Ed Garcia Conde Oral History Interview

Dublin Core

Title

Ed Garcia Conde Oral History Interview

Subject

Life in Melrose then and now

Description

Eduardo Garcia Conde was born in Mott Haven in 1975, and goes by the name of Ed. He has two words of his last name as part of the Puerto Rican tradition — both his parents moved to the South Bronx from Puerto Rico before their 20s. Ed grew up as a single child and moved to Melrose at seven years old after his parents won a housing lottery for Christopher Court, which is right off the 149 Street-Grand Concourse subway stop. Although he left the South Bronx after graduating college — a goal that formed in high school — he gravitated back to Melrose for the community and life of the neighborhood. He is a former real estate appraiser and is now an active member of the large LGBTQ community in Melrose. But his main job consists of running his Welcome2TheBronx blog, which garners 100,000 to 200,000 readers per month. Since his blog aims to represent the whole Bronx, he spends a lot of time walking the borough to try showing an unbiased perspective of the Bronx. He wants to share narratives of the Bronx that most people do not see or hear. And now, here is his story from when he was growing up with the city still burning, to now as he fights with his neighborhood to avoid its gentrification.

Creator

Ed Garcia Conde
Diamond Naga Siu

Language

English

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Diamond Naga Siu

Interviewee

Ed Garcia Conde

Location

Melrose
2825 Third Ave, Bronx, NY 10455

Transcription

DNS: Hi. My name is Diamond Naga Siu, and I’m interviewing Mr. Ed Garcia Conde on Thursday, April 13, 2017. This for Professor Rebecca Amato’s (Dis)placed Urban Histories spring 2017 course at NYU Gallatin. Do you mind spelling your name for us, please?

EGC: Sure. My name is Ed Garcia Conde, and that’s E-D G-A-R-C (as in Charlie) I-A and second last name is Conde. C-O-N-D-E.

DNS: Okay great. So while this is about the neighborhood, I was wondering if I could talk a little about you first — I’d love to hear about your background, your time at Melrose, and you know.

EGC: I was actually born at Mott Haven in the old Lincoln Hospital. It was a hospital that was in the South Bronx since before the Civil War, and I was one of the last babies there. It was one of the last years that kids were born there, and I lived for seven years of my life in Mott Haven, but just literally Mott Haven is adjacent to Melrose, so it was just like, we were always there. I went to in Melrose, and then in 1982, while things were still burning… buildings were still being abandoned still. Underdevelopment was opening. It was sort of like a little beacon almost in Melrose on Morris Avenue and 150th and 151st Street, and it’s called Christopher Court. My parents decided to apply for the lotto, you know, the affordable housing lottery back then, and sure enough they were one of the lucky families that were called, and in 1982 — May of 1982, actually May 25, I’ll never forget the date, we moved to Melrose, and I’ve been living here ever since with the exception of a couple years, where I lived in Manhattan and then I put a little stint in New Jersey. New Jersey, I actually broke my lease in New Jersey, cause I just didn’t like it. I broke it one month shy of completing my full year, cause I just couldn’t stand living there. It was a horrible experience. Not because it was a bad neighborhood, but I felt so disconnected from everything, so I came back to Manhattan again, because that’s where I lived before I had moved to Jersey. And while living in Manhattan, I was living in Midtown, living in a nice luxury building. And high floor, but I felt so separated from everyone. Everyone was always cold, there was no sense of neighborhood, and I started looking again, and next thing I know, I’m looking in the Bronx in Melrose, and I found a place literally half a block from my parents’ house. So I moved back. And I was there for a while until things got bad with 9/11, you know? And everybody started losing their jobs including myself, so I ended up moving another half a block into my parents’ house again. And then actually I was there for about five years, until I was able to get back up on my feet. Moved within Melrose, I decided that I’m not going anywhere else.

DNS: Okay, great. So your family lived here the whole time?

EGC: Yeah, well, my parents were born and raised in Puerto Rico. My father was actually raised both Puerto Rico and here in New York. He came to New York when he was 12, so he’s pretty young. My mother on the other hand, she came when she was 19, so she spent pretty much her whole school years in Puerto Rico and her adult life all over here in New York when she moved in with her sister. And that’s actually how she met my father, because my aunt was married at that time, and coincidentally enough, my uncle — her husband — is my dad’s cousin, so my dad was visiting his cousin one day, and his wife — who happened to be my aunt — and there was my mom, and they fell in love. So it was too sisters married, you know, two cousins.

DNS: That’s great.

EGC: So I’m related to, my cousins and I are were from that marriage, we’re related on both sides, so it’s like we can’t escape each other.

DNS: That’s really funny. What was it like growing up here?

