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Urban slaughterhouses on the rise

Lamb Arriving At a Vivero in the South Bronx. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Lambs arriving at a vivero in the South Bronx. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

One afternoon in early October, a 16-wheeled tractor-trailer held up traffic along Jerome Avenue in the South Bronx while it backed into an open garage bay. Passersby paused to gaze at the truck’s cargo. Through narrow slats in the trailer, dozens of goats and sheep stuck out their noses, sniffing their last seconds of sunshine before disappearing into the garage.

The truck had traveled from outside Harrisburg, Penn., one of its biweekly trips carrying animals delivered to the vivero, a live butcher shop, sandwiched between two auto body shops and across the street from a gas station. Above the garage bay, a colorful sign blares “Live Poultry!” with cartoonish images of roosters, ducks and goats.

This is “New York Live Poultry,” one in a vast and growing network of over a dozen urban slaughterhouses in the Bronx where customers can choose their dinner from a cage and have the animal slaughtered and butchered within minutes. These viveros are wedged all across the borough — along busy pedestrian avenues, nestled underneath railroad tracks, next to furniture stores, or across from playgrounds.

Once a niche business catering to a distinct segment of the population, viveros are evolving into a dynamic — if not unsettling — staple of everyday Bronx life, capitalizing on the ethnic diversity of a borough that is nearly 30 percent foreign born.

According to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, 17 viveros are registered in the Bronx, among 83 total citywide. Some have been in business since the early 1990s. More recently, however, live poultry shops have sprung up with added frequency — thanks in part to the borough’s loose zoning restrictions, lack of supermarket competition and its rapidly growing number of Muslim Arabs and Africans who prefer their meat be killed live in accordance with halal practices. The rapid spread has helped to heighten tension with surrounding business owners. Some wonder how wise it is to butcher animals so near to crowded city streets.

“I don’t ever need my chicken that fresh,” said Bronx city councilwoman Helen Diane Foster. “But people swear by it.”

The Arab population in the city, most of whom are Muslim, has grown by nearly 40 percent since 1990, according to a report by the city’s commission on human rights in 2003. More than 3,100 Arabs currently live in the Bronx, while the African population has more than doubled in the last two decades, to 60,000, many of whom are also Muslim and eat only halal meat products.

The majority of the viveros’ clientele are immigrants, and they frequent the shops for freshly butchered meat at a lower cost than the supermarket.. The prices, at less than $2 a pound in most places compare favorably with $2.50 per pound for a breast of chicken at local supermarkets.  Signs and menus are often written in Spanish, and many have images of mosques or Muslim symbols adorning the walls.

“We have all kinds of people coming here,” said Abdul Nahshel, the 18-year-old manager of Cross Bronx Live on Jerome Avenue. “Africans, Latins, even people from Michigan and Ohio.”

Nahshel said cultural preferences even play out with individual orders. Africans often buy older chickens to make soup from the tougher meat. Dominicans prefer Guinea fowl for roasting. Guyanese favor ducks for curry.

“Arab guys don’t buy from the supermarkets,” said Sah Mohmad, manager at Saba Live Poultry on the Grand Concourse, who added that 80 percent of his customers are either Arab or African.

Saba’s live food selection included turkeys, quails, rabbits, pigeons, sheep, goats, even calves — not atypical of an open-air market in the Middle East or Africa. For many Bronx immigrants, the viveros are a last pure vestige of home.

“I think it’s cultural,” said Foster. “Because of the large Dominican and West African population we have, it’s just really cultural.”

* * *

At about 6 p.m. each weeknight along Webster Avenue in Morrisania, workers at the local vivero drag plastic garbage bins packed with discarded animal parts onto the sidewalk.

A special garbage truck that specializes in hauling away such parts will be around shortly to collect the refuse. Until then, however, the stench of rotting meat chokes the neighborhood.

The vivero, Webster Live Chicken, sits snugly in the center of a bustling commercial district. A large furniture store is its neighbor to the right, a Dunkin’ Donuts to the left. Commuters standing at the bus stop on the nearby corner are subjected to wretched odors each evening.

