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Mike Abner discusses his life in the South Bronx


Sarah Hombach


Mike Abner


April 8th, 2017

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I’ve been in the Bronx—born and raised. I was born in Morrisania hospital which is not there anymore, on 167th and grand Concourse. In 1954 I was born. So, we moved, after I was born, my grandmother—I was raised by my grandmother, me and my sister. My grandmother and grandparents. After I was born we moved to Marble Hill. That’s further up north in the Bronx. That’s where I was raised up until I was in the 3rd grade or so. Then we moved to Patterson Projects and that was terrifying. That’s in the South Bronx, way down in the South Bronx, like 139th street all the way to 145th. That’s all Patterson Projects, like 17, 18, 20 buildings. And I wasn’t used to that area or those people. It was crazy to me, it was terrifying, it was like from Marble Hill which was all calm and quiet…you know we moved down there and it was hectic, it was…but anyway, when I went to school, after I started going to school and making friends, I joined the track team. I excelled in track. I excelled in Basketball and I made a lot of friends, and I started to get real popular and everything, it was great. The one bad part was, I didn’t have that many fights. You know, there was a lot of fighting going on back then. There wasn’t no internet (laughs) there wasn’t nothing, everybody, people would actually, you know, converse with one another. Not like now, everybody’s sitting around doing the phone thing. But anyway, when my sister and my cousins--they were all female, and every time some guys would bother them they ‘d come and get me. They’d always pick the biggest craziest lookin’ guy in the projects that they could find; “he hit me!” and I’d have to go out there and fight. So soon enough I got popular with the fighting thing! So now I’m like, yeah Mike! You know, this and that even though I was more of a peacemaker. You know, I was the voice of reason so to speak. And uh, I found that, from being in Church, we went to church in Harlem—it was a episcopal church. And it was just from the teachings and church and from my grandmother... being raised not by my mother but by my grandmother...that I had the old values, I was taught the old values. Which I still have a showed my kids.

It was 60…right after we moved to Patterson, like a few, a couple of weeks after the Kennedy Assassination, so the whole world was like crazy. And I was young but I remember sitting in the classroom in class 2-5. My teacher—her name was Mrs. Goldberg, and she came in and she was crying, so everybody’s like “what?”. And all these teachers were in the hallway with the classroom doors open. And everyone was gathering in the halls just murmur murmur, it was about the Kennedy assassination, they had shot president Kennedy. And that was traumatizing so it seemed like everybody was…it was weird, for a kid anyway, you don’t know “why’d they shoot him?” or “where’s Dallas? Where’s that? That’s Texas?” I remember reading, and we wrote book reports after we moved to Patterson and book report got raved, they raved about it because it was like “oh this is great cuz a kid in the third grade..” you know, they didn’t realize I had sat around and listened to my grandmother and my mother and all of them talk about it, about how he, you know, he was trying to do things for the poor, and the black community and how white people didn’t like it and all of that and you know, in Marble Hill there was racial tension because it was all white mostly. And then black people started to move in and that’s right at Riverdale, in Riverdale it’s all Jewish but people got along. My best friend was a little white boy named Brian. And I used to go to his house and everybody, people used to look at us like, “what are they doing? Why are they so friendly with each other?” Cause he was raised like I was raised. We didn’t see color, you know, you was a nice person I was a nice person, we got along. And his parents was like that. Taught him that same way. And, this is funny—there was a program on TV. It was called I-Spy. It was Bill Cosby, and a actor named Robert Culp. And me and him used to act like we was I-Spy guys, cause it was a white guy and a black guy, you know?