EGC: Growing up, I never really thought much about it, you know, the — so many bad things were happening, it just was so normal that buildings were burning and that I could walk six, seven, eight blocks with my mother through the neighborhood and not one person lived on any of those blocks. Whether the buildings were abandoned or it was just rubble and field at that point. So it was sort of interesting you know? Really as a child, you know especially one who’s imaginative like me, and you know, loving fantasy novels and sci-fi and all that stuff, my mind would always wander and sort of create these stories of the landscape around you. So it seemed pretty innocent to me almost. Like, I didn’t know that there was, that that was wrong what was happening around us. Even though we went to Puerto Rico every summer, my mother and I. Dad stayed behind working, because he could never get the vacation days together, because he had just started with New York City transit. So you know, I’m in Puerto Rico in the summers, and in the mountains where my mother grew up on the farm and then I’ll visit my dad’s family and my dad’s father — my grandfather. They were in the city San Juan, you know — beautiful — everything is pretty much kosher. But I never really put two and two together you know, like that why was my existence in Melrose so wrong, versus what that normal scene that I lived in the summers in Puerto Rico. Or where I saw elsewhere whenever we travelled. So it was, like I said, it was really interesting. I remember it was also the height of the crack epidemic, so my mother and I sometimes were walking to my cousin’s house also in Melrose, and I remember one day — the streets were always littered with crack vials. You’d see them everywhere with different colored caps and whatnot. And one day we were walking on Courtlandt Avenue and middle of the day, and there was like a big commotion, people excited. It wasn’t like a negative commotion, you know like a “run away, something’s happening.” And my mother heard people say, “Look, look, they have the blue caps and the yellow caps” and my mother was just curious. She was like, “Maybe they’re selling something, some trinkets or something.” And her mouth just dropped. She had me in my hand, and she’s like, “Let’s get out of here quick, quick, quick,” when she realized the guy was just holding like tons of crack vials with the drugs. That’s when things started becoming a little more real to me as far as what was going around. But it wasn’t until I hit high school that things really started to bother me. I went to school — you know, Catholic school in Melrose — St. Anselm, and it’s borderline Melrose it’s kind of like Melrose-Longwood, Woodstock, which nobody really talks about Woodstock anymore. It sort of got absorbed by Melrose and Longwood. But anyway, that’s where I went to school. I graduated in 1989 from 8th Grade and went to Catholic High School Cardinal Spellman in the North Bronx — largest Catholic School in the New York Archdioceses. It’s one of the top schools in the nation and in the state, and it’s where Sonia Sotomayor graduated from as well among tons of other amazing people. And that school was very mixed. My grammar school was predominantly Latino with a small African American population. And even the Latino was 98 percent Puerto Rican, so that was Melrose. Melrose was mostly Puerto Rican — that’s all I saw everywhere. There were African Americans, but Puerto Ricans were by far the vast majority. And then here I am in high school in 1989 as a freshman, and I’m surrounded by everyone under the sun. Every race, nationality, ethnicity. Everything you can think of. Socioeconomic groups, all of a sudden it wasn’t just low-income families, but it was some very wealthy families as well, all mixed in. So it was a bit of a culture shock for me to see all that. And I liked that, I loved it. But immediately once you started making friends and we’re all hanging out at each other’s houses, I started noticing my friends’ parents they happened to be, my white friends, mostly Italian. Mostly Italians, that was actually the group I ended up hanging out with the most and some of the Irish kids. But none of their parents would ever let my friends come visit me in the South Bronx once they found out that’s where I lived. And that’s when it started hitting me that something was bad, something was going on. But I still didn’t really piece everything together. I just felt really hurt actually that here I come home every day, I’m safe. Even though there are gunshots and yeah, you know, when I look back 1990, which was my freshman year, you know in Melrose and in the 40th precinct part of Melrose, we had well over a hundred murders, and every night I heard gunshots around us, so I guess I grew so accustomed to it that I didn’t realize that it was so bad that it was something really bad. And it took rejection from my friends’ parents to make me feel that way, and it really bothered me a lot and to the point that by the time I was toward my senior year in high school, I hated the Bronx with a passion. I hated my neighborhood… I just couldn’t’ wait to get out. And that was all thanks to, I look back, and that was all thanks to my friends’ parents, you know. For treating me as like I felt like I was being treated like one of those commercials that was like feed the children type of thing. I felt like they were extending some sort of charity toward me. And meanwhile, my parents weren’t low-income. My parents, my dad working in transit, and my mom was working for the archdiocese. We were actually middle-income family. Middle-class, middle-income family, living in the South Bronx. We were an anomaly for the most part, like as far as income went. But we weren’t poor or anything like that. We just happened to live in that neighborhood first by necessity, since that’s where they ended up moving and living, and second by choice at that point. It was affordable. It’s not that they weren’t looking to other places, cause when my parents first got married, they looked for other places on the Grand Concourse, and racism was still really high, and it was still mostly Jewish actually, and once they heard your last name, they wouldn’t show you an apartment, so that was out. Which is why they ended up staying where they were. But you know, going back to the high school, I just couldn’t stand the Bronx at that point. I just couldn’t wait to get out. I just wanted to live somewhere where my friends can feel happy to you know, and safe to come and visit me. I did have one of the friends, eventually their mother did let him actually come over and spend the night once, which was like a groundbreaking thing, but it literally in all my four years of high school, that was the only time that someone from outside my neighborhood, outside the South Bronx actually visited me. You know, it’s stunning. All of my friends that — the only friends that came to visit me in Melrose were the ones who live in Melrose or were in the South Bronx in general, but they weren’t the ones that I always hung out with the most. I spent a lot of my time in the North Bronx, especially during the summers, because there was really no place just to hang out in Melrose and feel safe, so every day I took the bus on Third Avenue at the hub, all the way up to Throggs Neck, while at Westchester Square, then take another bus to Throggs Neck all the way to the end, to literally the last stop. So talk about like, how far I wanted to escape the neighborhood was literally going as far as I could on the bus line, where my best friend who was Italian lived. And every day in summer, that’s what I did every day. Day in and day out. Leave at around 10 in the morning and we hung out. That’s all we wanted to do, that’s all he wanted to do anyway. We’d just veg out, watch TV, walk the neighborhood. It’s all suburban up there, middle class, you know. One-, two-story houses. Nothing bigger much than that. And it’s on the waterfront. Sometimes we’d go to the waterfront, you know, just hang out. But it was all escape the Bronx for me. Escape the South Bronx.

DNS: Did you express this to anyone?

EGC: No, not really, I never really spoke about it much to anyone except that you know, that I just wanted once I made it would be to move out of the Bronx, and that was just something everyone always said anyways, so it didn’t really seem strange if I had said it. It wasn’t like someone was going to turn and say, “Well, why do you want to leave the Bronx?” Because that’s what everybody does. You either move to Riverdale or one of the nicer parts of the Bronx or just leave the Bronx in general. It wasn’t until college, I didn’t go away. I went to New Rochelle in Westchester County, but I drove every day. I spent as much time as I could there on campus, and I would drive back. I eventually got a job on campus, so I could actually study and work and I’d leave when the library closed at 10, come back home and just park the car, and go to sleep. And rinse, repeat in the morning kind of thing and leave you know Melrose. There was nothing there at that point, I felt.

DNS: Is that sentiment the same today?

