Great things come out of the Bronx.
My mother likes to repeat that to me anytime someone we know achieves something. I hear this mantra in my mind as I step foot into the Boogie Down Grind to meet with its owner Majora Carter.
The Grind is a locally-owned and operated Hunts Point cafe that looks as if it’s straight out of a movie set—or maybe an upscale part of Brooklyn. There are pillow covered benches by the large front windows that look out on the neighborhood. The walls are decorated in a mix of art and photos from different periods in the Bronx. One corner has a take-a-book-leave-a-book library. While it is bathed in Bronx pride, the Boogie Down Grind feels like a place far outside of my neighborhood.
Much like the cafe she owns, Majora Carter is more than what one would expect to find when traveling through Hunts Point.
“I’m an urban revitalization strategist and real estate developer and entrepreneur,” she said.
Carter is also a Peabody Award-winning radio broadcaster and MacArthur Fellow—not the descriptors of a regular degular schmegular girl from the Bronx.
“I grew up in Hunts Point in the ’60s, so my formative years were the ’70s and ’80s. Literally, everything was burning around me,” Carter said. She recounted how she went from wanting to get out of her burning borough to returning and fighting to improve it.
“A lot of folks from low-status communities like the South Bronx are taught that you need to measure success by how far you get away from it. I used education to get out, and I literally had no interest in looking back,” she said. “It was just like, ‘I don’t want this neighborhood associated with me and my future.’”
But when she got out of graduate school, Carter faced the same problem as any other young genius. She needed a cheap place to live.
“It was in my parents’ house, straight up, and that was fine. But that’s when I also got to know my community mostly because there was an arts community here that I did not know was here and then got connected with that, and it was amazing,” she said.
Around the time Carter was developing a new love for her Hunts Point community, she learned that the city of New York didn’t feel the same:
“The city was planning on building a huge waste facility on our waterfront. And that’s when I learned we already handle an enormous portion of the city’s waste infrastructure right in this little one square mile area. It was just clear because we were a poor community of color and thus politically vulnerable. Nobody cared.”
The narrative of no one caring about the Bronx—particularly Hunts Point—remains the norm. To this day, we are one of the poorest congressional districts in the entire United States, with a median household income of slightly above $29,000. We also have a terrible reputation. The only thing most people know about Hunts Point is that it used to be a hotbed of prostitution. And while it seems the history of the women of the Bronx might revolve around the fluctuating prices of a blow job, Carter’s latest project is setting out to tell the whole story—not just the most infamous part.
“La Bronx is an acknowledgment of all the fierce and really fabulous women entrepreneurs,” she said. “All of us have been here for a while. But I think just over the last couple of years, there has been a whole lot more of it. I think women are just like stepping into their own. But it was also quite frankly a response to you know, look I’m a black woman in the Bronx, which is largely Latino. Machismo is real.”
As if I am hearing the word of the Lord, I responded to her with a hearty amen.
“I experienced it, but I know that Latina women really experience it. Everybody does. And I know you saw the Bronx Native T-shirt with El Bronx on it, right?” she asked me.
Of course, I’ve seen it. When Bronx people make Bronx products, everyone in the borough sees it because that is all Bronx people want to do—own products that rep our hood. Carter wants the La Bronx campaign to take all of that several steps forward.
“Even the fact that it was like in that very heavy font. I mean everything about it was just like this is as macho as you gon’ get,” she said. “And I was really always wondering like, well, who said it had to be El Bronx? Who decided it had to be masculine? And I was like who is to say that we can’t make it La Bronx?”
For those who didn’t do well in high school Spanish class, “el” is a masculine form of the article “the,” while “la” is the feminine form.
In the Bronx, women outnumber men, and yet when it comes to our history, it’s often the prominent Bronx men who get the most shine. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many murals I’ve seen depicting the glory of Big Pun. Fat Joe gets murals. My father, who contributed nothing to the broader history of the Bronx, has a mural dedicated to his memory. But when it comes to honoring women through paint on a wall, I’ve certainly got enough fingers to count that.
“I wanted to acknowledge the contribution that women in the Bronx have made to it. In particular, you know as far as where I sit as an urban revitalization strategist, I saw the fact that so much of the new business development, like the really innovative stuff, was actually coming from, at least in large part, from many of the women who were just doing their own thing.”
One of these women doing their own thing is Joannie Campuzano, a featured entrepreneur in the La Bronx project. Joannie is an acupuncturist and herbalist working in Hunts Point. Like many others, Joannie used her education—a masters in Chinese medicine—to come back to her community and enrich it through her work.
When asked about her work as a health professional in the least healthy borough in New York, Campuzano said: “I believe that the biggest obstacle to the health and wellness of the Bronx is the lack of education. We have to learn to be educated consumers, especially when it comes to our health. One of the reasons why I opened Sano Acupuncture in the Bronx was not only to provide Chinese Medical services but also to have educational workshops and classes so people can learn on how to live a healthy lifestyle.”
Shocking, isn’t it? To discover that Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B are not the only examples of successful women to also be from the Bronx. There are, in fact, women who work and become so successful they turn around and pour their resources back into the area.
“Definitely one of them is Yolanda Garcia,” Carter started to say before asking if I know who that is. And, of course, I don’t, because those are not the type of people one learns about in school.
Garcia and her family were living in Melrose, running their furniture store when they found out the city was going through with an urban renewal plan in that area, Carter told me. “Urban renewal, which meant ‘you guys [Latinos] have to leave and let the big people take care of how we’re going to rebuild this place.’”
