Tag Archive | "Hunts Point"

A Rare Breed At The Hunts Point Fruit Market

The Hunts Point peninsula sticks out of the South Bronx mainland like a thumb. Defined by the East River to the south and the Bronx River to the north, this maze of scrap yards and warehouses is severed from the rest of the Bronx by the Bruckner Expressway.

However, hidden among the twisted metal and industrial rubble, behind a long concrete wall, is the largest food market in the world. Entry is $3 and all are welcome, but few apart from the industrious obsessives who run the market ever come. Even they are increasingly rare.

Mike Karan arrived at 6 p.m., four hours before the market officially opened. He followed his nightly ritual, weaving through the market’s 1 million square feet of warehouses, loading docks, and sales rooms, inspecting each seller’s inventory. A 30-year veteran buyer, Karan moved fast for a man pushing 50.

“There is no walking,” Karan shouted between breaths. “No eating. No sleeping. No rest.”

The market is organized into four long parallel rows of warehouses. Inside, tidy towers of produce line the walls. Boxes of Ecuadorian plantains from Ecuador sit across from bins of Texas watermelons from Texas. Over $2 billion worth of fruits and vegetables pass through the gates every year, according to the market’s website, feeding over 22 million people in a 50-mile radius around the market.1 However, all of the action happens in the middle of the night.

At midnight, Karan crouched in a frigid box car, examining blackberries. He investigated each row of boxes, peering into each plastic container with his iPhone flashlight, and tasting as he went. The plump berries were still reddish and tart. Some were touched by mold (a “gift” in market lingo). “The best are $32 a box, these are $12,” he explained, and at that price, a deal too good to pass up. Karan scribbled “SOLD” on a paper attached to the boxes and hurried on.

As Karan snaked through the warehouse, squeezing, peeling, smelling, tasting every item along the way, he created a mental inventory of the night’s offerings. Plump sweet-O pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid) from California with speckled yellow skin looked delicious but were too sour. Mandarin oranges from Peru peeled easily, but didn’t have a sticker. “Customers want to see a sticker,” Karan said.

Outside on the loading docks, the hot air carried the sour smell of composting produce. Errant tomatoes and apples, the casualties of hurried transport, lay crushed into the concrete. Workers in reflective vests, hauling pallets stacked with onions and cucumbers, weaved between one another on the narrow walkway. A novice might stay pressed up against the wall for fear of joining the tomatoes crushed underfoot. Karan walked down the middle of the dock, allowing the traffic to make way for him.

After making his selection from each seller, Karan headed for the sales office to complete his purchase. The entire process generally takes around eight hours, often keeping Karan at the market past 2 a.m.

Each of the market’s 35 sellers has at least one glass-enclosed sales office stationed along the loading dock. Rows of salesmen (they are all men) sit behind raised counters, punching orders into the computers in front of them and cracking wise to anyone within earshot.

“This is what I call jack-off hour,” a salesman named Joey Mush grinned through his walrus mustache. “Because all the customers are jack-offs.” A menagerie of gold charms, jumbled together on a single chain around his neck, jangled as he laughed at his own joke.

Mush is not his real last name. He doesn’t like people to know his real last name. And he’s particular about the pronunciation: “Not ‘moosh,’” he instructed, “mush, like mushroom.” The pronunciation make sense since Mush is the resident mushroom specialist at A&J Produce, one of the largest sellers in the market.

Mush has been at the market for over 40 years, first working with his father, then running his own business, before coming to work at A&J Produce. Like Karan, Mush is a total obsessive. His mind is constantly churning through data. Recently, Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports had caused a shortage of peeled garlic. This week, the price of broccoli had spiked during the gap between the Canadian and Californian growing season.

The camaraderie and teasing between salesmen and buyers like Mush and Karan belies the gravity of their relationships. A single transaction can total thousands of dollars.Trust and reputation mean everything to these men.

But, just as necessary as characters like Mush and Karan are, they are also quickly becoming an anachronism.

These days, over 60% of orders that A&J Produce receives are placed over the phone for delivery, according to co-owner John Tramutola, Jr. These tele-buyers rely on Tramutola and his team to ensure quality, instead of visiting the market to inspect the goods in person. “Those days are over,” Tramutola said. “Nowadays everyone wants to stay in bed.”

And as the current salesmen age out of the industry, it isn’t clear who will replace them. “This isn’t a job for the young,” said Anthony G, a salesman at AJ Trucco, another larger seller in the market. “What young person is going to spend all night here?”


Whoever comes next, they will have to be just as obsessed and just as tough. “This is my life,” Mush said, reflecting on his career, before adding with a chuckle, “and I lament every night.”

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Majora Carter warns of ‘brain drain’ while community members fear displacement

At Majora Carter’s Boogie Down Grind Cafe in Hunts Point, customers can order coffee with oat milk, and drink it by a window bordered by music-themed wallpaper and newsprint, all while listening to the ‘00s R&B they grew up on. There are books and magazines for free on a shelf next to a mess of posters on the wall advertising dating apps and homeowner help. 

Carter may have created a space at her coffee shop for people to work, connect and learn, but the nonprofit advocate-turned-developer from Hunts Point wants other Bronx natives to stay and invest in their community too. 

For Carter, young people don’t see themselves as having any opportunities in the Bronx. Instead, they measure their success by how far away they get away from their neighborhoods, she said.

“That is really sad, that folks just don’t see themselves investing — not just financially but emotionally — in their own neighborhood. And that brings the brain drain,” Carter said.

A mural created by art organization Groundswell NYC, in collaboration with the Majora Carter Group, students from Hyde Leadership Charter School and the New York City Department of Transportation, in Hunts Point. The mural says “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.”

Carter is a real estate developer and consultant who works to create opportunities in development that retain talent. Her coffee shop, for example, offers “the type of experience we used to have to leave the Bronx to experience,” according to the cafe’s website

Boogie Down Grind Cafe is Carter’s most illustrative example of her work to combat the brain drain — she said she took every single dollar after tax from her consulting work and brought it back to invest in her community. But Carter also said creating the Hunts Point Riverside Park and advocating for environmental justice as the executive director for Sustainable South Bronx had made Hunts Point a place worth staying.

“I believe in the promise of America, that everyone has a right to prosperity and happiness for him or herself,” Carter said. “The way that low-status communities are set up —  it absolutely deprives them of their right to do that.”

Carter doesn’t have the data to support her claim that people are leaving the Bronx — that’s according to her husband James Chase who is also vice president of marketing of the Majora Carter Group LLC.

“When Majora speaks at area high schools (as well as similar communities around America) and asks student groups “who intends to go to college?” nearly every hand goes up,” Chase said in an email. “Her standard follow up is, “If, after college, you’re recruited for a high paying job, will you return here?” and every time, almost zero hands go up.”

Carter said her theory of a brain drain comes from what she’s noticed, anecdotally.

“I’ve been all over this country and even in Europe and found people from the Bronx who left,” Carter said.

Carter wants young people in the Bronx to reinvest in their communities and make their homes a place worth staying. Her group is looking into investment strategies that have been proven to create more opportunity. But after all, she said this is still a capitalist country, so young people are going to need to have some money to do so.

But some Bronx residents just don’t have the capability to invest. 

The Bronx population is growing steadily at 26% since 1980 — faster than the citywide growth rate of 22%, according to a report from the New York Comptroller’s Office. Most of that growth has come from people making less than $50,000, according to a report from the Regional Plan Association. 

