Welcome to the Bronx: A Subscriber-Only Essay Goes Public
By Al Giordano
April 24, 2016
This is an essay I published last week exclusively for subscribers to my newsletter, Al Giordano’s América. Many of those subscribers have urged me to share it more publicly. It was an introduction to my projections for Tuesday’s New York primary results and tells the story of the South Bronx neighborhoods where I first learned, as a boy, about community organizing and politics.
Donors of $70 or more to the Fund for Authentic Journalism receive the irregular newsletter (four issues came out during 2015, but 14 have already been sent in 2016 in large part because, as in 2004 and 2008, I’m sharing mathematical projections before the vote on the results of the presidential primaries – Democratic and Republican – in the United States). The newsletter has brought hundreds of new supporters to our work at Narco News and the School of Authentic Journalism.
If during 2016 you’ve already donated $70 or more and have not yet requested the newsletter, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll put you on the list in time for tomorrow’s issue with projections for the Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware primaries. It will include an essay that relates what I learned in my organizing days in Pennsylvania as a young organizer learning from Abbie Hoffman and others.
If you’ve not yet donated $70 you can do so via the authenticjournalism.org website.
Meanwhile, here’s an example of what subscribers are receiving. My NY projections – as with 30 of 32 Democratic primaries held so far – were accurate, including my claim that the Bronx would deliver the highest margin in the state to Secretary Clinton, largely for the reasons spelled out in this essay, which is made available free for all today.
NY Primary Projections Issue (April 18, 2016):
A Ten-Year-Old Takes Over this Issue & Says…
¡Bienvenidos al Bronx!
“Father Louis Gigante, the fighting priest of Saint Athanasius, had also joined the race. On a rotten, rainy day he staked himself out in front of a Hunt’s Point lot strewn with cannibalized cars and old garbage and declared his own candidacy, thereby becoming the first priest in New York State to run for Congress.”
- from South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City, by Jill Jonnes (Fordham University Press, 2002)
A couple of weeks ago the campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called its supporters to a rally in the South Bronx.
Over the course of the afternoon reports cluttered social media that the 2, 5 and 6 trains on the New York City subway system were filled with people headed to the Sanders rally from outside the Bronx. “I’ve never seen so many white people on this train,” commented a friend.
Soon many of those folks posted photos of the mostly Caucasian Sanders fans streaming toward St. Mary’s Park in the Mott Haven neighborhood. Many posted photos of themselves with their homemade Bernie placards or performance art get-ups. And when a photo included maybe one or two or a lesser number of black or Latino people they’d exclaim that they’d never seen such “diversity!”
The Mott Haven neighborhood, according to the US Census, is only 1.7 percent white. Most of the residents are Hispanic, the bulk of them of Puerto Rican, which of course includes many afro-Latinos. I thought, well, maybe this could be a good thing. Maybe these Sanders fans will learn something of the story of these neighborhoods, and from how they organized and won.
From here in Mexico City I turned on the live stream to watch the rally via Internet. The warm-up speakers were a Coney Island-born Latina Hollywood actress, a Puerto Rico-born musical talent, and an African-American film director from Brooklyn. If any of them knew anything about the sacred ground they were standing upon they made no mention of it.
They were followed by a candidate who seemed equally oblivious that he was a visitor in a place of history: a collection of neighborhoods that pulled themselves out of ruin and forced the city, state and national governments to serve them instead of the same special interests that the candidate said he opposed.
Nobody from the South Bronx, or anywhere in Bronx, was passed the microphone to tell its story or their own to the visitors. And nothing of substance was mentioned about them.
I have long considered the credo that “All Politics is Local” to be the promise of democracy, and campaigns to be the best opportunity for people at the most grassroots level to be heard by political candidates.
Readers of this newsletter know that last spring I had warned that Sanders’ form of economic populism carried in its DNA a dangerous undertow of white supremacy. I’m not sure that many really “got” that at the time. But on March 31, as hipsters carried placards into the neighborhood more than a few of which proclaimed “the Bronx is Berning,” they unleashed in me a repressed memory from those streets associated with a smell: the suffocating odor of the burned out buildings in those same neighborhoods when I was a boy of nine and ten years old: the pestilent scent of arson, neglect born of racism, economic and physical violence and the misery imposed by them.
Before I give you my projections for tomorrow’s New York Primary, I want you to know the story about the South Bronx that nobody from that Sanders rally stage appeared to have a clue about as it used this proud Latino neighborhood as a prop.
The passage, above, about the 1970 announcement of a campaign for Congress in the South Bronx is not something I first read in a book. I was there that day on that vacant lot. I was ten. It was my first political campaign. The next stop that day was the steps of St. Athanasius parish for a campaign rally where schoolgirls a few years older than I in their plaid-skirted uniforms performed a cheerleading dance for Father Lou Gigante, the candidate. I stood next to Father G on those steps, along with his campaign manager, whose name you might know, Al Giordano: Not me, my dad.