EGC: Not at all. It’s completely different, you know. I love this neighborhood with my heart, with everything. And looking back, I don’t feel guilty for how I felt, because I was younger, and I didn’t understand what was going on around me. It wasn’t like we had the internet either to research for ourselves as easily. It’s not like there were also books published. Everything that was written on the Bronx was always negative, and in the media. So now, it’s like complete love affair with Melrose. I love the vibrancy, I love the mixed-income families that live here, I love everything about it. The different cultures and ethnicities. It’s actually right now, Melrose is the most diverse it’s ever been in its history. You know, Melrose was founded in the 1850s by Germans — German immigrants from the Lower East Side. They came up to what was Westchester County, cause the Bronx wasn’t the Bronx at that point. It was still Westchester, and they spoke with the Morris family, descendants of Governor Morris who was one of the Framers of the Constitution and owned all this land. So they decided to negotiate with the family, like: “We want to buy a parcel of whatever land and move up here.” I think it was about a couple maybe just under of a couple of a hundred families that ended up moving and founding the village of Melrose. It was actually Melrose South, Melrose, and then Melrose East. But they were all connected. And it was from that point, it was German sprinkled in with Irish, then eventually Jewish and Italian as well. And African American eventually started looking at moving in. They started moving in — I’m not quite sure when that happened — I think it was probably in the 20s and 30s. Not much. It wasn’t until the 40s and 50s, and then that was when the Puerto Ricans started moving in. The Italians were here also. Actually, the Italians were here at the turn of the century. There’s still a couple of Italian families left — literally, there are probably only two Italian families left in Melrose from those original families that came over from Italy, you know, like three generations, four generations ago. But now, it’s not just like, when I was growing up, it was mostly Puerto Rican, African American, and then there was actually still Italian. Like the mass I went to at Our Lady of Pity, the first mass was in Italian, the second in Spanish, and then it was English. And then our Christmas masses, every Christmas and holiday mass was done in all three languages, so they didn’t have to have these long services, they’d just lump us all into one. So you know, everyone was always waiting patiently for their language to come up, but it was really mostly the people who only spoke English, because Italian and Spanish, we could pick out and understand pretty much what they were saying, cause the languages are pretty similar. That actually led to me learning Italian and wanting to learn it. That’s probably why I ended up hanging out with so many Italians in high school. Actually, I am 100% fluent in Italian to this day. And that started here in Melrose, because I attended these trilingual masses, because it always fascinated me. That was one thing that I did look back at, you know when I was in high school. “How come my Italian friends up there didn’t want to come down here when we still had Italian families that lived here.” That always baffled me, and every June, they had their Feast of San Antonio, and every June, they would march out of the church — the Italian community — hundreds and do a procession through the neighborhood. And it was really interesting, because it wasn’t just the Italians. At that point, the Italians who lived here, were like I said, dwindling, so the majority who attended the march were Italians who lived in other parts of the Bronx, Westchester County. They all came for the feast day, and they all did the procession. Everyone would literally stop, because they were like, “Where are all these white people coming from? Why are they marching through our streets?” And I was always the one who’s like, “They lived here, you know?” Because a lot of people didn’t know the history of their own neighborhood, and I was always interested about what was here. Like, who was here, and, uh, sorry. I talk in stream of consciousness, so I sort of lost my thought there. Uh, where was I? I forgot where I was actually going with this. Oh, I was talking about the diversity. So as a kid, you know, those were the three main groups, including the Italians and some Dominican families. That’s when Dominicans started migrating to New York, so they still didn’t have a huge presence like they do now. That to me was like a really foreign experience. It was like, “Oh, Latin from somewhere else.” Spanish was very different from ours, and I was like, that’s interesting. I only had a few in my grammar school there was only one Dominican student with me. In high school, there were a lot more. That’s when I actually was exposed more to that culture. But now, it’s Puerto Ricans, it’s Mexicans, it’s African Americans, it’s Dominicans, it’s West Africans. And West Africans — just to lump them in as West African is an injustice, because it’s whatever countries that are there as well. And also other parts of Africa. All living in side by side. And it’s Christians and it’s Muslims, you know. You have literally a Christian church right next to a mosque, so it’s pretty amazing to see everyone coexisting, and no one is fighting. That’s one of the reasons why I love this neighborhood. It’s like, we’re like a living proof of we can actually do it. We can actually live together and survive, you know. I mean, after Melrose and after the fires settled and people started moving back when the new developments were being built, because at one point, Melrose had a population of I think about 25, 27 thousand roughly. But by 1980, it was down to just a little over 3,000, and that’s the era that I lived. I lived in a neighborhood that was pretty much vacant. It was about 400,000 people that left the South Bronx. That left the Bronx in general between 1970 and 1980, so you know down in the South Bronx, we were decimated as far as that goes. People compared us to the bombings in Dresden, Germany. That was the image that a lot of people would conjure when they described South Bronx. And when you look at the old photographs, that’s what it looked like. You literally thought that this was a war-torn country. Where else do you see buildings collapsed, half-collapsed, you know? Burnt out shelves and abandoned churches except in war and war scenes. But then to where we are today in Melrose, you know we owe a lot of the, probably everything to Nos Quedamos We Stay, the organization that pretty much stopped the first time gentrification tried to come into the neighborhood, which was the city. The city had committed I would call them war crimes on our neighborhood through planned shrinkage by cutting out services to us. And if it wasn’t for organizations — grassroots organizations — that fought for our services to come back. I don’t know where we would be, but this neighborhood was rebuilt literally through blood, sweat, tears, and the lives of the people lost during those years. Nos Quedamos came in, because there was a woman by the name of Yolanda Garcia. She caught wind of a plan by the city that wanted to basically raze the entire neighborhood — what was left of the neighborhood — and then create middle-income and upper-middle-class housing condos and co-ops and whatnot. Literally displace the people who lived here, and she was like, “Nope, it’s not going to happen.” And you know, they got together, they fought, you know tooth and nail, and eventually they were able to have to halt the city’s plans, and they were able to design a plan that was for us by us, because if it wasn’t for that, we would have been gentrified long before Harlem and Williamsburg. Like that Williamsburg wasn’t even on the map for gentrification at that point or signs and neither was Harlem. It was actually our neighborhood that would have been the first one to go. So thanks to them, I’m still here. I’m still in my rent-stabilized apartment and my parents are still here, and my friends and family. Cause now we don’t have many empty parcels left. What’s left is already slated for more affordable housing. Although we’re starting to see market-rate housing being built, so now we’re bracing ourselves for the second wave, you know, of gentrification coming now that we built it up, everybody wants to come, so that’s a little scary.

