Interview with Sam Marquez

Dublin Core


Interview with Sam Marquez


Oral History


Sam Marquez recounts his first hand experience of being a firefighter throughout the 70s/80s in The Bronx.


Brandon Cris


April 2017


English, Some Spanish

Sound Item Type Metadata


(Dis)placed Urban Histories: Melrose
Interviewee: Sam Marquez
Interviewer: Brandon Crispin
Date: April 5th, 2017
Place: Bronx Documentary Center Library, South Bronx
Transcriber: Brandon Crispin

Abstract: NYU student Brandon Crispin interviews longtime Melrose resident Sam Marquez, who recounts his days growing up in 50s/60s East Harlem, attending high school at Aviation in Queens, leaving the city after high school to join the marine core, and finally returning to become a firefighter at Engine Company 41 located in the South Bronx. Sam served from the early 70s to the mid 90s, notably working through the “Bronx is Burning” era as a Fire Marshal for the Arson Investigations Unit, where he worked to uncover the root causes behind the prevalence in fires within the area.

Brandon Crispin: Hi, this is Brandon Crispin, interviewing Sam Marquez. The date is 04/05/17, April-Fifth-Twenty-Seventeen, this is for Displaced Urban Histories, NYU Gallatin, Spring 2017. Hi Sam.

Sam Marquez: So do you want to, I don’t know, I can start, you know, I was born in East Harlem. I was raised in the streets of East Harlem. At that time we used to, they didn’t have that many cars in the neighborhood so we used to play games in the streets.

B: So not on the walkways, right in the middle of the street-

S: In the middle of the street, they didn’t have that many cars. Now every family has two, three cars. In those days you’re lucky if three people on the block have cars. And we used to play games every season. For example, during the summer we used to play stickball or we’d play tag or johnny-on-the-pony, ringolevio-coca-cola. These are games-these are street games that we used to play in the 1950’s, around there. But we used to have- football used to be one of the winter games type of games we used to play. One of the things that was interesting was that stickball. You play stickball with a broom handle and a rubber ball and no gloves. And we used to play- our block would be 117th St., we used to play against 115th St., 120th St- Every block had a team. And on Sunday afternoons after church, we would play the game for money. So that was like a summer game we played. Then, in the winter we used to have football. In the order we used to play games they kept us warm for example, johnny-on-the-pony, ringolevio-coca-cola, we used to have coppered guns—

B: What’s Ringolevio-Coca-Cola?

S: That was uh *laughs* that was a game where you had your home base. And you would go and hide someplace in the block. And then the opposing team-lets say you had an offensive team and a defensive team- the defensive team would try and come find where you were hiding, and they captured you they had to bring you to the home base so you had to be in the home base unless one of offensive members would come free you. Now he would have to say “ringolevio-coca-cola” three times, and then you’d be free to go and hide again.

B: And where’d the name come from?

S: Uh, I really don’t know—


B: That’s how those things usually go—

S: It’s one of those things that basically its, its a street game. We have 5 boroughs in the city of New York- you have Manhattan, Brooklyn, you have Queens, Staten Island, and you have The Bronx. Now if you notice, The Bronx is the only one that has two words in the name. “The” and “Bronx”. The other boroughs have just a single name. “The Bronx” has two words, that’s something that I learned not t0o long ago. So anyways—

B: So where’d your parents come from?

S: My father was one of the original pioneers from Puerto Rico, and he came to New York City in 1926. And to get here, he sold a horse that he’d had in Puerto Rico, and he sold it to get enough money to get here. And then, when he came here he came by boat. And when you come by boat you have to be sponsored by somebody in the states so he had most of his friends that grew up in Salinas, PR who came ahead of him. They formed a Salinas Social Club in New York. My mother, my father sent for her after about 2 years of working in NY. Now when he first came here his problem was the language. He spoke Spanish, only Spanish, in Puerto Rico, and he had to learn how to speak English here so he got a job working in a factory—this is what he told me which is a funny story—and he says that when he got here he didn’t know English, but he got a job working in a factory and all you have to do is follow instructions of what to do with your hands. So they used to have the lunch hour, and he would follow an American into a diner, and whatever the American ordered father would say “the same”. And he had “the same” for months and months and months wherever he went for lunch he would have “the same”. Those were the only words he knew and then he gradually became, probably one of the first Puerto Rican bus drivers in the city of New York. He has, when he passed away he was one day from reaching 100 years. My mother passed away when she was 94. They’re both buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn.
So basically we used to play the games in East Harlem, and what I was trying to say is that we had very good skills, athletic skills growing up in East Harlem, and we had like a social club in the block. In the block everybody knew each other. Each family knew the other guy’s family. And if you did something wrong, or misbehaved, they would tell your father and mother. That’s how close the block was at that time, it was very close. We had drugs in those days but our block didn’t have that many problems with guys looking for the drug epidemic at that time. So we all grew up and became firefighters, lawyers, couple of my friends are doctors, teachers, principals. So they did very well, the guys and the ladies that grew up on the block did very well for themselves. And only because the parents looking out after us, they wanted, what they never achieved they wanted for us to achieve. And we did, just like I want my kids to better themselves and help them however i can. I have 2 kids, boy and girl.
B: Did you guys ever have any—while you were growing up in East Harlem—ever any problems of gang activity—

S: —Yes.—

B:—And what was it like in those days?

