Places that Matter

1520 Sedgwick Ave.

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Front of 1520 Sedgwick Ave, Joe Conzo
Front of 1520 Sedgwick Ave, Joe Conzo
KOOL HERC is the keeper of this park, Joe Conzo
1520 Sedgwick Ave.
Hip hop pioneer Kool DJ Herc held his first parties here
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The roots of hip hop culture are in the streets and playgrounds of the Bronx in the late 1960s and early 1970s where Blacks and Latinos would gather for outdoor parties and a DJ would patch his sound system into the power box of a streetlight and play records so MCs could say their lyrics and b-boys dance their moves. Black, Puerto Rican, Jamaican and other Afro-Caribbean communities all influenced the different threads of hip hop culture. Kool Herc emigrated from Jamaica when he was 12 years old. DJ Grandmaster Flash and his assistant, Grand Wizard Theodore, both of whom were involved in the creation and refinement of the “scratching” technique, were of Barbadian and Puerto Rican heritage respectively. MC Grandmaster Caz was African American.

The environment which gave rise to this cultural expression was a New York City that in the 1970s was on the verge of bankruptcy. Dramatic cuts in social services and educational programs were especially felt in the City's poorest communities. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, 40% of New York's Puerto Rican population and 25% of its Black population lived at or below the poverty level. Like poor and working class communities across the city, many parts of the Bronx suffered badly from the city's tremendous loss of manufacturing jobs and the upheavals of the postwar urban renewal and highway programs that tore apart previously intact communities. Where education and job opportunities were few, the different expressions of hip hop provided outlets for the creative talents and combative energies of the young. As the physical environment and local support institutions were demolished, hip hop culture emerged as a way for youth to achieve social status, and form identities and communities.

The Future of 1520 Sedgwick

1520 Sedgwick is a building financed through the Mitchell-Lama Program, a state program that originated in the 1950s to subsidize housing through rentals and co-ops to make it affordable for low- and moderate-income residents. These were the families whose children went to Kool Herc's parties. In early 2007, the tenants at 1520 Sedgwick received notice that the owner intended to buy-out (privatize) the building in a year's time. (After 20 years in the program, owners are allowed to prepay their mortgages and withdraw.) As the fortunes of the west Bronx and other neighborhoods have improved in recent years, owners of buildings like this one feel that they can do better without the subsidies and without the limitations on profits imposed by the State. The problem is that most of the current tenants can't. If the owner is able to opt out of the Mitchell-Lama Program, rents will no longer be set at subsidized levels. Instead, the apartments will become rent stabilized, which means that the owner will be able to increase the rent yearly according to state-set guidelines. If an apartment becomes vacant, or when, over time, the increasing rent comes to exceed the top limits allowed, the owner can apply to remove the apartment from rent stabilization. The tenants of 1520 Sedgwick are afraid of losing their home, and hope, over the next year, to successfully fight the owner’s plans. Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr. recently announced creation of the Bronx Mitchell-Lama Task Force to address the loss of nearly 20,000 Mitchell-Lama units in the borough.

[Posted by Place Matters, June 2007]