighborhoods in the period I was discussing. Somehow, Susanne made both of these things happen. She developed plans to shift the panel and recruited a former student of hers name Theophilus, who was a drummer and slam poet, to be part of my presentation.At lunch, our plans became even more complex. When a Berlin rapper named Johannes showed up who could beat box and free style, I decided to transform my presentation into a three person performance, beginning with a drumming exhibition and a poem from Theophilus, the reading of a shortened version of my papers to a drum accompaniment, and a freestyle exhibition by Johannes at the conclusion of my paper. To make room for the drum portion of the session, Noel decided to cut the written portion of his paper in half

Needless to say, this session, as we had planned it, was not the most conventional expression of German, or indeed American academic culture, but we all felt it was something we needed to do after what we had seen and experienced the last two days.How did it work? Well, Noel’s presentation set a wonderful tone. No one present probably believed that sounds recorded in urban spaces could particularly interesting or revealing, but the sounds Noel chose opened everyone’s minds, and ears. Then I moved into my presentation by saying that hop hop arose in the Bronx in part because public spaces in the Bronx were filled with percussion and the sound of drums, and then called on Theofilus to give a demonstration. He en presented a poem, with his own drumming as background, called “African Drum” which brought to life the message my paper was presenting, followed with a moving thank you to the Conference organizers for allowing him to express himself in a country where he often felt like an outsider. Then as I began to read my paper, Theophilus accompanied me on the drum, following the rise and fall of my voice, and the paper’s message with great sensitivity and skill.

When when my paper was over Johannes leapt on the floor- literally- and began free styling in English, French and German to the accompaniment of Theophilus’s drum. When the session ended three minutes later, the audience looked utterly stunned by what they had witnessed, but a number of people came up to us and said how much they enjoyed what they had seen. But the session wasn’t over. After Susanne closed the conference by thanking all of us for coming, she turned the meeting over to an Afro-German rapper she had invited who dazzled the audience with a series of three extraordinary raps that had everyone shouting and clapping. The speed of his delivery, the rhythms he created with his words and body movements, and the passion and anger and pride he expressed in the totality of his sounds and movements, gave the scholars in that room a glimpse of hip hop’s power to give young people who feel marginalized, stigmatized and trapped a voice. It was one of those moments where art and scholarship and politics became oneAfter all, isn’t that what Conferences are for?

Berlin Narrative: Crossing Cultural Boundaries Through Hip Hop With Rebel Diaz

Berlin Narrative- Crossing Cultural Boundaries Through Hip Hop With Rebel Diaz
Mark Naison, Fordham University

“This music is resistance, it’s the voice of the poor”
Rebel Diaz “Which Side Are You On”

On Tuesday, May 27, 2008, I boarded a plane bound for Berlin with Rebel Diaz, the amazing Bronx hip hop group whose video “Which Side Are You On,” is one of the most powerful political statements I have seen in recent years. We were there to participate in an international hip hop festival organized by the House of World Cultures called PROPZ- People Respect Other People Seriously- and to work on a Bronx Berlin Youth Exchange. The guiding force behind both of these initiatives, on the Berlin side, was the brilliant German hip hop scholar Susanne Stemmler, who was working hard to build linkages between the House of World Cultures, where she now worked as a program administrator, and Berlin’s immigrant and hip hop communities. She had brought us to Berlin not only for our our performing skills and knowledge of hip hop history, but because of our commitement to using hip hop to inspire creativity and political activism in marginalized youth.

The first indication of how well organized this festival was came when we were met at the Berlin airport by a young German graduate student named Anna Neumann, who was going to be our driver for the week. Anna, whose unique and very un-German driving skills earned her the nickname “Dj Illegal,” was as knowledgeable about Berlin neighborhoods as she was about hip hop, and gave us a running commentary on every community we drove through. Our next stop was the House of World Cultures, where we spoke, over lunch with Susanne’s colleagues who were in charge of that organizations cultural programming. I gave them press kits from three great Bronx jazz musicians, Valerie Capers, Bobby Sanabria, and Jimmy Owens, and suggested that they might want to organize a festival highlighting the Bronx’s contribution to jazz and latin music if the hip hop program was successful.

Our next stop was a meeting with Gio De Sera, the founder of an organization called the Street University, which met in the Naunynritze community center in Berlin’s most famous immigrant and countercultural neighborhood, Kreuzberg. As we got out of the van in front of the Center, I saw the mouths of the three members of Rebel Diaz open in amazement. The walls adjoining the community center, which was the size of a large New York City public school, were covered with graffiti murals that honored hip hop legends from the Bronx as well as local Berlin figures. Inside the building, graffiti art was everywhere, some of it primitive tags by neighborhood kids, much of it looking like the best of the subway masterpieces done in New York in the 1970’s. Neither Rebel Diaz, nor I, had ever seen anything like this Here was a six story building, taking up a quarter of a city block, with dance studios, a theater, a computer room, art workshops, basketball courts and café, all free and open to anyone who walked in, whose walls were covered with posters, graffiti art and political slogans defending the rights of immigrants and minorities around the world. And it was all funded by the Berlin city government! It was as if somebody gave Afrika Bambatta, the great Bronx hip hop pioneer and founder of the Zulu Nation, title to an abandoned factory and said “here, doing anything you want with this building as long as it serves neighborhood youth.” Gio Di Sera, the Street University’s founder, a graffiti artist, break dancer and music impresario from Naples, described with pride his efforts to make the Center a place where the angriest and most alienated young people in Kreuzberg, especially children of immigrants, would feel at home, and express their feelings through art. Hip Hop, Di Sera told us, had saved him from a life of violence and a life of crime, and the Street University represented his efforts to offer the same opportunity to the youth of Berlin.

Our next stop was a the KMA Antenne Youth Center, located in another part of Kruezberg. Housed in an apartment building that overlooked a pedestrian mall filled with Turkish and Mideastern shops, KMA had none of the countercultural atmosphere of the Street University. The rooms and hallways were graffiti free and the person who greeted us, Karlheinz Haase, was an academically trained social worker who spoke almost clinically about incorporating Berlin’s Turkish and Muslim minorities into the city’s schools and civic culture. But hip hop was as important at the KMA Attenne Center programs as it was at the Street University. To illustrate this, Karlheinz took us to a break dance class across the hall from his office, where 12 young men aged 11 to 18, some dark complexioned, some with blond hair and blue eyes, took turns going to the center of the circle they were arranged in and showing off acrobaticr moves to hard driving jams. The enthusiam of the of the young people in the class which impressed us as much as their skill level, jumped up a notch when Rod Starz, the Rebel Diaz MC who had been a B-Boy in Chicago, entered the middle of the circle and began popping some of his old moves. Everyone started cheering. Though Rebel Diaz spoke no German and the kids spoke no English, mutual respect was instantaneous! Somehow, a dance and musical culture created in the Bronx had become the chosen vehicle of expression for a cross section of Berlin youth, and had acquired the power to cross boundaries of nationality, religion and race that the city’s political leaders and educators had difficulty bridging. Even gender barriers were falling, because as we left the room, a group of middle eastern girls wearing sweatpants and headbands were entering the room to join the cipha .We left the Center with an overwhelming sense of hip hop’s power to give disfranchised youth connection to a global community