DNS: Okay. So with all those factors, did those contribute to the name of your — or not the name — but the slogan of your blog?

EGC: Oh, “You think you know the Bronx, but you don’t?” So a little background on that. I started blogging in 2009 on Melrose, and the reason I started writing on Melrose is because… I had already moved out of my parents’ house the second time, and I was during my search actually, during my search for my apartment, every time I looked up Melrose and things like that, I never saw anything positive. Everything was just images of what I grew up with, which was — even though it wasn’t too long ago at that point — they were far enough we were with new construction with affordable housing and families moving in, and the narrative was always negative, it was never positive, which brought me back to my childhood, one that I didn’t really see much wrong. That was because even though there were fires and the drugs and the violence, there was life happening all around us. There we carnivals and street fairs and impromptu gatherings of hundreds of people playing salsa music and cooking up a storm in shopping carts and barbecues in the middle of the streets, cause hey, who were they interrupting? No one, cause there were bocks and blocks of debris around them. Puerto Ricans are known for making do with what they have, you know and just being happy about their circumstances. I mean, it is what it is. It’s almost like a motto in Puerto Rico: they’re still happy. So anyway, going back to the slogan, it was, well that came after. I decided to blog about Melrose, but again, because I was tired of the negative images and the false narratives, and I realized that nobody was telling our story from within. Everyone was just coming in and telling our stories from their eyes, which even though my eyes are biased as well, their eyes are just completely biased, cause they don’t even know the true history or they don’t know the true experience of living in the neighborhood, so how are you actually going to write about it properly? So I started doing that in September of 2009, and it was called Welcome2Melrose, and Welcome to the Village of Melrose was what I had originally called it, cause that’s what we were — we were originally a village. But we were still a village despite having grown, and the slogan once I morphed into Welcome2TheBronx, when I decided to cover everything, cause I realized it wasn’t just Melrose, but it was a Bronx-wide image problem that we had that people were still were thinking that we were burning and that gangs were roving our streets. It became “You think you know the Bronx but you don’t,” and a lot of that had to do with the fact that even I thought I knew the Bronx, but I didn’t. Once I started my love affair with the borough and my neighborhood, I just rushed into the history, looked into every history book that I could and old photographs and asking questions like, “Who’s this, who’s that? Why did this happen?” And that’s pretty much how my slogan came to be, cause I didn’t know, and I figured if I didn’t know and I lived here, if you don’t live here, then you definitely don’t know.

DNS: What are some things that people don’t really know about Melrose or even the Bronx?

EGC: Well, with Melrose, a lot of people don’t know that it’s the unofficial downtown Bronx. It’s also where the Bronx was founded, officially as the 62nd county at the old Bronx County Courthouse on 161st Street. That’s where the Bronx in 1914 became the 62nd county of New York City, and we officially separated from Manhattan. And Melrose, like I mentioned earlier was founded by German immigrants from the Lower East Side. If you go to Immaculate Conception Church on 150th Street, that was a church that was built by the German community, and if you go in there, the stained glass is all in German. After my original church Our Lady of Pity, we transferred just to one more block to Immaculate Conception, where my grandmother used to go — where she still goes. And that’s where we began service. So as a kid there, I never payed attention to mass much, cause I lived in Catholic schools all my life. My eyes would wander, and I’d read the stained glass, and then I realized that that’s not English, and that’s not Spanish, and that’s not Latin, what is it? And eventually, that’s how I found out that it was German. You know, what else? Melrose, we had an opera house on 149th Street, which George Burns, famous comedian performed at. And the legendary Mae West, she performed there. And as a matter of fact, it was her performance there that sort of gave her her claim to fame. Her sexuality, how she was very scandalous at that time, and she performed a play that she wrote — a piece that she wrote — and it was called “Sex.” And actually, after she performed it, she was arrested for indecency, even though it wasn’t indecency compared to anything with us nowadays. But Lloyd Ulton, the borough historian, the Bronx historian, he says that he likes to think that “Sex” debuted in Melrose at the opera house — that’s where it debuted in the world. You know, there are just so many things. What else about Melrose? Besides that, it’s a nice place to live, and especially now with everyone who’s worked so hard to carve their little corner of the world here in Melrose and so many different nationalities that are here. You know, and then the Bronx in general, I mean, has history, you know. The Bronx was the first borough of New York City. People don’t really realize that, cause in 1874, about 20 years after Melrose was founded — which I find kind of ironic, cause it was Germans from the Lower East Side — they were trying to escape the crammed quarters of that tenement living down there. And this was all farm land. Melrose was all farmland and country, so they came up here to escape and founded a village. And about 20 years later in 1874, the West Bronx gets annexed to New York City, so all of a sudden, they’re part of New York again. And that was 1874, so it was pretty much everything west of the Bronx River. And then in 1895, the rest of what is the Bronx today was annexed from what was Westchester as well. And I think in 1898, like two tiny portions of the Bronx came along with the rest, and for three years, if you count the full annexation basically of the borough, for three years we were the only other part of New York outside of Manhattan, and 1898 is when Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens came onboard. So I like to call us the first borough, you know, we were a borough before it came cool so to speak. You know, the Bronx has always been home to so many immigrants. I mean clearly, we are all immigrants here in North America, but taking it to another step, the Bronx at one point had the largest Jewish population. No borough to this day has ever come close to the amount of Jewish families that they had living in the Bronx. At one point, the estimates were between 40 and 60 percent of the borough. Everywhere you went was a synagogue, kind of like how you have bodegas now. And Christian temples and churches and whatnot. We have the largest population of Albanians. Albanians they settled here as well. We have the largest population of Puerto Ricans of course still. What else do we have? We also have the largest population of Irish from Ireland — Irish immigrants — in Woodlawn. Woodlawn is pretty much an Irish enclave, like you go up there, and it’s not uncommon to hear pretty much a thick Irish brogue, you know, just coming by. Just as you walk by the streets. We also have a very large Bangladeshi community. We still have a large Italian population although it’s dwindled a lot. There’s just so many different ethnicities in the borough just living side by side in different neighborhoods, so a lot of people don’t know that. We’re also the greenest borough, the Bronx. We have the most parkland than any other borough in New York City. Almost a full 25 percent of our land is actually parks. And we have three of the top ten largest parks. The largest park in New York City is in the Bronx — it’s not Central Park like a lot of people think. It’s Pelham Bay Park with about 27, 28 hundred acres, and the third largest park is Van Cortlandt. There’s just so many stories with history. George Washington slept here too, up in Van Cortlandt, and as a matter of fact, it was still Westchester, but what’s considered the final act of the American Revolution was when George Washington entered Manhattan and basically took over. It was considered like that was it. The American Revolution? Done. Well, he did that by leaving Van Courtlandt, the Van Courtlandt Mansion, and that’s where he went into Manhattan and ended it. So we have that claim of history. We also have the first Tibetan Buddhist temple in the Western hemisphere. Was here in the Bronx. It’s still here, so that’s another sort of like. That one is another piece of trivia that a lot of people don’t even think about, they’re like, “What? Buddhism? Tibetan? In the Bronx?” It’s like, yeah, they parked themselves right here, you know? Of all places, so a lot of firsts. You know, right just a couple blocks away into Mott Haven, the Lincoln Memorial, the Lincoln statue, that was carved here by the Piccirilli brothers. And the dome of the United States Congress building, the iron support structure, that came from here as well. So it’s a lot of history. And if you go to the main library on 42nd and Fifth Avenue, you’ll notice the lion statues, the famous lion statues Patience and Fortitude, they were also carved here in the Bronx in the neighborhood, over in Mott Haven, which is right next door to Melrose.