Father G had been ordained into the priesthood in late 1959. I was born on the final day of that year. When I visited him in his South Bronx office three years ago to record his story, Father G told me that I was the first child he had baptized (something I never knew). He and my pop, two Italian guys from New York, had met in college and had organized together there to stop the practice of hazing by fraternities, a bond that continued when they returned to New York.
Two years later the Church assigned a 29-year-old Father G to St. Athanasius, first sending him to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish in an immersion program designed by the philosopher priest Ivan Illich. He had been thrown into a neighborhood – Longwood, next door to Mott Haven – that had been increasingly abandoned by the most basic public services and inflicted by absentee slumlords. The idealistic young cleric from Greenwich Village in Manhattan, a former basketball star at Georgetown University, plunged himself into the problems of his parishioners: buildings without heat in the winter, without water – not even in the fire hydrants – and with landlords who did not maintain them.
The South Bronx Rising book ably relates the details: Many buildings went up in smoke, displacing families, due to faulty wiring and firetrap construction, but a commission appointed by then Mayor John Lindsey found that many had also burned down due what it called a conspiracy to arson by landlords to collect on lucrative insurance policies.
The pitch smell wafted permanently into the apartments of the neighboring buildings that were still standing. When some of the blazed buildings were demolished the vacant lots became garbage dumps and breeding grounds for infestations of rats throughout Longwood, Mott Haven, Hunts Point and the rest of the South Bronx. The children of the neighborhood suffered high rates of illness, infection and asthma. In the cold weather months, the permanent smell of gas mixed in with that of charred wreckage, since the only heat that many apartments had came from the oven, door kept open, so as not to freeze.
Into this chaos drug dealing grew as an economic power in a place where few had money. Dealers formed gangs, who terrorized the neighbors in manifold ways. Members of the Latino middle class began to flee, leaving the poor to fend for themselves. “White” was not the only flight in the 1960s in New York.
By 1967 schoolteachers in Longwood were petitioning the city to fix the miserable conditions in which their students lived. Father G had seen enough, and one night organized the neighborhood residents to empty the burned-out buildings of anything flammable. They set fires in barrels in the middle of the street in protest.
These events soon pitted the upstart radical priest and his Simpson Street Development Association, run out of a storefront near to St. Athanasius, against the area’s rising political boss Ramon Velez. A neighborhood ally of Gigante was murdered, and most believed Velez had orchestrated it. Velez, who saw Father G as standing between him and political control of the neighborhood, taunted him as a carpetbagger and “missionary.” One night he called the priest a “maricón,” an anti-gay slur, and the people’s priest decked Ramon with a punch that remains legendary in New York political lore.
One had to be tough to survive in Longwood, and tougher to organize in it. That Gigante’s three brothers were notorious and reputed organized crime figures in Manhattan – his brother Vincent, known as “the Chin,” would rise to the highest rank in the Genovese crime organization – dogged Father G in the tabloid media but also gave him a street cred with local youths, the original authors of his “Father G” nickname.
Once when bringing South Bronx teens by subway to a basketball tournament in Brooklyn – Father G used his sports acumen effectively to organize – he told the kids, “If you cause any trouble where we’re going, I’ll kill you.” And the kids believed him! Eventually many of those same youths organized to kick the gangs out of the neighborhood because police would not or could not.
In 1969, Gigante organized a campaign called Summer in the City. If the government and landlords would not clean up the neighborhood, the people would do it themselves. He called on Catholic churches from outside the South Bronx, including in the suburbs, to send volunteers. St. Philip Neri parish, where he’d baptized me, in the Northwest Bronx, and Saints John & Paul in the Westchester County suburbs of Mamaroneck, where I then lived, were each well represented. Entire weekends were devoted to taking out the trash from the vacant lots, fencing them, painting and doing the overdue plumbing and electric work on apartment buildings. I was nine and these Summer in the City weekends were my introduction to organizing life.
Mainly I’d play with the other kids. One of the innovations of Summer in the City was the installation of water-conserving sprinklers on fire hydrants so on hot summer days when they were opened in lieu of swimming pools they wouldn’t deplete the area’s water supply. We laughed and played under their showers. I learned my first words in Spanish from kids named José and Diego. At the end of each day a gigantic chicken barbecue would feed the residents and volunteers alike. I ate rice and beans and fried platano tostitos, and was introduced to my lifelong love named hot sauce.
One vivid memory, hard to forget, was overturning a decayed piece of sheetrock in one of those lots to find a very large mama rat breastfeeding a litter of pink rodent babies. She jumped to her fours and snarled at us and we kids ran screaming from that lot!