Though no formal complaints have been made to Community District 3, a small petition was circulated by the owner of a liquor store around the corner, demanding the vivero cease its disposal practices.

Still, their popularity spreads, the locations of these slaughterhouses, often in residential and commercial areas, have led to occasional tension with the surrounding community. For neighboring businesses, the smell is enough to raise objections.

“It’s rotten, the smell is awful,” said Ramon Perez, owner of Olympic Cleaners, a dry cleaners around the corner from the vivero. “They put (the bins) outside and the heat makes it smell awful.”

Several women working in the cleaners shook their heads when describing the odor that often seeps through the wall the two stores share.

“They’re burning hair,” Perez said. “Almost everyday I have to go in there and tell them to stop burning.”

The manager of the Webster Avenue vivero declined comment.

A furniture store manager on the Grand Concourse boarded up the hallway leading to the entrance of the store to block some of the smell from an adjacent vivero and occasionally shoos away fugitive chickens from wandering inside.

“I have problems on many levels — just personally it kind of grosses me out,” Foster said. “But surprisingly enough, I have not heard or received any complaints about them.”

* * *

Cross Bronx Live manager Nahshel scoffed when asked if he hears objections from people in the community. “It’s chickens, everybody in the world eats chicken,” he said. “They’re probably against the slaughtering part but they’re not against eating it.”

Most viveros are characterized by a ramshackle appearance: corrugated iron, warped window signs, dusty fans, plastic windows. Inside, the floors are usually concrete, wet with feathers and entrails that clog the drains.

The screeching of Guinea fowl and persistent clucking of hens drowns out conversation between customers and can often be heard from outside the store. Yet, it is the smell that overwhelms the most. A pungent, soggy odor of blood is overlaid by the barnyard scent of tightly packed farm animals.

Despite their appearance, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the body that regulates these businesses, said that they are inspected at least four times per year and that each store must be given two separate licenses to practice: one to ensure the caged animals are healthy, the other regulated processing practices. Furthermore, since 2003, the outbreak of the Avian influenza virus, stores are forced to shut down for a day four times per year to clean and disinfect their entire facilities.

“We’re very familiar with the live bird markets,” a spokesperson for the Department said. “These stores would not be open if there wasn’t a demand for fresh poultry. We want to make sure they’re done in the cleanest, safest way possible.”

Though concerns have been raised in the past about issues with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the Department said, it has not needed to shut down a store in several years.

Some of these stores, like one owned by Musa Samreen on Third Avenue, have been around for decades and have faced the same strict regulations by state inspectors. Samreen, who opened his first store in 1989 and at one point ran three at a time, has voiced his concern that the number of stores has spread out of control.

He has witnessed copycat enterprises pop up throughout the borough, and, as he looked around his own near empty shop, he expressed disdain for how other shop owners have run their businesses with less care and attention to hygiene. Awkward placement in once blighted and now increasingly residential areas has taken its toll on his 21-year-old business, which he has filled with flat screen televisions and a seated waiting area. He foresees similar consequences for others.

“We don’t do 10 percent of the business we did before,” said Samreen, who came to New York from Jerusalem in 1981. “This used to be an industrial area and now it is becoming residential. The new people don’t shop here.”

* * *

On a clear Sunday afternoon, just as nearby churches began to empty, vans pulled up to the curb in front of a vivero underneath a train trestle as a cycle of drivers double park, run inside, and within 10 minutes reemerge with a blue plastic bag filled with chicken meat.

“I like buying fresh chickens; I don’t like frozen ones,” said Victor Reyes who came all the way from Shelton, Conn., for chicken that morning. “It’s organic, you know? You can pick the one you want.”

Outside the shop, a 10-year-old boy named Angel waited for his mother to finish collecting her weekly allowance of two whole chickens. The smell of the store bothered him, so he chose to sit patiently in the cool October air.