Our final stop to the day was a welcome dinner at the Hip Hop Stutzpunkt, a cultural center, studio and residence devoted to hip hop culture that had been created in an abandoned transformer building in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of East Berlin. If you are wondering when and how community art centers were created on such a massive scale,they were a consequence of the economic dislocations that took place when Germany was unified and large numbers of e enterprises were unable to compete in the world market place. Berlin, especially in its Eastern Sector, underwent a rapid deindustrialization, leaving much of its industrial and commercial space abandoned. Whereas New York, when it underwent its deindustrialization in the 1970s’ discouraged occupation of abandoned spaces and actually arrested people who practiced it, the Berlin city government adopted a policy of temporary occupancy which allowed people to occupy and use abandoned commercial space free of charge for up to three years if they could pay for their own water and electricity. The arts community, not only in Berlin, but all over Europe, and all over the world, took greatest advantage of this policy, transforming abandoned building into studios and living space for musicians, painters, and people working in theater and film. The Hip Hop Stutzpunkt, the brainchild of a break dancer, dj and publisher named Akim Walter, was a product of this unique cultural renaissance, and for more than fifteen years had sponsored festivals, competitions, record release parties, and the publication of books and cd’s for hip hop artists from all over the world. It was filled with magnificent posters and life size cardboard models of hip hop legends from the UA, as well as first rate recording equipment, computer rooms and spaces large enough to hold a small conference.

The dinner itself,reflected the breadth of support for the PROPZ festival in Berlin. In addition to Susanne and her New York guests, it included staff members from the House of World Cultures, representatives of the Hip Hop Stutzpunkt, young scholars from the Center for Metropolitan Studies, a local hip hop impresario named Johannes Erdman, and a charismatic social worker for Gangway Berlin named Olad Aden who had just produced a hip hop album featuring the street youth he worked with and was the guiding force in the Bronx Berlin youth exchange we hoped to initiate. The food was great, the wine and beer flowed freely and the conversation took place in English, German and Spanish. After learning more about one another’s work, we started preparing for the events of the next day, which included a press conference and a two hour radio show at the House of World Cultures hosted by Johannes Erdmann.

The next event, a 12 noon press conference just outside the Café Zapata, the club where most of the festival performances would take place, left me and Rebel Diaz gasping for breath. Not because of the press conference, which was boring and short, but because of the space it took place in. Imagine a yard the size of a city block covered with sand, filled with tires and benches and picnic tables, where people could hang out during the day, and drink in the evenings, served by four outdoor and two indoor bars. Then imagine a magnificent ten story building, well over a hundred years old that had been abandoned and occupied by artists after the unification of Germany and transformed into a community arts center with 29 different workshops and a restaurant and a club that could fit over 300 people. Graffiiti filled the walls, metal sculptures filled the empty spaces, and people of every race and nationality were eating and drinking and working on arts projects. In my entire time in the United States I had never seen a community space of comparable dimensions, free from state interference or the sanitized vision of developers. It was funky, it was disorderly, it was filled with energy. Club Zapata, which was inside the adjoining building was infused with the same insurgent spirit. The bar was made of scrap metal and wood, the seating consisted of picnic tables and benches and a dragon like metal object hanging from the ceiling spat out fire whenever someone behind the bar pulled a lever. But the club, which could hold several hundred people standing, had a large enough stage for a ten piece band and had managers who cared more about bringing the community great music than about making money. It felt like I was in the Fillmore West in 1967. I was lost in a time warp and on the verge of tears. Café Zapata, and the building it was located in, brought my 60’s dreams of brotherhood and community to life in a way that I thought I would never see again. I couldn’t wait to see the shows being staged there later in the week.

Just how special the shows would be quickly became apparent when we gathered later that afternoon for a radio show at the House of World Cultures hosted by Johannes Erdmann. In addition to me and the three members of Rebel Diaz, G-1, Rod Starz,and Lah Tere, the show featured Sol, a female singer and MC from Brazil, Anna her interpreter, Diamond Dogg, an MC from Angola, and an Amevu, an Afro German MC whose speed rapping was legendary in Berlin. What went on in the next hour and a half showed how hip hop communicates through rhythm and body language more than words. Once the individual speeches and performances were over, the seven MC’s began free styling with dazzling virtuosity, improvising off each other’s rhymes in rapid succession and flawless rhythm in four different languages, creating an atmosphere of love and mutual admiration that affected everyone who was present including the studio technicians and the people who watched from outside. The spirit of the African Diaspora was brought to life as people from 4 continents came together in joyous celebration of verbal artistry. When the show ended, everyone exchanged hugs with the understanding that something truly remarkable had taken place, excited at the prospect of coming together on a stage in front of a large and appreciative crowd.

But even before the shows took place, we were reminded us that the boundary crossing powers of hip hop were as filled with dangers and contradictions as they were with opportunities. The event that brought us back to reality was the workshop on the history and politics of Hip Hop that Rebel Diaz did with a group of young people from Gangway Berlin that Olad Aden had been working with. We knew, from what Olad told us, that these kids would be tough; but HOW tough didn’t become clear until Susanne picked up ten of them from the metro station at Alexanderplatz and began walking with them toward our van, where Anna and I sat waiting. I took one look at this group of large, powerfully, built young men, wearing sun glasses, muscle shirts, and “game faces” cultivated on Berlin’s meanest streets and immediately recalled my days running a basketball league in Brooklyn which drew youngsters from the Gowanus and Red Hook projects. Only the Gangway guys were older, and looked even tougher. Two thirds were Turkish, Arab, and Afro-German, the others white, looking like weight lifters or skinheads. The one thing they had in common was faces tight with suspicion and anger. As they silently piled into the van, I wondered whether any would be able to reach them in a two hour workshop When I worked with young people like this, I had to first win their respect on the basketball court before they would listen to a work I said, and it often took months to win their confidence.

