Tag Archive | "South Bronx"

Emotional pleas aside, panel votes to close Bronx Academy

When Angel Sosa transferred to Bronx Academy High School in the South Bronx almost a year and a half ago as a sophomore, he only had 10 credits out of the roughly 44 needed to graduate. “I woke up this morning with three acceptance letters to college,” the 18-year-old senior told  the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which on Thursday night voted to close the school.

In March, the Department of Education proposed the phase out of Bronx Academy because of its poor performance and its inability to turn its failing record around quickly. The school received two F’s and a C in its last three report cards.

Students and teachers presented data to demonstrate the changes the school has implemented in the past eight months under the leadership of new Principal Gary Eisinger. According to a 43-page document distributed to the panel, the school saw a 25 percent increase in the number of students who passed the Regents exams, and attendance is up to 73 percent from 67 percent.

Senior Snanice Kittel, 16, told the panel members that  her teachers genuinely cared about students and were helping them to succeed. “They will call in the morning to make sure you go to class. And they will even visit your house and talk to your parents if you haven’t come,” she said, explaining that these practices were put in place under the new administration.

Their case was not persuasive enough to convince the panel to vote to save the school.

“We are proud of the work Gary has done in the school,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “Even if there has been improvement, it’s well below what we expect to see,” he said, adding that the numbers presented by the school staff was inaccurate and that its own assessment revealed a different story.

Frederick R. Coscia, a statistician and economics teacher at Bronx Academy, insisted the Department of Education was basing its decision to close the school on two-year-old data. “We deserve our own report this year,” he said.

Monica Major, the Bronx representative to the panel, requested a postponement of the vote to phase out of the school. The motion was denied.

“We asked for a miracle, we got it and now we will not see the end of it,” said Major as the audience yelled at the panel to “look at the data.” She reminded her colleagues on the panel that Bronx Academy High School is a transfer school that takes students who  have already failed in other schools. Opened in 2003, this “transfer school” serves an alternative for overage students who have trouble graduating from a regular high school.

Despite acknowledging the work done by transfer schools and what they represent, the newly appointed Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Bronx Academy “has not done the job.” “We base our decisions on facts and not solely on emotions,” he said, citing the school’s poor performance and its inclusion in the New York State’s “persistent lower achieving” schools list.

“We cannot allow more students to go to a school that is not performing at the standards,” Walcott said.

After four and half hours of testimony and amid chorus of “lies, lies” and “shame on you,” the panel approved the phase-out of Bronx Academy by nine votes to five. Only the five borough representatives opposed the closure. Starting in September, the school will not accept new students and will have until June 2013 to graduate those who are currently enrolled. It will be replaced by Bronx Arena High School, a transfer school that will open its door for the 2011-2012 school year.

English teacher Robert MacVicar expressed his disappointment with the chancellor and the panel for not giving the school a one-year reprieve. “I am saddened by Mr. Walcott’s and Mayor Bloomberg’s failure to take reasonable and compassionate account of our students’ deep and abiding goodness, despite their sometimes soul-trying circumstances at home and on the mean streets of South Bronx,” he said.

Visibly upset, Angel Sosa asked why the panel did not take his testimony and others who spoke into consideration. “I had come with hope,” he said.

As students and supporters of the school left, Principal Eisinger said he appreciated the support he received.

“I put a lot of heart into the school,’’ he said, “and it shows.”

Posted in Education, Former Featured, Southern BronxComments (0)

Time to talk about sex in the South Bronx

Time to talk about sex in the South Bronx

By Sana T. Gulzar

It is 4 p.m. in M.S. 218 in the South Bronx and it is time to play Pregnancy Jeopardy. The board in front lists six categories of questions—Myth and Facts, Pregnancy, Conception, Fetal Development, Genetics and Terminology and Definition. Two five-student teams of 7th graders—the Lions and the Tigers—are battling out their knowledge about everything from conception to birth.

High school senior, Audrey Pichardo draws to explain fetal development to middle school students.

Under the category, “Terms and Definitions,” the questioner asks, “What is the term that describes the ability to get pregnant?” One curly-haired 7th grade boy yells, “Sexual intercourse.” The others giggle. The answer is incorrect! “It is called being fertile,” replies one girl from the opposing team.