“If it was me, I would throw all those animals back into nature,” he said.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx0 Comments

The little Mexican restaurant that could

Co-owner and chef Alfredo Diego welcomes customers with a smile.

Co-owner and chef Alfredo Diego welcomes customers with a smile. Photo: Alexander Besant

On any weekday morning, Alfredo Diego, co-owner of Coqui Mexicano restaurant, is busy cooking slivers of chicken for tacos, spooning out avocados for guacamole, and chopping onions, lettuce and tomatoes for garnish.

He then wipes down the counters, sits near the window overlooking a bleak strand of Third Avenue near 161st Street in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, and waits for customers to come. Sometimes he waits for hours.

Diego and his girlfriend, Danisha Nazario, 37, moved to the area in 2001 and have owned and run their small Mexican-Puerto Rican fusion restaurant and deli for just over two years. The restaurant, which serves tacos alongside black beans, rice and other regional cuisine in a stripped down bodega with just three tables, is just one of a handful of restaurants in the area – and one of the only ones that does not specialize in fried chicken.

“We try to make healthy food here,” said Danisha. “The area needs more healthy places.”

But two years after its opening, Coqui Mexicano has yet to break even. Nazario said the restaurant is getting closer to reaching the $5,000 necessary to stay out of debt each month, but so far, their sales have not turned a profit. Diego estimates that the restaurant serves about 30 customers per day, mostly regulars and mostly those coming for lunch from other local businesses. The couple is not sure how much longer they can last at the current rate.

In many ways, the couple may be two fragile steps ahead of the expected resurgence in this neighborhood. “This is a place where people are just starting to play,” Nazario said. “But there is no foot traffic at night.”

Both remain remain hopeful. The restaurant lies at heart of a revitalization that is expected to include new housing units and restaurants surrounded the recently completed satellite campus of Boricua College. Construction has begun to attract hundreds of new residents, those who Nazario and Diego hope will become frequent customers.

However, according to Nazario, currently, the new population seems to prefer Manhattan for its nightlife, so far. Construction is slow, and the hints of revitalization she and Diego saw years earlier has not yet panned out.

Born in Puerto Rico, Nazario has lived most of her life in the United States. She graduated in International Marketing from Baruch College and later worked at Dallas BBQ, the New York City food chain where she met Diego.

Later, she took a position in the business center of the Essex Hotel in midtown Manhattan where she continues to head to work at 5:30 a.m. every weekday.

“I still go to work ‘till the business can hold itself,” said Nazario.

Diego, who now works full-time at the restaurant, was born in Acapulco, Mexico. Though he remains coy about his life story, he says that he learned to cook at home in Mexico where, as a boy, he would often make meals for his siblings to help his mother – an experience that put him off cooking for years.

He arrived in the United States some 20 years ago and has worked all over Manhattan in food stores, restaurants and bodegas, finally ending up at Dallas BBQ.

Diego and Nazario began renting the Bronx storefront in the spring of 2008 on the site of a former grocery store that, according to the couple, was a drug den that housed a brothel in a back room.

“The woman who owned it lived in New Jersey,” said Nazario. “She didn’t care about what her business was doing to the neighborhood.”

It took the couple three months to clean out the store, which was in abysmal shape, full of decaying food products and garbage. During the cleaning, Diego developed a lung infection from the noxious fumes that emanated from the debris found in the store.

“It was horrible,” said Nazario. “The store was disgusting.”

Though the couple had readied the restaurant for business in mid-summer, they were not given the go ahead by the city for another few months until Nazario went downtown and caused what she called, “a scene,” in the department that issues restaurant permits. They were awarded a license to serve food in September, after having spent $10,000 for five months rent without making a dollar.

The couple faced another obstacle just after opening: discrimination from the local community.

“There has also been a lot of controversy because I am Puerto Rican and Diego is Mexican,” said Nazario. “A lot of people in the community did not accept this. We would get racist remarks and everyday lots of people telling us to get out of the neighborhood.”