What’s more, 29% of residents earn salaries below the NYCgov Poverty Measure of $33,562,  according to the Bronx Community District 2 profile. That measure, compared to the official U.S. poverty measure, accounts for the higher cost of housing in New York City, according to the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity website.

Bronx residents are at the highest risk of housing displacement in New York City, according to the Regional Plan Association. The report said 71% of census areas in the Bronx are in danger of being displaced.

All of this adds up to a different picture  — not one of brain drain — but of displacement, said  Maria Torres, president and chief operating officer of The Point Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit dedicated to youth development and economic revitalization. 

Young people aren’t leaving the Bronx because they’re “too good to be here,” but because they just can’t afford to live in some parts of the Bronx anymore, Torres said.

“This shouldn’t just be a place you just want to run away from,” Torres said. “If we’ve done our jobs right, the kids have an affinity for where they live — they have a pride in this area.”

The Bronx is no different than any area that is struggling with school systems, unemployment and student debt, Torres said. But this doesn’t lead young people to leave — it keeps them close to a home that is far more affordable than any other part of the city.

Development may excite people who have lived through the worst of times in the Bronx, but Torres also said development speculation from outside investors will be the driving force behind people’s departures since affordability in the community will decrease. Strengthening the industry in Hunts Point to make sure people are getting quality jobs and keeping housing affordable keeps displacement at bay, she said.

Carter also said predatory speculators profit by pushing poor people out, but she still feels strongly that combatting the brain drain can create a stable, income-diverse community.

In terms of economic growth, Hunts Point saw 23% of private-sector job increases in the borough and had the most businesses of any neighborhood in the Bronx. Significant job increases were reported in wholesale and retail, trade, social assistance, business services and transportation, according to the Comptroller’s report.

The Point collaborates with community groups, young people and the city to determine what the community actually needs to not only retain talent — but avoid displacement and economic hardship.

“They’re just misguided,” Torres said about people labeling the issue a brain drain. “I hope it [development] plays out in such a way that the people don’t get hurt, the community doesn’t get hurt and lose really good people and things like that because of economics.”

Carter advocates for community ownership too, but she said strictly advocating for affordable housing is not going to cut it. She said academia, media, the government and philanthropy dictate one way to “be noble,” and that if you don’t adhere to their strategy you’re deemed inauthentic.

“We can all be right,” Carter said. “I’m not saying they’re wrong. And I think that lots of folks can try a lot of different strategies — this is the one that we’ve chosen.”

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Protesters Denounce Majora Carter’s Wealth Protection Plan for Hunts Point Homeowners

Protesters outside Majora Carter’s homeowners’ meeting next door to her Boogie Down Grind Cafe.

“Majora Carter, we won’t let you sell us out! If you try to gentrify, we will come and chase you out!” cried jocular protesters on the evening of September 6 near her coffee shop, the Boogie Down Grind Cafe on Hunts Point Avenue. The group of about 25 Bronx residents and activists had converged outside Carter’s meeting for the Hunts Point/Longwood Homeowner Land Trust Working Group to protest its emphasis on private ownership.

Take Back the Bronx, an organization that advocates community control of the borough, marched down Hunts Point Avenue around 6:30 p.m. Thursday night to confront a meeting that Carter, a controversial urban revitalization strategist in Hunts Point, was hosting for local homeowners to talk with developers about wealth creation and protection.

The clash erupted over Carter’s Hunts Point/Longwood Homeowner Land Trust Working Group, which bills itself as “an avenue for local homeowners and aspiring homeowners within the community to strengthen their ability and resources to reinvest and support local wealth creation.” Invited speakers included non-profit lenders, who shared opportunities with attendees for low-interest loans to purchase a home.

“Not a majority, but a pivotal minority are in a position to purchase a home,” said James Chase, the Vice President of marketing for the Majora Carter Group and Carter’s husband. “To me, it’s a tragedy that so little has been done to maintain home ownership, especially among minority homeowners.” According to the Department of City Planning, only 6.8 percent of Hunts Point residents own their homes. The rest are renters.

By contrast, Take Back the Bronx advocates for Community Land Trusts. “CLTs for the people!” chanted protesters outside Carter’s meeting. Community Land Trusts act as publicly owned land. “CLTs give the people a say in how public resources are used and how their neighborhoods are developed,” according to the New York City Community Land Initiative.

“As far as I can tell, they do not allow for personal wealth creation,” said Chase of Community Land Trusts.

South Bronx Unite, an organization allied with Take Back the Bronx, wrote a statement of support prior to the protest.  The group argued that decisions about who owns land and housing should include everyone in the community, particularly the poor, the homeless, or the soon-to-be homeless. “They are not served by the private market or for profit developers,” the statement said.

Carter often employs the term “self-gentrification” when speaking about development in the Bronx, meaning that residents should want to improve their own neighborhoods. “Majora stresses talent retention as a way to economically diversify,” said Chase.

“Our community should feel proud that a woman like her has taken it to the next level and the next step,” said José Gálvez, social impact strategist and consultant with the Majora Carter Group and PhD candidate in Public and Urban Policy at the New School. “And that she’s not selfish enough that she wants to keep it for herself but that she wants to help her community do the same.”  

Protesters hold signs accusing Carter of displacement.

Critics believe that Hunts Point needs housing more than it needs a coffee shop. “I’m a business owner, and I’m happy that she is one. But don’t ever say I wanna bring a business before you bring a building,” says Larissma Jacobs, owner of Larissma Jacobs Daycare in Hunts Point. Hunts Point residents have named affordable housing as their most pressing concern for the last three years, according to the Department of City Planning.

Carter has also argued that residents against development are stuck in a mindset of poverty. “People with ill hearts are putting in the hearts of young kids, a really bad mindset so they cannot escape from the cycle of poverty mindset,” said Gálvez. Some residents have taken offense to the statement, which echoes former longtime New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous argument about a stultifying culture of poverty within black families and communities. “Actually, Bronx culture is about fighting poverty,” said Shellyne Rodriguez, an organizer of the protest.

Once a hero of the South Bronx, many residents feel that Carter has abandoned her beliefs. Carter started Sustainable South Bronx in 2001, an environmental non-profit that undertook many successful initiatives like the opening of Riverside Park and the co-founding of the Bronx River Alliance. She won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2005 for her efforts. In 2008, she left Sustainable South Bronx and opened the Majora Carter Group, a consulting firm located in Hunts Point.

In 2012, FreshDirect hired Carter to aid their move to the Bronx. Their facilities opened in Port Morris in July of 2018 with the support of Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz, Jr. despite community backlash. Those who fought FreshDirect’s move argue that their trucks pollute neighborhoods already suffering from exorbitantly high asthma rates.

Carter’s Boogie Down Grind Cafe was littered with flyers that protesters handed out depicting her as a carnival-like figure with snakes on her head. The flyers read “Majora Carter the Sellout of Hunts Point.”

Outside the Hunts Point Landowners meeting on Thursday night, protesters held a banner that read, “Majora Carter $ell$ the Bronx Out! One coffee at a time!” Carter’s staff donned shirts that read “if Majora Carter is a sell out then so am I.” They yelled back at protesters, “nothing but love.”

Protesters pressed signs against the large glass windows where the landowner’s meeting was taking place. Carter largely ignored the protest, but at one point turned around and blew kisses to the demonstrators outside the window, while mouthing “this is my ‘hood” and shrugging.