As the Gangway group left the van to enter the Hip Hop Stukzpunkt, the challenge face Rebel Diaz became even clearer. Despite the work Olad had done to break down their attachment to gangsta rap( which is as vulgar- and as popular in Germany as it is in the US) many of the men started began broadcasting their own version of hyper masculinity by giving us Crips signs, yelling “motherf….er.” and talking about women in disparaging ways. As they arranged themselves in a circle at the request of Olad and Rebel Diaz, the testosterone was flowing so strongly that our driver Anna refused to join the circle and decided to help me in getting drinks, pretzels and pastries for the group. When we returned, Rod Starz of Rebel Diaz was giving an eloquent lecture on the history of hip hop, and trying to explain the difference between hip hop as street art and hip hop as corporate commodity, but for the most part the men were unresponsive. They found it difficult, in an all male group, to relinquish their street bravado and kept making jokes about “video hos” and asking members of Rebel Diaz whether they had ever been shot. Rod Starz to his credit, refused to give in to their misogynist and violent fantasies, and kept telling them that the attitudes they were expressing would insure that they waste time fighting one another rather than the people who were keeping them down. But though Rod finally got through to two or three people, the majority remained unconvinced

But then, on Susanne’s suggestion, Rebel Diaz abruptly ended their workshop and began performing some songs. As the pounding beats created by G-1 made the walls of the Stutzpunkt vibrate, Rod Starz and Lah Tere, their bodies coiled with energy, began unleashing lyrics with a speed, inventiveness and rhythmic dexterity that left the men in the room open mouthed in admiration and awe. These incredible artists, their faces filled with ecstasy as they Preached the Word of Justice, rapped as though they were possessed by spirits. Rod and G-1 were incredibly powerful, but when Lah Tere stepped forward and an performed her signature song “Crush”, it was a life changing moment for many people in that room. It was as though every woman that had been beaten, stepped on, and pushed aside by men, found their instrument in the torrent of lyricism Lah Tere unleashed on that room, with a speed and power and metaphorical genius that shattered every idea of feminine weakness the men in that room carried with them. This was Etta James singing “Stop The Wedding;” Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” Lah Tere’s performance smashed through every ounce of false bravado in that room and allowed these very tough, very wounded men to express their own emotions. When she finished, the men ran up to her and hugged her, asked to be photographed with her, and implored her to listen to their own original raps which they had performed on the Gangway CD. All of a sudden a room filled with tension became a community where art was supreme and feelings could be shared. As these young men got up to perform, they literally bared their souls in music. One young man who sat in the circle fidgeting and twitching, next to his friend who kept making snide remarks about gunshots and gangs became transformed into a pair of inspired lyricists with an effortless flow, and whose faces alternated between pain and ecstasy. At the end of that workshop, something miraculous had occurred , binding people together across lines of gender, language and nationality. A permanent connection had been created between Rebel Diaz and Gangway, one which would be reaffirmed during a performance at Café Zapata on Saturday night, and would reshape our plans for the Bronx Berlin Youth exchange, scheduled for November 2008, which now would include Berlin/ New York Album of original hip hop produced in Rebel Diaz New York Studio.

There would be many great moments in the rest of my Berlin trip. The Friday night performance at Café Zapata of Berlin’s best MC’s, hosted by Johannes Erdmann, was nothing short of breathtaking. Several hundred people were treated to a hip hop show of higher quality than any I had seen in New York, marked by inspired beat making, remarkable lyrical flow, and a crowd that never stopped jumping up and down. I was jumping up and down with them until I looked around and realized that the sight of a 60 year old man leaping and screaming amidst scores of 20 year old women must have looked a bit strange, so I headed to the bar and spent the rest of the evening talking to Joanna and Katrin, the generous and fun loving managers of Club Zapata. The Saturday night performance of Rebel Diaz was even better Rod, G-1 and Lah Tere had the whole club dancing, shouting political slogans, and affirming the fight for immigrant rights around the world. Lah Tere, as I anticipated, had the same effect on the people in the club that she had on the young men from.Gangway. When Lah Tere hit the first notes of Crush”, I saw the mouths of some of the women from House of World Cultures open in amazement, as they saw raw female energy and creativity in a form so pure that it literally took their breath away

But despite all the memorable experiences on my Trip to Berlin, the event that had a greatest impact on me was the workshop Rebel Diaz did for the young men of the Gangway organization. Anytime someone says that hip hop is too compromised by misogyny and violence to be a force for justice, I will think of how Lah Tere’s performance opened the minds and hearts of a group of tough working class young men and enabled them to see women as allies in their quest for recognition and respect and as exponents of an art form that best allows them to express what they feel inside. This was Hip Hop at its best, brought to life in Berlin by a group artists and political activists from the Bronx. It is the most powerful instrument we have to reach disfranchised and marginalized youth, and we turn our back on it at our peril

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Great Rent Strike War of 1932- How Radicals in the Bronx Fought Evictions During the Great Depression

3. From Eviction Resistance to Rent Control Tenant Activism in the Great Depression
Mark Naison
The Battle of the Bronx

The Great Rent Strike War of 1932 began in a quiet section of the Bronx just east of Bronx Park and west of the White Plains Road elevated line. A neighborhood of modern elevator buildings with spacious rooms, adjacent to a park, the zoo, and the botanical gardens, it seemed an unlikely place for a communal uprising. But by an accident of geography and sociology, this neighborhood contained one of the largest concentrations of Communists in New York City. On the corner of Bronx Park East and Allerton Avenue stood the "Coops" -- two buildings populated entirely by Communists who had moved to the neighborhood as part of a cooperative housing experiment and had remained when the buildings reverted to private ownership Filled with people for whom "activism was a way of life," it was a formidable presence in the community. The Coops were "a little corner of socialism right in New York," one activist recalled, "it had its own educational events, clubs for men and women, lectures, motion pictures." But the rest of the neighborhood's population, while not so militantly radical, came from comparable backgrounds to the Coops people. The majority were Eastern European Jews, skilled workers and small businessmen who had accumulated enough income to move out of the East Side and the South Bronx, but were hardly secure in their middle-class status. More important, many of them grew up in environments in which socialism and trade unionism provided models of heroism and moral conduct, and more than a few had extensive activist backgrounds, whether in bitter garment strikes in New York City or clandestine revolutionary struggle in Europe. Although relatively "privileged" compared to many New York workers ("Certain comrades . . . wanted to ridicule the movement," one rent strike organizer wrote apologetically, "not realizing that these 'better paid workers' are members of the American Federation of Labor, many of them working in basic industries"), they suffered serious losses of income and employment and were not about to sink quietly into poverty and despair in response to the "invisible hand" of the market. When Unemployed Council activists began to organize them into tenant committees, they responded in a manner that perplexed and enraged landlords and city officials.[15]

In early January of 1932, the Upper Bronx Unemployed Council unveiled rent strikes at three large apartment buildings in Bronx Park East -- 1890 Unionport Road, 2302 Olinville Avenue, and 665 Allerton Avenue. In each of these buildings, the majority of the tenants agreed to withhold their rent and began picketing their buildings to demand 15 percent reductions in rent, an end to evictions, repairs in apartments, and recognition of the tenants committee as an official bargaining agent. In all three instances, landlords, moving quickly to dispossess leaders of the strike, argued that the demands were extortionate; judges readily granted them notices of eviction.[16]

But the first set of attempted evictions, at 2302 Olinville Avenue, set off a "rent riot" in which over four thousand people participated. As the city marshals and the police moved into position to evict seventeen tenants, a huge crowd, composed largely of residents of the Coops, gathered in a vacant lot next to the building to support the strikers, who were poised to resist from windows and the roof. When the marshals moved into the building and the first stick of furniture appeared on the street, the crowd charged the police and began pummeling them with fists, stones, and sticks, while the "non-combatants urged the belligerents to greater fury with anathemas for capitalism, the police and landlords." The outnumbered police barely held their lines until reinforcements arrived. As the police once again moved to disperse the crowd, the strikers agreed to a compromise offer that called for two- to three-dollar reductions for each apartment and the return of evicted families to their apartments. "When news of the settlement reached the crowd," the Bronx Home News reported, "they promptly began chanting the Internationale and waving copies of the Daily Worker as though they were banners of triumph."[17]