This is an after-school weekly sex education workshop held in the spring semester for middle school students as part of the “Just Ask Me” (JAM) program organized by WHEDco, a Bronx non-profit women’s development group. It’s been a worthwhile mission. According to New York’s summary of vital statistics released in December 2010, the Bronx has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the city—11.6 percent of live births.

One thing sets this middle school class apart: the educators are high school seniors, who founded the program to teach sex education and reproductive health to middle school students. JAM started six years ago by a group of 7th grade girls who decided that talking about sex is the only way to combat teen pregnancy in their neighborhood.

“When they saw a lot of kids leaving high school and coming back to the community pregnant,” said Nicole Jennings, head of the sex-ed program at WHEDco, “they were really concerned about it themselves as well as why it was happening,”

High school seniors now, the original group of girls from M.S. 218, having been trained by WHEDco now teaches the sex-ed classes at the middle school. They blame the high rate of teen pregnancy to the lack of sex education, especially in middle school when kids first start exploring their sexuality.

“It’s the age that they get curious about sex life and they want to do all these kind of things but they don’t know how to stay protected,” said Dylan Serrano, 17, one of the peer educators. “If they have information they would know what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.”

While sex education takes place in New York’s high schools, it’s too late by then, Serrano argues. Most middle school students do not get any information at home either. Peer educators believe that parents are reluctant to talk to their children about sex, contraception and pregnancy and would much rather have the school give out that information to them.

“A lot of parents are close minded and they feel that you’ll learn everything at school,” said Yanisla Frias, 17, who adds that parents seem to worry that the information might encourage their teenagers to have sex. “They are afraid that if we are going to teach them then they are going to do it.”

This problem is especially pertinent within the Bronx, as there are a large number of immigrants in the borough. Many parents from different cultural backgrounds do not realize the challenges teens face with respect to the their sexuality and the external factors influencing them, say educators.

“There is a lot of cultural diversity here and with that come a lot of customs about talking to your kids about certain things or not talking to your kids about certain things,” said Rachel Mendelson, JAM program coordinator.

Mendleson points out that a family’s income level also plays a role. “If you are a single mother working and 2 or 3 jobs, you are not really around and your kids are free to get information elsewhere or just free time to have sex,” she said.

17-year-old Emily Godoy plays Pregnancy Jeopardy with middle schoolers.

Teen pregnancy rates in the United States are twice as high as those in Canada or England. , Emily Godoy, a 17-year-old peer educator believes that the numbers are much lower in Europe because schools and parents there talk to the teens about it and discuss the options. Here, she argues, the focus is on abstinence.

“When you tell somebody not to do something, they are going to do it,” said Godoy.

Coordinator Mendelson says that with no information at home, no formal education at school and misinformation from T.V. and their peers, American teenagers do not know how to protect themselves and end up getting pregnant.

During the course of the workshop, the peer educators showed the class clips from two popular reality t.v. shows—Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant. These shows viewed by a large number of teenagers primarily track the lives of teen moms trying to cope with being a parent. The JAM educators said that such programs further misinform kids.

Audrey Pichardo, 14, believes that while these shows do depict the struggles of teenage pregnancy, they also in a way glorify it.

“Without the information, when kids see these shows, they get confused.,” said Pichardo. “And they are like, ‘Is it a bad thing or is it a good thing?’”

For all of these reasons, this group of high school students has taken matters in its own hands. They believe that sex education and human sexuality should be treated as any other academic subject, even for middle schoolers And until that happens they will do it themselves.

“I know that I am going to talk to my kids about it. Because I know what it felt like when I was in 5th grade or 6th grade,” said 18-year-old Frias. Even if it means for now, just playing another round of Pregnancy Jeopardy.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Former Featured, Front PageComments (0)

DIGITAL BRONX: Brothers bypass record labels to promote music online

Rebel Diaz's Rodrigo and Gonzalo Venegas sell their music online

By Manuel Rueda

Gonzalo Venegas and his brother Rodrigo have been rapping about social inequalities since the 1990s.

Based in the south Bronx—the cradle of the hip-hop movement—the two brothers use the Internet to share their work with fans across the world.

Known in hip-hop circles as the Rebel Diaz duo, the Venegas brothers blend hip-hop and Latin rhythms in songs about inner city youth, corrupt government and the problems faced by recently arrived immigrants.

The sons of political refugees from Chile, their songs are often bilingual, with lyrics in English followed by a chorus in Spanish or an English verse punctuated by Chilean slang.