According to Chase, he and Carter make a habit of inviting those who protest against her to sit down and talk. “We say, hey it looks like there might be some confusion and we want to listen to you and we want to tell you what we’re doing so there cannot be this animosity,” said Chase. “We all live in the South Bronx so it’s not hard to get together, we even built a cafe. Coffee’s on us. Or we’ll meet in a neutral space.”

Chase admits, however, “we may be a little tone deaf in that a lot of people probably are experiencing pressure, they’re fearful they feel it’s unjust, all of those things are valid.”

“We want her to know that if she’s not for us, she’s against us,” said Monica Flores, a photojournalist and activist.

This article was written with additional reporting by Lucas Manfield.

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Community Resources, Featured, Housing, Southern BronxComments (0)

Ambitious Plan is Hatched to Save Jerome Avenue’s Auto Industry

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An auto repair shop in Hunts Point that may soon be joined by a new auto mall rehousing competitors from Jerome Avenue.

Jerome Avenue in the West Bronx is lined by over 100 busy car repair shops. Metallic noise bounces off the cluttered walls as workers fix engines, touch up paint, or sell spare parts.

It is clear that most of these shops may have to shut if the city goes ahead with a proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue, a 73-block plan to build thousands of new affordable rental units. What is much less clear is whether some might be able to relocate, and if so where this new home could be.

Pedro Estevez is the President of the United Auto Merchants Association (UAMA), an industry group representing auto shop owners and workers. He wants to relocate the Jerome Avenue car repair shops to a state of the art “auto mall.” His favored destination for this facility would be Hunts Point, an existing car industry hub in the Southeast Bronx.

Although the Department for City Planning points to other rezoned areas of New York where auto businesses have been able to stay put, Estevez increasingly sees relocation as their only viable option.

“The automotive industry has zero opportunity to survive on Jerome,” he said. “The city is trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle if it thinks some shops can stay.”

The Hunts Point auto mall would be built up, rather than across. “You have two and a half miles inhabited by these businesses on Jerome. With this type of building you could put them all in four blocks,” said Estevez.

He describes a five-story leviathan, replete with car elevators and an efficient circulation flow between floors grouping businesses by the services they offer. The transition would be facilitated by ownership rights for businesses that currently rent their shop space, and up-to-the-minute technical training for employees.

The auto mall project is, however, just a vision for the time being. Estevez says he has talked to the offices of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and said that the latter seemed receptive to his idea. The city, however, says that discussions remain at a very early stage.

“Every single business owner has agreed with the plan that we have. They would love the opportunity to have their own space,” said Estevez of the auto mall proposal. A recent survey conducted by UAMA found that 86 percent of owners would move, as long as they had no alternative and the city agreed to help them with the transition.

“I think our clients would move with us, because if they can’t get their cars repaired here they’ll have to look for another place to go,” said Naftali Fuerte, who runs C3R Mega Auto Diagnostic, Inc on West 169th Street just off Jerome Avenue. “If this mall project happens it’ll come with a big publicity campaign so that people will know where we’re going to be located.”

Some bosses, however, do not agree that relocating to Hunts Point is a feasible suggestion. “There’s a lot of competition here as it is, and Hunts Point will be competitive too. How are we going to survive?” asked Roberto Vazquez, owner of Vazquez Muffler on Jerome and West 169th Street.

Many auto employees do not seem prepared to leave the area either. “People don’t want to move, they live here,” said Wascar Gonzalez. He is worried that the rezoning will put car shop workers in a double bind: unemployed and stuck in buildings where rents are being jacked up by speculation around the adjacent redevelopment.

If opinion about a possible move is divided along Jerome Avenue, those who already have established auto repair businesses in Hunts Point also have conflicting views on whether they could manage an influx of suddenly displaced competitors.

“Imagine there are four or five pizza restaurants next door to each other. You choose the cheapest at first but you can easily try them all,” said Eddie Runo, who has been in Hunts Point for more than 30 years. “How often do you need your car fixed? Once a year? You’ll just go back to the cheapest guy.”

If Runo thinks that greater competition will drive down prices, however, Fred Donnelly counters that it could be a boon for his Hunts Point Auto business.

“I can’t fix every car in New York,” he said. “If I do my job right, I don’t have to worry about competition.” Donnelly claimed that when a new car shop moved in across the road a few years ago he actually got busier, mopping up some of his new competitor’s customer base.

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Fred Donnelly, President of Hunts Point Auto

The Jerome car shops are not the only ones to have eyed an escape to Hunts Point. Sunrise Co-op, a collective of 45 auto repair businesses kicked out of Willets Point, Queens by plans to build a mall next to the New York Mets’ Citi Field, is currently in the process of relocating to a huge warehouse at 1080 Leggett Avenue in the Bronx.

The new facility is a hulking hangar. Even if it doesn’t seem quite as space age as Estevez’s skyscraper car mall idea, it is retrofitted with booths framed by gleaming frames and dropdown grates. At present, however, it stands eerily empty.  A handful of workers putter around with various auto parts. Mainly, however, they sit, drink coffee, and wait.

It is not hard to see what Victor Pichardo, a state assembly member for a district on Jerome Avenue, means when he says that the Jerome workers’ story cannot be “a second Willets Point.” To begin with, hundreds of Queens workers have not been able to relocate, with many going out of business altogether.

Those who did get to make the move have seen their transition beset by problems. Having originally identified the facility in 2013, Sunrise says that it still hasn’t received a certificate of occupancy from the City’s Economic Development Corporation, which in 2015 was mandated to pay out nearly $5 million to help with relocation costs.

“We are ready to move in immediately,” said Sergio Aguirre, organizer of Sunrise co-op. “We could have moved in four months ago.”

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Sergio Aguirre (top) and colleagues Oscar Aravena (middle) and Juan Chavistad (bottom) of Sunrise Co-op at 1080 Leggett Avenue.

Aguirre remains hopeful that the move-in date will come sooner rather than later. Although not yet a formal part of the Hunts Point automotive scene, he said that he would also be more than happy to welcome any businesses who did come to the area from Jerome Avenue.

“We are in total favor of the Jerome businesses being relocated anywhere they need to go,” he said. “I pray to God that they will not live through the same bitter time that we went through. We’ll be brothers and sisters working hand in hand together.”

A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said that he expects any effect of the rezoning on Jerome Avenue’s car shops to be natural and gradual. He pointed out that, unlike in Willets Point, the city has not threatened these businesses with eminent domain, the state’s right to seize property from private owners.

In the event of an uprooting conversations with businessmen like Aguirre and Donnelly paint Hunts Point as a potentially thriving home-from-home for New York’s vagrant car repair industry: a crossroads between Queens and the West Bronx that sings with a spirit of solidarity and imaginatively high-tech potential. The reality, however, seems likely to be beset by bureaucratic delays and a lack of enthusiastic will.

For the time being, Jerome Avenue’s car shops just want an end to the uncertainty. With the redevelopment of the area still in its early stages the city does not yet have a concrete plan to offer worried owners, who know only that they are unlikely to be able to stay.

“They are already distributing the spaces where the automotive industry is right now, before the rezoning even takes place,” said Estevez, waving the city’s recent Jerome Avenue environmental impact report in his hand. He pointed out a row of zeroes signifying the projected square footage the auto industry would occupy on a rezoned Jerome.

Right now, these zeroes are all the Jerome Avenue auto industry has. They do not have guarantees about their future, and they certainly do not have an auto mall in Hunts Point ready and waiting for them to move in.