The couple’s problems went beyond neighborhood xenophobia, as they recognized that overhead costs climbed higher than expected and that the neighborhood had not changed as fast as they had hoped – many of the buildings around them were just being constructed with potential customers not moving into the area soon enough.

In that first year, business was slow.

In desperation Nazario got on the Internet and searched for cheap ways to promote the business. She joined Facebook and began randomly contacting residents of the area, asking them to come out and try the restaurant.

“I had never used anything like it before,” she said. “Facebook really saved my ass.”

She even began sending e-mail messages to local U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, tempting him with homemade guava cake.

To get word out to the community, Nazario also helped to create an informal neighborhood pact whereby area business owners agreed to patronize one another’s stores to help support local commerce.

The pact includes a local bodega, a community college and a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by a husband and wife team who have experienced similar problems to Nazario and Diego.

“She and I have a lot in common,” said Nazario. “We tell each other our problems and about how business is going.”

Yet her efforts were still not enough to make the bills stop piling up and in March of this year, the couple was handed an eviction notice for having not made rent payments to the landlord. At that point, they were eating soup every day to save money for rent.

But just before their scheduled court date to fight the eviction, their luck changed.

The couple received an email from Agnes Rodriguez, 31, an arraignment clerk at the Bronx Defenders inviting them to a fundraiser at their restaurant. Rodriguez had organized the fundraiser after hearing that the restaurant, where many Bronx Defenders’ staff eat lunch, was struggling.

“We love them dearly at the Bronx Defenders,” said Rodriguez. “And I always want to support Latino businesses in the area.”

The couple was touched by Rodriquez’s gesture, which raised hundreds of dollars for the restaurant – money they needed to keep Coqui Mexicano alive.

On top of that, Rep. Serrano, who had finally come in to taste the guava cake almost a year before, helped Nazario negotiate a payment plan with the landlord, which came to an end this month.

“Even if we hadn’t survived it would be worth it because we made so many friends,” said Nazario.

These days, the couple is trying to build on their positive momentum, however slight, by generating a more solid customer base.

They have established a small lending library in the form of stuffed bookshelf near the front door that they hope will bring more people in, even if they don’t want to eat. And they have hosted concerts by local musicians, too, hoping to generate buzz around the restaurant.

Nazario admits that the difficulties of keeping the restaurant open have put a strain on her relationship. She and Diego take their problems from work home with them at night.

Yet she is adamant that they are not ready to give up. The couple plans to keep the business alive for as long as they can.

“We’ve been through so much,” Nazario said. “But we’ll pull through.”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Money, Special Reports0 Comments

Barber Solo

Barber Solo from Alexander Besant on Vimeo.

Edgar Colon, born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, is a pillar in his community.

After years spent honing his craft in other barbershops, Colon opened his own business eight years ago, blocks from his childhood home. In spite of the recession, Sharp Styles continues to provide refuge to people in the neighborhood. Colon keeps his prices low so that anyone can come in for a trim and a welcome break.

Posted in Bronx Life, Money, Multimedia0 Comments

Honduran king of Italian ices

Alfredo Thiebaud painting the floor in the basement of his Bronx-based factory. Photo: Alexander Besant

Never tired, Alfredo Thiebaud painting the floor in the basement of his Bronx-based Italian ice factory. Photo: Alexander Besant

Alfredo Thiebaud cannot sit still. His legs shake and his eyes constantly scan the hallway in front of his door looking for something else to do besides sitting around answering questions about his life. He exudes all the restlessness of a new business owner, except that he is not one. He has been at it for years.

Thiebaud has run the Bronx-based Delicioso Coco Helado since he founded the company in 1978 when he was just 39. Now 70, he is still just as involved in the day-to-day management of the company that makes Italian ices, a sugary fruit purée like sorbet, as he was when it first began 32 years ago.

“He’s always been hands on and very protective of his products,” said Sophia Thiebaud, Alfredo’s daughter and vice president of operations at Delicioso. “He’s 70 years old and still works seven days a week, more than 10 hours a day.”

