How dirty it is in the Bronx


Forty years ago, gangsters made peace in the Bronx and began to rhyme. A former gang boss, a gangster bride and a young rapper accompany us through New York's most notorious district.

On a dump of rubble, children hop around on the parts of a discarded bed. A boy has created enough momentum for a somersault on the exposed suspension. At the moment of the recording he is hanging upside down in the air and it is unclear whether he is about to fall on his head or land on his feet. “That's exactly what my youth looked like,” says Lorine Padilla. The snapshot hangs in the living room of the now 56-year-old - an old photo. Lorine Padilla was 14 when her mother moved her and her six siblings from Spanish Harlem to South Bronx in 1970. "When I got off the subway, I thought I was lost in a third world country," she recalls, "I could hardly believe my mother brought us here."

"In the 1970s, the South Bronx looked like Dresden after the Second World War," says Benjamin Melendez, glad to have found such an impressive comparison. Lorine's photo is also a symbol of his youth. The 59-year-old leads us through the streets of his teenage years around Prospect Avenue, which promised little prospects when he came here with his family as an 11-year-old.

Debris landscape in New York

Melendez ’and Padilla’s new home was in ruins at the time. The heaters did not heat, the water pipes did not carry water, the garbage collectors did not remove any rubbish. Rats everywhere. The unemployment rate was high and the health system was a disaster. "The hospital was the best place if you came to die," says Melendez. Nowhere was one safe: Houses were constantly on fire. Slumlords hired arsonists to collect the insurance policy for their otherwise unprofitable house. It was such an everyday occurrence that kindergarten children often painted a house with a flame on the roof and families slept in their shoes so that they could quickly run outside in an emergency. To the Swiss eyes, it still looks dirty and desolate in this part of the southern Bronx. Few people, a lot of traffic, an above-ground subway on rusty steals, a litter-strewn meadow, a sign warning of rats, spray-painted facades.

Nevertheless, Melendez is enthusiastic about this quarter, which has changed a lot. “It's so quiet here!” He shouts. «We can just walk through these streets and nothing will happen to us! Look how beautiful these houses are! " He points to a brick block of flats. These tenement houses with space for 40 to 100 apartments have been replacing the ruins since the 1990s. The South Bronx is being mended. "The new homes are bringing slightly wealthier people to the Bronx," he says. Middle-class people lived here before until a new freeway tore the Bronx apart in the late 1950s. The bulldozers forced 60,000 residents to give up their homes. Tens of thousands followed because the quality of life plummeted and their real estate lost value. Whoever couldn't afford a better place to live was left behind. In addition, there were penniless emigrants: thousands of Puerto Ricans like Melendez ’and Padilla's parents, as well as many African Americans.

The ruins of the southern Bronx became a playground for violent gangs in the 1960s. Black Spades, Savage Nomads, Seven Immortals, Young Sinners - from “250 to 300 gangs, with more than 20,000 members in total” is the subject of Johan Kugelberg's book “Born in the Bronx”. "Fights, shootings and drug trafficking were ubiquitous," says Padilla. Before she knew it, she was right in the middle of it herself: When she was 15 visiting her brother in prison on Rikers Island, she met the leader of the Savage Skulls. At 16 she married him. Not only was she a member of a gang, she was the leader's bride - and proud of it.

The dividing lines between the gangs were street blocks and ethnic groups. At 163rd Street, Melendez says: "That was our area". He was 14 when he started his own gang in 1967: the Ghetto Brothers. It quickly grew into one of the largest in New York, with around 2500 members in the Bronx alone. In the beginning, self-defense was in the foreground, but small wars soon raged among the gangs, and fights increasingly ended in killings. The number of murders quadrupled between 1960 and 1971. "I always left the house with the feeling that it could be the last day of my life," says Benjamin Melendez.

