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One of Main Land Media's postcards

The Bronx is Branding

The Bronx has an image problem. Local artists and entrepreneurs still find themselves working against its most persistent stereotype made infamous during the 1977 World Series. That’s when sportscaster Howard Cosell looked up from his press box perch at fires raging beyond Yankee Stadium’s walls and declared, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

One of Main Land Media's post-cards

 Mainland Media postcard

But since then, the borough of 2014 has spawned more new businesses in the last two decades than any other. People are moving to the Bronx in larger numbers than any other. Music, food and art events are attracting more tourists now than in recent memory. Visitors doubled last year, according to 2013 figures from NYC & Company. And yet, its reputation as a burned-out borough plagued by drugs, poverty and violence is still tough to shake.

According to at least three proud Bronx entrepreneurs, the time is now for a public relations makeover. “The Bronx is the next new thing,” said Anthony Ramirez, one of the co-founders of Main Land Media, the promotional company he launched in 2006 with another fellow Bronxite, John Martin.  Together with Ramirez’s younger brother Paul, the three have opened the popular Bronx Beer Hall on Arthur Avenue and launched a Bronx themed retail website as well as a consulting firm for artists and business people who share their mission to boost the Bronx.

As the borough gears up to celebrate its centennial as an official county this year, new efforts are in the works to encourage people to start taking notice that the Bronx is back. This month, the on-going Yes The Bronx Film Festival, featured Hollywood movies that were connected to the Bronx, in hopes that more filmmakers would be encouraged to return to the borough for inspiration. Coinciding with Manhattan’s Fashion Week, this fall, the Bronx held its own Fashion Week for the first time, featuring local designers and models. On September 7, close to 30,000 people came from all over the state for the annual Italian feast in Belmont.

To Anthony Ramirez, “The Bronx is as rich in culture and history as any place in the world.”

Ramirez and Martin were working together in 2001 in the South Bronx community based organization called SoBRO. The mission of the South Bronx overall economic development organization is to build partnerships between businesses and community needs such as education, health and jobs. The two wanted to decorate their office space with Bronx memorabilia, and were stunned to discover that Bronx souvenirs were next to impossible to find. So they decided to take the matter into their own hands.

Both pitched in $2,000 from their personal saving to start a pro-Bronx business called Mainland Media. They named it Mainland because the Bronx is the only borough that is connected to New York State. They began creating their own memorabilia by renting a helicopter and flying above their home borough to take aerial photographs and make posters and post-cards. The point was to show the Bronx from a different perspective. The core purpose of their company was, and has ever since been, to re-introduce Bronx residents to their community and outsiders to the “proudest borough” in New York City.

From selling post-cards and posters the company expanded into selling a wide range of Bronx-themed merchandise on its retail website, fromthebronx.com. Their online business features clothes, posters, books, stickers, and many other miscellaneous items. One of their best sellers is a T-shirt advertising the borough’s music history as the birthplace of hip-hop. It is sold $60 and prices for this specific-to-the-Bronx merchandise range from 99 cents to $79.99.

Main Land Media debuted around the same time Facebook was taking off. The two friends managed to take advantage of all social media platforms and are now the most followed Bronx-based business, right after the Yankees. Close to 114,000 people follow them on Facebook as do 3,006 on Twitter under their “from the bronx” pseudonym. In 2013, Main Land Media’s merchandise was featured in the Museum Of Modern Art’s gift shop collection in New York City, Korea and Japan.

Anthony Ramirez and his younger brother, Paul, who joined the company in 2010, were born and raised in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. Both have fond memories of their upbringing surrounded by many of their Puerto Rican relatives, a large, sprawling, close-knit community unto itself. The brothers were raised around 18 first cousins and knew everyone in the neighborhood. “Our parents taught us to be proud of where we’re from and of who we are,” said Anthony Ramirez, the eldest of the three children. Their father is a musician who plays many instruments but focuses mainly on the piano and the trumpet. Their mother has worked as an administrative assistant ever since Anthony can remember. Both parents were also born in the Bronx, which makes Anthony and Paul the second generation of Bronx-Ramirezes.

