Culture / Government / Politics

Preserving forgotten Bronx voices

Georgeen Comerford

Emita Hill, right, interviewing Alice Kramer in 1982

The years of the early 1980s were uneasy ones for the Bronx. The fires that had destroyed so much of the borough were dying down, but it was not yet clear whether a new gust of political or economic wind would fan the embers back into flames.

As the decade began, Ronald Reagan became the second president of the United States to journey to the rubble of Charlotte Street and vow to rebuild it. In 10-foot high letters on the shattered hulk of an apartment building, signs that read “Falsas Promesas” and “Broken Promises” greeted him.

Yet there were signs of real promise to be read on the streets of the South Bronx. There were the two-story brick houses with wrought-iron fences that had risen on a devastated block of Tiffany Street; the buildings on Aldus Street rehabilitated by SEBCO; the apartments on Kelly Street restored by Banana Kelly and the similar efforts of the Mid Bronx Desperados around Boston Road.

With the borough at this crossroads, in 1982, Emita Hill, a professor at Lehman College, won a grant to create the Bronx Regional and Community History Project. She began to collect the stories of business, neighborhood and religious leaders, along with community organizers and local politicians. Sixteen of these oral history interviews have now been woven into a new book, “Bronx Faces & Voice: Sixteen Stories of Courage and Community,” compiled, along with photographs by Georgeen Comerford and Walter Rosenblum, by Hill and Janet Butler Munch, the head of the college library’s special collections.

Most of its subjects look back with nostalgia to growing up in the borough. “The Bronx was up,” say a number of those interviewed as they remember moving from ethnic enclaves in Harlem and the Lower East Side to a leafier, airier new neighborhood. They recall playing games in still-undeveloped vacant lots; skating on the frozen lake in Crotona Park and watching goats graze on farms in Hunts Point. Many speak of tight-knit neighborhoods of Jews or Italians or Puerto Ricans, but also insist that everyone got along together.

Some of the interviews, though, have bite, as they survey the wreckage of the South Bronx. Father Robert Banome’s voice throbs with anger as he condemns “so-called Christian people” who resented and feared the Puerto Ricans arriving in their neighborhood. Susan Boyd relives the losing battle to save Fordham Hospital, when she was a leader of militant demonstrations, including the occupation of the hospital and a sit-in that shut down the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Inevitably, some important voices are missing, among them Harry DiRienzo of Banana Kelly, Sister Thomas and Fr. Louis Gigante of SEBCO, Ginnie Brooks of Mid Bronx Desperados and Bishop Ahern and Anne Devenney of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.

It’s hard not to wish that some of them had taken the place of three men whose stories in no way represent “courage and community”: Mario Biaggi, Stanley Friedman and Ramon Velez. They were predators, who used their positions to plunder the communities they were supposed to serve.

When these interviews were recorded, Friedman and Biaggi had not yet gone on trial and to prison for corruption and Velez liked to boast that he had never faced trial, despite the numerous investigations that had faulted him for mismanaging agencies that served the poor while lining his own pockets. Nevertheless, by the early 1980s only the naïve could have failed to know that all three were scoundrels. If their interviews were illuminating, they might have value anyway, but they are trite and self-serving.

Still, as former Bronx Borough President says in his foreword to the book of all those interviewed, “Love them or loathe them, these voices were here and made their own unique contributions. The Bronx would not have been the same without them.”

And for each who enriched himself at the expense of the borough there are so many who enriched our collective life in the Bronx. Many of their names would be forgotten if their experience had not been preserved in Lehman College’s archives and in this book.

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