“We are not against any development for affordable housing,” said Estevez. “But we have to have a plan so that all the auto businesses that are on Jerome can carry on being effective.”

And Estevez has stern words of warning should the city drag its feet.

“I don’t think the city will be prepared to confront the reaction of the automotive community. It could be very nasty,” said Estevez. “The South Bronx has a very noticeable reputation. You don’t mess with the people of the South Bronx”.

Additional reporting and translation by Sarah Blaskey.

Read more about the Jerome Avenue rezoning here:
Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx
Jerome Avenue Auto Workers Featured in Photoville Exhibition
Jerome Rezoning Plans Slammed at a Spirited Public Hearing

Posted in Bronx Beats, Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured, Front Page, Politics, Southern BronxComments (1)

Challenging The Party Machine: Newcomer Runs Against Incumbent in the 85th Assembly District

Michael Beltzer speaks with a local worker.

Michael Beltzer speaks with a local worker.

The position of district leader doesn’t usually attract much attention in election coverage or amongst voters. It is unpaid, listed low on the ballot, and doesn’t involve direct legislative power. Despite this, Michael Beltzer, a 30-year-old independent democrat in the 85th Assembly District, has dedicated much of the last year to campaigning for the job. The race pits him against longtime incumbent, Marcos Crespo, who is also the assemblyman for the district, chairman of the Bronx Democratic County Committee, and chairman of the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

It’s a David versus Goliath contest with low stakes, but Beltzer said it’s important to challenge the party machine.

“The way leadership has traditionally been is that there’s very consolidated power, a very top-down kind of hierarchy,” he said. “That’s where I have real fault with the leadership style in the Bronx. We can’t keep the next generation at bay.”

Beltzer said his goal in the campaign is less about winning and more about showing that it’s possible for politically engaged citizens – not just established party members – to run for local positions. “It’s a test of pure electoral politics,” he said of the race.

The role of district leader as Beltzer sees it, is to be “the eyes, ears and voice of the community.” But in the South Bronx, where voter turnout is notoriously low, there’s a bit more to it. In addition to monitoring and raising community issues to elected officials, district leaders are responsible for staffing poll sites for elections.

If a district leader is also running for Assembly, this is particularly advantageous. “If you do your work correctly, you can go into the election with 300 votes in the bag,” said Michael Benjamin, retired Assembly member for the 79th district.

Beltzer, a Long Island native, moved to the South Bronx in 2007. He got his start in New York politics working for John Liu on his 2009 campaign for comptroller, where he discovered the importance of making direct contact with individual voters. “You could tell that nobody really touched them, they never really met politicians, they didn’t know how do access local government,” he said.

He sees the role of district leader as an opportunity to close the gap between residents and their elected officials. “Your elected official should come to your tenant association meetings, be at your church events, and be at the park having conversations,” he said.

Beltzer has taken a very hands-on approach to canvassing. He collected all of his own signatures for his nomination petition, and spent weeks meeting residents and registering them to vote.

He is fearless about approaching people, is unfazed by rejection, and recites his introductory spiel perfectly every time. It begins with description of the position, with an emphasis on the fact that it’s unpaid, and includes a reference to the fact that his 6-year-old daughter goes to school in the district.

The official requirements to run for district leader are very straightforward – be a resident of your district, be registered democrat and get 500 signatures on a nominating petition – but getting on the ballot without County support in the Bronx is not an easy task. The nominating petitions of non-party candidates are often heavily scrutinized for cases of voter fraud – if a signature or an address doesn’t look quite right, it can easily be discarded. Given this, it is advisable to collect double the required of signatures, if not more, on nominating petitions (Beltzer collected 1500 signatures on his petition). Without a campaign staff, this is a labor intensive and time-consuming process. In addition to this, candidates need to have the resources to defend their petitions in court if accused of voter fraud. Because Beltzer isn’t working full-time at the moment, he was able to dedicate more time to this process than some of his contemporaries.

Candidates who are endorsed by the Bronx Democratic County Committee, on the other hand, can tap into the party’s manpower, legal, and financial resources.

“If you run against County, you’re not running against an individual,” said Julio Pabón, who ran for council and lost twice against County-backed candidates.

As a member of the Bronx Young Democrats, Beltzer initially tried to get County support for his campaign. He pitched the idea of running for district leader to his assemblyman, Marcos Crespo, the current district leader, in 2014. Eventually, though, he decided to run on his own. “I couldn’t just sit out a year, wait my turn, do things the ‘right’ way,” he said. Assemblyman Crespo could not be reached for this story at the time of publication.

Because of the difficulties associated with running against County endorsed candidates, few independents have tried to run in the past, allowing many officials to keep their positions for decades at a time. In the 2014 New York State primaries, the incumbent reelection rate was 96.67%. In next today’s election, however, there are several unaffiliated candidates who are challenging County-backed incumbents.

While chance of any of these candidates winning is low, they say the act of running – and providing an alternative to voters – is powerful in itself. For democracy to work, Pabón said, “we need to run people for every position – from dogcatcher up to US senators.” The challengers say they hope that by campaigning hard, registering people to vote, and raising community issues, incumbent candidates will be forced to do more on-the-ground work too.

For Michael Beltzer, if he is able to make any impact on the polls the campaign will have been worth it. “If we see an increased voter turnout,” he said, “there’s power in that and people will pay attention.”

 

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The Food Truck to Heaven

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It was a sunny Saturday morning in Hunts Point. Seventy-two-year old John Peña strapped on his apron and fired up his food trailer. Hot steam seeped through the trailer’s windows into Lafayette Avenue, carried by the sound of classical music that blasted from his gold Chevy Astron. Now mostly wheelchair-bound, the once towering Puerto Rican military man turned food truck evangelist stood with shaky effort behind the counter, gently swaying side to side to Mozart as he uncovered steaming home-cooked dishes in large aluminum foil pans.

The first hungry customers were gathering at the street corner against the backdrop of the Corpus Christi monastery, the oldest Dominican Abbey in the country. Three homeless men from a nearby drop-in shelter stepped up to the trailer, sharing the last drag of a half-lit cigarette. “Watcha got today, Juan?” one asked impatiently, with a thick Latino accent.

”One more minute, Papi!” Peña replied with a diagonal smile, peering out through his red-tinted glasses. Peña’s boyish face barely betrays his scrappy past. His neat salt-and-pepper moustache is now mostly salt. He wore a navy polo shirt and a matching baseball cap, embellished with a pin of a golden eagle – a reminder of his military past.

Peña forced a sickly cough, slipped on latex gloves and unpacked some plastic cutlery. A minute later, the monastery clock struck 10 a.m. With one last check of his wristwatch, Peña called over his first customer: “What can I get for you, cariño? Some arroz con gandules, potato salad or mexican casserole?”

Peña is a one-man-show at Mission-o-Mercy, his own charitable street ministry that serves up a free weekly meal from a repurposed food trailer–the kind of two-wheeled vehicle that could be found on any given Manhattan street corner, selling hot dogs, Danish or Halal skewers.

Peña has a long, distinguished and checkered career as an army man, a community organizer and a law enforcement officer over the last seven decades, much of it spent in the Bronx. The free food truck is his most recent venture and it has been up and running since July, serving local Hunts Point residents from the morning hours until all of the food runs out. His policy is that everyone – wealthy or needy, young or old – gets exactly one plate for free. No exceptions. No questions asked.

“Once you give them a finger, they want the whole hand,” Peña said as he slapped some rice and beans into Chinese takeout-style foam boxes. 