At 665 Allerton Avenue, the attempted eviction of three tenants evoked disorders of nearly equal magnitude. The same elements all appeared: tenants barricading apartments and hurling objects at marshals and police; sympathetic crowds gathering and engaging police in hand-to-hand combat; the shouting of Communist slogans and ethnic-political epithets ("Down with Mulrooney's Cossacks" -- an insult reserved for police -- being the favorite). "The women were the most militant," noted the New York Times they constituted the majority of the crowds, the arrestees, and those engaged in physical conflict with the police. This time, the evictions did occur, but only with the help of over fifty foot and mounted police and a large and expensive crew of marshals and moving men.[18]

Bronx property owners moved quickly to try to contain the movement At first, they tried arbitration. Following the evictions at 665 Allerton landlords in Bronx Park East asked a blue ribbon committee of Bronx Jewish leaders to arbitrate the dispute, convinced that an impartial examination of the building's books would show that the landlord could not meet the strikers' demands without operating at a loss. But the strike leaders at 665 Allerton contemptuously rejected arbitration and indeed the whole notion that a "reasonable return" on one's investment represented a basis for negotiation. "When times were good," strike leader Max Kaimowitz declared "the landlords didn't offer to share their profits with us. The landlords made enough money off us when we had it. Now that we haven't got it, the landlords must be satisfied with less." Faced with this kind of bargaining position, landlords felt they had no choice but to pull out the stops to suppress the movement. By the second week of February 1932, two major organizations of Bronx landlords had formed rent strike committees that offered unlimited funding and legal support for any landlord facing a Communist-led rent strike. Using the considerable political influence and legal expertise at their disposal, they developed a strategy that included "wholesale issuance of dispossess notices against striking tenants," efforts to win injunctions against picketing in strikes, agreements by judges to waive normal delay periods in evictions, and efforts to ban rent strikes by legislative enactment. "The situation has become much graver than most persons suppose," one landlord spokesman declared. "The strikes are spreading rapidly and scores of landlords are facing financial ruin or loss of their properties as a result of them." Former state senator Benjamin Antin told landlords: "This is a peculiar neighborhood. It is the hot bed of Communism and radicalism. The people in this neighborhood are mostly Communists and Soviet sympathizers. They do not believe in our form of government."[19]

The landlord mobilization broke the back of some of the strikes -- mass evictions took place at 665 Allerton Avenue and 1890 Unionport Road -- but it did not discourage Communists from continuing rent strikes in Bronx Park East or spreading the movement to other neighborhoods. During January and February of 1932, Communist-led strikes for rent reductions began breaking out in Brownsville, Williamsburg, and Boro Park (in Brooklyn), and in Crotona Park East, Morrisania, and Melrose in the Bronx. Like Bronx Park East, these were neighborhoods primarily inhabited by Eastern European Jews, possessed of a dense network of radical cultural and political organizations, but they were poorer, more troubled, and harder hit by the depression. Irving Howe's description of Crotona Park East, the neighborhood where the second wave of Communist rent strikes attracted the greatest following, gives a sense of the grim atmosphere in which the Party's message was received:[20]

The East Bronx . . . formed a thick tangle of streets crammed with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, almost all of them poor. We lived in narrow, five story tenements, wall flush against wall, and with slate covered stoops rising sharply in front. There was never enough space. The buildings, clenched into rows, looked down upon us like sentinels, and the apartments in the buildings were packed with relatives and children, many of them fugitives from unpaid rent. Those tenements had first gone up during the early years of the century, and if not so grimy as those of the Lower East Side in Manhattan or the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, they were bad enough.... Hardly a day passed but someone was moving in or out. Often you could see a family's entire belongings furniture, pots, bedding, a tricycle, piled upon the sidewalks because they had been dispossessed.

In neighborhoods like these, Communists' appeals to strike invoked both indigenous traditions of militancy and a certain desperate practicality -- since people were getting evicted anyway, why not put up a fight? Using the networks they possessed in fraternal organizations, women's clubs, and left wing trade unions, aided by younger comrades from the high schools and colleges, Communists were able to mobilize formidable support for buildings that were on strike and to force police to empty out the station houses to carry out evictions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the strike of five buildings on Longfellow Avenue between 174th and 175th streets, which the Greater New York Taxpayers Association made a test case of its efforts to suppress the movement. Three separate waves of eviction provoked confrontations between police and neighborhood residents, the largest of which involved three thousand people "hurling stones, bottles and other missiles." On another occasion, a mob of fifteen hundred fought the police for an hour and then took off after the landlord when they saw him moving through the crowd. The strike finally was broken, but only after more than forty evictions, an injunction against picketing, and numerous arrests and injuries. The police needed full-scale mobilization to suppress such strikes. "The police have set up a temporary police station outside one of the buildings," read the Daily Worker description of a Brownsville rent strike. "Cops patrol the street all day. The entire territory is under semi-martial law. People are driven around the streets, off the corners, and away from the houses."[21]

For rent strike organizers and sympathizers, and for landlords and city officials, the issues the strike evoked transcended housing and were not readily conducive to "rational" negotiation. For Communists, rent strikes represented a way of arousing popular militance and of recruiting people into the unemployed movement and the Communist party. The Party had no systematic analysis of housing issues and no legislative solution to the housing crisis; in the one theoretical article in the Party press dealing with the rent strike movement, the emphasis was on "Building or organizations, on getting rent strikers ... to join our unions, to form shop committees ... to recruit them for the Party." Although some strikes resulted in rent reductions for the tenants, many, if not most, resulted in eviction of some of the strikers Communists almost seemed to relish the confrontations resulting from evictions, regarding them as experiences that would radicalize the masses. Witness the rhetoric following the eviction of a rent striker on Seabury Place, in Crotona Park East: "A crowd of between 1,500 and 2,000 people witnessed the eviction of Zuckerman and his family.... Orators delivered blistering speeches from the fire escapes in denunciation of the policemen, the landlords, the marshal! ... the capitalist system, the vested interests, and the imperialist designs of Japan in the Far East." The Unemployed Councils had no coherent legal strategy to prevent evictions, or to argue the legitimacy of the rent strike before municipal judges -- their major courtroom strategy appeared to consist of "intimidation by numbers."[22]