Alfredo Thiebaud is short and stocky with the thick fingers of a manual laborer. He wears jeans that are covered in paint and dust that look as if he has just renovated a house. He says few words, and whenever he is asked about his personal life, he quickly moves the conversation back to his business. Though he says he is not supposed to eat sugar because of hyperglycemia, Thiebaud sits at his desk snacking on raisin bran (which, according to his daughter, he believes does not contain sugar) and fruit-flavored yogurt.

At the first opportunity, he jumps out of his seat and suggests that his daughter Sophia would probably be more suited to answer questions. He calls for her and quickly disappears into the basement of the factory with painting equipment in hand.

Thiebaud grew up in Tela, Honduras, a sleepy port town that grew prosperous through the export of tropical fruits. Thiebaud’s grandfather was French, and came to Honduras to work as a manager of the then-burgeoning railway system that carried agricultural products from the interior to the coast for export. His father worked as an executive in the United Fruit Company, an American firm that controlled large expanses of agricultural land and key industries in Latin American and Caribbean countries that became known as “banana republics.”

In 1960, when Thiebaud was 21, his uncle, a merchant marine living in Queens, helped his nephew immigrate to the United States, a country his family believed, would offer him more economic opportunities than Honduras. “My uncle gave me the papers to come to this country,” he said. “It was easier back then. They needed workers.” Thiebaud arrived in New York and began work at a storm-window manufacturing business in Mount Vernon for a dollar an hour. After four years at the factory, he left to work as a welder and finally a carpenter for a trade union.

With savings from his previous jobs, Thiebaud started Delicioso Coco Helado in 1978, selling homemade Italian ices from a pushcart in the Bronx. Thiebaud said that though New York City was full of Hispanics, their food, especially the ices that Thiebaud enjoyed as a child, was still not readily available.

As his sales grew, he hired a few more vendors, eventually quitting the vending business to focus exclusively on producing.  “We started in the Bronx and little by little, we grew,” said Thiebaud. “Then our vendors started going to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.” Delicioso Coco Helado is now one of the largest employers in the neighborhood with more than 30 seasonal employees producing the icy treat. Thiebaud also supplies over 200 independent vendors who are ubiquitous on street corners around the New York City during the summer.

Delicioso vendors begin arriving at the factory around nine in the morning to pick up their merchandise for the day. The vendors, mostly from Latin America, line up quietly as they receive their supply of the frozen fruit purée in tubs. In the evening, vendors return with any unsold product to store in the Delicioso’s warehouse until the next morning.

Vendors are responsible for their individual permits and are free to go wherever they want in the city to sell the product. Thiebaud will not supply a vendor who does not have a permit. The politics of permits can be a tough business in New York, as Thiebaud knows. In the early 1990s, Thiebaud briefly had his own permit suspended by the city for illegally supplying vendors with permits instead of having to get them through City Hall. Though he was never accused of selling the permits, he acknowledged that he did give them to vendors who sold his products. “I used to give it to the vendor to sell the products,” he said. “I gave them permits to create jobs. I never took advantage and sold the permits.”

Many of the vendors are Latin Americans who come year after year to New York to work for the summer and then return home for the winter. When his vendors leave for the season, Thiebaud continues to work in his factory, fixing the carts and doing yearly maintenance.

“In the winter I have to fix the pushcarts or do repairs,” said Thiebaud. “There is always something to do.”

According to his daughter Sophia, Thiebaud gives away thousands of dollars in products ever year to support local charities and churches. “He definitely believes in giving back,” Thiebaud’s daughter said. “He loves the Bronx and wants to do whatever he can to improve it.”

Despite chances to relocate during periods of unrest in the neighborhood or to move to less expensive facilities, Thiebaud has always refused. “When everyone else was leaving the Bronx he stayed,” said Sophia Thiebaud. “He knew the Bronx would come back.”