Peacemaker instead of warlord

Although he was a leader himself, he was not a fan of violence. Above all, he wanted to have fun with his buddies and make music and do something for his neighborhood. “So we gradually developed from a gang to an organization,” he says. “We gave poor people food, burned rubbish, protected residents, tried to get drug addicts out of their addiction. We brought coffee to prostitutes and politely persuaded them to stand somewhere else. " In 1971 Melendez even recruited a peacemaker instead of the warlord position that is otherwise common for gangs.

On the top landing of a long stone staircase that leads through a park called the Horseshoe Playground, Melendez pauses: "This is where it happened," he says, "this is supposed to be a memorial graffito." On December 2nd, 1971, from up here one saw that hundreds of members of three gangs were approaching each other from three sides on the street below. The Ghetto Brothers decided to send in their charismatic peacemaker, Cornell Benjamin, known as Black Benjie. “He dared to do it,” says Melendez, “ran down the stairs, unarmed, both arms in the air, his fingers shaped as a peace sign. "Peace," he called when he got to the gangs. "Peace shit!" Replied one of the gangsters, pulling out an iron bar.

Benjie, who wanted to bring peace, was beaten to death by a pack; he died on the same day in hospital from a quadruple skull fracture and stitches in the upper body. He was 25. The peacemaker's murder brought the Bronx to a boil, and New York feared the bloodiest period in the history of this borough. "Most of my ghetto brothers only wanted one thing: war," says Melendez. But he wanted peace, especially now. "Black Benjie should not have died in vain, we have to put an end to the senseless excesses of violence," he told his people. A delegation from the Ghetto Brothers visited the victim's mother, the co-president offered her revenge: «Madam, I have an army out there,» he said, but she too replied: «Benjie didn't die for the war, he died for the peace."

Gangs became crews

Just a week later, on December 8, 1971, all the gang leaders met at the Madison Square Boys ’and Girls’ Club on Hoe Avenue to negotiate a peace treaty. Melendez had rounded them all up. The former gangster, a nearly 60-year-old family man with thinning hair and the base of his stomach, leads us there and stands in the middle of the gym. “They were all sitting in a circle, in the first row the gangsters, in the second the social workers, journalists and cameramen,” he says and remembers 40 years when he gave a rousing speech for peace and a better future in the Bronx held.

Old video recordings show a slim man with black curly hair, who preaches: "All these fights among each other lead to nothing, do not help anyone, and ultimately ourselves." This first peace meeting was primarily a show for the public, admits Melendez: "Later we went from aisle to aisle and held individual discussions with all the leaders until one after the other agreed to the conclusion of peace with a handshake." The armistice was followed by a more peaceful decade. Suddenly it was possible to move around freely in the neighborhood, to meet each other, to celebrate together, to make music, to dance. Gangs became crews, thugs became break dancers, rappers, MCs and sprayers. It was no longer in fashion to walk around bristling with dirt as much as possible. The former gangsters now brushed their white cougars with their toothbrushes.

"Battles" in rhyme form

The aggression did not disappear from one day to the next, but it was now released on the dance floor - or on the street that had been converted into a dance floor. “We dragged record cases and a loudspeaker to an outside location. There we tapped electricity from the street lamps and connected our systems. Then a DJ put on a record, I grabbed a microphone and told me what was on my mind, »says hip-hop pioneer Melle Mel in an interview. Then someone who is now known as Grandmaster Flash was secretly scratching around on his father's record collection in the basement - and is said to have invented DJ techniques such as cutting and back-spinning. There another, now known as DJ Kool Herc, invited to parties in the common room of his social housing block - and invented the breaks in the process. Afrika Bambaataa, a member of the Black Spades, transformed this infamous gang into the peaceful hip-hop community of the Zulu Nation - and became world famous.

All over the Bronx, teenagers were experimenting with turntables and systems they'd built from e-waste. Melendez also gave outdoor concerts with his Ghetto Brothers ’Band every Friday and recorded a record: Latin, rock and soul. The new fashion, hip-hop and breakdance, alienated him. “When we saw the boys filming on the floor for the first time, we thought the Pentecostal Church was here,” he says. "That's the style now, we were taught." But nobody could have imagined that this new style would interest the world outside of southern Bronx, nobody would have thought at the time that hip-hop would develop into a music trend that is popular worldwide.

