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Albany is listening, but legal marijuana advocates remain skeptical

Former New York City police officer Philip McManus speaks in opposition to legalizing marijuana for recreational use in the state of New York.

The public meeting on whether or not New York should legalize marijuana hadn’t even started yet, and things were already getting heated.

“Who here loves pot?” a large, bearded man shouted as he walked into the Jamaica Performing Arts Center in Queens, the site of a Sept. 24 listening session. It was the latest on a statewide tour of events hosted by Sandra Houston, a consultant to the governor’s office, in an attempt to gather feedback as the state Legislature moves forward with its plans to draft a series of bills that would allow the legalized adult use of cannabis.

“You’re a drug user!” another person shouted from the back, later identifying himself during an equally heated portion of public testimony as retired New York Police officer Philip McManus.

“You’re an addict and a criminal,” McManus added to a chorus of resounding boos.

The flare-up was one of several throughout the night, though the majority of the several dozen people gathered all seemed to agree on some form of legalization—a testament to just how quickly the state, with Gov. Cuomo tiptoeing forward at the helm, has changed its tune on the subject.

Just last year Gov. Cuomo referred to cannabis as a “gateway drug.” A a statewide opinion poll by Quinnipiac this May, however, showed more than 60 percent approval for recreational marijuana legislation, an issue embraced to good effect by the governor’s primary challenger Cynthia Nixon. These pressures, along with twin legalization efforts in Canada and the neighboring states of New Jersey and Massachusetts, seem to have changed the governor’s mind—for now.

Advocates for the issue say they’re maintaining a healthy level of skepticism toward Gov.  Cuomo, but maintain a large measure of grassroots support means legalization is more a question of “when” rather than “if.”

“So I think [Cuomo] realized he’s got to get in on this bandwagon if he wants to be reelected,” said David Holland, Executive Director of the New York chapter of advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Cuomo will never be the horse pulling the cart, but he’ll certainly be the donkey trailing behind the cart, being pulled along.”

In his State of the State address earlier this year, Gov. Cuomo directed the New York Department of Health to conduct a study on the effects of legalizing marijuana. Its findings were largely positive, noting that legalization reduces the risks associated with cannabis use and would lead to lower rates of opioid prescription and addiction.

Likewise, a study earlier this year from the New York City Comptroller’s office found that legalization could net the state as much as $3.1 billion annually. The figure represents a huge windfall that could be used to reinvest in communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by selective policing, or to fund public goods like the New York City subway system—all options presented by state lawmakers at one point or another.

Randy Vargas is a long time cannabis user who has been arrested several times for marijuana possession. Despite a long-held support for legalization, after these experiences with law enforcement he’s also developed a healthy skepticism that people like him will benefit from the effort. He attended the Sept. 24 meeting to voice those concerns.

“I came up in Harlem, and like a lot of my friends marijuana gave us criminal records early on,” Vargas said. “When they talk about regulations and licensing and all that, I just can’t stand to see individuals come from outside our neighborhood with their big degrees and big money from the bank, profiting off this like they have with everything else. We don’t want to lose out again.”

Several people in attendance at this month’s listening sessions pointed to a bill introduced last session by state Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, as a model for the sort of comprehensive policy that they’d like to see New York adopt. Held up as the “gold standard” by New York’s Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act would among other things direct tax revenue from cannabis sales to re-entry programs for previous offenders, as well as substance abuse and job training programs.

Despite the recent swing in public opinion, any legislation during the next session faces an uphill battle from a split Senate in Albany. Democrats technically hold the numerical advantage by one vote, but Republicans essentially maintain slim control of the chamber with the continued support of Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn.

November’s elections, therefore, remain critical for advocates interested in pursuing legalization.

“Without serious changes in November, I think the legislature holds off,” Holland said, noting that the way upstate New York votes will be a key indicator of the viability of legalization efforts statewide. “They’re very conservative, and right now they’re not embracing the issue like the greater population density areas in the state.”

It’s certainly got those like Richard Henriquez watching intently as election day approaches. He’s a New York native who attended the meeting in Queens after spending the last few years in Washington state working at an organic marijuana farm with the intention of someday bringing his newfound knowledge back home.

Henriquez was eager to show off a magazine spread that had featured Cascade Growers, the company he worked for. The display garnered a round of cheers from the crowd.