S: In those days they did have gangs, they had, like I said, in our block they had a social athletic club, that’s what we did on our block. Other blocks had gangs, and they would try to infiltrate into our block and we refuted them. We just didn’t care for them we didn’t pay attention to them, and they’d go away. In those days you had the Dragons, Viceroys, you had—

B: The Wanderers.

S: Who?

B: The Wanderers, they’re from Brooklyn.


S: I never heard of that one. They had the Red Wings, which was the Italian gang on the Eastside of Harlem, then on 3rd Avenue, East Harlem was Little Puerto Rico. Then when I graduated from Aviation High School, which was one of the schools that, if you wanted to go to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, or Aviation you had to take an exam to qualify to be a student in that school. And I passed the one for Aviation and they accepted me/

B: That’s how you ended up going from Harlem to Aviation in Queens.

S: Right. But i went to PS57 which is 115th St, then I went James Otis Junior High School which was on Pleasant Ave on the Eastside of Harlem. There we used to, before we got to 3rd Ave, a bunch of the guys and ladies would get together and we would have to run from 3rd Ave to 2nd Ave to Pleasant, because the Italians would run to attack us. So we had to be in a group to get over there.

B: And were all the social clubs gangs and all the groups were divided that way, the Italians had one, the Puerto Ricans had one?

S: Yes, yes. See the good thing about growing up in East Harlem that was interesting was that I never knew what prejudice was. I grew up on a block that had Italians, Irish, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, it was all mixed together. We had light Puerto Ricans, dark Puerto Ricans so we never talked about racism in those days.

B: But was it ever like apparent just in how people treated each other or was it just, like did you ever feel a type of way towards the Italians or towards the Black groups.

S: Well we knew that, no it was never, I knew that I had to be with a group of guys and run towards Pleasant Ave to go to school I knew that. And I knew that if you went by yourself, you stood a chance of somebody beating you up. So as a group, they would think twice before they tried to beat us up. So um, I never had that inclination of racism like they had down south. The only time I experienced racism was when I went into the Marine Corps, and my first foray into the Marine Corps was they sent us from New York City down to Paris Island, South Carolina. On the way down there by bus, I, we stopped someplace in either South Carolina, North Carolina, and there was this “Blacks Only, Whites Only” sign on the doors. So I said to my friend, which one should I choose?


So, you know, I never knew what racism was. So I said, “I’ll go into the white one” so I went into the white one, nothing happens, and boom. That was it. So that was the first time I ever experienced racism was when I went down south.

B: So going back to the high school question: you mentioned that you were applying Aviation and Bronx Science too?

S: No no, those were the schools you had to take an exam to enter or else you’d go to a vocational school. Either to Metropolitan middle trades and then you had Commerce, Junior Richmond, different types of schools that were vocational. They would teach the ladies how to become secretaries or if not, but if you wanted to specialize you had to take an exam like i did.

B: Were you ever going to The Bronx in those days growing up? Did you have any experience with The Bronx back then, before you started working here?

S: Very little. Very little experience. I only experienced The Bronx when I was assigned here as a firefighter. After I came out of the Marine Corps, I took the test for the Police Department, the Fire Department, and I turned out the Police Department because I just got out of the Marine Corps and in the Marine Corps I used to carry a .45 and I didn’t care for having a gun, I didn’t want to have no part of having a gun, and I decided I’ll wait for the Fire Department. When they called me, it took about a year, year and a half before I got called to become a firefighter. Then you go to training, this is in 1973, you go to training and then after that, in 1974 I was assigned to Engine Company 41 in the South Bronx on 15oth St. between Courtlandt and Morris which is only a hop-skip-and a jump from East Harlem. And that’s when I also looked for an apartment in the Grand Concourse, and my wife and I at the time we lived there. I used to work here, she used to work downtown.

B: And how’d you feel about, when you first got the job, about being a firefighter in The Bronx in those days.

S: Oh I was elated, I was very happy to get a job. And then when you’re a firefighter and you’re doing good, you’re saving lives or you’re helping a community and in those days there weren’t many latinos on the job. And we used to ride on the backstep, not enclosed in the cabin like they do now. The firefighters used to be on the backstep holding on, we’d go to the fire and take the hose and try to put it out. Anyway, when I go into a building and I’m extinguishing a fire and the people come out panicking, I’d know what was going on and when I spoke to them in Spanish, they couldn’t believe it. This was a Latino speaking to them in their own language, so they were happy about that, and I felt very happy about that. I felt very proud.