So anyway to move along, so now I’m in Patterson Projects, and I grew up there and I started to—I was always into music—you know, and sports. It’d be music, sports, school, music, sports, school, life was good! Cause you know, my grandmother always made sure we didn’t want for anything we always had everything so I don’t know what it’s like, I hear about people going “Wuh we didn’t have this, we didn’t have that,” and I don’t know about that. But I do know that, there was people and kids that I knew that was hungry, didn’t have food, didn’t have sneakers, didn’t have Easter clothes when Easter came around. So we used to give some of our clothes away. Like that, and my grandmother always taught me; if you give, and you do good, good will come to you. It’s karma, you know. I grew up with that, you know, 12 years old and one day I pick up a guitar. And I was listening to the radio, WWRL AM, cause there wasn’t no FM back then, there wasn’t nothin happenin’ with FM—that’s how old I am! You see what I’m saying?—you know, everybody was all “you got a color TV?! Let’s go to Mike’s house! They got a color TV!”—it was crazy. So I pick up this guitar, and it was a little plastic, folk guitar. And I start listening to the radio. And I start picking out the notes of the songs and I’m singing it and I would play my 45’s and I actually taught myself to play. So my grandmother on my other side sent me to guitar school cause she was all “oh, this is beautiful! He did that on his own, who taught you that? Nobody!” So then I went to guitar school. When they sent me to a guitar school, in the South Bronx, the only good guitar school there was a Spanish guitar school. So they was playing Spanish music and the guy was trying to teach me but he couldn’t speak English—I didn’t understand him, he didn’t understand me, I’m going “what?”, he’s going “huh?” [imitates accent] “What are you doing my friend, I’m trying to teach you something..” and I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix, he wanted me to play like, like Emilio Estevez or somebody. Jing-jigga jing jing—I don’t wanna play that! So I flunked. [Laughs] I flunked guitar school. Anyway. That was that.

So now I’m going to junior high school. Something about the South Bronx that’s a beautiful this was, living in the projects, everybody knew everybody. People say “oh you live in the projects?” That’s cause it’s raggedy and terrible now. Back then, it was “neighborhood.” Not “the hood”, it was the neighborhood. Everybody knew each other, “good morning!” “hello Mrs. So-and-so!” “Oh that’s Miss Johnson’s boy!” it was like that. Not like now, people don’t even speak to each other. People walk right by, people don’t even look at you. People are getting in elevators and holding their purses and carrying on because you don’t know who’s who. That’s why, when they talk about the projects I think about how I grew up. And the younger people, you know, they talk about when they grew up, how they see it—you know, people are fighting each other and shooting each other and this side of the building hates that side of the building, this side’s fighting that side—we didn’t have none of that. We had basketball tournaments, where our project would play other projects. It was called the City-Wide. And you’d get trophies if you win. I had a lot of trophies, my grandmother used to be so proud. I had like, about 85-90 trophies. Trophies, medals, plaques, everything from running track, playing ball, singing. Then I started singing! I found out I could sing. I thought I could sing, anyway. I was in the choir in my church, and I started singing like they sing in the choir, with that soulful sound, and it was…my life was pretty good. I knew it was a terrible thing goin’ on because the South Bronx looked like somebody had dropped a bomb. It looked like Vietnam when I was growing up. You’ll see the pictures.

The way it has built up and up and better through the years, you know, is a plus. But you can’t build up new buildings without building up the people. You have to get to the people, the people make their neighborhoods, not the buildings. Not the, you know what I’m saying, the cars, nothing! You have to build up the people, so we had community centers, and groups like they have here, all of that stuff disappeared in, let’s say the Reagan era. Or even before. It was a mess. But a lot of the programs that we had, like the PAL, the Cedar program, I could go on and on, we had night centers, kids could go all the way up until 11 o'clock at night, you could play basketball and all of that--they closed all of that down, the funding dried up or or they cut it. I’m not gonna get into the Republican-Democrat thing cause that’s a mess. Always been a mess. On both sides. It’s just that fact that I lived through the era when they cut everything, you know, I enjoyed it because I experienced it myself but I saw that that next generation didn’t have it. They didn’t have access to the things that we had. And it was sad, because that’s when a lot of kids was on the street doing things that they ain’t got no business doing, cause they had nothing to do. “Idle time is the devil’s workshop”--that’s what my grandmother always told me. Always find something to do: get a job, get a hobby, do something, that’s cause “Idle time is the devil’s workshop”. She had all these sayings, all these old lady sayings that I was like, “what that mean?” She would stay stuff like, “boy, why’d you do that? Sometimes you act like you ain’t got the sense you was born with.” and I would go, “what? wait a minute…” So, it’s a lot of wisdom that my grandmother taught me and you see a lot of those things coming into fruition through time, when you’re growing up, you say “damn, that’s what my grandma was talking about,”. You know, I heard it but I wasn’t really listening.