DNS: Wow. So —

EGC: Yeah. And there are so many more things that I can’t even remember off the top of my head, cause I’m on the spot, so I could keep talking about all the other stuff, you know?

DNS: It’s all good. Since you started blogging about both Melrose and the Bronx, how have the two changed?

EGC: The two have changed drastically since I started blogging. Melrose when I started blogging, we still had a lot of vacant land that was still, it was already slated for development but nothing was going up yet. Since I started blogging, Melrose has gained roughly 4,000 apartments, maybe 5,000 apartments at this point. And there’s like another couple of thousand on its way. The Bronx, sadly, we’re a victim of our own success, cause now developers are turning their eyes on us. Since I started blogging, developers have taken an interest in the borough as the last frontier, cause there’s nowhere else to go — they’ve pretty much exhausted everything, I don’t think Staten Island is much of an option for them to make big bucks, so no offense to people from Staten Island. I love you, cause I go there. But that’s the number one thing you know? We’re worried now. We have these developers now and all these businesses coming to the Bronx. We have the first mall in New York City in almost 25 years to open. It opened up two years ago, going on three now, and not just the regular mall, but a mall with high-end stores with Tiffany and Michael Kors, so there’s this huge confidence by that sector, you know, that is starting to displace mom and pop shops, you know. We’re seeing more small businesses being shut down. People are being pushed out, even though the borough president likes to argue that there’s not displacement happening. But there is. There is. There’s landlord pressures and you know, displacement doesn’t necessary just happen by you being evicted or being priced out of your apartment, but it also happens when your landlord buys you out and says here’s $5,000, move out, you know, and then they’ll raise the rent: double the rent or triple the rent. But what’s $5,000 in New York City? You can’t start a new life like that, and you’re not going to get what you were paying. So like, it’s this whole plan of just pushing us out, and I think those are really the biggest factors. There’s one thing though that I did notice on the positive side is that — I don’t want to say that I started the trend for Bronx pride, cause I didn’t — but when I started blogging, there were really only two blogs around. One of them was someone who’s a friend of mine now. Nicole Perrino, you know. She founded Bronxmama, and it was a resource guide — and it still is to this day — you know, the number one resource guide for families. You know, what to do with your kids in the Bronx, and then there was another one called the BoogieDowner, which kind of covered the whole Bronx, and they were pretty cool. Loved the guys that ran it. The couple — it was a married couple that ran it — but they actually eventually left the Bronx. Not cause they necessarily wanted to, but they had another child, and their support system was in Queens, so it was kind of hard going back and forth on the bridge and expensive, so they decided to move back, and it was because of them leaving that I decided to expand just sort of fill in that gap, because they ended up giving the blog to someone who immediately within a couple of days destroyed practically everything that they built. A solid audience, a loyal audience, they just decided to use it to just advertise a lot of their real estate stuff, and you couldn’t talk about politicians negatively or anything like that. It was just so many rules that I was like, “This is not what a blog should be, you know?” This is like total censorship, so that’s when I decided to do the Bronx thing, but one of the things that I started was with Welcome2TheMelrose that translated to Welcome2TheBronx was Bronx pride… You live here — love it. And the Bronx is beautiful, contrary to popular belief. Even you know, I look back at my childhood, and there was beauty everywhere, even in the rubble there was beauty, and I wanted people to be proud of that and soon after — probably maybe four years after that — I started seeing more similar accounts, social media accounts popping up and people doing the same thing, you know. Showing the Bronx in a positive light, so that’s definitely one of the things that I’ve noticed that I love, you know, that more and more people are taking into their hearts — a borough that we all took for granted at one point.

DNS: Okay, what are some things that you would want to change within the Bronx? Or Melrose specifically?