B: Did you ever get thrown off—and you probably did because you’re from East Harlem—but did you ever get thrown off by the image The Bronx was getting from the press, were there ever any crazy stories about The Bronx being this crazy no man’s land?

S: Actually when I got here, that’s when “The Bronx was Burning”.

B: Oh when you got here was when it all popped?

S: When I got here was when The Bronx was burning. Literally blocks after blocks after blocks were completely shells, the building was nothing but a shell because they were burned down. The fire used to travel, there was a space on the roof on the last apartment in that floor, and if the fire got there it would travel horizontally into another building. So it would go building to building, and then come down and burn that entire building.
Interesting enough, at that time in the 1970s, people and building owners were setting fires in their apartment to move into a better apartment. In those days the projects just was something innovative they were using, that they built/constructed in The Bronx and Harlem. People, in order for you to get onto the list, if you were burnt out of an apartment then the Red Cross would place you at the top of that list to be the next to get an apartment. People got wind of it, and they used to burn their apartments just to get into a new project apartment. When I say burn, I mean if you or I were experiencing a fire in our apartments, you had time to come down with your luggage—

*Cat enters the room. Sam hates cats*

You would come down with your luggage downstairs as the firefighters were going up to extinguish the fire. And I saw that a couple times as the owners of the apartment were coming down with their luggage. You’d go up to the roof and you’d see their couch and plastic over the couch, on the roof.

B: Oh so you knew the people were doing this? You would see them doing it.

S: Yea we knew it. Two things, not only were they doing it but the owners of the buildings were burning out the tenants because they didn’t want to fix up an apartment or give you services that they’re supposed to provide. They would rather set the building on fire, collect insurance and then be over with. The same thing with the supermarkets. People would come in, set supermarkets on fire at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, and by the time we got there it was engulfed. So the owner of that supermarket would get paid by the insurance company. Until in the early 80s, they beefed up the Fire Arson Investigation team. Then they started investigating the reason why so many people were setting fire to their apartments and why buildings were being vacated because of the burns. Then you had so many blocks where literally every building on that block was nothing but a shell. Some of the people would compare it to World War II in Germany, where all the bombs destroyed some of these structures and all you see is just rocks. At that time in The Bronx, with a lot of the drugs, they’d use them as dens—

B: The burned out apartments?

S: Sure, sure. They were stories, I could tell you stories where some of these drug dealers were so innovative that they’d take a doberman pinscher or a pitbull and then somehow or other they would take their vocal cords and cut them off. So that, when the dog came upon you, he wasn’t barking, he was right there aggressively ready to attack you. We didn’t know that, until getting wind of it, that there were dogs in these buildings.

B: Wow.

S: So even in some of the supermarkets they did the same thing. So, that was one example. Theres another example where they used to, in the vacant building, they would take and there would be a hole in the floor and they’d cover it with carpeting or a rug, and then they’ll do all their drug dealings in the back. So if there was a fire in the building, they knew that the firemen would be coming and they’d have time to get out. So what happens with this hole in the floor, we didn’t know it. It’s pitch black when you’re trying to extinguish a fire, so the electricity doesn’t work and the smoke is very dark and dense, and you’re just trying to advance along. One time I was advancing the line, and I fell down to the basement from the first floor, but I held on the hose and I was able to save myself from any injuries. But, right away they realized this was a common practice that the dealers were using.

B: Wow…

S: They were very innovative. They would take a bottle, crush it, and glue it on the banister. So that when you were coming up, trying to do whatever, you were cutting your hands, through your gloves ‘cuz we wore gloves, you were cutting yourself and not knowing why, and that would give them time to get out before getting arrested or pick up their stash or their loot or their drugs or whatever it was. But like I was saying before, the advent of the Arson Investigations Unit, the beef up of their squad prevented a lot of insurance companies from paying out these landlords that were setting buildings and buildings and buildings on fire.

B: Because they started investigating the causes of all these fires.

S: Exactly.

B: And they started linking them.

S: Exactly.

B: And what year, how far into the 80s was this?

S: This was the beginning of the 1980s.

B: Oh this was during the very beginning?
S: Yes, beginning of the 1980s. And as you went along the Arson Investigation squad grew with more firefighters, these were firefighters doing the actual investigation, so they would start as firefighters and be promoted to fire marshal. They would investigate the origin and cause of a fire.

B: But as a firefighter, did seeing these things like how people were taking advantage of the system by burning their own places or the crime aspect and actively getting into it, did that ever discourage you from doing your job? How’d that make you feel about your job?