Peña loves doing “the lord’s work” with his solo non-profit. A small printout taped to the side of his food trailer reads: “Come Eat Free. God provides.” The born-again Christian is a certified chaplain, a layperson trained to console people in times of crisis. When he’s not directly feeding his customers, he spends much of his day listening to their problems. One homeless man lamented his inability to acquire the newest HIV medicine after wolfing down a Peña-provided meal. Another man pushing an orange shopping cart told the professional listener about his wife’s impending transfer to Rikers after she was arrested for drug possession. There are many similar stories throughout Hunts Point, a low-income neighborhood still known for its gang-infested, prostitute-ridden history.

“My mission is all about nourishing the souls of these people,” said Pena, with a powerful, sermon-like cadence. “There are many ways to do that, physically and spiritually.”

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Pena takes a break from serving food to comfort a man from the area.

Peña is far from a rich man, living out his autumn years as a local food philanthropist. In addition to receiving Medicare and Medicaid, Pena lives off $956 in Social Security benefits and $121 dollars in Food Stamps. Peña said he uses most of the money for rent, a bare minimum of personal groceries, car insurance and cable television. Whatever is left over goes into the mission. This includes fresh ingredients for next week’s dishes and paying off a $4,000 bank loan for the second-hand food trailer he bought and rebuilt to his liking. “I don’t know how I do it,” he said, “but somehow I manage to pull it off every week.”

Most weeks, Peña receives cooking help from other community and church members in one way or another. He asks them to make whatever they like. Whether they bring white rice and or fancy salmon burgers, somebody in Hunts Point is always hungry. “We all love John,” said Raquel Welch, who promised to return the favor by bringing her famous Mac and Cheese the following Saturday. 

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Local hero Pena is welcomed by two twins from the Hunts Point neighborhood. They call him ‘Abuelo Amigo’ – friendly grandfather.

Though the food is always free at Mission-O-Mercy, Peña does take donations. He keeps a roughed-up, gray cardboard box tucked away in his truck that looks more like an elementary school art project gone awry than a donation container. Once in while he will mention it in conversation, but the last thing he wants is for people to assume that he is hungry for their money. At the end of that September day, Peña fed close to 170 people and will have collected a mere $11.47 in donations. “At least it’s more that last week,” he chuckled, raising his eyebrows.

Though Peña is sick and disabled, he believes his work is more important than the physical pain he endures day after day. The former 400-pound gourmand has been suffering from prostate cancer, heart problems and diabetes for some time now and has recently shed over half his weight. He now enjoys food vicariously through his customers at his free Hunts Point Brunch. “I used to love to eat,” he said licking his lips. “But I don’t ever have an appetite anymore, so it’s great to see that others can enjoy my food.”

Peña lives in a overcrowded two-room apartment in an affordable senior housing complex, just steps away from where he serves food. Inspired by his Christian faith, he shares the living-room with creatures from sky, sea and land: a sharp-nosed Siberian Husky, four chirpy birds in stacked cages, a pet goldfish and a vertical garden that blocks much of his living room window. The little space that remains is obstructed by cooking hardware, canned goods and tangible memories of his many former lives. Most of his cooking for his ministry is done right here.

A perfectionist at heart, Peña sets himself very high standards when it come to his menu selection. “Either I do it right or I don’t do it at all.” Many nights he lies in his trapeze-assisted bed watching the Food Network or scours the online recipe world, concocting nutritious and culturally diverse dishes for the upcoming weeks. Other Saturdays he has served Vegetable Lo Mein with cheese, Tuna with West Indian Noodles or baked ziti.

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John Pena’s bedroom in his two-room apartment in Hunts Point. Religious motifs and printed online recipes are scattered throughout.

 

“The other week I did this Paella,” he said, flipping through his self-made cookbook, a random selection of handwritten recipes, internet printouts and magazine cut-outs. “But I turned it around. In Spain they use seafood, but I couldn’t afford that so I used chicken instead.” He likes to do it the Frank Sinatra way. “I just do it my way – Peña style.”

In fact Peña has always done things his own way – for better or for worse. Whether as a community cop, an anti-poverty consigliere or now as a food minister, Pena brings all his volatility, his devil-may-care attitude, his free spirit and faith, but also his many regrets to his lifelong commitment to giving back to his world and his community. The father of eight says he now lives a simple life, but he is far from a simple soul. His story is filled with many paradoxes. It’s a tale as rich, messy and inspiring as the history of the Bronx itself: one step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back.

 

Like Mother and Father, Like Son

Born in 1942 in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Peña moved to New York when he was five-years-old and spent much of his early childhood in a military academy. “They really didn’t play games there,” he said. “I was a rowdy little guy, so my mother sent me there. But they drilled that right out of me.”

At age 12, Peña returned to the South Bronx to live with his mother and stepfather in a small apartment on Leggett Avenue. His mother, Mercedes, the namesake of Mission-O-Mercy, has always been his spiritual guide; the yang in his life. She owned a candy shop in Longwood and Peña helped her out most days after school. His father had left the two of them years earlier for another, richer, woman and a job at Bethlehem Steel corporation in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I have my mother’s soul, but my father’s temperament,” said Peña.

His stepfather, a late-shift musician at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green, came home drunk most nights. “One night he hit my mom,” Peña remembers, his face hardening. “I was around 15 at the time and that night I just beat the living crap out of him.”

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Pena and his stepfather in Puerto Rico in the 70s

Good Evening Vietnam

His stepfather threw him out of the house and he moved to Baltimore to live with his father. On his 17th birthday in 1959, he asked for his father’s permission to sign up for the army. “They’ll make a man out of you,” were his father’s departing words.

After finishing basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and a two-year stint in post-war Korea, Peña was shipped to the “boondocks” in Vietnam. He said he can’t remember much from his time in the Mekong Delta, other than a daze of jungle heat, cigarette smoke and a bullet to the elbow that sent him home only months after he arrived. “They called it the million dollar bullet. No permanent damage and no war,” he said, pulling up his sleeves and pointing to a slight disfigurement in his right arm.

Back on American soil in Fort Benning, Georgia, things quickly took an ugly turn. Peña was involved in a physical altercation with his higher-ranked officer. “This jerk kept calling me a dirty Puerto Rican, so I balled up my fists,” he said, clinching his fists to recreate the moment. “Then he touched my nose and kept on saying ‘Whatcha gonna do?’ So I just hit him. Next thing I know, the sergeant is running at me and I swing at him too.” Though he said he stood up for what he thought was right, he admitted now that it was a misguided decision, having lost him any entitlement to future Veteran benefits.

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A picture from his days in the US Army hangs on Pena’s living room wall

Days of Power and Influence with Ramon Velez

In 1964, the 22-year old nomad returned to the Bronx and married his girlfriend, Consuelo, the mother of his first three children. Pena remembered being shocked at how bad things were in the Bronx back then. “It looked worst than Vietnam,” Pena recalled. “Garbage piled up to the second floor, everybody shooting at each other and kids selling all kinds of drugs. It was the Wild, Wild South.”

The same year Ramon Velez, the scandal-scarred South Bronx powerbroker, plucked jobless Peña from the streets to join his team at the infamous social services agency, Hunts Point Multi Service Center. Peña had stumbled into an ad-hoc political rally organized by Velez and said he openly questioned the organization’s work in the community. The next day Velez offered him a job. “He liked my ideas and my spirit,” said Pena.