Given the Party's disdain for legal niceties, its rejection of arbitration, and its open appeal for conflict between citizens and police, it is not surprising that municipal judges, city officials, and police, normally quite sympathetic to tenants in distress, regarded the Communist rent strike movement as a pestilence to be stamped out. During the Longfellow Avenue protests, a municipal court judge warned striking tenants that "There are 18,000 policemen ready to keep order" and immediately issued dispossesses for all tenants who had withheld rent. Two weeks later, another judge granted an injunction restraining the picketing of Longfellow Avenue buildings. In the same strike, "the Mayor's Committee, police, and city marshalls ... suspended their ordinary routine in evictions and [would] not withhold service of writs of eviction to investigate the neediness of the families.[23]

This fierce counterattack, for a time, appeared to put a damper on Communist-led rent strikes. In May of 1932, the Real Estate News described the injunction against picketing as a "body blow" that "broke the Bronx rent strikes," and events of the next six months appeared to bear out that claim. From May of 1932 to December of 1932, all articles on rent strikes in the Bronx Home News and the Daily Worker described disorders provoked by evictions rather than newly launched rent strikes -- the landlords, not the strikers, appeared to have taken the offensive.[24]

However, in December of 1932 and January of 1933, the Unemployed Councils began a new wave of strikes that rapidly assumed far greater proportions than the last one. Beginning in Crotona Park East, the strikes spread into Brownsville, Williamsburg, Boro Park, the Lower East Side, and much of the East Bronx. In February of 1933, a panicked Real Estate News writer warned that "there are more than 200 buildings in the Borough of the Bronx in which rent strikes are in progress, and a considerably greater number in which such disturbances are brewing or in contemplation."[25] The reappearance of massive rent strikes appeared to owe less to deteriorating housing conditions than to a strategic decision by Communists to use the tactic as a component of a new campaign to mobilize the city's unemployed. During the winter of 1932-1933, Communist organizing among the unemployed expanded in breadth and effectiveness. Party leaders not only organized hunger marches on Washington, Albany, and city hall, but initiated demonstrations and sit-ins at neighborhood relief bureaus that had been set up by the state to dispense direct relief to the unemployed. The simultaneous deterioration of employment prospects in the private sector, and a growing receptivity of public officials to providing aid to the unemployed, gave Communists both a ready constituency and a target amenable to pressure. Party leaders responded by doing everything in their power to dramatize the hardship of the population and to stimulate mass action by the unemployed. Rent strikes had a proven capacity to inspire popular militancy, and the Party urged its organizations of the unemployed and neighborhood cultural groups to make rent and eviction issues primary concerns.[26]

The campaign took hold first, and most strongly, in densely packed blocks of tenements at the southeast corner of Crotona Park (a neighborhood whose huge stretches of abandoned buildings made it a national symbol of urban decay in the 1970s). During December of 1932, rent strikes broke out on Franklin Avenue, Charlotte Street, Bryant Avenue, and Boston Road, all within five blocks of each other. Attempts by landlords to break the strikes with evictions produced street battles of epic proportions. "News of the impending eviction of the Lerner and Pzelsky families spread like wildfire," wrote the Bronx Home News about a Franklin Avenue disorder:
Jeers and epithets were hurled at the police as they were jostled, shoved and manhandled.... A woman tenant appeared on a fire escape and screamed to the crowd to do something. This time, the efforts of Sergeant Maloney and his small force were unavailing. They were overrun, kicked, clawed and scratched. For more than an hour, the battle raged. Policemen were scratched, bitten, kicked and their uniforms torn. Many of the strike sympathizers received rough handling and displayed the scars of battle when order was again restored.
Evictions on Charlotte Street, occurring two weeks later, inspired a street battle with two thousand participants. The size of these protests reflected the movement's unique ability to tap the energies and organizational skills of neighborhood women, who used networks developed in child rearing to mobilize the community and exploited the "myth of female fragility" to neutralize police attacks. "The women played a very big part in the rent strikes," one Franklin Avenue tenant wrote. "When the police went for the men, the women rushed to protect them.... While the men were busy looking for work, the women were on the job." "On the day of the evictions we would tell all the men to leave the building," another activist recalled. "We knew that the police were rough and would beat them up. It was the women who remained in the apartments, in order to resist. We went out onto the fire escapes and spoke through bullhorns to the crowd gathered below."[27]

By early January, strikes for rent reductions had broken out in an artists colony on the Lower East Side, in several tenements in Brownsville and Williamsburg, and in elevator apartment houses in Bronx Park East. Communist party leaders now felt they had the nucleus of a citywide movement. "With demonstrations of 3,000 to 5,000 people," wrote the Daily Worker:[28]
with tenants of one house after another organizing, with block committees, unemployed council branches, workers clubs ... uniting around tenant grievances, a hot fight against high rents and evictions is spreading through the working class sections of New York. Today is a high point in the struggle in the three main centers of conflict; the Bronx, the Avenue A section of Manhattan, and Williamsburgh. The battle is on! Go this morning to the nearest picket line and put up a united front, mass struggle against the greedy landlords of New York."

The Party's strategy of mobilizing its full network of organizations to picket rent-striking buildings and of organizing street rallies and protest marches through striking neighborhoods made the movement far more intimidating and effective than it had been the year before. "Yesterday, 1,500 people massed in front of 1433 Charlotte Street," one account read, "preventing the eviction of eight tenants.... Speaking and picketing went on all day. There were 35 speakers from the Prospect Workers Club, Bronx Workers Club, the International Labor Defense, the International Workers Order, the Women's Council, and the 170 Street Block Committee." Although evictions did occasionally take place, many tenants won substantial reductions by striking and some won reductions merely by threatening to strike. In late January of 1933, the secretary of the Bronx Landlords Protective Association warned of "scores of landlords capitulating to demands of tenants threatening to strike" and claimed that Landlords' capacity to collect rent was being seriously impaired. "Rent strikes can be compared to epidemics," he asserted, "for when a strike breaks out in one apartment house, strikes start in nearby houses or landlords are forced to capitulate to threats of tenants. Some landlords have been forced to reduce their rent a number of times."[29]

Although several hundred buildings throughout the city may have been organized, the rent strike "epidemic" spread only to neighborhoods that had strong Communist party organization. The majority of participants (using names of evicted tenants or arrested protesters as a guide) were Jewish, with some representation of Italians, Slavs, and blacks. Irish-Americans, though composing a large percentage of the city's working class, were almost entirely absent from the striking group (they tended to deal with tenant grievances through their local political clubs rather than through the Left). Launched by Communists as part of a comprehensive unemployment strategy, the strike had the aura of a communal revolt by Eastern European immigrants. In neighborhoods like Crotona Park East, evicted tenants were taken in by their neighbors until they could find new housing, and tenants opposed to the strike faced intimidation and harassment. The expressive elements of the strike -- the picketing, the marching, the songs sung and the slogans shouted -- embodied the anxieties and hopes of people who had recently escaped an oppressive past and now faced the prospect of descent back into poverty. But despite the foreign accents and sectarian slogans, the movement had considerable force ("The entire East Bronx is full of fire," one landlord lamented). Making a worse case analysis, landlords feared that the communal pressures at the strikers' disposal would make it impossible to collect rent in large sections of the Bronx and thereby undermine the political and legal climate necessary to profitably operate rental property.[30]