S: No it never discouraged me. At that time I didn’t think too much about what was happening around me because we used to get, Engine Company 41 was probably the busiest company in the City of New York. We used to go out and get 4/5—we’d call them “good fires”—but its never a “good fire” when someone gets burnt out of their home.

B: What was a “good fire”?

S: For us, extinguishing it without anybody getting burnt out, with nobody being hurt. That was good for us. But sometimes we’d get into a building and you could find some bodies that were overcome by smoke, heat and smoke. Some were burned, some threw themselves off the window just to escape getting burned. I saw all that, I saw basically all the ravages of the fire. But what happened was, in those days, George Steinbrenner of the Yankees, Yankee Stadium was on 161st St. So the Yankees are still playing and winning World Series’ and what he did was, there was a lot of vacant buildings in the Yankee Stadium vicinity, in that neighborhood. What he did was, he had plywood placed inside the windows but on the outside he drew a curtain of people inside looking out. So if you were riding a subway and see the plywood with these drawings on it you’d think somebody was living in that building when actually there wasn’t. What that did for us, it prevented us from venting a burning apartment or building because the heat and the smoke had nowhere to go but back in our faces. So we had to develop a procedure where one of the first things to do was break the plywood in order to vent the heat and hot smoke as well as extinguish the fire.
That was one of the things they did and people thought that these buildings were still occupied! In reality, they were just a shell with no one living there. You go down the block around the concourse, the Grand Concourse, and you can see that north or south of the Concourse there were no lights. The city had turned the lights off in that block. It was pitch black on either side wherever we went, and that was block after block after block where there was no electicity, it was black, and people just didn’t give a damn. Some of those buildings— the Grand Concourse was at one time considered the Park Avenue of the Bronx. It was really a nice place—

B: It was the “Grand Concourse”

S: Yea it was really a nice place to live! You had buildings that were pre-war with sunken living rooms, really gigantic living room spaces, big bedrooms, beautiful bathrooms, kitchens, it was really a nice place to live. Then it gradually, the neighborhood changed. In those days the owners or the people who used to rent those apartments out, they would take out special cards of buildings where they knew they were gonna send Puerto Ricans, they knew where they were going to send the white people, the blacks. In a mild way it was discrimination in those days. That was the way it was in the old days. Now you see buildings that have really been renovated and all those shells of buildings that you had in the old days, the developers from downtown came into the South Bronx and put in bids for the shells at $1, and the city would give it to them with a proviso that they would have to renovate the building and make it livable. That’s why you see a lot of old buildings that have been renovated and people are living there now, and now you see the influx of gentrification coming into The Bronx.

B: So when did that era start dying down for you and what was it like for you in the 90s in The Bronx?

S: In the 90s—In the late 80s, one of the things that really puzzled me was that Mayor Koch, at that time the mayor of New York City, he wanted to close down Engine Company 41 in a neighborhood where fire was more prevalent that any other neighborhood in the City of New York. And he says, what we’ll do to save money on the budget, is close down this company because we have another one down 156th St, or we’ll close down the other one down 143rd St. So he decided to close down Engine Company 41. That’s where I said to myself, because in the (Engine Company’s) kitchen we used to talk about the current events and what was happening and a lot of times they’d say “Have you heard they’re trying to close down Engine 41?” and I’d say “No that’d be crazy! They need fire protection here more than they need it in Gracie Mansion!” More than that neighborhood or 42nd St! They need more protection here than there because more fires were in this neighborhood and the records would prove it. Not only fires, but deaths caused by fire.
So I got wind of it and I went to this lady, Sister Barbara, and I used to be on the Executive Board of the Community for the Developmentally Disabled, and they were a group that started group homes in Michelangelo which is on Morris Park and 150th St and they did it because they came from Willowbrook in Staten Island, an institution where they used to—if you had a family member that was disabled or dis-formed because of birth—they would send you to these institutions when the family couldn’t take care of them. They used to bring them and they never gave them any dental, medical, educational, or rehabilitation skills, so they dwindled physically in these institutions. Through Geraldo Rivera who did an exposé on Willowbrook, was when the governor of New York decided we’re going to take them out of Willowbrook, and build group homes as if they were kids of the neighborhood. So what they did was they started these group homes in The Bronx, in Manhattan, in Brooklyn, in Staten Island too I think.
And I became involved, and through them there was this Sister Barbara who had a group home of 150th St and Michelangelo, and I go to her and say “Sister Barbara, you know they want to close the firehouse…” and she goes you’re crazy, how could they close it down here of all neighborhoods. So through here and Marty Rodgers, and the Immaculate Conception Church, we formed a group of the Immaculate Conception People for Change. We lobbied the City of New York. They did close it down, they shut down the ‘Company, they took the firefighters and they sent them to other parts of the City of New York. I was fortunate enough to go to 143rd St, a sister ‘Company to me so I knew most of the guys there. So I was still in the neighborhood, I was still here in The Bronx, and I was able to ask “what was the reason why they’d want to take the fire protection from this neighborhood?”