Three years later Pena was promoted to head the newly-formed Management Information Systems department. He was responsible for a team of 35 employees that gathered demographic data on the South Bronx. Peña reported directly to Velez, who then used this information to help build his poverty program empire, one that included hundreds of employees, thousands of clients and nearly $300 million in government funds for health clinics, housing developments and drug-related services. The FBI routinely investigated the so-called South Bronx “poverty pimp” for lining his own pockets with poverty dollars, but he was never charged for any wrongdoing.

Peña claims that Velez, famous for using his non-profit networks to groom politicians, wanted “to fix me up too like he did other Puerto Ricans in the area.” It wasn’t his world. “I never wanted to say or do anything to look good. I just like to be me – without wheelin’ and dealin’. God knows you can’t do that as a politician.”

In 1972, Peña’s marriage broke down and he abandoned his children and the lucrative position in Velez’ innermost circle. He left for Puerto Rico, where he got involved with his stepfather’s niece, Christina. He fathered another five children, but eventually would leave his second family too.

Peña regrets not having been a better father. “I’m sad that I never lived the American dream – house, family, children and all,” he said about his fractured private life. “I often took the easy way out.”

 

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Pena sketches an outline of the house he always dreamed of having.

His daughter, Carrie Pena, a Harvard graduate who now lives in Orlando, Florida, said that she had little contact with her father growing up. Today they have rekindled their relationship. “I love him like a family friend, but not like a father,” said Carrie, a lawyer and mother of two. Almost all of his children are service-minded, Carrie said about her siblings, a quality they inherited from their father. Two of Pena’s sons from his second family are succesful military men.

In 1985, Pena returned to Longwood to take care of his now-widowed mother. Eventually,  his mother ended up taking care of him. Almost 400 pounds and a chain smoker at the time, Pena’s health had deteriorated over the years. He had all the health problems associated with obesity: diabetes, sleep apnea, heart problems, just to name a few. Severely depressed and bedridden most of the time, his life once again took a dramatic turn in 1997.

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His mother, who had only then recently turned to God, persuaded Peña to attend church with her. Peña said he mostly spent these Sundays outside smoking cigarettes. Much of what happened next is still a mystery to him. “I was sitting in the back, bored as hell, when BAM! My lights just went out,” he said, snapping his fingers to heighten the drama. “Next thing I know, I’m lying up front at the altar, tears streaming down my face and accepting Jesus Christ as my lord and savior.” A few weeks later, born-again Peña and his mother got baptized together at the New Jerusalem Church in Brooklyn.

“I am not religious,” Peña said, pausing to find the right words. “But I do have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” After his conversion, his health slowly improved and in 2000 Peña was ordained a community chaplain by the Latin American Chaplains Association.

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Navigating Through Life

In 2003, Pena teamed up with the Hunts Point Economic Development Corporation to direct the Neighborhood Navigator program. Peña had more than a dozen volunteers working for him, and together they acted as pseudo-watchdogs over the community, putting out fires wherever needed.  “We were like cops without weapons,” he said. The only weapons Peña had at his disposal were his persuasion skills and the unshakable passion to better his community.

Peña said he helped the effort to block off all streets coming in and out of the Hunts Point peninsula at night, an NYPD tactic that helped keep drug dealers and prostitutes off the streets and allowed for the area’s slow but steady recovery over the recent years.

Soon after, Peña began using this influential position to further his chaplaincy. He charmed local suppliers from the Hunts Point Cooperative Market – today one of the largest food supplying centers worldwide – to donate entire crates of fresh produce and protein that were nearing their expiry date. Pena would stack them in his empty storefront office and hand them out to hungry Hunts Point residents. The program was discontinued in 2007, when Peña was diagnosed with prostate cancer and spent the next years in and out of hospitals.

His portable food enterprise of today is essentially the continuation of the same vision, just on much a smaller scale. “It would be easier if they still knew me down in the markets, but I don’t have the same kind of clout anymore,” Pena said.

Peña still hasn’t given up on his dream of bringing his mission back to its former glory. Like any food-cart owner, he plans to expand and eventually have his own place. In his case, he imagines a restaurant-style soup kitchen for his ministry, where people can get counseling, showers and free clothing as well. “I imagine a place like the Waldorf Astoria. A place with dignity and flowers, where people can feel great about themselves.”

For now, Peña is focused on next Saturday’s menu and  – pork shoulder, chicken stew, white rice and lentils.

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Cirque du Bronx

Jean-Tae Francis (L) started out trying to learn a bit of everything the circus has to offer before he specialized in juggling. (THE POINT / Amy Chen)

Jean-Tae Francis (left) learned a bit of everything the circus has to offer before he specialized in juggling. (Amy Chen / THE POINT)

On a cool Tuesday evening in September, the empty lobby of Hunts Point’s community center filled with the whooshing sounds of colored balls flying through the air as instructor Jean-Tae Francis led a game of “100-ball juggling” with his group of aspiring circus performers.

Nineteen-year-old Francis stood in the middle, encircled by about 10 teenage circus students, began the game by juggling three red-colored balls. He called on his students one by one, to toss their juggling balls in his direction. The goal was to continue a three-ball juggling pattern amidst the flurry of incoming balls. Following Francis’ demonstration, each of the students took turns at the center, their high-pitched laughter echoing throughout the The Point Community Development Corporation.

In the auditorium next door, another dozen or so students practiced a series of rigorous cartwheels, somersaults and other potentially dangerous tumbling moves, a staple in professional circus acts. This circus program – the only one in the Bronx – is run for free two nights a week by Cirque du Monde, a social outreach program created by Cirque du Soleil. Each class has an average attendance of about 15 to 20 students, some of whom attend both sessions two nights a week throughout the academic year. According to Cirque du Monde’s website, the program combines “circus techniques together with educational social intervention to help young people.” But for some students, the circus is more than a temporary, after-school activity. It is a possible career choice.

Francis wandered into the Hunts Point circus class four years ago simply looking for something to occupy his time. “I came here to learn a few tricks, like how to do a flip or two, and continue with my life,” said Francis, as he looked around the lobby of The Point, which has now become almost like a second home to him. But, he said, he was slowly drawn into the world of circus not only as a social outlet, but also as a possible way of life.

The jovial teenager, with a small, permanent smile on his face, immigrated to the United States when he was 14 years old from Antigua and moved in with his aunt in New Jersey. “There weren’t many Caribbean people around so it was hard for me to make friends,” said Francis about his time in New Jersey. A year later, he moved to the Bronx, where the circus became his main social activity. “Most of my friends now are from the circus.” He settled in school and absorbed the culture shock as, he said, school life was very different back in the Caribbeans.

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A group of jugglers sat in a circle to play the 100-ball juggle game. It was the first meeting of the year for the circus program at The Point (Saheli Roy Choudhury / THE BRONX INK)

Francis has learned over the years that the world of the circus has more to offer beyond a sweaty, social diversion. The circus industry has gone through many changes over the last two decades with the rise of contemporary circuses that compete with the traditional ones. Traditional circuses like the Big Apple Circus provide an intimate, artistic performance experience under the iconic circus tent. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circuses  entertain with the razzle dazzle of three rings. Contemporary circuses like the world renowned Cirque du Soleil place emphasis on artistic performances, often supported by full orchestras.

The biggest change in the industry, according to Keith Nelson, founder of the vintage Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, is the decreasing number of traveling circuses around the country. Nelson believes the decline is related to the expense of traveling, with its higher insurance premiums as well as more paperwork. But there is reason to be optimistic, as a new vein of community-based circus performance is growing in popularity. It is creating new jobs in many non-profit groups that use circus performances as a means for education and social rehabilitation.