Community is being built up now and now it’s getting better. As far as like the infrastructure of the south Bronx, much, much better than when I came up, programs like one, and the ones that are coming back, I’m all for it, I’m all for promoting it, participating in it. This one’s called DreamYard. And it’s like a cultural center, and it has music—what we do is we try to expose the youth to music, singing, poetry, the arts! You know, they have acting…I became a part of it in September and I’m on the music end. It’s a lot going on here. It’s a beautiful thing because the community needs it. It needs more of it, really, but it’s a start, it’s a start. These were the types of things that were available when I was growing up, that dried up for the last 40 years or so. Now it’s coming back. It seems to be coming back. There’s a few in Harlem, the Bronx. Where it’s needed. And that’s a good thing, and I’m here to support it, and to participate in it, and do whatever I can to make sure it flourishes and stays, you know, afloat. And that’s about it—as far as the crime and all of that, you’re gonna find that everywhere. But if the more you give the youth to do to take away that idle time and give them focus on music, acting, and some of the attributes within themselves that they don’t even know they have, it’ll spread. Just like gangs spread. Just like bad stuff spreads. Bad attitude, bad, bad, company and all of that. You don’t need to that, here’s an outlet for you. To come in and have something that people appreciate from you, and people show you that you are important. That you have some purpose. And when you feel that way, when a child feels that way, they straighten up. They straighten themselves up. You can’t straighten nobody up if they don’t want to straighten up. And a lot of them, when they come here, I see it in their eyes. I see it in their enthusiasm. To do, to be involved in something like music. Everybody’s into the rap thing now, oh my god. Everybody wants to be a rapper. But it’s a great thing too. My thing is classic soul and R&B music. I like a lot of music, but some of that rap I just can’t get with it. You know how you hear these old guys like “ah I’m too old for this,” that’s what I’m like with rap music. I don’t even wanna hear it, you know?

You know, to be honest, I got married when I was 22 and I moved away. Around that time is when things when things were actually starting to get under construction, things were starting to get done. Under Mayor Dinkins, Mayor Beame, Mayor Lindsay—it was terrible in the Lindsay administration but I don’t blame it on the mayor or anything but where the funds, the federal funds are allocated, you know, the Bronx was always last. Still is today. The Bronx is always last to be allocated for anything. I watched Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens, all of them get better infrastructure getting built up, cleaned up, everything. And the Bronx still was messed up. So, it just seemed like when they rate the boroughs, and they go “the worst borough is the Bronx!” I don’t pay that no mind because I know the Bronx is like that for a reason. It has a lot to do with where those funds are being allocated. Because you know, it’s Hispanic and black, and you know, it got less and less diverse. It used to be Italian, Jewish, Black, Hispanic, but then Hispanic infusion came and it was a lot more Spanish people getting businesses and then the Koreans came and now you got the, uh, Afghani, what do you call them? From the Middle East and all that. The problem I see in the Bronx for my people, for black people, is the fact that it could be a whole black neighborhood but you go in a store and you’re gonna see everybody behind that counter but a black person, in a black neighborhood. You go to a Jewish neighborhood, you go to their stores—it’s a Jewish man behind the counter. You go to an Israeli neighborhood, you see Israelis behind the counter. You go to a Jamaican area, in Brooklyn, you’ll see Jamaicans having stores. That’s what I see. I’m not talking about statistics or anything, just plain seeing it, you see it! Which is a damn shame, because people that’s been living here forever can’t get small business loans, when these people come here—I’m serious. I’m not a Trump supporter or none of that. When he talks about immigration and these people coming here and we don’t know who they are or what they’re up to and all of that—I was living in Texas. In Everman, Texas. That’s where I lived, it was a suburb of Ft. Worth. There was a store around the corner—come to find out it was Arabs. Come to find out when they tried to blow up the World Trade Center the first time, those are the people they arrested, that were associated with the terrorist attack. I was going there buying food, buying, you know, just—I couldn’t believe it. It was right there in Texas. I get back to New York and find out—I just see that, you don’t know who’s here, you don’t know who you’re dealing with, you don’t know what’s going on. So when you say we need some stronger laws on immigration, I agree with that. I don’t agree with runnin’ nobody out of here, running families out of here, putting up a wall and all that nonsense. You know that, I don’t agree with.