By the last week of January 1933, the two major associations of Bronx landlords had developed a "concerted drive against rent strikes" which included "every legal device at their command." It included some tested tactics -- a central fund to pay the mortgages and legal expenses of landlords engaged in strikes; eviction of striking tenants; requests for injunctions against rent strike picketing. But it also included some new approaches -- requests for "criminal conspiracy" indictments against rent strike leaders; circulation of a "red list" of tenants who had participated in rent strikes; and demands that the mayor's office develop a coordinated program to suppress the strike. In approaching city officials, landlords emphasized the importance of "taking the streets away from the strikers," since they believed that "picketing has always been the most important weapon of Communists in conducting rent strikes."[31]

City officials and judges appeared to share this sense of urgency about the Communist "rent revolt." In late January, Mayor John O'Brien called a conference on the rent strike situation, which included the police commissioner and chief magistrate, representatives of the district attorney's office, the office of corporation counsel, and savings banks and mortgage companies. Within the next two months, several actions followed that significantly increased the risks of participation in strikes. In mid-February, Magistrate William Klapp of the Bronx Supreme Court, holding two rent strikers on charges of "criminal conspiracy," argued that they had "intimidated and threatened" tenants who were not ready to join in the strike. Two weeks later, Magistrate John McGoldrick of the Bronx Supreme Court granted an injunction restraining nontenants from picketing a house that was on strike. Finally, in the last week of March, City Corporation Counsel Edward Hilly issued a ruling that the "picketing of apartment houses in rent strike demonstrations is unlawful" and conveyed to city police "authority for the arrest of such pickets." This last action, based on the dubious ground that "there is no such thing known to law as a rent strike," represented the most serious effort by the city's law enforcement establishment to suppress the rent strike movement. Several days after it was issued, the counsel for the Bronx Landlords Protective Association claimed that the ruling "had such a sweeping effect that not a single rent strike is now in progress in the Bronx, although the borough seethed with such demonstrations before the circular was sent out."[32]

Without question, the Hilly ruling put a damper on the rent strike movement. Sporadic strikes continued to occur -- in the East Bronx, in Brownsville, in the Lower East Side -- but the "epidemic" quality of the movement disappeared; arrests of pickets made the strikes more difficult and dangerous to carry out. However, the Unemployed Councils did not relinquish their drive to prevent evictions of tenants or to assure that rent levels were commensurate with incomes. Instead, they changed their target from the landlord to the home relief system. During the spring and summer of 1933, Unemployed Councils throughout the city began taking large numbers of tenants to the home relief bureaus and having them sit in until they were given funds to pay rent. "In Williamsburgh," the May l9, 1933, Daily Worker claimed:
half a dozen workers who refused to leave the Bureau ... forced the Home Relief Bureau to pay the rent in spite of previous repeated refusals. In Coney Island, over 30 families secured their rent by similar actions. In Manhattan and the Bronx, the Home Relief Bureaus were forced to revoke the "no rent" order in cases of workers participating in these militant actions.... In Harlem, struggles against the marshall and the restoring of workers furniture to their homes hastened... the payment of rent to Negro families.

Three weeks later, the Worker claimed, "Rent checks [were] ... being issued to nearly 500 unemployed families in the Bronx by the Home Relief Bureau ... as a direct result of picketing, demonstrations, and anti-eviction fights led by the Unemployed Councils."[33]

The Unemployed Councils' campaign to shift the onus of preventing evictions from individual landlords to the government proved a shrewd tactic. Stymied in their effort to sustain a massive rent revolt (partly by effective repression, partly because landlords could not profitably make concessions), Party organizers found the city government amenable to collective pressure because of new funds made available by the Roosevelt administration and because of a political climate increasingly receptive to government aid to the unemployed. In June of 1933, Mayor O'Brien issued an order to city marshals instructing them to inform "the rent consultant of the home relief bureau" upon issuance of a dispossess and to give the bureau time to provide aid prior to the implementation of any eviction. In addition, if evictions did occur, marshals were ordered to guard tenants' furniture until a representative of the home relief system arrived. The thrust of this action was to make the home relief bureaus serve as a cushion for tenants who were behind in their rent, either by helping them remain in their apartments or by securing new quarters.[34]

O'Brien's program, coupled with a gradual expansion of home relief funds and the implementation of New Deal work relief programs, rapidly eased the early depression eviction crisis. Communist organizations of the unemployed still served as watchdogs for tenants with rent problems, but their actions increasingly took the form of advocacy at the relief system. Through the mid-depression years, Communist organizations of the unemployed still participated in eviction resistance, but rarely organized rent strikes. If tenants had difficulty paying their rent, Unemployed Councils (and later the Workers Alliance) took them to the relief bureaus, where they acquired semiofficial recognition as bargaining agents for the city's poor, and persuaded relief officials to release sufficient funds to keep them in their apartments.[35]

The Communist rent strike movement of the early 1930s must therefore be judged a qualified success, but in the sphere of income maintenance, not housing policy. Communist organizers did not succeed in establishing the legitimacy of the rent strike, did not leave a viable legacy of courtroom strategy, and did not develop an effective campaign for legislation aiding low-income tenants. Their analysis of the economics of housing ranged from the primitive to the nonexistent. But they did give some unemployed tenants an opportunity to resist eviction from their homes and others a chance to dramatize a level of personal suffering that the mechanisms of the private housing market could not alleviate. Unable to offer "responsible solutions" to tenant problems, they helped force government into an income strategy that gave unemployed tenants a much-needed sense of security.
[Previous Section] [Table of Contents] [Notes] [Next Section]

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bronx Soundscape: Reflections on the Multicultural Roots of Hip Hop in Bronx Neighborhoods

“Bronx Soundscape: Reflections on the Multicultural Roots of Hip Hop In Bronx Neighborhoods

Presentation for Metropolitan Studies Conference, Berlin Germany
May 24-26 2007

“The Patterson Houses, at night, were alive with activity and alive with sound. . . . Music was everywhere, coming out of people’s apartments and on project benches. On one side of the street, you would have people who brought out portable turntables with the two big speakers . . . and on the other side of the street you could here some brother singing a Frankie Lymon song “ Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” But the one constant, every night without fail, was the sound of Puerto Ricans playing their bongos in local parks and playgrounds. The steady beat of those drums,” Bomm, Bamm, Bom Bamm, Bamm Boom,” was background music to my living reality”

Allen Jones The Rat That Got Away, chapter 3, ( to be published Fall 2008 by Fordham University Press)

“ I will say this. Wherever we were, the Puerto Ricans was there. I don’t like to get into when we call them Puerto Ricans. They are Africans just like we are. . . We got to remember that our Puerto Rican brothers are the ones that kept Africa alive. They are the Africans that kept the drum. They kept the Gods of Santeria alive. In the Sixties, Blacks and Puerto Ricans were always playing the Conga. Always had the rhythms”

Afrika Bambatta as interviewed by James Spady in The Global Cipha ( Philadelphia, Black History Museum Press, 2006), p 265

“Well after I got to play the conga drums . . I had a bunch of friends that were all interested in playing the congas, the Puerto Rican kids in my area . . . We started to jam on the roof. It was like every Saturday and every Sunday. Everybody would go to the roof with their conga drums and we would be playing all kinds of rhythms. . . . it was like a big party with the drums. But meanwhile, down in the bottom, down on the street, we had these black people or whites and they were into doo wop. . . . You know, the Caribbean, they never took our drum away. The black folk here, they took their drums away. . . so they had to invent something and they invented that doo wop stuff. . . They were doo wopping and we were rhythm. African rhythms, we were playing them because thank God they never took our drum away.”

