Tag Archives: Hunts Point

From circus coach to businessman

I’ve previously written about the Cirque du Monde program in the Bronx. It is an after-school circus program targeted at youth and partially funded by the Cirque du Soleil. One of the regular attendees, Yves Celestin, had been coming here for eight years, first as a student then as a coach, and recently landed himself a paying performance gig.


Local garden reignites long-lost community spirit

Drawing with chalk

Last Saturday morning in Hunts Point, children on Kelly Street had free rein of the pavement, which some of them brightened with colored chalk. Some kids played catch while others were engrossed in arts and crafts. With the help of adult volunteers, children cut out bananas from cardboard and painted them, some coloring them yellow, others maroon and sky blue. Residents from neighboring blocks looked on. They had gathered at the newly renovated Kelly Street Garden at block 924 of the famously banana-shaped street to celebrate the second annual Field Day organized by the non-profit outfit, The Laundromat Project.

The star of the event was the Kelly Street Garden, which has become a symbol of revival to a community that had lost its vibrancy through time and neglect. It was unveiled in the first week of June this year. On Saturday, the garden opened its gates to residents in neighboring buildings, some of whom help to tend its 1,541 square feet of harvest area that grows cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens, kale, and eggplant, among other produce that helps sustain the community.

Field Day at Hunts Point aimed to encourage community involvement through art and yoga workshops, cooking demonstrations, a photo exhibition, storytelling sessions, a barbecue, and walking tours led by local artists Misra Walker and Joseph “Donjai” Gilmore. Walker and Gilmore’s walking tours explored the rich cultural history of the neighborhood by focusing on creative practices of local artists throughout the community.

This arts-led initiative took place concurrently in three neighborhoods — Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant on September 20 and 21. “We wanted to highlight  the assets that are already in these neighborhoods, and to amplify them as much as possible,” said Kemi Ilesanmi, the executive director of the Laundromat Project.

Long-time Kelly Street resident Robert Foster, 63, said the garden was a “‘great way to bring the community back together.” He lamented how closed off neighbors have become, preferring to stay indoors instead of interacting.

Robert Foster

Foster was around in the late 1970s when the first garden was inaugurated in block 924, where he helped plant the first batch of seeds. “It ain’t as luxurious,” he said of the old garden, but the spirit of community thrived due to the large presence of children. “You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a kid,” he said, smiling. Over the years, the conditions of the houses deteriorated, the streets became unsafe as murders and drug activities rose, and the children disappeared behind closed doors. “I can’t fault people for not wanting to have their kids out there,” Foster said, hoping the newly renovated buildings will signal a safer environment for children to come out and play.

The kids were out in full force on Saturday, running around the raised beds on the pebbled pathway, only to be told repeatedly by Rosalba Lopez Ramirez, the garden caretaker, not to stomp on the plants. Ramirez moved to the neighborhood last December and as caretaker she holds regular office hours tending the the garden. Since its opening, the garden “picked up a lot of momentum,” she said, as a new wave of residents followed in Foster’s footsteps and helped out with maintenance.

Until three years ago, Ramirez said many of the buildings on Kelly Street suffered from dire neglect, and the garden lay forgotten. Then Workforce Housing Group intervened. The group, in partnership with Banana Kelly Community Improvement Organization, another non-profit outfit, rehabilitated apartments in five buildings on Kelly Street. With a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection, the two organizations were able to fund the purchase of plants, seeds, and fertilizer for the new garden.

Another long-time resident, who gave only her first name, Maria, 45, spoke in Spanish about the dire living conditions prior to the intervention by the Workforce Housing Group. Speaking through a translator, Maria said her building lacked hot water every winter between 2001 and 2011; many of the buildings did not have a superintendent to look after maintenance. There were severe hygiene issues, she added, rat infestations, and lack of security. All complaints by residents fell on deaf ears. Today, Maria is satisfied with her renovated apartment. It now has a constant supply of hot water, the staircase landings are clean, the building is regularly maintained, and the security is much better.

Ramirez said the garden provides valuable community bonding time as residents now work together to water the plants, harvest the produce, and distribute it through the neighborhood. Residents who volunteer their time to look after the garden get first pick of the produce. Some of it is used in cooking classes taught by “community chefs” at the garden to encourage an exchange of healthy recipes. Ramirez also sets up a table on the pavement in the evening and gives away the remaining produce to passersby for free.

Field Day was organized by five artists who were recipients of a fellowship at The Laundromat Project and wanted to give back to the community. Through the fellowship, they took a number of professional development classes in community engagement and were assigned to a neighborhood in which to execute an outreach program.

Children pouring paint

One of the fellows, Ro Garrido, 25, said the experience helped overcome the discomfort of working in a community in a different borough. “I don’t have roots here,” Garrido, who hails from Queens, said about the experience in negotiating the differences between Hunts Point and Jackson Heights. “It’s about respecting the people at the garden and how they worked.”