See you’re talking to an old guy, see when I was coming up it was a lot different. We had access to like, like those night centers, we had parks, it was a lot that these kids don’t have and the kids before them. It’s been that long. I’m talking—my thing was in 1968. When we had Randall’s Island, we had, Van Courtland park, we had Crotona Park, all the parks you could go to and you could barbeque and have fun. Can’t do that no more. Now you can’t barbeque and when the sun goes down, everybody got to get out the park. There’s no more night centers. So the kids are in the street! They create something to do. And sometimes…they think it’s exciting to do things...they don’t go nowhere else to do it, they do it in their own neighborhood, to their own neighbors. If they riot, if they rebel...every uprising, they don’t go nowhere else to do it. They burn their own neighborhoods. They burn down their own stores. They kill their own people. Talk about “Black lives matter”. It matters…but it should matter to blacks. Why are blacks killing blacks? More than anybody else, you know? That baffles my mind, why we don’t have respect for ourselves. How we’re always going “well I ain gonna be disrespected” well you’re disrespecting yourselves. Disrespecting each other. That’s the core of the problem in the communities and in the neighborhoods. It was then, back then. Back then, you know what it was? Back then blacks were united against other groups. Blacks united against other gangs, blacks had families that looked out for each other. You know, your car’s parked, your neighbor right there would watch your car. If you had work or whatever, they’d watch your apartment. Make sure nobody would go and break into your apartment. Now, it’s every man for himself. Everybody’s trying to get over--every man for himself. The Bronx is a place that—getting back to that immigration thing—when you have people coming here, that ain’t from here, they don’t have the respect or the knowledge of what community is all about. They’re all out to step over you and get theirs first and move you out the way and compete with you and argue with you… and you got buildings right here in the Bronx…if you look at the names you have to press to get into these buildings, you see Rodriguez, Cruz, Sanchez, this, that, the whole building is full of whoever’s the landlord of that building. They won’t let nobody else in. You feel me? That goes on all through the city, but it’s real prevalent here in the Bronx. My wife is Puerto Rican, so I understand Spanish. I don’t speak it but I hear it—they don’t think I understand them and I just look at them sometimes like, where is all of that coming from? We were here when you got here, what’s wrong with you? What’s your problem? Because you can be proud of your own heritage and your own race without putting down somebody else’s. Just like Black Lives Matter. They matter, but they’re not saying that white lives don’t matter. Or Hispanic lives don’t matter.

I’m retired, so I was like, i got time to get involved with something to help out the community because I like doing stuff like that. I’ve been a counselor, I’ve done all that kind of stuff. So I called Aleesa, she said “yes?” and I said, “My name is Mike Abner, and uh, we have something in common. We have the same doctor, she gave me your flier.” She said “yeah!” and I said, “i’m very interested to know, what is the Morrisania Band Project all about?” and she told me she didn’t have anybody yet. I was the first person to come through the door. And uh, I’m an artist really, I’ve been with the Legendary Escorts for years, we’ve toured we’ve done a lot, I know what I’m doing and stuff and I have a lot to offer the kids, you know, if they come through!” and she said, “great” and I told her my cousin, my first cousin Richard, the lead guitar player, we already have a band in Manhattan that I’m not very happy with, I’m about to cut them loose anyway. So I told Richard the same thing, Richard told me the same thing he said, “you know, I’m tired of these dudes, they’re late all the time, they don’t want to put in the work.” They’re talented, all of them are talented but they’re older guys, and something about older black men, that are musicians, or singers, or anything artistic, they think that they know everything. You can’t tell them nothing, you can’t change their mind about nothing because they’re set in their ways.

