One afternoon in early October, a 16-wheeled tractor-trailer held up traffic along Jerome Avenue in the South Bronx while it backed into an open garage bay. Passersby paused to gaze at the truck’s cargo. Through narrow slats in the trailer, dozens of goats and sheep stuck out their noses, sniffing their last seconds of sunshine before disappearing into the garage.
The truck had traveled from outside Harrisburg, Penn., one of its biweekly trips carrying animals delivered to the vivero, a live butcher shop, sandwiched between two auto body shops and across the street from a gas station. Above the garage bay, a colorful sign blares “Live Poultry!” with cartoonish images of roosters, ducks and goats.
This is “New York Live Poultry,” one in a vast and growing network of over a dozen urban slaughterhouses in the Bronx where customers can choose their dinner from a cage and have the animal slaughtered and butchered within minutes. These viveros are wedged all across the borough — along busy pedestrian avenues, nestled underneath railroad tracks, next to furniture stores, or across from playgrounds.
Once a niche business catering to a distinct segment of the population, viveros are evolving into a dynamic — if not unsettling — staple of everyday Bronx life, capitalizing on the ethnic diversity of a borough that is nearly 30 percent foreign born.
According to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, 17 viveros are registered in the Bronx, among 83 total citywide. Some have been in business since the early 1990s. More recently, however, live poultry shops have sprung up with added frequency — thanks in part to the borough’s loose zoning restrictions, lack of supermarket competition and its rapidly growing number of Muslim Arabs and Africans who prefer their meat be killed live in accordance with halal practices. The rapid spread has helped to heighten tension with surrounding business owners. Some wonder how wise it is to butcher animals so near to crowded city streets.
“I don’t ever need my chicken that fresh,” said Bronx city councilwoman Helen Diane Foster. “But people swear by it.”
The Arab population in the city, most of whom are Muslim, has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990, according to a report by the city’s commission on human rights in 2003. More than 3,100 Arabs currently live in the Bronx, while the African population has more than doubled in the last two decades, to 60,000, many of whom are also Muslim and eat only halal meat products.
The majority of the viveros’ clientele are immigrants, and they frequent the shops for freshly butchered meat at a lower cost than the supermarket.. The prices, at less than $2 a pound in most places compare favorably with $2.50 per pound for a breast of chicken at local supermarkets. Signs and menus are often written in Spanish, and many have images of mosques or Muslim symbols adorning the walls.
“We have all kinds of people coming here,” said Abdul Nahshel, the 18-year-old manager of Cross Bronx Live on Jerome Avenue. “Africans, Latins, even people from Michigan and Ohio.”
Nahshel said cultural preferences even play out with individual orders. Africans often buy older chickens to make soup from the tougher meat. Dominicans prefer Guinea fowl for roasting. Guyanese favor ducks for curry.
“Arab guys don’t buy from the supermarkets,” said Sah Mohmad, manager at Saba Live Poultry on the Grand Concourse, who added that 80 percent of his customers are either Arab or African.
Saba’s live food selection included turkeys, quails, rabbits, pigeons, sheep, goats, even calves — not atypical of an open-air market in the Middle East or Africa. For many Bronx immigrants, the viveros are a last pure vestige of home.
“I think it’s cultural,” said Foster. “Because of the large Dominican and West African population we have, it’s just really cultural.”
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At about 6 p.m. each weeknight along Webster Avenue in Morrisania, workers at the local vivero drag plastic garbage bins packed with discarded animal parts onto the sidewalk.
A special garbage truck that specializes in hauling away such parts will be around shortly to collect the refuse. Until then, however, the stench of rotting meat chokes the neighborhood.
The vivero, Webster Live Chicken, sits snugly in the center of a bustling commercial district. A large furniture store is its neighbor to the right, a Dunkin’ Donuts to the left. Commuters standing at the bus stop on the nearby corner are subjected to wretched odors each evening.