It’s important for the state to take advice from workers and the people who know the industry best, he said, and not give all the opportunities to large companies—a refrain that was echoed by many others throughout the night.

“We’re going to need help if we’re going to compete with big business and make this thing happen,” Henriquez said. “I’m just glad [the state is] giving us an opportunity to get together and talk about our priorities.”

Posted in Health, Politics0 Comments

Building the world’s largest collection of hip-hop memorabilia, one piece at a time

Mixed Media on Repurposed Street Sign titled “My Radio (LL Cool J),” 2013 by Dunn The Signtologist.

The definitive history of hip-hop doesn’t lie in the Bronx—at least not yet. For now, it’s sitting in rows of boxes inside a fine art storage facility in Newark, N.J.

That’s where the principal archive for the Bronx’s soon-to-come Universal Hip-Hop Museum is being stored until construction is finished on the project’s nearly 60,000 square-foot facility just north of the 145th Street Bridge. With a core formed from the vast collection of hip-hop legend and historian Claude “Paradise” Gray, it’s likely already the largest stockpile of hip-hop memorabilia in existence and is only growing as the museum’s 2022 opening date approaches.

Open up one box and you might find a collection of cassettes, vast in scope but full of many difficult-to-find gems like Cool C’s I Gotta Habit and Steady B’s Let the Hustlers Play—tapes that vaulted both Philadelphia natives to local celebrity before it all came crashing down in a botched 1996 bank robbery attempt.

Open up another and you might stumble upon several original pieces of artwork courtesy of Chuck D, the firebrand frontman of socially conscious rap group Public Enemy. Concert scenes show rough-hewn outlines of a crowd, while several performers look on, hands raised in defiance. “Prophets of Rage,” one is titled. “Backed by the God of Hard Drums,” another reads.

“People understand that these artifacts will outlive us,” said Gray, the museum’s chief curator and former member of pioneering hip-hop group X-Clan. “It’s only right that they reside in the Bronx and are no longer stored in people’s basements. These things are asking to be on display and accessible to everyone.”

The collection tracks the history of hip-hop, starting in the basement of an unassuming south Bronx apartment building where DJ Kool Herc first used two turntables to extend a song’s drum beat—the “beatbreak”—by switching from one record to another. From there, it aims to tell the story of the genre’s rapid growth and cultural impact—showcasing things like graffiti, sneaker culture, dance, urban fashion and other movements that can trace their history back to hip-hop. With a definite nod to the genre’s global reach today, collectors hope to acquire everything from records to photographs, CDs, clothes, videos, cassettes, artwork, magazines, posters, writings, ticket stubs and much more.

Cassette collection from the Universal Hip-Hop Museum official archive.

The ambitious project is the result of nearly five years of work on the part of Gray and a team of hip-hop enthusiasts and all-stars that includes pioneers Ice-T, Kurtis Blow, Shawn LG Thomas and Executive Director Rocky Bucano, who knew Gray and convinced him to participate in the project early on.

Several similar museum proposals have moved forward in fits and starts over the past decade, most notably a rival organization named the “Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum” that’s currently fundraising in an attempt to break ground on a site in Harlem over the next few years. This history of uncertainty has presented practical challenges in gaining popular support and a fundraising base this time around, but after the Universal Hip-Hop Museum gained City Council approval last October for a new construction site just south of Yankee Stadium and secured $20 million in city and state money, organizers say the future of the project looks bright.

“I think everyone’s initial response is, ‘There’s not a hip-hop museum already? How can that be?’” said Adam Silverstein, the museum’s director of archives and a board member on the project. “Our challenge right now is doing a better job at getting the word out, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Central to that mission are Gray and Silverstein, who both plan to showcase their personal collections at the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. It was a no-brainer for Gray, who said he’s been a collector since well before he discovered hip-hop.

While he was growing up in the Bronx, Gray’s brother had stamps and coins, while he amassed a large stockpile of baseball cards. From there they both turned to comic books—but Gray, more than anything, wanted to find his own path.

“I rebelled against my brother, and old school hip-hop flyers fit the bill perfectly,” he said. “They had extremely comic book graphic styles, and the names of the hip-hop stars on the flyers were just like superheroes: Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and the Herculords, Grand Wizard Theodore.”

It was the early 1970s, and the south Bronx was coming alive with the sound of hip-hop. Gray lived in Soundview’s Bronxdale Projects—today rebranded as the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center—one floor down from one of the genre’s architects, Disco King Mario.

