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THE NATION

Music might save Bronx homes

The officially state-recognized 'birthplace of hip-hop' is endangered by gentrification.

February 24, 2008|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In the beige linoleum hallway, a fluorescent light flickers on and off as a woman saunters over to visit her neighbor. The elevator creaks and whines, then frees a gaggle of giggling girls. Downstairs in the laundry room, a young mother sorts her children's clothes, enjoying the room's warmth on a blustery day.

But for this west Bronx apartment building's residents, the comfort of home may not last.

The mostly low-income tenants are battling a millionaire investor over the future of this small but pricey slice of real estate near Yankee Stadium.

If the building is sold and taken out of its current affordable-housing program as planned, tenants fear rents will rise to unaffordable levels. To prevent that, they are trying to buy the building and turn it into a co-op.

It's a familiar New York story. Throughout the city, poorer residents have been squeezed in recent years as investors and developers have taken over low-income buildings and put them on the open market for higher rents, affordable-housing advocates say.

One angle that has helped residents raise money to buy this building is its historical significance: It is one of the birthplaces of hip-hop.

In August 1973, a hulking Jamaican American teenager named Clive Campbell started throwing back-to-school parties with his sister Cindy in their building, 1520 Sedgwick Ave.

Campbell, nicknamed Hercules because of his size, bought multiple copies of the same albums and, spinning his turntables, stitched together a new genre with a mix of music and break beats.

Soon teenagers were flocking to parties in the recreation room. Two-by-fours and metal crates served as chairs and tables, but no one was sitting down; the place was packed with dancing kids.

"It got a little out of control," said Campbell, who became known as DJ Kool Herc. And so music and turntables moved from Sedgwick Avenue to the nearby Twilight Zone club, and hip-hop spread throughout the city.

"We weren't doing [the parties] for money -- it was just about music," said Campbell, who is considered by many a founding father of hip-hop.

He sees the building on Sedgwick as a musical monument like Graceland or the Apollo Theater in Harlem. "This is part of the American dream," Campbell said.

This summer, state officials declared the building the "birthplace of hip-hop," making it eligible for national and state registers.

But for Pauline Beckham, 54, the battle to buy the building is not about preserving the past. She is fighting to save her home of eight years, a place where she has watched children hunt for Easter eggs in spring and attended barbecues in summer.

"I thought I had a safe environment," Beckham said, referring to her modest two- bedroom apartment decorated with family pictures and ironwork above the kitchen door.

"Why are they taking the little bit we have?" she asked, despair creeping into her voice. "I didn't think they could do that."

Built almost 40 years ago, the building is covered by the state Mitchell-Lama program, which helps moderate-income families afford housing.

Last year the owner announced plans to sell the building to high-profile New York investor Mark Karasick and opt out of the rent-control program.

A representative for the building's management company didn't return calls for comment.

Tenants raised money online and from city agencies and other organizations -- about $11 million with high-profile help from DJ Kool Herc, Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who have lobbied the city and the owner on the residents' behalf. But the tenants need $14 million.

The city, which can overrule the sale, is expected to make a decision before the end of the month, according to Amy Chan, an organizer with Tenants and Neighbors, a statewide tenants' rights organization that is working with the Sedgwick Avenue residents.

In New York as elsewhere, investors have in recent years sought out what they believed were undervalued assets, quickly flipping them for millions of dollars in profit. But the Sedgwick high-rise -- though close to Yankee Stadium, with views of the Harlem River -- sits along the Major Deegan Expressway and is an unlikely candidate for gentrification, said Dina Levy of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, another nonprofit group helping the tenants.

She questioned whether the sale made sense given the housing market downturn. "It's a big house of cards," she said.

Some Sedgwick Avenue tenants receive government subsidies and vouchers to help pay the rent. Beginning at $900 for a one-bedroom, the apartments are inexpensive by New York standards. Still, many struggle to make ends meet, and some grown-up children have moved back in with their parents to share the financial burden.

Gloria Robinson, 50, works as a concierge at a Morgan Stanley office in Manhattan, often taking double shifts to support her son, who is in high school, and pay for her daughter's college tuition. Both she and Beckham said they would not be able to afford a substantial rent increase.

Robinson is president of the tenants' group, talking to advocates and distributing fliers for fundraisers.

"It's been a tough fight" but worth it, she said.

With her two children, she has lived in her one-bedroom apartment on Sedgwick Avenue for 15 years. She is not giving it up.

"It's a good building," she said. "It's a community."

--

louise.roug@latimes.com

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