The name Rebel Diaz is a take on the Spanish word for rebels, rebeldes.

Raised in Chicago, the Venegas brothers have created an online community—and built a fanbase— using the most common web tools of the modern age: Facebook, Twitter and their own web site.

On their Twitter account, they update their 1,500 followers about their upcoming concerts and share small snippets of their lives. Last Thursday, for example, the brothers informed followers they were watching their Chicago Bulls “put the bats” on Boston.

On Facebook, the duo will occasionally share articles on civil rights protests with their politically conscious fans.

But in other ways the Venegas are anything but typical web musicians.

Rebel Diaz does not promote its work on digital stores like iTunes. Despite being relatively well known in hip-hop circles, the duo doesn’t do deals with record labels to market their music on the web.

Albums go for $10 on the Rebel Diaz site

“If we wanted to take a route to give us mass exposure we would,” says 26-year-old Gonzalo. “But you have to remember, those labels are controlled by corporate interests that don’t want to hear the type of message that we’re putting forth.”

Instead, Rebel Diaz sells its material exclusively through its website, with tracks going for $1 and an album for $10.

And unlike online retailers like iTunes or Amazon that only provide short previews of the songs they sell online, Rebel Diaz lets you listen to the whole track for free. You only need to pay if you want to download the song or the album into your computer.

“Our experience as producers of music and consumers is that if people want to buy your music, it doesn’t matter if they listen to three seconds or one minute,” says Gonzalo Venegas, who goes by the artistic name, G1.

The younger of the two brothers, G1 explains that the group makes most of its sales “hand to hand” after their concerts. He believes that most of those buying Rebel Diaz’s records online are people who were not able to get their hands on a CD after one of their shows.

“Most people aren’t really hearing our music on our website. They’ll hear it on Democracy Now (a radio news show) or a friend will tell them about it, and at that point they’ll go to the site,” he says.

The band’s web presence helps the duo promote itself and sell albums, but the brothers make no secret about the fact that they rely on live performances to make a living. Last year, the duo rapped at 100 shows. And in May, it kicks off a month-long European tour that will take it to Germany, Greece and the United Kingdom.

For some extra income and to give back to the community, the Venegas brothers hold workshops on the history of hip-hop for students and youth groups in low-income neighborhoods.

“Even though the Internet is very important to us as a tool. It’s not the be all and the end all,” says G1. “The person to person contact, is probably the most important thing that we do.”

One of the group’s recent videos

Click here for more stories on the Digital Bronx.

Posted in Bronx NeighborhoodsComments (0)

Trying to stop the killing

Danny Barber waiting outside the Melrose Public Houses for more youth to arrive for his anti-violence rally. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Danny Barber waiting outside the Melrose Public Houses for more youth to arrive for his anti-violence rally. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Danny Barber is a big man to be pounding the pavement around the public housing projects in the South Bronx where he grew up.

Weighing in at a self-described 320 pounds, the 41-year-old Bronx community organizer worked the grounds of five public houses one warm September afternoon, drumming up  interest in a youth event.

For the last eight years, the tenant president said he has ignored his high blood pressure and heart condition in order to help make the Melrose houses safer for kids.  On this day, he was rallying residents to attend a youth anti-violence event he helped organize along with seven other local tenant association presidents and a Queens non-profit called Life Camp, Inc.

But lately,  his frustration over the neighborhood’s rising rate of violence has given way to despair. Six shootings erupted around the Jackson houses in one-month over the summer, he noted. And on September 10, the day before the anti-violence rally, a 24-year-old was murdered three blocks from his complex in broad daylight.

“I would like to be able to care about, once again, where I live,” said Barber, as he juggled multiple cell phone lines with the grace of a veteran secretary.  “Just to see all the killing stop.”

The spike in gun violence coincided with a decline in his tenants’ involvement in the community—causing Barber to lose some faith in his neighborhood.  At times, he said, he thinks about walking away, but has decided instead to dedicate his time to organizing events like the youth rally.

Organizers hoped to bring at least 20 kids from each of the eight local housing developments to attend anti-violence and team-building workshops, encouraged by performances by local artists and prize giveaways such as laptops and iPods. Instead of the anticipated 160 youth, by 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 11, only 15 kids and some of their parents climbed on the bus reserved for three of the complexes. About 50 kids altogether came to participate in the morning’s workshops.

