Case Study: South Bronx

Interpreting the Story: Mambo to Hip Hop in the South Bronx

Place Matters’ Mambo to Hip Hop project is a good example of how interpreting the story can contribute to public knowledge while supporting historic preservation and cultural conservation. It also demonstrates how local cultural assets can be recovered and used as a resource for instilling pride of place and fostering renewal of the physical environment. While not all U.S. communities may claim the same degree of cultural influence as the South Bronx, most places offer rich stores of cultural assets that simply are waiting to be mined.

The project revolved around the partnership of Place Matters and a South-Bronx based nonprofit, THE POINT Community Development Corporation. The theme was popular music in the South Bronx. Our project evolved over a three year period to tell the story of how multiple generations of predominantly Puerto Rican New Yorkers created artistic expressions that were at once culturally specific yet universally appealing. Focusing on the mambo, salsa, and hip hop generations and the South Bronx neighborhood that has been both celebrated and demonized, the project revealed how creative expression helped foster and sustain community in the Bronx, and when the landscape looked bleakest, served as a resource for strength and community rebuilding. The story, as it was communicated in community conversations, musical events, and publications, captured the historic interplay of people, place, and music that produced internationally significant cultural movements from the late 1940s through the present in one of the world’s least likely places.

The two organizations came to the project via different routes. Pursuing their aims of community empowerment and economic development, THE POINT had begun to consciously revive the musical legacy of the area by holding tribute concerts at their facility to honor legendary local musicians. Place Matters learned about the creative history of the South Bronx from two separate responses to our ongoing cultural resource survey: the Census of Places that Matter. In particular, music historian David Carp led us to interviews and passed on written and visual records. What galvanized our interest in particular was the notable role of place in the story. It seemed to be the critical mass of clubs, dance halls, local bars, candy stores, playgrounds, rooftops, and home party-giving in the neighborhood that helped to stimulate critical bursts of creativity and create a community of supporting fans for the new musical styles. Looking further into the story, we learned about THE POINT and discovered our mutual interests. Place Matters’ goals--to promote and protect the places that connect us to the past and support vital communities--complemented those of THE POINT, and we decided to collaborate.

Place Matters staff conducted almost three-dozen oral history interviews with musicians, dancers, industry figures, and fans. We consulted with humanities scholars, read historical texts, and conducted building research to determine the history of relevant buildings. All this research formed the basis for a variety of projects that aimed to publicize this history and preserve this creative legacy in popular memory. The story emerged as follows.

From the late 1940s through the 1960s the Melrose, Mott Haven, Longwood and Hunts Point areas of the South Bronx were, according to its residents, a hotbed of Latin music. Hundreds of Latino musicians grew up in or moved to this area from East Harlem or directly from Puerto Rico and Cuba. It was a time popularly known as the mambo era. Percussionists, singers and dancers practiced and played in apartments and hometown social clubs, in dance halls and theaters, on rooftops and street corners. Scores of these musicians, including Marcelino Guerra, Vicentico Valdez, Tito Puente, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Manny Oquendo, Barry Rogers, Willie Colón and Ray Barretto, were the creative bridge through which the prevalent Afro Cuban rhythms, music and dance styles such as son, son montuno, mambo and cha-cha-cha, were transformed into a distinct New York Latin music sound that was labeled salsa late in the 1960s. People came from neighborhoods throughout the city to listen and dance to some of the greatest names in Latin music at some of the city’s most elegant venues.

A Latino Bronx took shape after World War II. In the early years the new residents shared space with previously established Jewish, Italian, and Irish enclaves, but by the mid 1950s the area now called the South Bronx was the largest Puerto Rican settlement outside of the Island. The Latino South Bronx grew into a thriving community with social, political, cultural, and economic infrastructures. Existing entertainment venues were adapted by the Puerto Rican community to their own needs and expressive styles. These venues, and a concentrated population of creative people in a small geographic area fostered an explosion of musical creativity and activity that simultaneously nostalgized the past for the migrant generation and forged new directions that proclaimed Nuyoriqueñidad for those raised here and seeking their own cultural voice.

By the start of the 1970s, a deadly combination of factors precipitated the decline of the South Bronx community. The fires that tore through the southern part of the Bronx in the early 1970s ripped it apart. Nonetheless, its legacy remains a deeply rooted part of Latin music history and continues to live in the memory of musicians and audience alike for its unparalleled decades of intense creativity. Moreover, out of the fires emerged a hard-edged urban hip hop rooted in the streets, playgrounds, and burned-out lots of the South Bronx in the early 1970s. During the height of the destruction, Latino and Black teenagers, like the mambo and salsa musicians before them, held parties and jams in schools, basements, parks and playgrounds. Tying their turntables, speakers and amps into lampposts for power, teens gathered to rap, break, spin and scratch records. They reclaimed their spaces and, as their parents and grandparents had done in the 1940s and ‘50s, made the spaces work for them.