Looking back, I really must credit my parents for letting this nine-year-old kid run free on those streets with the kids who lived there. They trusted in Father G – a regular guest in our home - and trusted the neighborhood residents. I was not micro-managed as a child, and I like to think that’s made all the difference in the world. My own trust in organized communities, born there, would define my entire life ahead of me. My first lessons in civics began there: on Fox Street, Simpson Street and Kelly Street. On 149th Street, where Longwood ended and Mott Haven began. Painting buildings alongside the kids who lived inside them, signing our names to the murals, it was the first time I tasted the ecstasy of being part of something bigger than myself, and with a ripping salsa soundtrack.
The following spring my pop would regularly bring me with him to the campaign headquarters and I’d run with the local kids while he managed the campaign. “Your dad did everything,” Father Lou later told me. “He ran it. He organized the petitions to get me on the ballot, made the strategy, told me where to go and who to see. I didn't understand politics. I was just using the gimmick of a priest running for Congress to bring attention to the South Bronx. Your dad understood it. And we almost won."
(Almost wasn’t enough: pop never did an electoral campaign again. He fell on some hard times – my folks became pioneers of the 1970s wave of divorce – and he moved back to the Bronx where he lived out the rest of his years, most of them driving a New York City taxi.)
In that June 1970 Democratic Primary that pitted two machine politicians – former Bronx Borough president Herman Badillo and Peter Vallone, a judge’s son from Queens – against aspiring boss Ramon Velez, Gigante came within 2,112 votes of winning, but Badillo triumphed. Significantly for the years to come was that Gigante got twice as many votes as Velez, who soon fell from grace and Father Lou filled the vacuum to become the undisputed political leader of the South Bronx. In the mid-70s he was elected to the New York City Council and he formed SEBCO – South Bronx Development, Inc. – which would change the trajectory of all the neighborhoods there.
During the Carter administration, Gigante organized South Bronx voters into a force to be reckoned with, and secured generous federal funds to build low-income housing for the largely Puerto Rican population. The middle class returned. They built thousands of housing units, many of them one- and two-family homes to be owned by their occupants. That concept was at odds back then with almost all existing projects of public housing.
Today, the South Bronx is a rarity: a peaceful, safe and thriving urban neighborhood that did not cave to gentrification in order to revive itself. It remains a Latino barrio with a thriving middle class. The streets are clean and tidy, much more so than in any gentrified neighborhood of New York. People who live there take pride in it. You might even call it “democratic socialism.”
As Father G and I strolled through the neighborhood three years ago, a man walking his dog told him that he has been offered “obscene” amounts of money for his home. “I’m never going to sell,” he said. “I will die here.” That guy had been one of the street kids in his youth who Father G organized to chase out the drug gangs. A land where people feel that kind of pride can never be sold or gentrified.
I honestly believe that had Father Lou not been tailgated by the media so constantly over his brother’s criminal activities he would have risen to become mayor or governor or US Senator. His political skills and instincts are that good. In the books, like the one quoted above, about this story, he is credited as the singular figure that through sheer force of will and insistence on building homes local residents could own saved the neighborhoods. I can identify. He shepherded my own life’s path, too.
So I beg, kind reader, your pardon when I tell you that an invading horde of day-tripping white hipsters from Williamsburg and the East Village came into the South Bronx last month with their disgusting “the Bronx is Berning” signs, taking selfies next to a black or Latino person here or there screeching that it’s the most “diverse” experience of their lives, yes, that does stick in my craw. (And if that’s their idea of “diversity,” they need to get out more.)
Sanders’ visit to the South Bronx was never about winning the votes in 98.3 percent nonwhite Mott Haven or the similar demographics of next-door Longwood. Local residents were not invited to tell their neighborhood story to the visitors. They were not even mentioned, not by the Hollywood starlet, not by the pop star, not even by the presidential candidate. The movie director urged the Sanders supporters to “register to vote,” five days after the deadline had passed. Nobody has to tell the people who live there to register and vote! They know from their own experience that it is what protects them from a return to the real “Bronx is burning” years.
The simulacrum of “diversity” served up by the Sanders campaign in Mott Haven, far from being an earnest attempt to dialogue – or even to “hispander!” - with its 68,000 residents, or the 40,000 in Longwood, or the 50,000 in Hunts Point. Sanders merely used their park as a prop to assuage his own overwhelmingly white supporters’ guilt and let them gullibly continue to ignore that the campaign is a dangerous exercise in white privilege wrapped in “progressive” or “socialist” costume. It wasn’t a campaign event. It was a field trip by people of privilege who felt cool “slumming it” for a day and headed back downtown. Most will never set foot there again.
My projections take into consideration the knowledge that my own feelings of pride for that corner of New York, though strong, don’t compare to those of its residents, those who raised families there and were raised by them, who are preparing a statement tomorrow to be made at the ballot box. The results in the Bronx and the South Bronx in particular are going to be brutal for the Sanders campaign and manna for that of Clinton. A good chunk of the delegate differential statewide is going to come out of the Bronx. The Mott Haven toe-touch rally was insulting to the people. And when you see the results tomorrow evening, I ask that you take this backstory to heart, on behalf of a ten-year-old boy whose memory I have tried to honor in all the years since.