While at work painting the basement of the factory later that day, Thiebaud suddenly seemed more at ease talking. He lamented the unstable political situation in Honduras and was happy that former left-wing President Manuel Zelaya had been ousted in a recent coup. “Honduras didn’t need another Chavez.” He also expressed doubt about President Barack Obama and about the changes taking place under his administration. When asked if he would retire, he stopped working for a moment and answered earnestly. “Of course I am not going to retire. What would I do every day?”

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Special Reports1 Comment

Front of the food line

Every Wednesday and Saturday, no matter the weather, hundreds of people stand in line on the sidewalks in front of the Word of Life Food Pantry in Morrisania.

They arrive at 4 or 5 in the morning, sometimes even the night before, hoping to draw a good number that will put them in front. Their goal, every week, is to leave the pantry with a full cart of food.

Posted in Bronx Life, Food, Food and Beyond, Multimedia, Special Reports0 Comments

Healthy Eats 101

Healthy Eats 101 from Catherine Pearson on Vimeo.

On a brisk fall morning, five families filed into an unfinished room at the Word of Life Church in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx. They pulled black hairnets over their heads, sat down at two long folding tables, and began to chop.

The families were there for the latest in an eight-week series of free morning cooking classes offered by the Word of Life Church, a Christian assembly that operates out of a nondescript, 5,000-square-foot storefront on the corner of Prospect Avenue and 162 Street.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year, church volunteers hand out groceries to hundreds of needy men, women, and families who line up on the sidewalk to waiting to fill their pushcarts with vegetables, bread, and—depending on availability—meat.

For the past year and a half, the church has also partnered with City Harvest, the non-profit, to offer regular Saturday cooking classes, using low-cost recipes from the foods offered in the food bank lines.

The classes are led by volunteer nutritionists and chefs, though City Harvest does recruit participants from culinary schools.

“We do the grocery shopping needed to buy ingredients in the neighborhood,” said Sarah Pearlman, senior manager of nutrition education with City Harvest.

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Food, Multimedia0 Comments

Breaking ground for a sliver of a riverside park

Work crews get ready to break ground at the new Starlight Park. Photo: David Alexander

Work crews get ready to break ground at the new Starlight Park in the Bronx. Photo: David Alexander

Local Bronx politicians and community groups broke ground Thursday in a $17 million project to restore Starlight Park, a derelict sliver of land running between the Bronx River and the Sheridan Expressway.

The two-year restoration of the park, over a decade in the works, is expected to include the building of new playgrounds, a soccer field, a basketball court and paths for walking and cycling.

“This is election year and there are many candidates saying government doesn’t work,” said New York State Assemblyman, Michael Benjamin. “Well, tell them about this place.”

Starlight Park’s restoration was set in motion by a coalition of Bronx-based non-profit groups and local and state agencies as a part of a larger scheme to redevelop neglected land along the Bronx River.

“This is the end or maybe the beginning of a long journey to have a park that will be better used by young people,” said David Shuffler, director of the Youth Ministries for Peace Justice, a Bronx-based group that spearheaded the restoration of the park.

The park project is one of the final installments in the Greenway plan, a 20-mile long green corridor along the Bronx River that will connect the East River to Westchester County by bike paths.

Community leaders believe that the park will help to promote a more active lifestyle for Bronx residents.

“This park will encourage green forms of transportation and encourage people to walk and cycle,” said U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley.

The Bronx Greenway initiative was launched in 2006 by the New York Economic Development Corp. in collaboration with the Bronx River Alliance, a non-profit group pushing for the rejuvenation of the river.

Miles of shoreline have since been converted into parkland through the Greenway scheme, including the transformation of a nearby concrete processing plant into green space, completed in September 2009.

The Bronx’s Starlight Park has been many things over the centuries, including an amusement park, an oil gasification plant, and finally a combination of auto body shop, impound lot and dilapidated playfield.

The building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the 1960s sliced through the park, transforming it into a sliver of land boxed in by three major thoroughfares.

Though local community groups had been calling for the restoration of the park for years, the city only began to plan and raise money for the project in 1999.