Francis started his foray into the circus by learning a little bit of everything. He learned tightrope walking along a thin, tensioned rope high above the ground. Francis found his favorite activity was mastering juggling with a variety of props like balls and clubs. He believes versatility is key to success in the circus. “If you’re in a circus and you only do one thing, “ said Francis, shaking his head a little, “you’re going to have a really hard time making money.”

The recent high school graduate has a lot of plans. He wants to study Information Technology at the Illinois State University because he likes “taking stuff apart and putting them back together.” But what he is hoping for is a spot with the university’s prestigious Gamma Phi Circus as a launching pad into the industry. The Gamma Phi Circus is the oldest collegiate circus in the country and its alumni have gone on to perform with many well-known circuses including Cirque du Soleil and the Roberts Brothers Circus.

For now, Francis focuses on practicing his skills to perfection. The teenager spends up to eight hours a day, most days after midnight, to practice his circus skills, particularly juggling. He said the improvements had been noticeable over the months, for which he had received high praise from Nelson and others, who see potential in him. He also teaches the juggling class at The Point to develop himself professionally. He’s part of the coaches-in-training program, geared toward teens who are serious about advancing their skills and also sharing the knowledge with peers. “I try to be as encouraging as I can,” said Francis about his teaching technique.

While the teens at The Point have aspiration in abundance, breaking into an industry as close-knit as the circus is an uphill task. Aside from stage performers, circus jobs can range from set designers to sound and light technicians to business managers. After the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, there was a mass influx of talented Eastern European circus artists into the United States. This resulted in the growth of many multi-generation troupes in the country. “It’s a family business,” said Paul Miller, a professional clown by training and the founder of Circus Mojo, an organization in Kentucky that teaches circus skills and performance to adults and youths.

Miller has been in the industry for almost two decades and said the circus follows an “apprenticeship model” where seasoned performers have routinely refused to teach the skills to anyone outside their families. They believe the circus is their intellectual property, said Miller, and they protect it fiercely. Miller’s breakthrough came with the Ringling Brothers circus in 1996 when he won an apprenticeship as a clown. “I was a Gadjo,” he said, referring to the derogatory Romani term used to describe new circus performers who did not inherit the job from their ancestors. “Real artists would rarely have given me the time of day.”

For aspiring performers, there are more opportunities available now than there were during Miller’s time. More circus training schools have opened up in recent years, dedicated to training the next generation of gadjo performers. There are many non-profit organizations, funded by city councils and state funds, offering free or inexpensive courses in circus training; the knowledge that was once aggressively protected is becoming democratized.

Sixteen-year-old Xia Greenberg, from Queens, made the one and a half hour journey from Queens to attend the Hunts Point circus program last month. It was her first day as she stood in a corner and watched as others somersaulted through the air. “There are no circus classes in my neighborhood that are free,” said Greenberg, who had been riding the unicycle since she was 11. Her eyes were fixed on the solitary trapeze bar that hung in the right-hand corner of the auditorium. After some hesitation, the 5-foot-3-inch teenager gathered enough courage to climb the horizontal bar, holding tightly onto the ropes. Knees bent, she swung experimentally and smiled with satisfaction on her first attempt.

Greenberg fully intends to enter circus college after graduating from high school. She’s currently looking at the New England Center For Circus Arts in Vermont, which teaches many varieties of circus arts to its students. For Greenberg, the circus is a place where she can be herself. “I’m a really quiet person,” said the soft-spoken teenager, “so when I do circus, I feel like I can express myself without having to speak.”

Miller is very receptive towards younger performers as he knows the difficulties of breaking into the industry where having connections is essential. Earlier in July, he gave Francis, and his peer at the program 19-year-old Omar Rodriguez, a chance to perform in Cirque DeVou, a joint production between Circus Mojo and the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, consisting of various circus acts like juggling and stilts walking, where the performer stands on small platforms elevated on a pair of poles. They performed before an audience of nearly 3,000. “My biggest crowd before that,” said Francis, smiling, “was 20 people.” Performing before a big crowd felt easier. “In a crowd of 20, if only 50 percent clap,” he said, “it’s not that much, but in a big crowd, it’s pretty loud.” It is a confidence booster.

The following month, Miller brought Francis to Germany with members of Circus Mojo on an international exchange program with a local circus, Circus Pimparello. “Germany’s a lot different from America,” said Francis, recalling the sense of wonder he felt on his first trip to Europe. “It was really fun and clean there. Not much trash cans but not a lot of trash either.” Francis immersed himself in classes in juggling and acrobatics and gave a series of street performances outside the Stuttgart Opera House, in Stuttgart, Germany. Though it was his first international street performance, he was not fazed. “People were just walking by and some stayed to watch,”he said, with a smile. “It was pretty fun.”

Francis believes juggling is the most difficult prop to master in the circus. He puts in four hours of practice every day. The improvements have been noticeable but there are “too many good jugglers out there.” He’s pragmatic about his chances of breaking into a professional circus, where having an extensive network makes a big difference. “I made a lot of connections this year,” he said beaming with confidence. “So I guess I’m off to a good start.”

Francis’ family back in Antigua, however, has set conditions for the young performer. “They’re pretty cool with it,” said Francis, as long as he gets a college degree first. They are not too thrilled with his recent spate of traveling for circus. Other parents have been more vocal in their disapproval of seeing their children run off to the circus. The stigma still exists, said Miller. “You know what they used say, lock your doors, lock your windows, the circus is in town!”

Within a big circus, there are a variety of non-performance jobs like house staff, ring crew who manage the day-to-day performances, the technical staff looking after lighting and sound, the kitchen staff, animal groomers, among others. The Cirque du Soleil, for example, is one of the biggest employers in the industry, hiring close to 4,000 employees, of which only 1,300 are artists.

New avenues for circus acts have also been on the rise with places like cruise ships, theme parks, nightclubs, shopping malls and casinos hiring skilled performers. The rise of social circus–where circus is used as a tool for social intervention and rehabilitation among high risk groups–has added to the demand for performers; for example, the Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care program is an outreach effort where clowns perform in pediatric facilities across the country.

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Omar Rodriguez, 19, is a regular at The Point’s circus program. Along with Jean-Tae Francis, Omar can frequently be seen juggling at Bryant Park on Saturday afternoons. (Saheli Roy Choudhury / THE BRONX INK)

Rookies work long hours, do grueling tasks, and get very little pay. But Miller reckons starting small and climbing up the ladder is the traditional way to go. When he started his clown apprenticeship with the Ringling Brothers, he worked 60 hours a week and earned $237; which amounted to $4 an hour, slightly below the minimum wage rate of $5.15 in 1997. Miller defended the “exploitative” nature of the circus towards newcomers and said rewards for perseverance are high. Following his apprenticeship, Miller went on to work as a circus performer in casinos around the country, making $500 a day; more recently, he worked for six months in Japan, putting in “12 minutes a day” worth of effort, and was paid $2,000.

For athletic performers, the lifespan is relatively short. By 40, most of them are “old, broken circus performers” reduced to manning the concession stands, said Miller. With many big circuses like Cirque du Soleil opting to hire Olympic athletes and professionally trained dancers, many young, talented circus performers are also going out of work. Jugglers have a longer lifespan, which makes it more competitive – a fact Francis said motivates him to work harder. “I met a lot of really good jugglers this year,” he said, which made him focus more on developing his technique and skills.