B: The one that needed it.

S: But you know why? Because this is prime land! Manhattan was growing up immensely and the rents were going up immensely, so why not take a part of The Bronx, let it burn down as they would say “The Bronx is Burning” or “Brooklyn is Burning” or parts of…I think that was it. Brooklyn and East Harlem. That was one of the reasons. But we got together and lobbied, and had meetings, and had a group of people that came together and protested wherever we could against Mayor Koch. Wherever he was at, somebody from the group would be there raising up a banner that said “Give us back our Company!” and we protested. We were very fortunate that at that time David Dinkins was running for Mayor of the City of New York, he eventually became the Mayor, and one of the first things he told us as a group was “If I get elected Mayor, I’m gonna re-open Engine Company 41” And they did, for the first time in the City of New York—Never happened in the history of the City of New York that an Engine Company was re-opened, Never.

B: What year was this?

S: This was 1989. And when he became the Mayor, he reopened Engine Company 41. It wasn’t exactly the same, it was “Enhanced” Engine Company 41. Part of our duties then were to be a specialized Engine Company where we’d go to fires out of our own district and extinguish fires, do rescue, do ventilation, do whatever the chief would assign us to do.

B: Was it the same guys you had worked with before?

S: No, some of them came back but most of them stayed in the different companies they had been sent to. We had a lot of new guys that came into the ‘Company who really didn’t understand what the community was about.

B: Were they from The Bronx?

S: No. They were from upstate or Long Island or…
B: So you went from being the new guy to being the veteran in the BX.

S: Yes. I’m still involved with the ‘Company. I go to the parties, we have 9/11 memorial mass every year. We organize that, and I help them wherever I can. They need my help I’m there for them. I’m like a teacher to the young kids, they see me and they ask questions like “What was it like in the old days?” because the gear they have now is more protective than what we used to have in the old days. As I was telling you, in the old days we used to ride in the backstep, holding on to go to a fire. At one time in The Bronx they used to hate the firefighters, I don’t know why, I really don’t know why, but they used to take garbage cans, these big metal garbage cans, and they’d go up to the roof, and as we’re passing by they would throw them at us sometimes hitting the firetruck. That’s when they decided it was safer to have the guys in the truck.

B: And why do you think that was happening? Did the people associate you guys with the government and have problems with you guys as part of that sect?

S: Its, to me I couldn’t picture the reason or figure the reasoning behind why they would do that against us. The fire department, you know, whenever you call the fire department is when they need us, and we’re there. We respond, we’re not going to wait around—you see some of these movies like Chicago’s Burning where as soon as the alarm goes on the guys are putting on their gear and rushing out the door—

B: Going down the pole.

S: —And that’s the way we used to do it here. We still got the pole! We’re still coming down and get dressed real quick and get out as fast as we can, and get there as quick as we can. So I really didn’t realize or know the reason why they were throwing things at us. After a while, people just said “the fire department is there to help you” and there was some kind of press release where they were reading more about the Fire Department as the city agency that helps you the most. And then, after so many years, I think it was also in the 1980s, where they incorporated the EMS Ambulance service with the Fire Department. So they’re both under the one commissioner which is the commissioner of the NYFD. So he’s responsible for the Fire Department as well as EMS, Emergency Services.

B: And that helped out with the image that you guys were getting.

S: Yea the image, I just couldn’t figure out why we were portrayed as the enemy. It never dawned on me what reasoning they would have for that. We always responded when we had to, and plenty of times we saved lives. We saved kids. One time I was going up a ladder in Harlem. t was raining, and the suits back then were made out of rubber. So it was raining, and I climbed up to the 5th floor, 6th floor on an extension ladder from the outside of the building and i went up and one of the guys handed me a baby. And the baby was maybe less than a year old, and I’m walking down, it’s raining, and I’ve got a rubber turnout coat, and the baby starts slipping on me, and I’m holding on with one hand and the baby in the other, and I’m holding on and i’m praying “Dear God, please don’t let this baby fall. Please God” all the way down until I came down to the turntable, and I handed the baby to one of the guys. Then I had to go back and get another one. But I was so afraid, you know. The image of a firefighter seeing a baby slipping from his hands and falling four, five stories you know its… So God was with me.

B: Was it typically as dramatic as that? Like everyday on the job was it getting that dramatic?

S: Yea. You know I can remember Howard Cosell telecasting the Yankees World Series game and there was a fire, you can see it on TV, and you can see the firefighters on the fire escape going up through the holes. I was one of those guys.

B: Oh you were one of the guys on the broadcast video?

S: Yea, ‘cuz when I came home and saw it I just said “Hey that was me up there!”

B: Wow. That’s a famous video now.