Barber placed blame for the low turnout on the recent violence, and in particular, on the murder just the day before. “The series of events leading up the rally had an effect on the turnout,” he said. “People are scared to leave their building. They’re scared to participate in activities.”

Even so, Barber found a silver lining, claiming the smaller group allowed for a richer experience, with the most faithful children, teenagers and parents in attendance.

“Danny Barber is like a mentor to me. That’s my father,” said Brandon Hernandez, 21, who has lived in the Jackson houses for a decade. “He inspired me to go back to school and do the right thing,” Hernandez’ father bounced in and out of prison when he was growing up. “He likes to see kids better themselves,” he said, “and progress.”

Barber began helping people in need at a young age. At age 7, Danny attended programs at the Salvation Army, where he remembers bringing beef soup and ravioli to the prostitutes of Hunts Point and singing in a choir that toured the United States and Canada. He credited his time at the Salvation Army with defining his giving nature.

After high school, he started losing his way, passing up college scholarships.

Barber spreading the word about the rally to community members. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

Barber spreading the word about the rally to community members. Photo: Nick Pandolfo

“I chose not to go because I chose to be a knuckle head and hang out with people on corners and do wrong things in my life,” Barber said. “But I still worked. Through everything I still held a job.”

For the next 18 years, Barber worked at the Salvation Army, beginning as a janitor at the age of 15 and working his way up to assistant to the managing director, where he helped oversee a $150,000 yearly budget.

On November 18, 1998, Barber’s life changed suddenly when he suffered a minor heart attack. His doctor determined that he couldn’t work, and he started collecting about $1,000 a month in disability benefits.

Barber prides himself on using his power to be a pest to the numerous elected officials and governmental workers on behalf of his residents. He educates residents about their rights, and said his biggest hope is that those he helps pay it forward.

His activism in the area has one community organization, Nos Quedamos, chasing him to sit on its board of directors.

“We want Danny on our board, because he has a pulse on the community,” said Sandra Quilico, Nos Quedamos’s chief operating officer. “He knows everything that’s going on and can bring to our attention issues of the community that need focusing on.”

After a year of saying no, Barber finally filed an application. He said he chose to because it will increase his involvement in the area and act as a way to restore some faith in his community.

“I get discouraged, but I’m not going nowhere,” Barber said. “This is where I am meant to be.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing, Southern BronxComments (1)

Graffiti, girls, and bragging rights

This article is by Jennifer Brookland and Ryan Tracy.

Ashley Cardero, second from right, and Angelica Nitura, second from left, stood with friends by a memorial on Cromwell Street, not far from where 18 year-old Juandy Paredes was stabbed to death Friday night.

Ashley Cardero, second from left, and Angelica Nitura, second from right, stood with friends by a memorial on Cromwell Ave., not far from where 17 year-old Juandy Paredes was stabbed to death Friday night. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes’s crew hangs out at 1164 Cromwell Avenue at night, or at the nearby park just north of Yankee Stadium.  They smoke, drink, and make too much noise. The cops come arrest people all the time for trespassing and being loud. In fact, the kids from this neighborhood say they see the same cop and the same ambulance on the corner by the park every night, waiting for trouble.

Trouble breaks out a lot.

In this stretch of Mt. Eden, thumping a few blocks away from the 4 train, graffiti colors the exteriors, kids with Spanish nicknames and tattoos fight members of rival cliques, and questions are met with “I don’t know anything,” by people who do.

Next to guys in sweats with ear-buds tracing lines from their pockets to their ears, Angelica Nitura looks almost out of place in skinny jeans and a blue cardigan.  She talks about her favorite memory of Paredes, a 17 year-old kid they all called “Frko,” or fresh boy. It was on April Fool’s Day, and someone from another crew had taken a guy’s hat. Paredes stood up for the guy, fighting the kids who had taken the hat until they smashed a bottle over his head. Paredes walked angrily back to Nitura.

“His whole side of his head is bleeding, like busted up, leaking,” said Nitura. “I like that he came back, after washing off all that blood. I like that he stood up for his friend. That was my favorite time.”