Window treatments from the 2018 Hot 97 Summer Jam, courtesy of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum.

The building’s laundry room, rendered mostly useless by people who had broken the machines to steal the quarters inside, instead became a laboratory in which to test the original formula of hip-hop. Though 1520 Sedgwick Ave. is commonly credited as the genre’s birthplace, Gray said, 1715 Bruckner Blvd. was more like the site of its first steps. The building saw a revolving door of artists like Mario and his protégé Afrika Bambaataa, as well as others involved in the Black Spades, a Bronx-based street gang that was influential in early hip-hop culture.

“One day I was walking by and I saw the door was cracked open so I peeked inside, and there he was: Disco King Mario,” Gray said. “I was absolutely amazed to see someone DJ-ing with two turntables … I was hooked from that moment forward.”

As he developed into an artist in his own right, it became increasingly easy for Gray to ask his friends and peers to pass along their items. Every new tour, every magazine cover, every new fashion hip-hop was championing at the time became a part of what would later become known as the “The Paradise Collection.”

“After a while I got to know the artists and the people whose stuff I was collecting,” he said. “I was hip-hop’s greatest fan, and a participant in it at the same time.”

The most cherished items in his collection, however, are the ones that trace Gray’s time in X-Clan: beads, jewelry, his signature hand-carved wooden walking stick and a crown he used to perform in that signifies the group’s membership in the Blackwatch Movement, a socially conscious strand of black nationalism that promoted revitalization of inner cities and community development through hip-hop.

Developing and showcasing a large archive of historical items, however, is as much a logistical challenge as it is an academic one. Recruiting donors with tax incentives requires the organization to register as a nonprofit, for example, and without a location to store items there were, for a time, physical constraints on how large the collection could become.

Paperwork, manual labor, communicating with bureaucrats and stakeholders, all of this takes time and money—two things that are currently at a premium for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, which is operating as a 100 percent volunteer organization.

Enter Adam Silverstein. A lawyer by trade, he first came on board after agreeing to donate his collection of memorabilia and ultimately found himself reviewing legal documents and building up the nonprofit’s corporate infrastructure.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Who was going to build this?’” Silverstein said. “Well, the answer was that not many people were.”

Original Artwork by Chuck D: “Backed by the God of Hard Drums, Bard Wilke.” Watercolor, ink: 24 x 18 in.

Original Artwork by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: “Shirley Gets Us Ready.” Watercolor, ink: 24 x 18 in.

Original Artwork by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: “Prophets of Rage: France July 2017.” Watercolor, ink: 24 x 18 in.

By handling the business operations and marketing of the museum, Silverstein’s plan was to allow Gray to focus on his artistic vision. In addition to his legal duties, about two years ago Silverstein began building a following for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum online using social media, curating playlists under the museum’s name, issuing press releases and revamping the organization’s website. All of this proved critical later on while fundraising and undergoing the political process of gaining approval from the city for a site.

With the hard part done, he says, the museum can now focus on the work of building a unique collection that spans nearly 50 years of history and will encompass hip-hop’s now global reach.

“I have no doubt that it will be the biggest and best collection of hip-hop music and culture in the entire world,” Gray said. “And we do have a focus on curating from the entire world.”

Bumpboxx Freestyle Boomboxes with Signatures from participants at Uncle Jamm’s Army 2017 Events in Los Angeles.

This summer the Universal Hip-Hop Museum began to promote callouts on social media for people to donate their hip-hop related items to the archive. Sure enough, artifacts from the nearly half-century rise of hip-hop started to roll in.

“Much THANKS 2 Pash from LA 4 donating a 4 CD Def Jam 10th Anniversary sealed box set!!” one Tweet from August reads. “We are building our Collection & Archives with the help of people like U!”

With at least three years left to go before the museum opens to the public, however, organizers say the best is yet to come. They anticipate a late influx of donations as word spreads, and said the museum is looking for absolutely anything they can get their hands on. Despite a great start, the archive is very much a work in progress—and will likely remain that way forever.

“I have a belief that hip hop was created based on a collection,” Silverstein said. “If it wasn’t for the collection of records, you would never have the hip-hop DJ. If you don’t have the hip-hop DJ, you don’t have the emcee. You don’t have the dancers. You don’t have the artists. If you don’t have the collection, you don’t have hip-hop.”