The Ramirez brothers intend to defend their roots from Bronx detractors who tend to regard Bronx residents as either urban survivors or potential threats. When Anthony Ramirez was an undergraduate student at Columbia University in 2000, he recalls one classmate’s frightened reaction when his pager went off. His friend explained to him; “You know, you’re from the Bronx, you have a pager…people automatically think you’re doing drugs.”

The stereotype sticks in large part because the problems of crime and poverty are still pervasive. The borough still has the highest number of people living below the poverty line in the city and is considered the poorest district in the nation according to the U.S Census Bureau. Its 9.8 percent unemployment rate is also the highest of all five boroughs according to the NYC Department of Labor, even though it is below 10 percent for the first time in six years.  Health wise, data shows the Bronx ranks second citywide in the number of AIDS diagnosis, with a 23.9 percent rate in 2010.

Yet the extreme violence and gutted landscape has dissipated to some extent, according to Professor Lloyd Ultan, a historian who was born and raised in the Bronx. To him the borough “is now almost perfectly safe, but nothing is perfect”. The crime rate has in fact plummeted since its peak in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the last 21 years, overall crime has plunged 71.3 percent in the Bronx according to city data. Moreover, thanks to pivotal figures such as Father Louis Gigante whose work improved housing, or urban planner Edward J. Logue who implemented single-family homes around the borough, the Bronx has emerged as a vibrant place to live.

The Bronx Beer Hall, inside Arthur Avenue's retail market (ALICE GUILHAMON/The Bronx Ink)

The Bronx Beer Hall, inside Arthur Avenue’s retail market (ALICE GUILHAMON/The Bronx Ink)

Main Land Media intends to make Bronx residents and others care about its transformation. In order to shed light on the borough’s underestimated cultural scene, the company opened several temporary “pop-up” stores around the borough where they showcase local designers, creators and artists. The last event was held in December 2011 in Arthur Avenue’s Retail Market where the brothers eventually opened a beer hall. They also hosted a beer tasting at the event, which may have inspired Paul Ramirez’s idea to open a beer hall.

“He might have been a little tipsy” to think of opening a beer hall in the middle of this covered Italian food market, said Anthony Ramirez about his brother. But the next day the two thought about it some more and came up with a business proposal. In need of new revenue, the retail market committee agreed to their plans.

The Bronx Beer Hall opened in 2013 and has been attracting more and more clients ever since. Michael Hoblin is one of the bartenders. He studies at Fordham University, which is at a 10 minutes walk from the beer hall. The opening of this new business has changed his perception of the area as he now dares to venture much farther within the borough than he used to.

From a four-person company, Main Land Media expanded to a business now employing 20 to 25 people depending on the projects. They are currently designing a new product line for their retail activity and looking to open an additional venue for the Bronx Beer Hall.

According to the brothers’ analysis, the main reason why both their businesses have been successful so far is because their focus is on promoting the Bronx as a whole, not just making profit.

For Anthony Ramirez, their customers need to believe their activity is community driven. This is also what they say to the various Bronx companies that come to them for marketing strategy advice. The rising non-profit photography gallery “Bronx Documentary Centre” is one of its clients along with the Bronx Borough President’s Office, the Police Athletic League and others. They wanted to be Bronxites helping Bronxites. The demand for their consulting services, which can cost up to $5,000 for 20 to 40 hours of counseling, is now so high they are turning clients down.

However successful they are, they are aware the Bronx still has challenges to overcome. Anthony Ramirez explained they employ people as much as possible from or living in the Bronx and always try to support local businesses. “We work so hard to help other Bronx businesses because we know we (the borough) still have a very long way to go,” said co-founder John Martin.

This is the challenge facing the Ramirez brothers, and all the other artists and businessmen who are trying to help the Bronx come out from under the shadow of its reputation as the epitome of urban decay and despair. It’s a reputation that has even followed the borough to Europe. In French, a popular expression to describe a chaotic situation is “C’est le Bronx ici”, which translates into “It’s the Bronx here,” aka, “a disaster.”

The latest album by a Queens-based hardcore band “Sick Of It All” features a song in which they apply a whole new meaning to the Bronx.

“It’s time to get Bronx,” now means the time has come to “stand up and fight.”

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