Paredes’s crew calls itself the “F— Your Life” group, or “F.Y.L.” for short, but insists it’s not a gang. More like a family where everyone watches the others’ backs. There are maybe 50 or 60 of them, all from the neighborhood. Today, laminated badges that they designed on computers swing from their necks showing pictures of Paredes and “4/16/2010,” the date he was killed a few blocks away at 167th and Jerome Avenue. They cross themselves and kiss their fingers in front of the memorial they’ve built for Paredes, a wooden table with tall plastic flowers under his picture, a Dominican flag, and a collection of candles with pictures of saints on them.

Juandy Paredes, pictured here in a collage made by a family friend.  (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes, pictured here in a collage made by a family friend. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Their expressions are hard. But only four days after Paredes was murdered, tears come suddenly.

Ashley Cordero is known by her friends as “Shine.” She has her brother’s name tattooed on her right hand, and swirls of color filling the gap between her shirt and her waistband on her left side. She breaks down thinking about the first time she met Paredes. It was July 14th, and she was eating Chinese food in the park. Paredes hung out there a lot because he loved inline skating, trying out tricks on rollerblades that were fitted with a panel on the bottom for sliding along curbs and rails. He told her she was beautiful and he was going to make her his. She offered to share her Chinese food.

Now Cordero is planning the tattoo she’ll get with Paredes’s name and a pair of wings on her back. She and Nitura both feel guilty that he was killed, because they encouraged him to leave the building where they were chilling and playing with knives. It was getting too loud, the cops were bound to come. So Paredes left with two other teen boys and according to Cordero, went to the convenience store on the corner.

Paredes was stabbed five times. Cordero said he flagged down a police van nearby and banged on its windows for help.  “I’m poked, I’m poked,” he told the cops.

Then he collapsed. Paramedics attended to him there on the street, but he died before he arrived at Lincoln Hospital.

The man charged with murdering him lives a nine-minute walk from where the mouthpiece used on Paredes lay full of blood in the street, up Jerome Avenue under the train tracks and past tables selling discount perfume and peeled oranges.

At his arraignment at the Bronx Supreme Criminal Court on Tuesday afternoon, Hector Bautista looked much too young to be charged with second-degree murder. The pony-tailed 18 year-old stood silently when the judge denied his request for bail.

Juandy Paredes' friends scrawled graffiti on the wall across from his family's home  They had nicknamed Paredes "Frko," or fresh boy.  (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes' friends scrawled graffiti on the wall across from his family's home. They had nicknamed him "Frko," or fresh boy. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Outside the courtroom, friends took turns defending Bautista, a basketball player who they said was a jokester with a good heart who had stopped attending high school. They insisted he was innocent of the stabbing.  But they admitted he was part of the conflicts that, fueled by graffiti, girls, and bragging rights, permeate the world of teenagers like him and Paredes.

“They lived in different places. That’s it,” said a girl who identified herself as Bautista’s girlfriend but would not give her name.

In the dimly-lit apartment on Irving Avenue where Paredes lived, cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends wore black, about to attend his funeral. They had heard about Bautista’s arrest, but wondered if police would be able to catch the other two teens police told the family were involved in the fight.

The family was calm and poised on Tuesday.  Two unsmiling men went about filling a cooler with ice and bottles of water for visitors. Until, contagious as a yawn, a long, slow wail broke out from one of the dark-clad women. She lowered her head and balled her hands into fists. The high-pitched sounds of her crying spread to other family members and escaped into the bright sunlight outside, where Paredes’s friends had spray-painted white graffiti over the entire brick surface of the opposing wall.

“If you stay for 20 minutes you can read it all. Then you’ll understand,” said Dualis, Paredes’s 10 year-old half-sister.

Paredes’s room was covered in graffiti, too, blue and black scrawls painted by him or his friends swarm across the walls. “F.Y.L” appeared in several places, and on the ceiling, emblazoned with a heart was the name Brenda. The room was a disaster. A bare strip of mattress poked out from under piles of clothing that spilled onto the floor and made walking impossible. Boxes of his favorite designer shoes were stacked head-high. A heads-up penny lay near the doorway.

“He would clean it every day but that same day he’d make the same mess,” said Dualis.

Graffiti and tags from his local crew cover the walls in Juandy Paredes' bedroom.  Paredes, 18, was stabbed to death on Friday, April 16.

Graffiti referring to Juandy Paredes' crew cover the walls in his bedroom. Paredes, 17, was stabbed to death on Friday, April 16. An 18 year-old member of a rival crew has been arrested but is denying the charges. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Paredes used to play “tickle monster” with her on the bed, where they would tickle each other’s feet. They played board games like Monopoly and “Guess Who?” even though Paredes got so mad when she beat him that he swore he wouldn’t play again. Dualis said she usually won.

