BY: M. TOMOSKI
The Cross Bronx Expressway is a slow-moving six-lane wall of traffic that cuts right through the centre of the northern New York borough for which it was named. It was the brainchild of urban planner Robert Moses, a man who believed so firmly in progress that he routinely seized private land to fulfil his vision of a revitalized New York. In the roaring ’20s he snatched up the polo fields of Long Islanders with enough money to understand the sport and replaced it with a state park that is open to the public to this day. His response to the uproar of the rich, and indeed anyone who ever had a complaint, was that, “Those who can: build. Those who can’t: criticize”. Decades later, after evicting thousands and cutting the Bronx in half with a massive highway, he transformed the neighbourhood into a rubble heap ruled over by more than 100 street gangs.
That’s right, for all you boppers out there in the big city, all you street people with an ear for the action, the cult classic The Warriors was a true story — at least in the same way that 300 was an accurate depiction of ancient Sparta. The real story, as told by the documentary Rubble Kings, was, “FAR WORSE.” Still, this dark chapter of Bronx history and the peace that followed gave rise to several art forms that define hip hop culture today.
Inspired by the outlaw lifestyle of the Hells Angels, the youth of New York City donned their own soiled vests and proudly displayed their colours. There were: Black Spades, Seven Immortals, Mongols, Javelins, Young Skulls, Savage Nomads, the list goes on for as long as there were streets to claim.
“Whatever gang ran the block, you had to be a part of it. There were no civilians. You had to be in it or you were a victim,” says Topaz of the Ebony Dukes.
The ’70s promised to be a new era of peace and understanding. The civil rights movement had won its battle against segregation, thousands gathered in Woodstock to celebrate peace, and even “Tricky Dick” Nixon promised a plan to end the war in Vietnam. On paper, there was every reason to march on into the ’70s with arms outstretched singing, “let the sunshine in!”
And yet, the embattled streets of the Bronx would prove to be a reflection of a decade of violence and unrest. Moses’ unwavering ambition caused rich and middle class families to flee in droves, landlords cut their losses and set fire to their abandoned complexes and by 1980 the Bronx had lost more than half of its population.
Gang membership was largely comprised of Black and Puerto Rican youth whose families were left behind in the aftermath of the great exodus. But this violent lifestyle was not exclusive to minorities or males. Many gangs had female members who considered themselves equals. The Alley Cats of Fairmont Pl. were an all-female clique. In the North Bronx gangs like the Golden Guineas ruled over predominantly white neighbourhoods with a brutal grip on their territory. “They had a reputation for cutting two Gs into your face, so that you know that you ran into the Golden Guineas,” says Karate Charlie, former president of the Ghetto Brothers, one of the most influential groups out of the South Bronx.
The future of these neglected communities was closely tied to the story of the Ghetto Brothers. Their founder, Benjy Melendez is the subject of a graphic novel by photographer Julian Voloj and artist Claudia Ahlering called Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker. With over 2,000 members, the Ghetto Brothers had the reputation and the manpower to change what it meant to belong to a gang.
Rather than fight to the death over the charred remains of their hometown, Joseph Mpa, a member of the Black Panthers, urged gang members to focus on bettering the lives of the people in their communities. His message was carried on by Benjy who led the Ghetto Brothers in an effort to bring peace to the Bronx and rid the streets of a heroin epidemic. All the while, they used music to spread their message and laid the foundations of hip hop culture. “Joe later became the manager of the Cold Crush Brothers, one of the first hip hop crews,” Says Voloj.
But the Ghetto Brothers were swimming against a rising tide of violence that couldn’t be stopped. It would take a tragic event to put the future of the Bronx into perspective.
The turning point came on December 2nd 1971 when Ghetto Brother Cornell “Black Benjie” Benjamin was murdered while trying to negotiate a peace between the Black Spades, Seven Immortals, and Mongols. Black Benjie was chosen by the Ghetto Brothers as an ambassador for peace, something which no other gang had attempted before. Each gang had a warlord responsilbe for declaring war, but none had ever thought to charge a member with the task of bringing peace. Black Benjie’s murder left the whole borrough on the brink of an all out war. “The Bronx was going to be bathed in blood,” Karate Charlie remembers.
On December 8th 1971 police and media swarmed the Boys & Girls Club on Hoe Ave. in anticipation. But, rather than call for a war, presidents, vice presidents, and warlords had come from all over the Bronx that day to air their grievances and discuss a peace deal. “I could feel all of the energy in the room,” Benjy tells the story. “Instead of exploding and turning into violence, I knew we could channel it to create something positive. We could create peace.”
The tragic circumstances which made the Hoe Ave. Peace Meeting possible carry the message that, “you can break a circle of violence by making your own choices,” says Voloj. Many of the meeting’s participants made a choice to end that cycle and use their energy just as Benjy had hoped: to create something.
“There is a lot of overlap between the gangs and the early days of hip hop. Kool Herc, for instance, was a member of the Cofon Cats…Afrika Bambaataa was a participant in the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting, and one can argue that his transformation of the Black Spades into the Universal Zulu Nation parallels the transformation the Ghetto Brothers had from gang to political activists to musicians.”
Where once a gang member could be killed for wearing the wrong colours in the wrong part of town, in the wake of the peace agreement former gangs began to host parties at which all were welcome and battles were fought on the stage and the dance floor.