S: Yea so anyway, that was one of those times where he would say “Look! The Bronx is Burning!” and literally it was burning in those days. That was just one example. Everyday was something different. It could be, I’ve always told people: Not only do we extinguish fires, but we can help with first aid, we can help with heart attacks, we can help with a car accident, we’re there to help you. And eventually, educationally they became aware of it. If someone was getting a heart attack they’d call the Fire Department because we get the call, we say we need an ambulance here right away, and we get an ambulance there right away. You call from your home and say “My uncle’s having a heart attack” you gotta wait at least 5,6 minutes and after 4 minutes you’re clinically dead. But you call us we’re there as soon as possible and we administer first aid, cardiac compressions, or breath through your mouth until such time that the ambulance can get there and they take over. So that’s one of the reasons they incorporated the ambulance with the fire department, and right now the dispatcher with send out an ambulance and a truck, at the same time, and normally the truck is there before the ambulance.

B: So lets get into the 90s now: How did things start changing for The Bronx as far as you saw it, and how’d they change for you?

S: I retired in the 90s, late 90s.

B: You were working for over 20 years.

S: I was back into Engine Company 41, then I got hurt on the job, so i was an instructor, a Fire Safety Education Instructor on Ogden Ave. We used to have the kids come into a classroom setting and I would teach them about stop, drop, and roll, the hazards in the kitchen, not playing with matches, getting out and calling the Fire Department, don’t go back for toys or anything of value, just get out and practicing a fire drill with your family so in case there is an emergency you can account for everyone in one spot. So I did that for a couple of years before they, well, actually kicked me out of the fire department. *Laughs*

B: They kicked you out?

S: Well i became disabled.

B: Well, talk about what getting hurt on the job was like—When’d that happen and how?

S: Well I got hurt quite a few times, it wasn’t once. I had a couple operations on my foot and on my knee and doctors decided that I couldn’t do the job of a firefighter any longer. Even though I wanted to but, they decided I couldn’t. You get hurt, you get burned, I was burned a few times but Its a part of the job.

B: And where were you in your life, were your kids already born?

S: Yea my kids were already grown up. Well…not really. My son was still in high school, he went to St. Raymond’s high school in The Bronx. My daughter went to…hell I’m trying to think of what school she went to…It was a school downtown, I can’t remember…

B: So how was it for your son growing up here in Melrose?

S: He grew up close by, it was 165th St. and the Grand Concourse, right around the corner on Carol Place. I had a beautiful sunken living room, big bedroom, it was a gorgeous apartment. But, the neighborhood changed, and I had to move. So I went to Parkchester, I’ve got a co-op over there.

B: So let’s get back to that, how’d the neighborhood change?

S: Well the neighborhood started changing in the 1990s, you could see that developers started coming in and buying these shells of buildings for $1, renovating it, and maybe the occupancy was Section 8 or poor people who made sure to pay the rent—and I’m sure the developers got a tax break on it, but they also made some money. And now, these buildings are worth quite a bit. Then, slowly but surely, you have people who’ve never left this neighborhood, Marty Rodgers and his family never left, Father Scully grew up here in the Bronx, he became a priest and he’s the pastor of Immaculate Conception. You have some of the guys—In this area we have a stickball reunion also! That’s in September, and its on the second sunday. Some of the guys who grew up in this neighborhood—the Irish guys, the Italian guys, they come back. They’re all accountants and doctors and everything, they all come back and they reminisce on the old days. Remember this guy, remember that guy, remember that girl here, this girlfriend there, and its a good feeling to see the old guys, see how they’re doing, they bring their children, and show the kids where they grew up, how they used to play in the streets of the City of New York, the games we used to play here in the City of New York. We don’t have those anymore.

B: So were things for your son growing up here similar to you growing in East Harlem. Did he have similar experiences?

S: No i don’t think so. He was more, there just wasn’t much street games for them to play. So for him—one thing we didn’t have was organized little league. So i got him into organized baseball, and he went to a college in Long Island on a baseball scholarship. I brought him up as a catholic, always in catholic schools, him and my daughter. As soon as he went to college—Stony Brook University— so he went there, and he was playing 3rd base there, liberated from the parent. He was by himself, living in the dorm, party, party, party, and he let it get to his head too much. So he didn’t follow up on his baseball qualities. But he was a good ballplayer. He still is.

B: And what were you up to at the time?

S: I was basically still working, starting off retirement. We just did things differently. It was a different era with the advent of cellphones and computers and we didn’t have those things in the old days. You can’t really compare us growing up without a dime in our pocket to make a phone call. Now everyone’s walking around with a cellphone and a headset, and they can make a call from anywhere. In the old days we didn’t have the communication they’re experiencing now.

B: Did you end up leaving The Bronx at any point?

S: Well I wanted to, I wanted to go to North Carolina. My daughter’s living there now, and I still might, I still might go down to North Carolina. But I don’t know. You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the boy.