A computer with a large silver-framed screen sat on a small desk in the corner, where light from the window illuminated the keyboard. Coralys Nunez, who was like an aunt to Paredes, and says he was creative, smart with computers and could “unblock” any website. He thought about being a game designer, if not a fashion designer. He got all A’s in school.

But Paredes had dropped out of school. He just got tired of going, says Dualis. Even Cordero, who says she and Paredes were always together for the past nine months, didn’t know if Paredes had any goals. They just didn’t talk about that, she says.

One of Paredes’s friends created a Facebook page in his memory. Brendalee Torres captioned a picture of her and Paredes kissing with expressions of grief and love, and also, a threat.

“Whoever did this to you gonna get his, trust me.”

Cordero says none of the crew has been killed before, despite all the neighborhood rivalries. But it’s almost as if she thinks Paredes won’t be the last friend for whom she will be forced to light candles.

“The one person you don’t want to lose,” she said,” is the first one to go.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern BronxComments (5)

African-American Group Defends Governor

As the political storm clouds grew more  intense over Gov. David Paterson on Thursday, a small group of African-American law enforcement officers gathered to defend him.

Michael Greys, co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group of court and police officers, was one of 10 members who stood outside the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office building in Harlem.

“All that has been said until now are pure allegations,” he said. “Nothing has been proven, so asking for his resignation is simply premature and unfair.”

The organization decided to  publicly defend Paterson who has faced mounting allegations after The New York Times reported that he intervened in a domestic abuse case involving a top aide. A few days later a state ethics panel accused the governor of lying about accepting free tickets to a World Series game.

“After more than 25 years of public service without a stain, all this sudden scrutiny, we just think it’s suspicious and outrageous,” Greys said.

Greys did not assign blame to any specific faction or individual for the controversy surrounding Paterson but said: “Some people want the state budget to go the way they want it to go. But we are not here to make allegations ourselves. All we are saying is that we should let the objective investigation follow its course and examine the facts.”

He added, “If by any chance these accusations turn out to be right, then we’d understand his being asked to step down.”

Last Friday, Paterson said he would not run for re-election because the accusations surrounding him were too much of a distraction from his mission to right the finances of New York State. “If he also wants to resign, based on these accusations, it’s his right, it’s his decision to make,” Greys said. “But it should not be forced on him.”

Noel Leader, another member of the organization, said that the members “don’t necessarily support Paterson” but that they support “the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”

The members of the 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care  say the accusations  against Paterson don’t have to do with race. “If it’s a trap, it has to do with state politics, but all we are saying is that we don’t know anything yet and he shouldn’t be asked to resign!” Greys insisted. “Would you resign on mere allegations? No! Me Neither! Nobody would! And nobody should!”

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These Bronx Bombers are also heavyweights — in wrestling

Wrestlers_postphoto

South Bronx wrestlers Necro Black, Lucifer Darksyde and K-Von Brown. Photo by Jordan Hollender.

Wrestling superstars from yesteryear, including Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake and Nikolai Volkoff, are set to bring star power and tinges of nostalgia to Saturday night’s Forgotten Championship Wrestling (FCW) show at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The New York-based FCW was founded in 2008 by three wrestling fans — Tony Ntellas, James Carro and Mark Parella — with the aim of returning the sport to its bygone days of slapstick grappling and pantomime narratives as opposed to the current emphasis on blood and gore. Among the wrestlers seeking to reverse this trend are a tag team from South Bronx known as the Bronx Bombers.

Gregory Caban and King Jeter, both 27, who wrestle under the respective pseudonyms of Necro Black and Lucifer Darksyde, met as teenagers in 1997 with a shared fanaticism for the sport. They took their first tentative steps inside the ring three years later and have gone on to cultivate quite a reputation on the local independent circuit owing to their unlikely arsenal of high-flying offense.

“Wrestling is like a live cartoon or a comic book,” said Jeter, who stands 6-feet-4, weighs about 360 pounds and frequently back somersaults from the ring’s top turnbuckles. “It’s the belief that you can do it. The moment you doubt yourself, your body tenses up and you’ll come down like bricks.”

“It’s the potato sack theory,” said Caban, 5-feet-6 and 315 pounds.