In 2004, just after beginning the initial excavation, work crews struck rusted remnants of a Con Edison gas plant that had formerly occupied the site.

Soil testing found high levels of contaminants, including benzene and other toxins, which put the project on hold until the site could be cleaned up.

Though Con Edison has subsequently decontaminated the site, the Bronx River area still faces many challenges.

Decontamination efforts of Starlight Park found no less than 22 cars lodged in the riverbed close by.

The river itself is also contaminated by raw sewage, which overflows into it on rainy days.

Yet, despite the persistent environmental problems surrounding the river, officials in charge of the restoration of Starlight Park have worked to maintain high standards regarding environmental sustainability, even earning an Evergreen award, the highest certification under the New York Transport Department’s criteria for environmental friendliness.

The park’s new environmental credentials will include rainwater retention basins, the use of recycled materials in park construction and the planting of nearly two acres of wildflowers.

“That’s what this is all about: bringing green back to the Bronx and making the Bronx a greener place,” said Crowley.

Local officials also praised the project for creating approximately 50 new jobs during the first phase of construction.

Yet, some at the groundbreaking had more lighthearted considerations in mind when discussing the new park’s benefits to the community.

“Do you know how many first kisses will happen here?” asked State Assemblyman, Marcos Crespo.

Posted in Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia0 Comments

Rap In Time

Rap In Time


Big Punisher still looms large in the South Bronx. Photo: Alexander Besant

The history of rap music begins in the Bronx. Its neighborhoods are dotted with iconic sites of rap history such as 1520 Sedgwick Ave. where DJ Cool Herc first created the break-beat, or the infamous Forest Houses on 166th St. where Fat Joe grew up.

Add to that list the “Big Punisher” memorial mural on Rogers Place and 163rd St.  Though he died of heart failure over 10 years ago, the Grammy nominated Big Punisher, or “Pun” for short, still looms large in his native ‘hood on a wall that had special importance to him. In his days as a budding young rapper, Pun posed for a promo shot in front of the same wall which was decorated, at that time, with a cartoon of a Puerto Rican gangster carrying two guns.

Pun was a heavyweight in two ways. Literally, since some estimate that he weighed over 400 pounds, and musically, as the hip-hop giant of the late 1990s with hits like “Still Not a Player” and “It’s So Hard”.

The Bronx mural, painted by Tats Cru, a Bronx-based graffiti crew that knew Pun personally, was created on the day he died in 2000 to much fanfare and a bit of mishap. BG 183, one of the artists involved in creating the memorial said of the its inception in a recent interview with the Bronx Ink:

“We just decided to do this wall for Pun when he died. It was our choice because he was a friend.”

BG 183 remembered that it was one of the coldest days of the year but, despite the biting temperatures, fans and fellow rappers came out in droves to see the painting of the memorial.

“A lot of people heard we were painting the wall from Hot 97 [a hip-hop radio station in New York]. A lot of fans came down,” said BG 183, “Fat Joe and a lot of hip-hop artists came too. The whole place was like a mad house.”

After the mural was complete things turned sour. For some reason, the artists involved in painting were picked up by police one by one.

“The police saw that we were painting the wall and they called the owner and told her that there were kids painting illegal graffiti on the property,” BG 183 said. “Landlady decided to press charges. Boom! The police grabbed each one of us. Next thing you know we were there at the police station for five or six hours.”

The landlady eventually recognized the mural and its importance to the community and dropped the charges freeing the Tats Cru members. Tats Cru now tries to update the mural every year but they admit that it’s not always possible nor even desirable, especially if people in the community begin to like the new creation. The last rendition was updated in the spring and shows Big Punisher holding an iron mic with some of his most inspired  lyrics behind him:

“When I was young. I wasn’t always Big Pun. It wasn’t always this fun. Ayo I rose from the slums.”

Check out friend and fellow rapper Cuban Link discussing the wall here…

Posted in Bronx Blog1 Comment

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