EGC: You know, in Melrose, I would love, love, love more than anything for small businesses to be able to own the spaces they actually are in instead of just renting, cause that’s what’s causing the displacement. That’s why they have a lease for 10 years and then now that the market is looking rosier for landlords now when they go to renew their lease, they get an increase and then they don’t get another 10 year lease, they get like a three year lease. And after that three year lease, the rent is probably doubled again. So I think I would love to be able to work with the community to find creative solutions to — not solve that problem completely, cause that’s not something that’s going to go away — but to come up with creative solutions of how can we keep our mom and pop shops around, you know? Those stores, they’re the fabric and life blood of our communities, and there are many of them that actually not only just do business here, but they live here. For example, the restaurant that we went Xochimilco, the owners live one block over in their house that they bought. They were one of the first Mexican families in the neighborhood. They’re sort of pioneers in the South Bronx, you know. They own the laundromat across the street, so it’s like when I call the neighborhood a village, I literally mean it. Cause you have a lot of people who work here and who own businesses here that also live here. And I find that somewhat unique, I don’t see that. I’ve travelled throughout the Bronx, and you know other than communities like City Island, which is expected, cause it’s literally on an island, you know, you don’t see much of that, let alone New York City. So that’s one of the things that I’d definitely like to see. And protections for our people, especially our low-income, the most vulnerable, you know. We need to protect those families instead of pushing them out. Right now, public housing at NYCHA is a disaster, and we need to fix that. Those people deserve better. You know, my grandmother lives there. She’s going to be 85 this year, and she’s been living there for 45 years. You know, luckily her apartment’s fine and in great condition, but the general condition of the building isn’t that great, and I think that we need to take care of those people before we start catering or even think about opening up the neighborhood to anyone else, and that’s not something I necessarily want, you know? I don’t mind like in theory, development is not a bad thing. In theory. A mixed-income neighborhood in theory is not a bad thing, you know. For me, I think it’s great if we can have from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high mixed all together in one neighborhood, but in practice, it never works. In practice, you know, everybody gets pushed out except the ones who can afford it. So I think we really need to focus ourselves more on what we have rather than attracting what we don’t have. And why do we want to attract the crowd that never wanted to be here when it was rough? You know, for me, it’s like they’re undeserving of our beautiful neighborhood and our hard work and you know. Like Yolanda Garcia, she started that organization through anger and love of the neighborhood and anger at the city. And she died. She had a heart attack on Third Avenue, like she was living a stressed life right in the city. So there were many people, many warriors like her that are unnamed that died during the battle so to speak. So again, I question the motives of our borough president who all he wants to do is call it the New Bronx, and there’s nothing new about — it’s not the new Bronx — we’ve always been here. Those are really like the main things, you know. Of course, education for our kids, figure out how we can get our — now that we have free college tuition, hopefully things can start getting brighter for the future generations.

DNS: Yeah. How — cause you’ve lived here in like different times of Melrose — what would a normal day kind of look like when you were younger and then when you moved back and then now? Like what was daily life like groceries, laundry?