Interviewing participants to document the past brought a host of benefits. It uncovered the universe of places that supported the local music scenes. It legitimated the life experiences and creative contributions of many former and current Bronx residents. And it helped us compile a wealth of rich memory material that could be shared with the larger public. In fact, we extended the interviewing process to larger neighborhood public settings to create opportunities for intergenerational panels and audiences. We knew our approach was working when a young, female break dancer, participating in a panel with older musicians, made an emotional statement to the audience about the new connections she was making between her own musical attitudes and aptitudes, and those of her parents’ generation.

In addition to a transcribed series of oral histories, the Mambo to Hip Hop project generated these events and products.  

  • We held four local community conversations, in which panels of participants in the Bronx music scene shared memories, ideas, and concerns with other community members and the general public. We arranged similar events outside of the community on two other occasions—once at a New York City history conference and once at a prominent Latino cultural institution in Manhattan. Topics for all the programs focused on different aspects of the music history, and most of the events also featured mini-performances. Panel members included practitioners, music industry figures, professional scholars, and—to use a useful term from folklore—community scholars (local experts who have not had academic training). Place Matters recorded each of these events to collect information about the individual places and the ways in which they collectively contributed to the music’s development.
  • For the building housing Casa Amadeo, we wrote the nomination for a successful listing to the State and National Registers for Historic Places. Casa Amadeo is the oldest, continuously operating Latin music store in New York City. It opened in the early days of Puerto Rican settlement in the Bronx, survived through the borough’s most devastating years, and continues to serve as a treasure house of Latin music and musical expertise. The Register listing and related press attention has given the enterprise some added political clout, recently facilitating a downward negotiation of rent when a prohibitive increase threatened the store’s existence.
  • Using the results from all of our research, we created and published a Mambo to Hip Hop map/brochure. This illustrated map is accompanied by an essay, profiles of places and people, and quotes from the oral histories. It’s the first publication to lay out a Latin music and hip hop heritage trail of key music sites in the South Bronx and East Harlem.
  • Inviting the Bronx Tourism Council to join us, we used the research to develop a walking and bus tour of the heritage sites. We created tour scripts and trained local tour guides—one of whom has taken over the operation as a new entrepreneurial enterprise. Our start up efforts attracted the attention of a larger nonprofit that had organized to promote sustainable tourism, so we benefited too from their technical assistance and marketing.
  • We presented a reunion concert of musicians who had graduated from the local elementary school PS 52. Not all elementary schools can boast graduates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and legendary musicians Ray Barretto and the Palmieri brothers! PS 52 had these and more; enough, in fact, to send over 25 musicians to the concert stage. The PS 52 All-Stars performed one summer night in the park across from the school. Ray Barretto and other legendary locals showed up. Both sites—the school and the park—were significant to the music history as well as being important community landmarks.
  • When our research revealed that one of the music sites—an old theater turned church—was a central location for the development of Spanish-language vaudeville, we decided to recreate an evening at the theater. A Night at Teatro Puerto Rico played for a sell-out audience in the theater at THE POINT. (We unfortunately could not work with the original site.) In a curtain talk before the show, an historian placed theaters like Teatro Puerto Rico in the context of New York’s theatrical history. Then young performers from the neighborhood, along with older performers who actually had played the site, recreated a night of Mexican films, comedy, music, dance, and passionate poetry. Famous cuatro player Yomo Toro performed with his band. One of the most popular emcees at the real Teatro Puerto Rico emceed on our stage. It was a marvelous night. We suspect that nobody who attended will pass by the old theater without remembering its history and role in community life.

All of these efforts generated word of mouth, press attention, and funding. In the end, funding for the above projects came from the New York Foundation, E.H.A. Foundation, American Express Company, National Endowment for the Arts, the Cultural Tourism Initiative of the New York State Council on the Arts and the Arts and Business Council, and Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel.

To explain why so much of the Mambo to Hip Hop project focused on interpretation of the story, rather than on historic preservation or retaining long standing use, it is important to know that much of the 20th century physical infrastructure of the South Bronx was lost to the fires and political and property abandonment of the 1970s. Of the surviving structures that once hosted music and dance—playing a role in cultural movements of international stature—only Casa Amadeo continues the tradition. One would never wish for this kind of historical experience. But what the Mambo to Hip Hop project usefully demonstrates is that historical interpretation can contribute significantly to public knowledge, to the revival of pride of place, and to a community’s positive hold on the future.