B: You were getting this desire through the 90s, early 2000s? When was it that you started getting the idea that you wanted to leave The Bronx?

S: It was in the 2000s. 2002, 2003.

B: What would you say caused that—

S: Like why would I want to leave?

B: Was it something that you saw changing in the neighborhood? Was something missing? Did you want something new?

S: No…I think it was just…I started taking up golf. When I was growing up i used to run marathons, I’d run track for Aviation High School. So I was very athletic. So when I retired I needed to do something other than sit on the couch watching TV, so I started playing golf. Down south is where you have most of your golf courses. I don’t want to play where Trump has his golf leagues in Throg’s Neck. Because of the name I’m careful.

B: So if you left the Bronx, what would you miss the most about it?

S: The people. The people in The Bronx. Growing up in the vicinity where you know a lot of people and they treat each other as human beings. Down south, even here in the City of New York nowadays, you don’t know who your next door neighbor is.

B: Neighborhoods don’t exist anymore.
S: They don’t. In the old days it was a little town, It was un pueblo, everybody was there. One of the reasons I have the reunion is because I want to give back to the community. I want to give back to where I grew up. So I go back, I organize it, and I give. Same thing here in this neighborhood. I come back, I come to church every Sunday. Even though I live in Parkchester, I come here because of the people I met here. The community, the firehouse is right there, the church, the sisters, etc. Just walking down 3rd Avenue, or even driving up here I see all these brand new buildings, store after store after store. You go down south and what you have is malls. You don’t have those street stores anymore. No matter where you go down south you have to drive too.

B: And also here, everyone has the one store or place that they have that relationship with. You don’t even get that in most places here in the City anymore.

S: No, you don’t. In the old days we used to really—I remember my parents used to go to the bodega and do the food shopping, make a compra, for a whole week. And the owner of the bodega used to put it in his little book, how much that shopping cost, and he would put it down y’know ‘$20 and 30 cents’ and when my father got paid he’d come back and pay that $20.30. We could literally go downstairs to the bodega and tell the guy “apuntamelo” you know, “put it down” and he’d put it in his book, no problem. Then at the end of the week when you’re squaring off, your father would go and pay for whatever the family took that week, and pay the bill all at once. That was the old days, now you can’t do that.

B: I actually grew up with that same experience which is funny.

S: Really?

B: Yea, and its funny because I’ll mention it to other people, my age especially, and Its obvious that that type of trust is foreign in most places. Its a special bond that the communities here share especially.

S: Yes, you don’t see that anymore. Those are the things that…our kids are not experiencing. Its very difficult.

B: Theres a disconnection.

S: Yes, nowadays its a cellphone and playing the games on the computer and…I don’t know, go to a concert maybe. The old days we used to see three bands and actually dance to the music. Now you sit and listen and pay $80 just to sit and listen to these guys playing music. We used to pay $2 before 7, go in, get a nice table, wait for the girls to come in and we’d be dancing all night ‘till 2/3 o’clock in the morning.

B: So how do you feel about the direction the Bronx is heading in?

S: Its…you still have…you really need a lot of community involvement. One of the things that you have now that we didn’t have, well one of the things that we had that you don’t have now is policing. Policing is a big problem here because the police are in the cars, they police in their cars. In the old days you had the beat cop, and he’d come around and he knew every store owner, most of the family that lived on the block. If he had three blocks he knew everybody, and everybody knew him.

B: And they could trust him, most importantly.

S: Yes, and theres this funny story i keep telling: In the old days we used to play stickball and the cops never wanted us in the streets so they would break the bats. So we used to have one of the guys at the corner on the block in case the cop came by. So they would say “La Hara”. “La Hara” means “cop”, but really it didn’t. What it meant was “O’Hara” because O’Hara was the beat cop. So “O La Hara” was the cop. Nowadays you don’t have that. They’re trying to do it again; sometimes they close this block on Thursdays and the cops won’t let the cars use the street because they know for about 4/5 hours this street is closed.

B: That’s right now?

S: Yup, every Thursday you come over here and they close the street off. We have a new commander in the 40th Precinct named Hennessy, and he’s an excellent, community-minded commander, he’s really good. You get some guys that they’re only here for the money, they get paid and they’re gone. They don’t give a shit about your neighborhood. They go upstate or wherever they go, they have their own neighborhood. But nowadays you’re getting—well hopefully you’re gonna get more boots on the ground. You get more boots on the ground you get back to the old days. But there is a difference. I was at a meeting the other day where a cop explained that the reason why you used to have policing in the old days and you don’t have it now is because nowadays these kids have guns and knives. In the old days they didn’t have the guns or knives. If anybody had a gun it was what we called a zip gun. All a zip gun was—you take an antenna from an old car and it was hollow in the inside, and you put it on a piece of wood—2x4 or whatever—frame it like a gun, and you put a nail with a rubber band. You put a bullet in there, snap the rubber, and the bullet takes off. That was the old days. Nowadays you have a machine gun, its a big difference.
But basically, I’d say its policing and community involvement. If you don’t get involved, the neighborhood gets taken over and taken advantage of. You’re going to be literally gone from this neighborhood, and they’ll do it. Right now, the influx in this neighborhood and East Harlem is Mexicans. At one time it was German, then Irish, then Italian, then Puerto Rican, and right now its Mexican. And thats…well then you get gentrification, because they can’t pay the rent they pay on 96th St. So they here, and you can see the flow. You get on the subway, as soon as you get off its nothing but blanquitos getting on.