EGC: Daily life when I was a kid. You know, we lived in Christopher Court, my parents are still there, still the original tenants, you know 35 years later. They had a private playground. That was a thing when they were built, you know. They built a private courtyard, a massive courtyard, gorgeous. And we had security. Cause you needed security in the Bronx, but it was a safe space. So I actually had — again, I was privileged — to grow up in the middle of the South Bronx in Melrose, where drugs and guns were everywhere and violence, and people were getting killed. But in our complex, it was an oasis, and I still call it that to this day. But my parents — our apartment — faced the courtyard, so my mother could always keep an eye out, but there we were kids, living a happy life. So after school, it was either playing video games on the Atari once the Nintendo came out or playing in our playground, and then hearing my mom calling out my name. My full name is Eduardo, so she’d be like “Eduardo!” and then I’d here that and be like, “Time to go home, so go upstairs.” And I think that had to do with the fact of why I felt safe in the South Bronx, cause we had that. We had that security guards, the security guards there watching over us and we were able to play in that garden in the middle of the chaos, so you know, my mom at that point, she wasn’t working. When I was born, she worked maybe for a couple years, but you know, she decided to be with me. I’m an only child, so when I grew up, I didn’t have siblings or anything. She decided to stay home, and make sure everything was taken care of with my needs. So I spent a lot of time with my mom. Going shopping. Shopping was always, you know, in the 80s, when I look back, there was a particular path we took, cause you don’t want to go into the worst areas, even though you were in a bad area. You never wanted to go through the public housing, even though my grandmother lived there, you know, and we always went with my father every Saturday for dinner. Which is only four blocks away from us, but we never, we tried to not go through the projects as much, cause that’s where a lot of the guns, we would hear the gunshots coming from. So 149th Street was the safe zone, cause it’s a big commercial district and Third Avenue. So we would always walk up — we took the longer route, cause we were on 150th and 151st, so if we wanted to get to Third Avenue to the shopping district, we could go all the way up 151st Street if we wanted to, but it was easier going through 149th Street, cause at least you have store after store after store versus just you know, a vacant house, a vacant building. But other than that, you know with school and Sundays, going to church with my mom. My dad didn’t go to church until I was about 14, and that was when we transferred from Our Lady of Pity to Immaculate Conception. Our Lady of Pity is closed now, closed about six years ago I think. You know, we had a bakery that we would go to, that’s where we’d get the bread on the weekends. What else? It was just, you know, it was pretty much doing a lot of that with my mom running errands and then on weekends, we’d go away to Pelham Bay Park for picnics and barbecues in the summer with other family and friends. It was always a fun, big production for me, especially when it was a big one we were going out. You know, my mom and the other women in the kitchen, they would rotate kitchens in different houses, you know preparing the food for the next day and you know, going to sleep late and waking up really early so we could take that drive to the beach, you know, it’s like four or five cars, all of us packing in, and now that I think about it, they really sacrificed a lot for us. You know, all this sleep time. I didn’t think about that until just now when I caught a whiff of that memory with all the women in kitchen and the guys, you know, my dad and everyone was buying the supplies. It was a lot. It was a lot for us — gotta thank them when I see them today. You know, that pretty much was routine, you know, every day I would go down to buy the newspaper for my dad. I always wanted to go do that, usually go get the milk as well or the bread. It was always an adventure for me, and then growing up, now in Melrose, it’s pretty much the same, you know. For me, my laundromat is across the street, so it’s the family with the restaurant, that’s where I go do the laundry. I have a dog, so I walk her around the neighborhood, and she’s a Siberian Husky, so she gets a lot of walk. Although when I was in high school and in college, that’s when I had my first dog. Probably one of the most well-known dogs in Melrose ever. His name was Rex, and we rescued him, my ex and I. My first boyfriend actually worked in a motel in Putnam County, and he worked the graveyard shift, so he was just stuck there midnight to 8, and there was this dog that lived at the motel, but he wasn’t taken care of too well, and you can tell, and we couldn’t take it was just eating us away. The dog barely never slept, because every time someone came into the motel — because he lived in the lobby — so he would just run in and greet the people and get excited and bring his toys and everything. And it would break our hearts, and one night, he just said, “Wait here.” Cause I had just dropped him off, and I was like, “Okay.” And then he comes out with Rex in his arms and he throws him in my car, and he’s like, “Run, go, take him!” And I’m like, “Oh my god, we’re dog-napping!” But like I said, they weren’t taking care of him, so we rescued him, and we actually spoke — myself, I had told the story to the priest, you know at Immaculate Conception. And he was like, “You did a good deed. The dog wasn’t being taken care of.” I mean you know, and they didn’t really miss him at the motel, you know. To our knowledge, they never really spoke about it. Cause he had a habit a couple of times running away, so they pretty much attributed it to that. I mean, he was running away clearly, cause he wasn’t being taken care of, so Rex came to live with us in Melrose in Christopher Court, he was a poodle bichon mix, and everyone just fell in love with him, you know. We joke around, he was like “insert your struggle hero,” and he was the first dog in Christopher Court, cause dogs weren’t allowed. So we were like uh oh, what are we going to do? And my mother was like you can’t keep him here, but my mother and my dad just fell in love with him and you know, next thing we know, we eventually actually got taken to court, because of the dog. But there’s a New York City code that if they know that you have the dog for 90 days and they’re still collecting your rent, dog gets grandfathered in, so that’s what eventually happened. And then eventually you started seeing more families taking the risk and now, there’s definitely dogs in the building. So you know, he was a groundbreaking dog, and he was already six years old when we had him — when we got him. And he lived another ten years, he lived a long, full life with us. Travelled to Puerto Rico. But everyone in the neighborhood like, “Hey Rex.” They knew him more than they knew my name, and there’s a big, empty lot that used to be an empty lot until recently. That was fenced in, it was the size of a city block, and it was always perfectly manicured, because it belonged to the building next door, and it was like our unofficial dog run, so I always let him running around there, and then there was the day that we noticed he was getting older and older, and it really came quickly. And one day my mother had come back home early, cause she wasn’t feeling well from work, and she found Rex in the hallway just — not dead — but he couldn’t get up. And she called me crying, and I ran down from work, I left my office, and we took him to the vet. And it turned out that he had a big tumor, but he wasn’t going to be down, but he probably isn’t going to make it, you know. So we decided to bring him home, and we did with a comfort pack so he wasn’t you know, in pain. Just wanted to be with him, and our neighbors started coming, knocking on the door to pay their respects to say goodbye to him. And I’ll never forget that. You know, around 3 in the morning, he passed away. Took him to the animal hospital, and we made preparations to have him buried at the pet cemetery in Westchester, and our neighbors came up for the little — they actually have a private wake area, like a little viewing area, where you can view your pet, the casket before they bury it, and we were like, “Wow. We had a dog that was that famous that people came to his funeral, cause they just loved him that much.” And they were crying with us, right there at the gravesite as the casket’s being lowered and shoveled in. So that’s one aspect of daily life that I just totally had just forgot about it. The routine of just walking the dog, and he always came out with his toy. One of his toys, and everyone just always laughed, cause it was always just some stuffed animal or something. I buried him with the toy, the only toy he brought with him that fateful night that we kidnapped him — dog-napped. It’s not a crime — it’s a rescue. His beloved Sharky, a little plush Sharky, so I buried him with that. I was like, this is what you came with, you know, go with that. I didn’t want to keep to around. I still have his dog ID on my keychain. And now the tradition passed along to my Siberian Husky, you know, walking through the neighborhood. She’s also pretty well-known in the neighborhood as well. A Siberian — she’s red as well, she’s red — so it’s sort of a unique color for Siberian Huskies, but yeah, that’s my routine in the mornings, is walking around the neighborhood. I like to take long walks just to see what’s going on and you know, say hi to people on the way, and that’s how I know if there’s something that needs to be addressed. If there’s a light out at night, if I notice some lights out, I get on the 311 app, and I start reporting them, making sure they get taken care of. If they don’t get taken care of, I forward it to the councilman and say you know, listen, this block has this many number of lights out, and then he’ll push for it. Same thing with NYCHA. If I see something sort of like off, you know, I’ll make sure that that gets taken care of. So I’m sort of like the eyes and ears. And if people tell me, you know, I have people who’ll like tell me like, “Oh, I heard this is what’s happening on my block, can you help us?” And I’m like, “I’ll go take a look.” And I’ll make sure I forward it to the right authority to take care of it. And yeah, that’s kind of like what I do. I shop local. Before, when I was you know, when I was growing up in Melrose, The Hub, that’s the oldest shopping district in the Bronx, The Hub. And Third Avenue and 139th Street when we were crossing, that’s actually the busiest intersection outside of Times Square. It’s over 200,000 pedestrians a day go through there, and you know the whole shopping district is mostly — now it’s changing — you know, a lot of national retailers are coming in, whereas in the 70s and 80s, there were a few, but most of them because of the fires and the economic downturn were small, low-, middle-income families, so I always stayed away. There was always this stigma like, you know, you’re poor if you shop there, you know, don’t shop there, so I would drive to White Plains in the middle of Westchester County 20 miles away to do my shopping when I was in high school and I had my car. And even as an adult, I’d shop in Manhattan, go to J-Crew and all the expensive stores, but it wasn’t until I moved back, and I started loving where I really lived that I started shopping locally. And to this day, I will shop at the mom-and-pop shops first. I get all my clothes, all my shoes and sneakers, I shop for my clothing on Third Avenue. I don’t have that, you know, conflicts anymore. And then I realize how much I’m saving too, and I’m like, “Holy crap, I just got the same designer stuff that I could have gotten for retail, I got it for so much cheaper, you know.” And you know, I ran Bronx Fashion Week for two years. We had it in Melrose at one at the old courthouse, and I was the vice president of public relations and marketing, but I was doing most of the logistics behind it, and I shopped on Third Avenue for those events, and everyone was always asking me, “Oh, what are you wearing? Where’d you get that?” And I’m like, “Third Avenue,” and they’re like, “No.” And I’m like, “Yes!” So my friends are like, “Are you kidding me? You really got that?” And I’m like, I give them the store names and I’m like, “Check these stores out — a lot of gems there.” And you know the fact that really no one likes saying that they shop there is even better, because you’re going to find things that no one else is wearing. So it’s pretty funny. Even my mom, she’s like, “Oh my god, you did a turn around. You would never shop at Third Avenue. You used to cry if I bought you things from Alexander’s, and now you don’t care.” And I’m like, “You know, I want a vote with my dollars, you know.” I want to make sure that goes to our businesses in the neighborhood, so you know, like I said, it’s the mom-and-pop shops first. If I can’t find it there, I’ll try to find it at another mom and pop shop in another neighborhood if possible. And then if not, if I have to go to a national chain, like a retailer, it has to be in the Bronx. You know, like I don’t buy anything that’s not in the Bronx, unless it’s just not here, you know. My electronics, that’s kind of like the only thing that actually I don’t support mom and pop shops, because I kind of like —they’re not that trustworthy usually with electronics — so you never know what you’re getting even if it’s refurbished or not, so I have no shame in saying I go to the Best Buy. But I do it in the Bronx, so I make sure that tax money stays here, cause for me it’s really important you know to keep the dollars. Food shopping, I do the same. I do the food shopping the neighborhood, farmers’ markets when the season’s here. We have a number of farmers’ markets throughout, you know. We have one in the hub sometimes, another one next to Lincoln Hospital twice a day — I mean, twice a week — and then there’s the granddaddy of them all on 161st on the Grand Concourse on Tuesdays, that’s my favorite. So that’s where I get a lot of my produce, and everything else I get it at local — I shop at Aldi’s, it’s a national chain. The reason I do is it’s kind of hard not to, you know, you get things for 50 percent off, versus supermarkets, so until the supermarkets start lowering their prices, that I won’t. And that again, is I’m voting with my dollars, you know. Hopefully, they’ll realize they’re losing you know, a lot of business. You know, and we have plenty of supermarkets in the neighborhood, so there’s you know, in theory you’d think that with so much competition, it’d be cheaper. But it’s not. But Aldi’s rocks. Last night, Aldi’s was closed already, and I had to go get milk, cereal — I drink almond milk — milk, cereal and Splenda, and I went to the supermarket, cause I had no choice, and I spent 15 bucks, and I felt so bad, because at Aldi’s, I would have spent about six bucks. I was like, wow, that’s like nine bucks. I could have saved that for something else, you know. So yeah, that’s what I do.