Posted in Arts, Culture, Featured, Southern Bronx0 Comments

New York state’s Teacher of the Year hails from the Bronx

It’s the first time in more than two decades the honor is being awarded to a New York City Teacher. Alhassan Susso is an immigrant from West Africa himself, and teaches social studies to immigrants at Mott Haven’s International Community High School.

Chalkbeat has more on the honor here.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Cancer diagnosis threatens future of Bronx bird sanctuary

Troy Lancaster, 69, inspects some weeds that have taken over a gravel path that runs through Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary in Mount Eden.

As Troy Lancaster opened a gate to the Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary in Mount Eden, he bent down to pick at some weeds that had begun taking over the gravel path that cuts through this oasis in the south Bronx. Though it feels like a lifetime ago, he said, the city-owned lot used to be a dumping ground for junk and snow from the rest of the city—and he’s worried it’s headed there again.

Lancaster, the man who built Dred Scott from the ground up 22 years ago and has spent much of his time since then acting as director and caretaker for the park, was diagnosed with leukemia last year and began treatment in early September. With nobody to immediately take over those duties, the park is just beginning to fall into disrepair and ultimately faces an uncertain future.

“I don’t see anyone doing what I did for this many years,” Lancaster, 69, said. “And I’m too sick to fight it.”

Though it’s designated as part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the vast majority of the money for general upkeep is raised painstakingly by Lancaster and his wife, Patricia Grant. They also perform much of the landscaping and other manual labor themselves, originally learning the basics by taking classes at the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

Without the promise of financial security for whoever comes next, it’s been difficult to find someone with the expertise—and willingness—to take over. The Parks Department said it plans to hold information sessions this fall in an attempt to recruit a new caretaker, but Lancaster is anything but optimistic.

He’s quick to point out that years of unpaid labor inspired the park’s name: Dred Scott was a slave who tried, unsuccessfully, to sue his owner for freedom in what would become a landmark Supreme Court case. It began as a joke Lancaster’s daughter told, but the name eventually stuck.

“This is a modern-day slave story,” Lancaster said. “I started the bird sanctuary in the first place because I felt my government failed me … We were just trying to make a decent space for kids that live in the community.”

Looking at Grant Avenue now, it’s hard to imagine the way it was back when Lancaster first moved to the neighborhood in the 1980s. There were still apartment fires burning every few days or so, he said, and only one or two buildings we would now consider livable. Most of the block Lancaster lives on was an open-air drug market.

Starting in the 1990s, it took more than two years to clear the lot of debris and create what would soon become a community garden. After learning songbird migration routes lay directly over The Bronx, Lancaster set out planting native plant species that would attract the birds. His wife then designed a curriculum for after-school nature programs that would serve neighborhood children, but it was hard to elicit the same sort of buy-in from the community at large.

“People were never going to go for a bird sanctuary in the Bronx,” Grant said. “They would say, ’What kind of crackpots are up there on Grant Avenue talking about a bird sanctuary?’ … They just didn’t get it.”

Once the vacant lot—and the neighborhood at large—was cleaned up, everyone assumed developers and their bulldozers wouldn’t be far behind. That was the story behind numerous other community gardens and similar plots across the city, a phenomenon outlined in a 2002 paper published by the social science journal GeoJournal.

Except that didn’t happen. The Lancasters won a $500,000 grant from Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, then an EPA Environmental Champion Award, and the park that nobody seemed to want suddenly became a cornerstone of the community.

“In the end we made a lot of people happy with that space,” Lancaster said. “A lot of people got to do family reunions who had never had one before, people had weddings done there—people who couldn’t afford to have a wedding at the botanical gardens.”

Last August while Lancaster was working in the park, he began to feel dizzy and passed out. Grant found her husband a short time later and rushed him to the hospital, but bad news was already on the way.

After the cancer diagnosis, Lancaster began reflecting on his life’s work. He still plans to put in as much time as possible during treatment to ensure the park’s continued success, but is slowly coming to terms with the future—with or without the sound of songbirds brightening up his little corner of New York City.

It was the people, after all, who made Dred Scott Bird Sanctuary a success—and not the other way around.

“We didn’t create that community,” Lancaster said. “The space and the people did. Even when we didn’t have the tools to properly take care of this place, the neighborhood used it for what they felt they could use it for.”

“We just opened the gate, and they came in.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Community Resources, Featured, Southern Bronx0 Comments