Interview with Ray Mantilla, Bronx African American History Project. January 24, 2006.

Hip Hip today is international music. Thanks to global commerce and communication, you can hear MC’s rhyming over beats in Dakar, Paris, Berlin, Dacca and Johannesberg as much as you can in Los Angeles, Memphis, New Orleans or the Bronx, and the words used, and melodies sampled reflect a dizzying array of languages and cultural traditions.

But the young people who created hip hop in the Bronx in the 1970’s, and the neighborhood they held the first jams in, were hardly mono cultural. Descendents of families who came to the Bronx from Puerto Rico and the Anglophone Caribbean as well as the American South, they grew up with a wide variety of languages, accents, dialects and musical traditions, all of which, to use one writers phrase, became part of the “Sound Track of Their Lives.” From the mid 1940’s on, when African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Anglophone Caribbeans began moving from Harlem and East Harlem into Bronx neighborhoods and housing projects, public spaces in the South Bronx became places where different musical traditions clashed, fused and became transformed by people trying to reinvent their identities in settings different than any their families had ever lived in. Hip Hop emerged among young people who had experienced a level of sonic diversity unmatched in any neighborhood in the US and possibly in the world. Not only did residents of the Bronx bring musical traditions from many portions of the African diaspora, they used those musical forms, on a daily basis to worship, to mark territory, to celebrate, to evoke memories of ancestral homelands, to bring in needed income, to escape the pressures of poverty and scarcity and to show their defiance to forces rendering them powerless and invisible..

And they did so, both intentionally and unintentionally, IN PUBLIC SPACE, turning Bronx neighborhoods into a giant, sometimes melodious, sometimes cacophonous soundstage. When we began doing interviews for the Bronx African American History Project four years ago, we were struck at how many of our informants mentioned being exposed to different musical traditions when walking down the street, sitting by their apartment window, or trying to escape the summer heat by sitting on a fire escape, hanging out on their stoop, going up to their tenement roof, or sitting on a project bench.

In communities where the overwhelming majority of people lived in five story tenements and high rise public housing, and where air conditioning was unaffordable, people tended to do much of their socializing in public spaces, and whatever music they used to build community amongst friends and family inevitably was inevitably heard by the entire neighborhood

But even when people gathered indoors, whether in apartments, community centers, churches, or clubs, the music they played was often overheard, especially in summer months, because they kept doors and windows open to combat the heat. Gene Norman, whose Afro-Caribbean family moved from Harlem to the South Bronx in the early 1940’s, recalled how the sounds of Latin music captured his imagination when he sat on the fire escape of his apartment on Kelly Street off Westchester Avenue, the same block Colin Powell grew up on.:

"There was this nightclub on Westchester Avenue not far from us called the Tropicana club . . .named after the Tropicana Club in Havana Cuba. I remember as a kid twelve years old or so, on a summer night, hearing the trumpet riffs of the mambo band floating through the air like a pied piper’s tale. . . . as the neighborhood became more and more Hispanic, music took on a greater and more engulfing place in your life. Music seemed to be everywhere."(Interview with Gene Norman, Bronx African American History Project, July 12, 2004)

Norman, an architect who served as Landmarks Commissioner of the City of New York, said his lifelong love of Latin music grew out of that experience and ended up marrying a Puerto Rican woman he met in his neighborhood.

Arthur Jenkins, an African American pianist and composer who spent most of his career playing Latin music, also attributed his immersion in Latin music to the sounds of ensembles playing in a neighborhood club around the corner from his house in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, less than a mile from where Norman lived

“When I was five years old, we moved to Union Avenue in the Bronx. . . . we lived around the corner from what was known as the Royal Mansion Ballroom. And during the summer time, when the window was open, we would hear this music coming out of the road . . . .Machito was one of the main bands that played there "(Interview with Arthur Jenkins, Bronx African American History Project, December 14, 2005)

Jenkins spoke of his little corner of the Morrisania community, which produced a large number of successful musicians ( including the singing group The Chords, pianist Valerie Capers and her brother, saxophonist Bobby Capers, who played for eight years with Mongo Santamaria)- as a place where live music from many traditions could be heard in the streets
“I’ll tell you another thing that’s interesting. On the corner, you had Boston Rosd and Union Avenue kind of curved into it. You had Jennings street that end there . . . the corner of Boston Road and Union Avenue on the side where I lived . . . usually had a fundamentalist church where a lot of music was played. I used to stop and listen to it. They had trombone players. You know it was sort of like church music, but with a New Orleans type flavor. So there was a lot of music going on in that area”

During his high school years, Jenkins honed his skills in playing Latin jazz in jam sessions at his apartment and later became a fixture in neighborhood clubs on Boston Road like Freddie’s and the Blue Morrocco, where he backed up singers like Irene Reid and Sir Harvel and performed with African American ensembles who played Latin music.

The experiences that Norman and Jenkins described, which took place in the late 40’s and early 50’s , were repeated when the first public housing projects opened in the Bronx in the early and middle 1950’s. People who grew up in the Patterson Houses, a huge public housing complex that opened in 1950, describe a extraordinary profusion of sounds coming out of apartments, hallways, schoolyards, and on project grounds that united Patterson’s Black and Latino residents as much as it marked their cultural differences Victoria Archibald, a social worker who grew up in the Patterson houses in the 1950’s and 1960’s, described how Latin music became a powerful force in the life of her Black friends and neighbors:

“Frankie Lymon was one of my favorites. But I loved all kinds of music, including Latin music. It was in sixth grade when I was first introduced to Latin music. Before then I’d heard it because there were a lot of Latinos in the building, but I didn’t really dance to it. But as I got older, I began to notice more and more black people dancing to Latin music and they were good! They used to dance semiprofessionally at the Palladium and places like that. And we watched these folks who also lived in Patterson, who were maybe high school age, and we just fell in love with the music”

To emphasize the Bronx’s uniqueness as a site of Black/Latino sociability and cultural exhange, Archibald asked the interviewer “whether he had ever heard the term ‘Bootarican,’” and told the following story

“my husband Harry, when he and I first met, would hear my friends and I talek about the ‘Bootaricans in the Bronx’ and he’d say ‘Now what is a Bootarican?’ And I said “ You can’t have lived in New York and be black and not know what a Bootarican is!’ . . . . But he lived in a neighborhood where . . . . there was hardly any cultural diversity. . . . Now I don’t know where the term comes from, but it describes somebody whol is both black and Puerto Rican. So we’d be somewhere, and we’d hear somebody speaking Spanish, somebody who looks just like us and we’d say ‘Uh Bootarican’ Harry and I just recently went to a dance where Eddie Palmieri was playing. I love him and I’ll go wherever he is performing. And there was a women singer there named ‘La India”. . .. And when she said “And all you Bootaricans out there,’ Harry turned to me and said. ‘You weren’t lying.’ I said ‘Why do you think I would lie? This may not be in the dictionary, but there is such a word.” (‘It Take a Village to Raise a Child’: Growing Up in the Patterson Houses in the 1950s and Early 1960s, An Interview with Victoria Archibald-Good,” The Bronx County Historical Society Journal, 40, No. 1 (Spring 2003).

