Upon returning from Albion, I resume walking in the Bronx with the intention of finding a place in its day-to-day, again, within my already familiar neighborhood.
And I say a place and not my place, because the exact inner-outer spot that I might have occupied prior to moving to Michigan for three months is not the same turf I find myself on when I arrive in New York City. Much has changed, I can sense, behind the myriad windows of the hundreds and thousands of apartments I see from the streets; each pane of glass leading to intimate worlds where I picture myself trekking to in invisible form. Each window, an entry point into a planet with its own cosmic, karmic and gravitational laws and rules; stories of joy, despair and pantries stocked with dreams and expectations—some never fulfilled and others patiently waiting to sprout.
I pass by the window leading to an apartment at street level that opens up in the summers as an informal business from where an older woman sells homemade limbers or helados, ices. She is not the only one around. A couple of summers ago, I witnessed a young man standing on the sidewalk, passing a dollar through a window to a woman who handed him a bottle of ice cold water from the fridge in her kitchen. These windows are the vending machines of my community. My barrio. Some of these openings into the outside even dispense pasteles, the traditional Puerto Rican and Dominican treats made out of ground plantains, yuca, and yams wrapped in moist plantain leaves. Pasteles are carefully tied with string so they do not fall apart when boiled. They hence resemble transcontinental parcels concealing the flavored memories that came from Mother Africa to the Caribbean, where they might have mingled with Native recipes pulled from the depths of the Earth. As new buildings and big box stores pop up in my area, I question the fate of the food entrepreneurs near my block.
I can’t picture the same transactions happening in one of the fancier constructions that are being erected in the South Bronx, and I too have a difficult time seeing pasteles and ices vendors being able to afford renting a ground floor apartment in them; even though they are advertised as affordable housing. The repositioning in my neighborhood that I seek to embody by walking its streets triggers memories of Albion and the counterparts to the situations and the peoples I encounter here now. This is how I thought of enacting e-ntroductions between the two—in the digital parlance a digital introduction—in the pre-email and Twitter world, a good New York business-like handshake or a warm Midwest hug on a freezing winter afternoon.
Janice Best and Albion Rainbow Connection (ARC), please meet Arthur Avilés and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance (BAAD!), and vice versa. ARC is in the midst of organizing an upcoming Pride Parade in Albion. Its meetings bring together allies in the community who gather with LGTBQ neighbors to offer support and to celebrate inclusivity in family. The evening I attend the ARC potluck at Salem United Church of Christ, John and Donna Williams share their homemade bread for all of us to taste. Dr. Ralph Cram and I connect over the table and converse about his daughter who lives in Gavà, Barcelona, Spain, where both of us have been. After hearing from so many in town talk about the thousands of babies who Dr. Cram has helped deliver, I feel I am in the presence of an unassuming yet luminous soul. Here he is at the ARC potluck, most likely with some of those whom he assisted with entering this world. Hundreds of miles away from Salem United Church of Christ, in the former children’s chapel of an Episcopal Church in the Bronx, Arthur Avilés, one of the cofounders of BAAD! has turned this into a safe space for the queer community at large, including trans and intersex neighbors. The son of Puerto Ricans parents, Arthur grew up in Queens, NY, before moving to the Bronx, after having danced internationally with the prestigious company of Bill T. Jones. Part of his calling entails making room for an array of marginalized voices and bodies and in introducing dance and other arts to the little ones in our borough. His own artistic signature style has been choreographing adult pieces where he dances solo or with his company dressed in nature’s garment, as he was born. His impetus: to make us aware of the beauty and gorgeousness of our unadorned bodies, as we/they are.
It is difficult to name names in Albion when it comes to sharing food. So much giving and feeding happens behind the scenes. Susan Heisler mentions the stash of pies that she and a group of friends were busy making to raise funds for students entering college.
She brings this up matter-of-factly when I ask her about her schedule for the week. Susan happens to have worked for years in the food department of the local school system. Gail and Robert Reed’s relationship to food, on the other hand, manifests itself as a dinner for which I am given the opportunity to invite up to 60 people. This evolves after the Reeds hear that the exhibition I organized at Albion College would not have an opening. I thank them for their generous offer and settle for 12 people. One cannot make it. 11 of us sit around the Reeds’ table to be in community.