The road has been bumpy for Francis. Two years ago, he had his first opportunity to go on an overseas trip to Italy to perform with a circus troupe. “While the trip was upcoming, I didn’t have my U.S. passport at that time, so I wasn’t able to go,” said Francis. Disheartened and frustrated, Francis wanted nothing to do with the circus anymore. For the next three months, he hung out with his friends on the basketball court. Eventually, he could no longer ignore the call of the stage and returned to the circus program. Francis still thinks about giving up circus when going through a bad patch. “But I never actually go through with it,” said Francis, with a smile.

One of the most important persons Francis turns to, whenever he experiences his moments of self-doubt, is the circus program coordinator at The Point. With short hair, a pair of t-shirt and three-quarters, and a warm, welcoming smile, Amy Chen easily stands out in the crowd. The coordinator herself is a trained juggler, trapeze artist, and acrobat, and occasionally performs one of the toughest circus acts–fire breathing.

When she started working at the teen program, her goal was to promote the ideas of community building and peer support, along with teaching the teens about circus. “Most of the students came in their cliques of friends and were primarily interested in furthering their individual skills,” said Chen. The tumblers had no interest in juggling while the jugglers did not care much about aerials. Everyone wanted to focus on their own interests and on ways to further them. The sense of collaboration and togetherness took time to build and nurture. Chen keeps careful track of each and every student who drops by the program and works to build a tight-knit circus family. “They have each other’s backs–so no matter what they choose to do with their circus skills in the future, they have each other,” she said.

Back at The Point, when practice time was over, most of the teens stayed back and continued with their juggling and tumbling routines even as the night grew darker. Francis was one of the last to leave. Though the dedication of the students and the instructors were evident, the program has yet to place a graduate with a professional circus. The overwhelming odds do not deter Francis about his future. For now, he wants to simply focus on perfecting his techniques. “It makes me happy to juggle,” he said. “It makes me happy to make other people happy when I’m doing it well.”

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Art of Memory

In memory of their friend who was fatally stabbed five years ago, the House of Spoof Art Collective opened a new show in Hunts Point’s Brick House Gallery on August 23, celebrating young talent from the Bronx and beyond, and expanding the gallery’s role in the burgeoning Bronx arts scene.

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The Brick House Gallery in Hunts Point is used by the House of Spoof art collective as both a studio and a gallery space. It currently houses the collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

This year’s Annual Summer Show, the fourth, is its largest exhibit to-date and combines a wide selection of photos, videos and paintings from 32 different artists that fill the gallery walls top to bottom. While shows there typically confront social and political issues, this exhibit is not bound by any thematic, aesthetic or geographic constraints. The all-embracing organizing rubric, intended to draw a diverse range of submissions, was “Community and Culture.”

“It’s a celebration of art,” said Misra Walker, art student at Cooper Union and co-founder of the Spoof Collective. She said one of her goals is to facilitate rather than curate: all artists who submitted work in response to a call through social media were accepted. Misra said she wanted to help kickstart some careers with this event rather than be a gatekeeper.

This is also the group’s first effort to reach out to likeminded artists beyond the South Bronx. Participating artists came from California, France, and the Netherlands, as well as from New York. Danish photographer Petrine Clausen flew in from her new hometown of Amsterdam to see her five color prints on display. “This is my first time in the Bronx and it’s very different from what I know,” she said with a wink, sipping wine from college-style plastic cups and sampling homemade fried chicken outside the gallery.

Capturing unposed moments in artsy party scenes in Europe, her photos of white young people in shiny outfits may seem out of sync in the midst of Hunts Point, but fit the exhibit’s underlying theme by opening a window on a particular community.

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Danish artist Petrine Clausen’s photograph of a European party scene is shown at the House of Spoof art collective’s Annual Summer Show (Benjamin Bergmann/ The Bronx Ink)

Randy Clinton’s photographs, in contrast, are stark cityscapes expressing the beauty of the borough. The former Marine Corps photographer, who spent a year in Afghanistan in 2008, shoots with a camera phone and prints the digitally enhanced pictures on square metal sheets that give the images a bright sheen. “I just want to try to capture everything around me as it happens,” he said, explaining the freedom he feels without lugging around the cameras and lenses he used as a Marine. “My iPhone makes that process easier.”

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Former US Marine photographer Randy Clinton standing in front of his collection of submitted photographs. (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Most of the contributing artists applied by submitting five samples through JotForm, a social media platform. The number of submissions surprised the gallery collective, who cut their own work from the show to accommodate all 32 applicants. “We don’t agree on everything,” said Richard Palacios, co-founder and multimedia artist, describing how members of the collective held different views of the work they received, but supported the principle of the open call. “I guess there was some kind of democratic process behind it,” he said.

The House of Spoof Collective (THOSC) was officially founded in 2011, when four friends working summer jobs at The Point CDC, the renown community art and activist center in Hunts Point, sought to honor the passing of their close friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright.

Wright, who would have turned 26 on the day of the show’s opening, was a flourishing South Bronx photographer who was brutally killed 2009. Mistaken for a rival gang member by a group out for revenge, Wright was stabbed to death outside his grandmother’s Lower East Side apartment.

“After Spoof’s death we were in group therapy sessions and decided to channel our grief and his spirit by creating this project,” said Palacios, 24, one of the co-founding quartet including fellow art students Misra Walker, 22, Ryan Smith, 24, and Alberto Inamagua, 27. Only a couple of months later they had already curated their first show in a space provided by The Point.

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The House of Spoof co-founder Misra Walker stans under a portrait of her murdered friend Glenn ‘Spoof’ Wright that hangs permanently in the gallery (Benjamin Bergmann / The Bronx Ink)

Though they continue to present a rotating selection of Wright’s black-and-white photos at every show, the group has since moved beyond the original premise of keeping Spoof’s legacy alive.

Walker admitted that the group is still very young — “We often have no idea what we are doing,” she said — and that their current work is only a stepping stone to bigger goals. They plan to create an art incubator for young artists and “bring back that Andy Warhol, factory-feel to art in New York City.”

In many ways their work space reflects their own transformation. Set on a remote stretch along Hunts Point’s industrial waterfront, the stocky Brick House Gallery is the only remnant of a burnt down fur-tanning factory that was converted into an experimental art spot for the community in 2007.

Working out of the South Bronx in an impoverished area with scarce public resources, the group has always seen location and context as a central element of their work. They see themselves as activist artists, tackling local issues related to violence, neglect, and the environment. They are currently building a greenhouse out of discarded soda bottles. The group conducts free art workshops for Hunts Point’s residents throughout the year.

“We want to make the art accessible to the Hunts Point community,” explained Walker, who gave an emotional TED TALK on activism through art back in 2009. “Art has always been really important in this community and we want to keep that going. That’s what Glenn would have done – given back to the community.”

The Bronx has historically been a hotbed for the arts — it is the birthplace of both hip-hop and modern street art — and is currently seeing a resurgence, with a host of galleries and shows opening across the borough.

Among the work in the Summer Show, photographs by Tiffany Williams stand out: prints showing colorful smoke wisping against a black background. Williams, one of the group’s mentors and the co-creator of The Point’s after-school photography program, has been active in the Bronx arts community for more than a decade. “The Bronx has been involved with the arts way before Brooklyn ever got cool for its art scene,” she said, basking in the late afternoon sun in Hunts Point. “It might take time, but we’re bringing the conversation back.”

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