All those new buildings over their, all those new buildings that came up in the past, what, 15 years? 10 or 15 years. But before that, this Washington Avenue was a place--you didn’t wanna come down here. There was pimps, there was prostitutes walking the street, there was drug dealers, it was like the place to go, the seedy, all the seedy people hung out here. And the cops left them alone it seemed like, cause they was out in the open! It was right out in the open. But you could come down here, you could get robbed, you could get mugged, so you avoided places like this. It changed through the years. I would say the renaissance--it was like a renaissance--it came in like 80’s, anywhere from 1979 up into that decade of the 80’s that things started to build up again. And as a kid I saw things that I couldn’t believe. I mean, it was out in the open--you didn’t have to go in a building, but you’d see mothers out here with kids, they’ve got kids and they’re out here buying drugs from drug dealers, you had pimps, you had all kinds of prostitutes, you had the gang element too. They had different gangs up here. They had a gang called the war lords, the Savage Skulls. You didn’t wanna come around here, you’d get jumped, you’d get, you know. They know the people that live around here and they could tell if you wasn’t from here cause you’d see the same people here all the time so if you wasn’t from here, they’d come after them right away. You’d be like “i’m going to see my friend” and they’d be all “give me your money” and you’d say “I’m not giving you no money”. And then you’d have to run. And back then--it wasn’t the guns and all that is now. You know they had like, knives and sticks. Stuff like that. They rode around on bikes, delivering product. It was crazy. But you know one thing about then that was different? You come here in the day time, you would think it was just businesses running their business, people coming home from school…and then nightfall set. There was a group called Houdini, they had a song called “The Freaks Come Out At Night”. And that’s, they wrote it because that’s what it was about. It was true. Now, you see craziness even in the daytime in some of these areas. But back then, there was some kind of honor amongst thieves where you don’t mess around in front of the church. You don’t mess with old people. You don’t bother mothers with their kids. You don’t bother the elderly--you know, they’d help the elderly. But these are crazy people, like gang members, and everything, they would help, But when it came to the street hustle at night, forget about it. And it was almost like an unwritten rule, “ok, everybody in the house. Time to go in the house. Cause you know the crazies are out at night. Now the crazies are out all time. It’s cleaned up now because you’ve got buildings and legitimate businesses, people used to protect their property too. You know, sweep in front of their buildings, keep the stoops and everything clean. And they wasn’t getting paid for it, they wanted their stoop to look good. They would wash it down with hoses just to make sure that where they lived was decent, clean, or looked clean. You don’t see that any more. You don’t see young people participating in a group to do good. Like a good group, like a basketball team, a track team, older guys were coaches. Older guys would coach basketball for free, spend money out of their own pockets.

My youngest—I got six kids all together. I got three boys and three girls. Four out of the six are college graduates. Thank god. That’s why I ain’t got nothing. Me and my wife, we just worked, work, work, work, and if I don’t have to pay another tuition for the rest of my life—which I hope I never do!—it’ll be too soon. But now we got the last two, the twins, Jasmine and Dominique, graduated year before last. And they got good jobs. And life is like a “phew!” You know? “Phew!” But now, my back hurts, my knees hurt, everything, I’m going to the clinics, I’m getting therapy, I’m breaking down! But it was all for a purpose, you know? And my kids are the kind of kids that…it’s the ideal of what I would like a lot of these kids to be. Really. And if parents ain’t doing the right thing kids won’t do the right thing. So we basically, like I said, we gotta get to the people. The Bronx is like the hard knock life. If you know how to navigate around the nonsense and stay focused, you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.



Sarah Hombach, “Transcript,” (Dis)Placed Urban Histories: Melrose, accessed June 16, 2024,