Susan, Gail and Robert, meet Reverend Danilo Lachapel in spirit; he recently died. His food ministry fed hundreds each week. Danilo hailed from the Dominican Republic and, like me, walked the streets of the Bronx. He made sure that working, yes, working neighbors in one of the lowest income congressional districts in the entire U.S., with one of the highest real estate prices in our country, would have enough to make a meal. He advocated as well for the safety of women, children, elders and young and adult men of color, and hosted domestic violence prevention workshops to disseminate information on resources available. Danilo founded the program Dadles Vosotros de Comer, Give Them Something to Eat. Up to this day, the long line that circles the block around Iglesia Evangélica Española del Bronx on food delivery days, from where an iteration of Danilo’s program functions, indicates the disparity of incomes in one of the wealthiest cities in the world: New York, and home to the Wall Street Stock Market.
Pastor Loree Grinnell’s, Kelly Kidder’s and Diana Wade’s meeting at Stirling to discuss homelessness in Albion and vicinity makes me think of Wanda Salamán, an activist friend and director of Mothers on the Move (MOM). I met Wanda in the dark, during a candlelight gathering organized by artist and activist Alicia Grullón, to talk about the disproportionate number of black and Latinx men killed by police in our streets. Wanda and MOM advocate for housing in a Bronx that has been dubbed as the last frontier, “The Wild West” of a voracious New York real estate industry that threatens to swallow the working class folk. For one of its street demonstrations, MOM called neighbors to make signs and to carry black umbrellas to protest one of the slumlords in our community, among the ones with the highest number of violations in our buildings.
I learned at the time of the protest that one could have actually seen the sky from one of the apartments in this property. A few years after this gathering of vocal people, the place has been fully renovated. The same has happened with other properties and things are looking pretty good. The question remains how much will the rents be and who will be able to stay? Pastor Loree, Kelly, Diana and Wanda, please meet each other. Wanda, I would like to introduce you also to Sherry Grice, and vice versa. Sherry has been working for decades as mentor to hundreds of youngsters in Albion, and showing them what is indeed possible in terms of thriving. She is a true beacon of hope from which the Bronx can learn. I can attest to her legacy as I connect with Donisha Brewer, one of Sherry’s successful mentees. There is also the 2002 Youth Worker of the Year award that Sherry received; a plaque that encapsulates her trajectory in Albion, “FIRST, SHE WAS A TRIP. THEN, SHE WAS A JOURNEY. NOW, SHE’S A LEGEND.”
But all is not protest in the Boogie Down. Ours is the cradle of Hip Hop, Salsa, and Graffiti. Home to congueros like renowned Benny Bonilla, who did the percussion for the hit I Like It Like That. We too celebrate and have festivals, dance in the streets, picnic in the park, attend the Bronx Culture Trail at Casita Maria, and sit on our stoops, even for those of us who have backyards, to watch life unfold like a high definition movie. Admission is free; just do not get caught watching characters face to face. This is considered a capital sin in New York City. In Albion it is different, one can look other people in the eye and not get yelled at. To each their own. I do miss eye contact. Don’t get fooled by the Bronx roughness,though. You might get blessed any time by a complete stranger, or have, like me, a young man dismount his bike in the middle of a busy street, to ask me if he can read me a poem he composed and that he pulls from his pocket! Yes, for sure!
Talking about poetry, Caridad De La Luz ‘La Bruja’ (A.K.A. the Good Witch) has her performance space not far from my home in a former 1950s auto repair garage, stocked with a couple of vintage cars, in back of her house and next to the garden separating her mother Nilsa’s property from hers. A Virgen de La Caridad del Cobre’s sculpture, patroness of Cuba, guards the plants, trees and cats in their yard.
Nilsa’s home, an unofficial consulate of her birthplace, Puerto Rico, includes a series of rooms devoted to the cultures and peoples who inform her family: Africa, Europe, and the Native inhabitants of the Caribbean. English, Spanish and Spanglish flow into one another in La Bruja’s and Nilsa’s world, where music and poetry are two of its permanent residents. Bruja and Nilsa meet Clifford Harris and vice versa, Cliff is the co-Founder and President, along with Karen Erlandson, of the Albion organization Walk the Beat. Walk the Beat originated in Grand Haven, founded by David Palmer. Its mission is to build and support the music scene in Albion, which it does through local sponsorships from businesses and organizations, and through an annual raffle, which raises money to provide musical instruments and lessons for children. It sponsors the largest Blues Jam in Michigan. How awesome is that?