Don’t Move Improve: Self-Gentrification in the South Bronx
Two blocks from the Hunts Point Ave subway and the strip mall on Bruckner Boulevard sits an eccentric oasis in the South Bronx. Walking southeast from the station, across Bruckner Expressway, one will find a commercial awning with an advertisement that reads, “You deserve the BEST. Your local coffee shop. 1 ½ blocks ahead.” That coffee shop is the Boogie Down Grind Cafe.
Unlike the abundance of similar specialty coffee shops that overflood Manhattan, the Boogie Down Grind Cafe is unique. The first locally owned coffee shop in the South Bronx is a small and cozy “third space” where coffee enthusiasts and borough natives can converse over handcrafted beverages. Baristas greet patrons, politely take orders, and regularly engage in conversation with customers. The espresso machine is covered with Bronx-inspired stickers. By the door, a bulletin board hangs for local advertisement and promotion. The exposed brick interior is decorated with art and jewelry courtesy of local business owners.
Major Carter, co-founder of the Boogie Down Grind Cafe, is the woman who is trying to redefine the stereotypes surrounding the Bronx. In addition to co-founding the Boogie Down Grind, Carter is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, given in 2005 for her work to revitalize the South Bronx. Her work in the Bronx includes co-founding StartUp Box, which creates job opportunities in the technology economy, and Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit workforce that addresses economic and environmental issues in the South Bronx. She also brought the first open-waterfront park in 60 years to Hunts Point.
The barista on duty and the handful of regulars that know Carter, simultaneously turn their heads to the door, smile, and greet the owner of the Boogie Down Grind Cafe. Carter is the morning cup of Joe for the South Bronx.
Her café, as she puts it, “stands in utter opposition of the stigma surrounding the borough.”
Carter says that finding beauty in the Hunts Point community in the South Bronx is essential in preventing outsiders wanting to capitalize in the value that natives are led to believe does not exist.
“If you’re a smart kid, in a poor community, you’re taught to measure success by how far you get away from those communities,” Carter said. “People come but don’t stay.”
Carter admits that being an innovator in the South Bronx is difficult because of the expectation of quality and nonexistent predecessors.
“It’s strange. You literally see people peering inside and being scared. It’s not a bodega or a McDonalds so people ask themselves, ‘What do I do with it,’” she said. “We [the South Bronx] are still an emerging market, but we’re not just corner stores and pharmacies.”
In a TEDx talk from 2015, she dubbed this form of thought “brain drain.” In low status communities, she argued, smart children are taught to measure success by how far they move away. Economic developments in the form of fast food joints and discount stores as well as an abundance of affordable low housing units instill pessimism and concentrate poverty. As an urban revitalization strategist, Carter says she combats this sense of hopelessness by showing folks in her community, through her sustainable programs and innovative projects, that there are possibilities and beauty within the South Bronx.
“What we’re interested in doing is developing new opportunities for how you harness the power of gentrification so it betters the people in our communities,” Carter said. “Self-gentrification is development by us (people of color) and for us, it’s not gentrification. It’s for us.”
The effort to develop and harness the power of self-gentrification emerged from surveying the local community. A little over a year ago, Carter and Sulma Arzu-Brown, fellow co-founder, Garifuna author, and Startup Box board member, conducted a study that asked locals, “What kind of business is missing from the neighborhood?” Carter and Arzu-Brown saw the frequency of “coffee shop” and responded by opening a space where natives could socialize and talk about matters pertaining to the community. The fruits of their labor became the Boogie Down Grind Cafe.
One thing you can’t get at a Manhattan coffee shop: The Boogie Down Grind Cafe experience. Named after the birthplace of hip hop and the “grind,” the shop is an emblem of the hustle culture in the South Bronx. Baristas play throwback R&B and hip hop jams, local artists reach out to Carter to display art, customers are encouraged to leave a “speak your peace” note as well as take a book/leave a book on the store’s shelf.
For one of her employees at the Boogie Down Grind, Justin McMillan, Carter doesn’t just preach self-gentrification and brain drain, she initiates empowerment through building infrastructure that opposes the norm ingrained in her fellow South Bronx natives. McMillan, one of the participants of Carter and Arzu-Brown’s survey, voted for a coffee shop and previously worked in cafes Manhattan.
As McMillan enters the store, Risa Cruz, manager at the Boogie Down Grind Cafe, calls his name. Though Cruz has worked at the Boogie Down Grind for almost a year, McMillan is the coffee expert that oversees quality control at the shop. Cruz openly admits that she is “still getting into this [coffee] culture” and points to McMillan on any and all things coffee.
“This is the guy you need to talk to about Manhattan coffee shops,” Cruz said. “He’s perfect. He knows coffee!”
Also a Bronx native, McMillan says he values the shop as a second home and a safe space. Other than the Boogie Down Grind, McMillan can’t name an establishment where he can chat for long hours with friends and just chill. McMillan compares working at a specialty or chain coffee shop in Manhattan to being a robot.
“The cafes in Manhattan, there’s no substance, no soul, no experience,” said McMillan. “I come in here, my voice is heard, people appreciate what I do, and they’re [customers] the ones that ask me how my day was. It’s a jarring thing. ”
Although he says he enjoys working at the Boogie Down Grind, he admits hating the stigma that is attached to the Bronx. Whenever McMillan told previous coworkers and baristas he was from the Bronx or he worked in Hunts Point, he said it was usually met with apprehensiveness. People would respond with phrases like, “Oh the Bronx, we don’t go there because it’s dangerous,” and “Is it safe up there?” he explained.
“The Bronx is not just pimps, drug dealers, and prostitutes. Everywhere I go people tell me how dangerous it is,” said McMillan. “Having that mall complex doesn’t help. Why does this community need another discount store or another fast food joint. Is that all we’re good for? There’s such a stigma about the Bronx, but we’re about changing that mindset.”
The notion of gentrification frightens some Bronx natives. The idea that the Bronx is an unsafe borough filled with crime, affordable low housing, discount stores, and stereotyped individuals, petrifies some visitors from even going to the Bronx. According to Carter, folks in the South Bronx community believe in “staying in your lane” when it comes to economic opportunities. Through her own definition of self-gentrification, a process of economic development in a wide variety of establishments and enabling inhabitants of low income communities to participate in the change of their surroundings, Carter says that she believes that the South Bronx can strengthen its ability to be more economically sustainable and eliminate any misconceptions of the borough.
There are two murals on the same block as the Boogie Down Grind. The one at the end of street, on the same side as the cafe, depicts a girl who seems to embody the neighborhood. The phrase, “Don’t move improve” is stretched across the painting. Images of trucks leaving through a passage held by a white hand and South Bronx streets in the girl’s lungs stand out.
On the other side of the block, another mural covers top to bottom the side of a housing complex. The image is of a black woman collecting the light that beams from the sun. Across the top is the phrase, “You don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one.”
As Carter leaves the shop for her next meeting, a grandmother, mother, and daughter, walk into the shop.
“It’s Ms. Majora Carter!” the mother shouts. After the two exchanged a hug, Carter peered into the mother’s stroller.
“Is that Maria?” she asked. “Wow, she’s grown since the last time I saw her. Anyways, I apologize I’m in a rush, I’m off to a project development meeting.”
As the door shuts behind her, Cruz continues with orders at the espresso bar. Once the afternoon wave subsides, she settles with a smile.
“That’s why I love this shop. That’s why I fell in love with what she [Carter] does. She shows face, she gives love, she loves helping people. She’s an icon,” Cruz said. “I love the Bronx.”