Caban was 13 years old when his father left home, leaving him to care for his mother and two younger sisters. “I had to become the man of the house,” he said. “I needed an outlet because I had a lot of anger.”

He tried artwork and writing, but then found his calling when he began “backyard brawling” with a circle of friends that grew to include Jeter and K-Von Brown, also now a member of the FCW roster. The boys would gather on weekends to watch professional wrestling shows on television, then spend countless hours afterward discussing and scrutinizing every move. By the time they reached the legal training age of 18, they were itching to learn the craft of bodyslamming opponents and applying headlocks.

“When we got to the gym and started training, we just picked everything up like that,” said Caban, snapping his fingers in quick succession. “We’d pretty much studied it already.”

Caban still uses his artistic talents to design online graphics and promotional work for independent wrestling promotions when he is not in the ring. But while captivating audiences can be a struggle for smaller organizations, wrestling’s popularity continues to endure.

“It has drama, it has emotion, it has violence,” Jeter said, adding: “In some cases it has sexual innuendo. It’s everything that society wants rolled into one, so you can’t help but to look at it.”

Although FCW is still in its infancy, Jeter expects Saturday’s card to be full of excitement for the fans.

“You can expect us to go out there and give 100 percent and it will set the pace for the night,” Jeter said. “FCW has a lot of potential. I hope the fans see that and come out and show their support.

“And if you ain’t gonna support that, at least come and support us.”

FCW is running a series of fan-interactive promotional events prior to the bell ringing at 7.30 p.m. Check their Web site for full details. The Bronx Ink will feature a multimedia clip of the event next week.

Posted in Southern Bronx, SportsComments (4)

Breaking the Art Rules

by Matthew Huisman

Four surrealist paintings hang on Luis D. Rosado’s wall in his South Bronx apartment. The sequence of paintings by Rich Rethorn depicts a horrific version of the four seasons. Skin slowly melts off a zombie’s head, eventually revealing a skull set in front of a post apocalyptic backdrop. An eyeball dangles from the skull, still connected to the socket, and stares back at the viewer.

“I wanted to put together a show that was thought provoking imagery,” Rethorn, 45, said of the paintings. “It might be disturbing to some peopl. But usually when they’re disturbed, that’s when they’re going to start to ask questions.”

The paintings were part of the November exhibit at LDR Studio Gallery, a gallery that operates out of the 28-year-old Rosado’s apartment at 134th Street and Alexander Avenue. For Rosado, its more than just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle.

“I feel like my calling was in the South Bronx and I wanted to do my own thing,” Rosado said of his gallery. “I wanted to break all the rules. Call me crazy, but I think I’m doing it.”

Rosado’s gallery, which bears his initials, is celebrating its second anniversary in December with champagne. But before he can pop the cork on the affair, Rosado has to remove the previous month’s exhibit with help from artist and curator Rethorn.

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Luis D. Rosado in his apartment art gallery on the second anniversary of the studio. Photo by Matthew Huisman

To maintain his artist’s lifestyle, Rosado holds down two jobs, runs his own architecture photography business and sleeps four hours a day. Rosado is emblematic of the diverse artistic community of the South Bronx that seeks independence from the restraints of large, corporate galleries while exploring alternative outlets for their creative energy. The South Bronx gives artists the canvas to develop their unique style and exhibit their work the way they see it.

Seven blocks north of Rosado’s apartment gallery is another apartment-turned-gallery, the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project, started two years ago by Blanka Amezkua. Born in Mexico and raised in California, Amezkua left the Golden State five years ago for the Bronx.

Amezkua’s idea for the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project was a creative reaction to the emotions she felt after losing her nephew in a car crash in 2006. Amezkua took the death hard since she had never before experienced losing a loved-one who was so dear to her. A year later Amezkua painted her Mott Haven bedroom robin’s-egg blue and thus was born the Blue Bedroom Project.

“In retrospect, that was part of my healing,” Amezkua said. “It was an opening up of the most intimate space in my apartment.” Amezkua now lives with her husband in Queens and makes the daily commute to her studio where she once lived.

Amezkua has invited Bronx artists like Laura Napier and Matthew Burkaw, whom she met through Artists in the Marketplace, a program run by the Bronx Museum of the Arts that provides artists with practical knowledge, to be part of her project. December’s artist is Napier and she is planning a bit of trickery for gallery-goers.