“No,” Garcia and her family told the developers. Eventually, Garcia took the reins on redeveloping Melrose in conjunction with the people who were already living there rather than the upper-class whites that developers were trying to bring in.
“She was the first person who helped me develop a sense of power as a woman doing this work,” Carter said.
Unfortunately, Garcia is no longer with us. She literally died at her desk eating McDonald’s. If that is not a profound lesson for us all, I don’t know what is.
But for those Bronxites who don’t aspire to be the faces of urban revitalization, there are La Bronx participants like Luna, 11, and Isis, 7, chess players making noise on the New York chess scene (which is a thing apparently).
According to their mother: “They wanted to be a part of La Bronx to show that girls can empower other girls to be leaders. To show that girls exist in the chess community when it was once a man’s game. They want to be a part of this history in leaving their own mark in the world and bloom into wonderful leaders of tomorrow.”
With the rise of figures like AOC and The Bodega Boys (yeerrrrrrr), it feels to me that the Bronx is finally having a national moment in the sun. But is it something that’s sustainable? Something we can use to our advantage?
“We’re feeling ourselves,” as the kids would say. But for Majora Carter, “feeling ourselves” this time around needs to be the first of many steps in advancing a Bronx agenda.
“You keep hearing that changes are coming, and then it’s just like, no, it’s just exactly the same,” she said. “So that’s why I’ve always been a big believer in the fact that you need to change something. I’m going to talk about the fight for economic equality. Then I’m going to figure out how to build a park where there was once a dump to remind people this is what a decent environment looks like. Or you know if we’re going to talk about how we need to be a part of the environmental changes going on, then yeah, I’m going to start a green jobs training and placement system. If I’m going to talk about how we need to build small businesses within our community, I’m going to start one and show other folks and get people opportunities to do the same thing. Which is why we’ve hosted community workshops on access to capital for small businesses and homeowners in the community.”
As soon as we got into the discussion about changes coming to the community, there was one word that flashed across my mind: gentrification.
I’ve lived in the South Bronx almost my whole life. But it’s been a few short years that I’ve been paying rent like a grown up in Hunts Point. With a wedding coming up next year and the rising cost of rent in my five floor walk-up apartment, for the first time in my life, I’m finding that even with a two-income household, I can’t afford to live in my beloved borough.
All over the Bronx, new developments are popping up. Buildings are advertised as being located in “north New York” and boast a quick travel time into Manhattan. These buildings are grossly overpriced for the people living in the area but look like a steal to someone from the outside. The Bronx is being gentrified at a slow and steady pace. And as one of the people being priced out, it would be easy to blame a developer like Carter. I mean, after all, aren’t coffee shops with fancy latte art the beginning of the end for most low-status neighborhoods?
“When we did our analysis of what people felt that they either loved, hated, needed, or wanted in the community, as we started thinking about our path as developers, some of the things that we realized that people wanted to leave the community for were mostly lifestyle-related issues,” Carter said. “Things like cafes and restaurants and things of that nature, the kind of things that made them feel like the community has something worth being in. Basically, what we wanted was a place for people to do community, literally, because we think community is not just a place, it’s an activity, and people need spaces to do it that makes them feel good about being in their own space.”
The concept of community is all fine and dandy, but what about the outsiders coming in and taking up space in our community coffee shop? How are we going to protect Boogie Down Grind from gentrifiers when its array of non-dairy milk calls to them?
“Some people believe that I’m ushering in gentrification, and I’m just like clearly you don’t understand, or you’re not interested in learning, so I don’t pay much attention to that,” she said. “But gentrification didn’t start happening when a coffee shop moves in. It actually starts happening long before that. What really bothered me about the way that our community was after the burning of the Bronx was that there were no organizations that took advantage of the fact that we were in a beautiful place in time, and real estate was cheap and there could have been opportunities for more local ownership of the land. And almost nobody took advantage of that ... that’s why very few of the businesses anywhere in this community are owned by people in this community. We have actually been part of the problem in producing gentrification because we didn’t believe in the value of our own community, that we owned it, that we could own it, that we could add value to it. I’m adding value to my own neighborhood.”
The truth doesn’t just burn, it scalds. As someone who has consistently complained about my block, how could I argue that I had not played a part in gentrifying my own neighborhood? Aside from my Sunday coffees at BDG and a few slices of pizza, what money was I really putting back into the community that housed me? How did I show that I valued it? I didn’t. I’d just been waiting for other people to do it.
People like Noëlle Santos, who when the Bronx lost its last book store decided she would open The Lit. Bar, a book store that is also a wine bar. Personally, I love books and wine in equal measure and cannot wait to give Santos almost all my money.
Before I left The Boogie Down Grind, I asked Carter what she wanted everyone to know about the Bronx.
“Have you seen the movie Black Panther,” she asked.
I gave her an excited yes.
“So you know the symbol that they use? The X? So you know before there was Wakanda, there was the BX. That’s our symbol. It’s that level of power—you know they [the Wakandans] kept it secret cause they were like, y’all can’t handle it,” she said. “And I feel like it’s the same thing for us, except we have an obligation to share the beauty of our borough with the world. There are so many others in this borough who are demystifying the crazy idea that to be from the Bronx means you’re less than. We’ve taken all the strength and beauty that’s here, and now we’re just offering it out to the rest of the mainland.”
La Bronx. We are the Wakanda of New York.