Though no formal complaints have been made to Community District 3, a small petition was circulated by the owner of a liquor store around the corner, demanding the vivero cease its disposal practices.
Still, their popularity spreads, the locations of these slaughterhouses, often in residential and commercial areas, have led to occasional tension with the surrounding community. For neighboring businesses, the smell is enough to raise objections.
“It’s rotten, the smell is awful,” said Ramon Perez, owner of Olympic Cleaners, a dry cleaners around the corner from the vivero. “They put (the bins) outside and the heat makes it smell awful.”
Several women working in the cleaners shook their heads when describing the odor that often seeps through the wall the two stores share.
“They’re burning hair,” Perez said. “Almost everyday I have to go in there and tell them to stop burning.”
The manager of the Webster Avenue vivero declined comment.
A furniture store manager on the Grand Concourse boarded up the hallway leading to the entrance of the store to block some of the smell from an adjacent vivero and occasionally shoos away fugitive chickens from wandering inside.
“I have problems on many levels — just personally it kind of grosses me out,” Foster said. “But surprisingly enough, I have not heard or received any complaints about them.”
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Cross Bronx Live manager Nahshel scoffed when asked if he hears objections from people in the community. “It’s chickens, everybody in the world eats chicken,” he said. “They’re probably against the slaughtering part but they’re not against eating it.”
Most viveros are characterized by a ramshackle appearance: corrugated iron, warped window signs, dusty fans, plastic windows. Inside, the floors are usually concrete, wet with feathers and entrails that clog the drains.
The screeching of Guinea fowl and persistent clucking of hens drowns out conversation between customers and can often be heard from outside the store. Yet, it is the smell that overwhelms the most. A pungent, soggy odor of blood is overlaid by the barnyard scent of tightly packed farm animals.
Despite their appearance, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the body that regulates these businesses, said that they are inspected at least four times per year and that each store must be given two separate licenses to practice: one to ensure the caged animals are healthy, the other regulated processing practices. Furthermore, since 2003, the outbreak of the Avian influenza virus, stores are forced to shut down for a day four times per year to clean and disinfect their entire facilities.
“We’re very familiar with the live bird markets,” a spokesperson for the Department said. “These stores would not be open if there wasn’t a demand for fresh poultry. We want to make sure they’re done in the cleanest, safest way possible.”
Though concerns have been raised in the past about issues with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the Department said, it has not needed to shut down a store in several years.
Some of these stores, like one owned by Musa Samreen on Third Avenue, have been around for decades and have faced the same strict regulations by state inspectors. Samreen, who opened his first store in 1989 and at one point ran three at a time, has voiced his concern that the number of stores has spread out of control.
He has witnessed copycat enterprises pop up throughout the borough, and, as he looked around his own near empty shop, he expressed disdain for how other shop owners have run their businesses with less care and attention to hygiene. Awkward placement in once blighted and now increasingly residential areas has taken its toll on his 21-year-old business, which he has filled with flat screen televisions and a seated waiting area. He foresees similar consequences for others.
“We don’t do 10 percent of the business we did before,” said Samreen, who came to New York from Jerusalem in 1981. “This used to be an industrial area and now it is becoming residential. The new people don’t shop here.”
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On a clear Sunday afternoon, just as nearby churches began to empty, vans pulled up to the curb in front of a vivero underneath a train trestle as a cycle of drivers double park, run inside, and within 10 minutes reemerge with a blue plastic bag filled with chicken meat.
“I like buying fresh chickens; I don’t like frozen ones,” said Victor Reyes who came all the way from Shelton, Conn., for chicken that morning. “It’s organic, you know? You can pick the one you want.”
Outside the shop, a 10-year-old boy named Angel waited for his mother to finish collecting her weekly allowance of two whole chickens. The smell of the store bothered him, so he chose to sit patiently in the cool October air.
“If it was me, I would throw all those animals back into nature,” he said.