478 Austin Place, South Bronx, it was a winter evening in 2012. In a deserted alley, light and music can be heard from a crack in the door. Inside, Nelson Seda spins rapidly in a push-up position. His red hat peeps away, he has taken off the red Adidas jacket, but only briefly, until the next b-boy is dancing, because the brightly painted factory room is unheated. A DJ hangs up. All around, young people display their mostly homemade goods. In the small hip-hop cultural center, workshops of all kinds are offered during the day. The head of the center, a young man with wild dreadlocks, proudly mentions: "Afrika Bambaataa was here recently."

Nelson Seda dances, raps and exhibits his art: on cardboard boxes, paper sacks and empty spray cans. "I can't afford canvas, so I paint pretty much anything I can get my hands on," he says. “Hip Hop lives” is written on a box, “Graffiti will never die in the South Bronx” is written on a can. The 20-year-old firmly believes in that. He is the president of the local section of the worldwide Bronx Boys Crew, teaches hip-hop to children and young people and makes money with his graffiti art - "a private buyer from London even bought one of my paintings recently."

Hip-hop is no longer as ubiquitous in the Bronx as it was 40 years ago when his father, a gangster with Puerto Rican roots, saw its rise: “But there are still gangsters that were rappers, DJs, breakdancers and sprayers. Thousands of rappers, sprayers, MCs and b-boys. Everywhere in the world where young people have to bite through in ghettos, there is also hip-hop, "says Seda," real hip-hop. " The “real hip-hop” happens on the street, it is a lifestyle, says Seda. The wrong hip-hop comes on TV and on the radio. He's angry about commerce and sexist, violence-glorifying texts. "Good hip-hop is positive, socially critical, sometimes provocative, but not violent, it promotes creativity, not consumption."

Hope and dreams

When rap stars who grew up sheltered today throw themselves into the pose of gangsters who glorify violence, this also annoys former gangster Benjamin Melendez. “It's horrible that guys like that affect adolescents negatively. They didn't understand what it was all about. " He regrets that the peace treaty 40 years ago, which made hip-hop possible in the first place, has been forgotten. He hopes that a plaque in memory of Cornell Benjamin will soon be installed at the sports club on Hoe Avenue. And dreams of opening a Ghetto Brothers Peace Center in the Bronx.

But did everything get better after the peace agreement? No. “The situation calmed down, the music brought us together,” says Lorine Padilla, “but after a few years we got the same mess again; the fights, the murders, the drugs ». She lost two brothers and a sister to drug addiction and AIDS. Several friends and their children were shot. Every day she fears for her six children and eleven grandchildren, just as she did then. As if to agree with her, the TV news reports in the background of violence in the Bronx. "I try to be optimistic," says Padilla, "but there is little reason to be here in the Bronx." Yes, there are new buildings, but that is pretty much all that has been done for the Bronx in recent years. With the recession, the number of acts of violence rises again, the schools are bad, the children lack leisure opportunities, the few support programs are nowhere enough. The lucrative drug business is luring here. And, according to Padilla, parents are often drug or alcohol addicts, social cases or work day and night in order to be able to pay the horrific rents. She herself was very lucky, broke away from her violent husband and trained as a social worker. And their children have benefited from early intervention programs: "They have good jobs, have never been criminals, they are fine - that means everything to me." Lorine Padilla's children landed with their feet on the floor. When saying goodbye, Lorine Padilla says: "May I ask you a favor?" Clear. "Please call me when you are safely home."

The graphic novel Warrior / Peacemaker: The Story of Yellow Benjy by Julian Voloj (text) and Claudia Ahlering (illustration) will be presented in New York in March and is expected to appear next year. More information at