Nathan Dukes, an African American teacher and social worker who grew up in the same project building as Archibald, had equally powerful memories of events where African American and Latin music traditions mingled, from “grind em up parties” where songs by the Temptations and the Four Tops alternated with songs by Joe Bataan and Eddie Palmieri, to the annual outdoor concert organized by Clark JHS music teacher and jazz pianist Eddie Bonamere, which featured timbale player Willie Bobo. .Dukes lovingly recalled impromptu musical performances by local “doo wop groups,” on project benches

“You had Bobo Johnson and James Johnson. They had their doo wop groups. . . When they were doing their little doo wops in the hallway, or in the summertime, especially in the summertime, they would always get a big crowd because they would do . . . little Anthony tunes and would also do Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers tunes."

But his most intriguing commentary was reserved for Puerto Rican conga players, whose pounding beats captured the imagination of African American youngsters and in Dukes eyes, reconnected them with their African origins

“You had Hector. He would be across the street from the Patterson; he would be across the street with his conga drums. He would start at 5 PM and wouldn’t finish till maybe 2:30 in the morning. As I got older, I realized what he was doing was basically just giving signals, letting people know that all was well in the village. That’s what the conga drums were for, to let people know that all was well.” ( Interview with Nathan Dukes, Bronx African American History Project, April 25, 2003)

To be sure, not everyone living in Bronx neighborhoods interpreted late night conga playing as a sign of social health . Renee Scroggins, one of four African American sisters who formed the women’s funk/punk band ESG, recalled how some of her neighbors in the Moore Houses threw eggs at the Latin percussionists who played till wee hours of the morning

“We lived in the projects. . . . Behind us there was a park, St Mary’s Park. And every summer in St Mary’s Park. . . . you would have some Latin gentlemen in the park with some coke bottles, a cow bell and a set of congas playing the same thing “boom boom boom, tata ta boom, boom boom” you know, and it was our summer sound. Plus they were singing .. . . You would go to sleep by it, okay . . . and be it one or two o’clock in the morning, you’re still hearing this roll. . . Eggs started going out the window.”
( Interview With Renee Scroggins, Bronx African American History Project, February 3, 2006)

But there is no questions that many Bronx residents who lived in high rise housing projects and crowded tenements used music to help humanize their environment and put their personal stamp on public space.

Often, they were quite creative in how they did this. Well before Bronx hip hop dj’s started hooking up their sound systems to panels at the bottom of light poles, small Puerto Rican bands called “Kikirikis” ( in imitation of the sound of roosters) were doing the same thing with their amplifiers when they played in parks in Hunts Point (Interview with Angel Rodriguez, Bronx African American History Project, May 8 2007) But not only Puerto Ricans brought amplifired music to the streets . From the early 60’s on, it was extremely common for African American as well as Latino Bronx residents to bring their portable record players outside and dance on sidewalks and stoops during hot summer nights. Talibah Roberts, a Bronx school teacher whose father was African American and whose mother was Puerto Rican, recalls how people entertained themselves outside her apartment building on Crotona Park East during summer months:

“In my building. . . It was a norm for people to bring their equipment outside. . . whoever would have the best equipment or a good stereo, they would bring their radio right from the living room and bring it outside and play it. Or sometimes, people would put their speakers in the window, with the dj working the system, and we’re standing outside in front of the building and we would dance” ( interview With Bronx African American History Project, March 15, 2005)

Given experiences like this, and it is not surprising that the outdoor jams held in schoolyards, parks and public housing projects by dj’s like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambatta seemed more familiar, than revolutionary to Bronx residents. While the use of two turntables and mixing equipment might have been new, the pounding percussive rhythms, and use of powerful amplification, had been fixtures of music on the streets of the Bronx for more than twenty years. So was the fusion of Latin music with soul and funk. When Grandmaster Flash would mix Jimmy Castor’s “It’s Only Just Begun” into James Brown’s “Give It Up and Turn It Loose” and the Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache,” he was affirming a multicultural, multinational sonic community that gave Bronx neighborhoods a distinctive flavor, inspiring his audiences to celebrate who they were at a time when most of the outside world had written them off as gang ridden, drug ridden predators.

The following description of outdoor musical activities in the Millbrook houses in the late 70’s captures the air of excitement those gatherings generated. Matthew Swain, who was only 11 at the time his family moved to the Millbrook Houses from a neighborhood devastated by fires, remember thinking:

“ ‘this is so cool man.’ Right there on my block and they just played. It was a live DJ out there and they would set up two metal garbage cans. They turned them upside down and put this big board to set the turn tables on, run the watts to somebody’s second story apartment straight through and it was just on. It would go all night and it was just a cool thing.. . . they had two turntables, giant speakers. . . Pioneer and Kenwood mixers… It was a lot of freestyle rappers . . . the crown was just galvanized by this one mc. He’s just rapping. He had the whole crowd going.” (February 2, 2006)

But the mc’s and the dj’s did not have project airspace entirely to themselves. Even though Puerto Rican adolescents were an important part of the crowd at the hip hop jams, older Puerto Ricans in the community made sure the music they listened to was played loud enough for everyone to hear. Swain recalled:

“We had a lot of Spanish people around then. Especially summertime, they would have a stage set up right there off 137th Street, right in front of the bodega. A little stand at night. They’d have their live jam session from the bongos and playing music, have a mike and go out there singing.”

Swain, like many other people who grew up in Bronx neighborhoods and housing projects from the mid 40’s through the late 70’s, remembers the melodies and rhythms that surrounded them in their daily lives with extraordinary vividness and fondness. Whether it was doo wop or mambo, funk or salsa, Motown or the scratching of early hip hop dj’s, they saw appropriation of diverse musical traditions as something that gave their life added joy and made their upbringing rich and distinctive.

If Hip Hop was in some measure a gesture of defiance in the face of arson, disinvestment, and the closing of public services, it was also an affirmation of an extraordinarily rich and diverse set of musical traditions that had found a home in Bronx neighborhoods for more than thirty years. If Hip Hop DJ’s were, in the words of Afrika Bambatta, “looking for the perfect beat” they were also, to paraphrase Nathan Dukes “letting people know that all was well in the village.”