The fellows received $500 from the Laundromat Project, as well as donations from Green Mountain Energy, Workforce Housing Group, and others to purchase art supplies, arrange for food, and other logistics. Though Field Day organizers did not have a final headcount by press time, they said they expected the number of participants among the three neighborhood events in Hunts Point, Harlem, and Bed-Stuy, to exceed last year’s 500.

As the overcast afternoon gradually faded into evening, the echoes of children’s laughter reverberated along Kelly Street. Residents stayed out longer than usual, embracing a new-found communal spirit.

The story first appeared on The Bronx Ink

The Bronx in retrospect

For my mandatory reporting and writing class at Columbia, we were assigned the Bronx as our storytelling beat. As a foreigner in the United States, I brought with me a suitcase full of preconceived notions about the Bronx. It was carefully put together from my exposure to American pop culture and stereotypes.

Among them was the idea of the Bronx being an unruly, dangerous borough, which I promised myself never to set foot in. It didn’t help when, after arriving in New York, Manhattan natives confirmed my suspicions regarding the safety of the Bronx. You can understand my initial apprehension when I received the email from the professor informing us of our beats.

Banknote Building

The historic Banknote building houses many interesting startups in South Bronx

A month later, after exploring my neighborhood – Hunts Point –  on foot and by bus, I have found most of my impressions of the Bronx have changed. I’ve become strangely attached to Hunts Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of New York State, and its people. Based on my experiences in meeting some of these Hunts Point natives, talking to them, and learning about their stories, this is what I think of the Bronx, and my neighborhood, in retrospect:

1) The Bronx is outrageously misrepresented
Don’t get me wrong, the Bronx has plenty of socio-economic issues it needs to work out. There are streets that are still evidently unsafe to wander into. Poverty, lack of access to education and healthcare, high unemployment rate – the whole gamut of issues – are all very real problems that Bronx residents tackle daily. In the middle of this gloomy economic forecast, there is a wave of change taking place at the grassroots level that almost no one is reporting on. Young leaders, entrepreneurs, and agents of change are working towards building a new kind of Bronx in Hunts Point and the neighborhood is teeming with so many wonderful stories that are waiting to be told. I should note that the lack of coverage of the Bronx in national news is one of the reasons why our professor chose this borough to brush up our reporting experience.

2) An emphasis on entrepreneurship
There is an emphasis in Hunts Point on promoting entrepreneurship and new startups. The historic Banknote building in the neighborhood, which once printed currencies of over a 100 countries, houses a sizable number of small startups that are doing some pretty awesome things – many of them also dabbling technology. Once again this is something the old stereotypes about the Bronx leave out. Of course, I cannot reveal who they are and what they do as they’re my sources and I’m working on some stories that involve these entrepreneurs.

Trailer trucks

There’s a nice juxtaposition of small startups and big manufacturing companies like the Hunts Point Food Market; huge trailer trucks are a common sight along the Bruckner boulevard in Hunts Point

3) Strangers are easily approachable
I found people in Hunts Point to be far more approachable than in Manhattan. Here, people are reserved and are wary of talking to reporters. In the Bronx, most of them welcome reporters into their lives and end up pouring their hearts out to them. This is probably because most locals want to see the media tell stories about the new, positive developments in the Bronx instead of repeating the old rhetoric of drug-related crimes, murders, and prostitution. Many of the people I’ve met at Hunts Point have repeatedly emphasized on this unfair media bias that exists in portraying the Bronx. At the same time, as a reporter, you have to question yourself to what extent do you go on to report their stories without inadvertently exploiting them? The Bronx is rich in stories but where does one draw the line? I’ve found myself questioning my objectivity over several of the stories I’m working on – on a personal level I want to tell these stories because they speak about individual triumphs through hard work and perseverance. In other words, they represent some of what the American dream is about. So I ask myself, am I being blind in my desire to tell their success stories? Am I holding them accountable to what they tell me?

4) Safety and security
There are still many parts of the Bronx that are unsafe. For the most part, however, strolling down streets in Hunts Point in the afternoon is as safe as it is in Manhattan. One has to still exercise some caution and have a basic level of awareness but that’s expected in any of the boroughs in New York City. Though I’ve never stayed at Hunts Point beyond six in the evening, my colleagues who have stayed past 10 at night say it is generally safe. There’s always the probability of a situation going awry, but that can happen anywhere in the world. Except maybe in Singapore, because I feel it’s the safest country in the world.

5) The Hunts Point Food Market
All I can say is that it is cool. Locals claim the Hunts Point Food Market is one of the biggest in the world, generating over a billion dollars in yearly revenue. It’s located in the middle of nowhere with long stretches of empty roads and scores of trailer trucks rolling into and out of the enclosure. The food market supplies wholesale fresh foods to all of New York City I believe and has become a landmark for Hunts Point.

Hunts Point Food Market

Once the reporting class ends in October, I’ll definitely miss the vibrancy I saw in the neighborhood. The residents may not be as well off as those in Manhattans; many of them probably do not have full-time jobs, while others are trying to make ends meet and not get evicted, but they have a deep sense of belonging in the community that I admire. I’m happy to see my preconceived notions about the Bronx being dispelled gradually, and I’ll spend the next month eagerly covering news coming out of Hunts Point.

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