B: Claro. And that brings me to my next point: Seeing all these developments going on, are you hopeful for the future of The Bronx? Do you think we’re heading in the right direction or are we going to lose our identity?

S: Of The Bronx itself?

B: Mhm.

S: No. You’ll never lose the identity of The Bronx. The Bronx will always be “The Bronx”. What you’ll lose is in the transformation of different ethnic groups moving…well that depends if Trump doesn’t stop the immigration ban. I know my neighborhood in Parkchester theres a lot of asian people moving in. But that’s inevitable, you’ll always have different groups, different ethnic groups move into your community. As you become a professional and want more money you’ll want better things for yourself and you’ll move to find that home. You want the backyard, the barbecue. That’s gonna happen, and thats basically whats happened all along. The ethnic groups come, they stay, then they continue to move for something better. Like you’d want for your children, your parents for you, and me for my kids. I think The Bronx will always be “The Bronx”, just with different ethnicities. But you’ll always have your stalwarts, your Marty Rodger’s and Father Scully’s and this guy Tony—one of the guys being interviewed, he swam the English Channel three times. He still does it, he goes to St. Mary’s park every morning and swims for 2, 3 hours. Then he gets on a treadmill for 2, 3 hours. He’s an old man, but he’s still…

B: From The Bronx.

S: Yup, From The Bronx, and he’s not leaving it! He’s got a nice apartment on 138th St, and he’s happy. He’s got his little piece of ‘grass’. Not marijuana, real grass. He can do whatever he wants. Thats his home, he’s got his place to swim, and he’s here to stay. You’ve got some guys—we just buried a friend of ours named Charley Levi, and Charley Levi grew up in the Bronx, he used to be a gang member. He used to be warlord and he’d could tell us stories forever. But in the 90s, people in the neighborhood knew who Charley Levi was, and he used to go around “Hello! Hey!” and he knew everybody. That was his personality, thats how he came about. He passed away about 2 months ago, but he was a really nice person, and he took with him so much history of The Bronx. I always told him “Charley you should put it down on paper or in a book” in those days, and he never did. But he knew a lot of history. You got a lot of people like that who have a lot of history, but don’t pass it on, and they die with all that information.
My father he was…When my niece graduated from New Paltz College—or University I don’t know which—but she sat down for three days on a weekend and my father, and did like you’re doing with me, and she wrote a paper on the immigration of my father coming from Puerto Rico to New York City, sending for my mother—and in those days it took about 13 days to cross from Puerto Rico to Ellis Island by boat— and he said that my mother was sick on the trip, only eating cookies. So when he saw her coming down the gangway, she was so skinny that he said to himself “I think I’ll send her back”


That was his humor, thats the way…I grew up with 13 brothers and sisters, all in the same apartment on 117th St. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody respected everybody. That’s whats good about that neighborhood. That’s what was happening in The Bronx, and we’re trying to instill that community-minded spirit and culture in this neighborhood regardless of the ethnicity of the people coming in. Just mingling together and rising together. I think its more of a challenge than it is a reality, its quite a challenge.

B: Do you think the kids will make their lives here in The Bronx?

S: A lot of them yes. The building we’re at now—The Bronx Documentary Center—this building is preserved. Downstairs is used for exhibits, here for teaching in the second floor library, and you get the kids that come in and they’re building what we used to do in the streets inside here. You need more of this, more centers, more CYO’s or YMCA’s, places where they can gather and get out of the streets. Nowadays if you’re in the streets, you’ve got problems because its not easy being led by other kids that all they want is to create mischief for others. By getting them into places they feel wanted and can contribute, its really good. In the old days we didn’t have those official places, like organized little league. Some of those guys that played stickball were so good, so great—

B: Could’ve been major leaguers.

S: They could’ve been major leaguers if it was organized its true.

B: That’s a great note. Any last words, last stories or remarks to get in the interview.

S: No thats about it. I’ll gather some photos and maybe we’ll meet again and give ‘em to you.

B: I think that’s a wrap my friend!







Brandon Cris, “Interview with Sam Marquez,” (Dis)Placed Urban Histories: Melrose, accessed May 28, 2024,