DNS: Do you think other people have that same mentality?

EGC: Yeah, I see a lot of people, a lot of my neighbors, do the same thing — they try to keep things local, and I do have conversations with people like, “Hey, have you ever thought about shopping here? Try to keep it local.” Another thing about Melrose actually that I forgot to mention that people may not know just hit me, cause it’s part of my daily life, in the summer especially is our community gardens. We have about 17, and no other neighborhood in New York City has that high concentration of community gardens, and you know, they’re just special places. Most of them — actually, pretty much all of them — were founded by the Puerto Rican community. The oldest one is Casa de Chema, which is on Brooke Avenue between 157 and 156, and it’s basically a cultural center. I mean, you go there, and there’s live music there on the weekends. The founder passed away two years ago unexpectedly, and he’s credited as one of the first in New York City to build a traditional casitas, which are the little houses that were common in Puerto Rico at one point. It was a lot poorer — pretty much all the houses were little wooden shacks and bungalows — so the Puerto Rican community decided to build those things in the empty lots that were left behind by the rubble sort of like back home, and yeah, that’s another important part that I totally had forgotten about, how a lot of these lots were brought back to life since they were abandoned by community gardens, you know.

DNS: Absolutely. So unfortunately, our time is almost up, but is there anything else you’d like to say about growing up in Melrose, the Bronx, the neighborhood, how it’s changing?

EGC: No, I mean, I think I covered it. I don’t know, what do you think?

DNS: Do you have any final thoughts?

EGC: These are always the rough ones, the final thoughts. Yeah, I do. I have a final thought. I want Melrose and the Bronx to stay Melrose and the Bronx. I don’t want it to become a generic, gentrified, homogenous, bland, soulless place, you know. I want it to be a place where people come to and not only realize their dreams but live them, you know and stay here. I don’t want people who don’t really care about the history. All they want to do is just create their own version of what they want to see, you know. I want them to see what we have and appreciate it and ask how they can contribute, you know, or how they can help. Instead of saying, “Hey, we have an idea, what do you think?” Don’t come in that way. Come in respecting the existing culture, respecting the existing history, you know. Respecting the countless lives that were lost, because that’s what they’re doing. They’re coming into our neighborhood, you know, and you’re basically standing on those shoulders, so respect them. Ask them. Ask the people who’re here, “What do you need? How can I be of help?” Understand your privilege basically and use it for the greater good.

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1:12:23

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Citation

Ed Garcia Conde and Diamond Naga Siu, “Ed Garcia Conde Oral History Interview,” (Dis)Placed Urban Histories: Melrose, accessed May 23, 2024, https://www.melrosestories.org/items/show/79.