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Artist Laura Napier shows off her exhibit at the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. Photo by Matthew Huisman

Two floors above Amezkua’s blue bedroom, Napier is running a cable from her fifth floor bedroom window down the front of the building to Amezkua’s gallery. The wire carries a live feed of Napier’s bedroom – identical in size, shape and painted to match the original blue bedroom – to be transmitted on a television inside Amezkua’s gallery. The bedroom door in the gallery will be closed with a sign posted that asks guests to keep the door closed. Patrons will be able to watch what’s happening on the other side of the bedroom door on the television, or so they think.

“The idea is if people go in there and people are expecting to see themselves on the screen, they won’t,” Napier said of the exhibit. “I’m really interested to see how people behave.”

Napier is using her lunch break from her job at the Bronx Council for the Arts to set up her upcoming December exhibit in the Bronx Blue Bedroom Project. The blue bedroom serves as a place where artists and the community interact and share art.

The South Bronx has a long artistic history dating back to the 70’s when Stefan Eins founded Fashion Moda, a storefront art studio and melting pot where artists and the neighborhood mingled.

“There was hip hop, there was break-dancing, there was dj-ing and there was graffiti,” said Lisa Kahane, a photographer who documented the Bronx during the 70’s. “What happened at Moda was these people met with artists from downtown, so there was definitely a cross pollination of different art forms.”

While The Bronx was experimenting with Fashion Moda, SoHo was becoming a booming art scene where galleries lined the blocks south of Houston Street. The same happened in Chelsea, as philanthropists poured more money into the Manhattan art scene.

“So you walk around and there are all these galleries all in one place,” Kahane said. “That was the accepted art neighborhood.”

When rent in Manhattan increased, artists sought out cheaper living accommodations and more space in the outer boroughs. Places like Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn have seen an influx in artists who are gentrifying the communities they occupy. However, the art scene in the South Bronx, though, has never been able to grow quite as fast.

“It’s up and coming but it’s taking its time,” Rosado said of the South Bronx art scene. Along with the tight-knit artistic community comes freedom from the corporate strings–a big selling point for Rosado.

“I just never really liked the fact that you had to pretty much be a prostitute to galleries about your art and yourself,” Rosado said. “I’m not dogging Chelsea. It’s just that I don’t like the attitude within that art world. I know that eventually I would like to show in Chelsea, but I don’t like the fact that it’s become so corporate. They start forgetting about the art itself and it’s all about business.”

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

LDR Studio Gallery celebrated its second anniversary with champagne. Photo by Matthew Huisman

For Amezkua the stigma that surrounds The Bronx started in the 70’s with the housing crisis and more recently the violence that plagued the borough in the 90’s. This has left the South Bronx with a reputation as an uncultured void in the city.

“It’s a very different thing when you say Bronx or when you say Williamsburg or Chelsea,” Amezkua said. “The Bronx is viewed as the ugly duckling of New York.” She did, however, praise the borough’s diversity. “When you come from a place that is not as diverse, and you land in The Bronx, you see the richness of the culture. It’s mindboggling.”

The downside to keeping corporate money at bay, is that the South Bronx art movement has never gained enough momentum to pull in outside investors.

“It’s like pulling teeth,” said Barry Kostrinsky, a 25-year veteran of the South Bronx art scene. “There are a lot of artists who do their own thing. Everyone has so many things going on in their life.”

Since the 80’s Kostrinsky has been creating art, everything from oil landscapes to acrylic on found objects. He said that art is about self expression and being socially aware at the same time.

“Art is about blasting parameters,” Kostrinsky said. “If you draw on garbage, you put it in perspective. It’s not the Mona-fucking-Lisa, it’s very real.”

It’s opening night for Rosado’s gallery and he is popping another bottle of champagne for his guests. He smiles as he refills empty glasses and begins to take another stroll through the exhibit.

“I like the fact that I am an underground gallery,” Rosado said. “I wake up in the morning and I eat art. I breathe art. I see art. It’s just all over.”

Rosado and Amzekua have maintained their independence from corporate art galleries, deciding instead to go it alone financially. Their reward is the ability to showcase local art that is free and open to the community while exploring the limits of their own creativity.

“Everybody leaves and I just sit down on the floor, pop a bottle of champagne,” Rosado said, “and just look at the artwork one by one.”

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