If you´re looking for context, I grew up in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx in the early and mid-1970s. This was the decade of the Bronx fires, vacant lots and abandoned buildings. This was also the decade when the Bronx gave birth to hip-hop, where in the parks and housing projects of Soundview, the Jazzy Five MCs and Afrika Bambaataa were making musical history.
But I was eight or nine at the time, and the vacant lots and abandoned buildings scared me. Enormously. I didn’t view them as the symbols of deeply-rooted social problems. I was a kid. I was a kid who just saw them as places to be avoided. There was always that constant fear, every day, of getting jumped. So, I mostly stayed away from the lots and the buildings.
I also can’t claim that I was present at any of the formative moments that resulted in hip-hop. That was bad luck on my part. I played on the swings in those parks, and probably walked by the buildings where a new sound was being born, but you certainly won’t find me in any of the grainy video footage of the crowds at the classic block parties where now famous DJs first performed. So, I can’t give you any up close and personal details about that piece of Bronx history either.
But, what I can do is tell you about Father Carroll. And the »Black Spades«. One, an Irish Catholic Priest. And the other, one of the most famous street gangs to emerge from the Bronxdale Houses in Soundview, a gang that later formed the basis of Bambaataa’s »Zulu Nation«.
Maybe to you, they might sound as if they had very different occupations. But to me, Father Carroll and the »Black Spades« performed essentially the same function, albeit in very different ways.
Father Carroll helped to make sure that I grew up feeling safe, and wouldn’t really have that much time to dwell on that ever-present threat of random violence. And once, when that threat became real, the »Black Spades« were suddenly there. And they helped. Big time.
We’ll start with the less dramatic tale – that of Father Carroll. Not that it’s any less important.
I was a student at Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic school that served a diverse ethnic community of working class families – African-American, Latino, Irish, Eastern European. My friends were from places like Jamaica, others from Puerto Rico, some were Irish Americans. As for me, I was the product of a Russian immigrant father and a mother from America’s Midwest. He was Orthodox Christian at one point in time and she was a Protestant.
Father Carroll wasn’t one of the teachers – either the strict old school nuns, or the more progressive young lay Catholics. To us kids, he was just one of the parish priests who was constantly around. We’d see him in the school playground on lunch breaks, we’d see him in the hallway in between classes, we’d see him before, during and after services. He was big, jovial, kind and treated us with warmth, respect and love. I remember very few details of the many conversations with him, but I remember how I always looked forward to seeing him, how I felt safer and happier after exchanging a few words with him, and how I appreciated that he was interested in the things going on in my small world. When I discovered the Beatles, he loaned me his LP copy of »Rubber Soul« so that I could listen to one of the albums that I couldn’t find at the local library. And at my first confession, he corrected me when I struggled to come up with a textbook sin to confess. In the confessional, I nervously said that I had been mean to both my sister and brother. »Gregory,« he intoned, »you don’t have a sister.« So much for using textbook examples of sins in real world practice. Years later, when my father passed away, I learned that he and Father Carroll had spoken regularly. My father would drive to the retirement home for diocese priests, and Father Carroll would ask for all of the details about my life and who I had become after leaving Blessed Sacrament.
There is nothing dramatic in this part of the story – just a priest who, through everyday kindness and the simple act of being present in our lives, did his best to ensure that we stayed safe, felt cared for and made the right choices as we grew up.
And then there was the »Black Spades«. If Father Carroll’s presence was somewhat always just there in the background, the »Black Spades« took center stage in my life one afternoon.
All day at school, kids had been talking about the way in which there was going to be trouble – that we were going to get attacked on the way home. By who, for what reason, I don’t remember. All I remember is that we were scared. As a group of kids, we were really scared. And that was different. This felt »real«. Like something bad could happen. And then the school day ended, and it was time to walk home. And I remember the fear in my stomach, the sense of uncertainty. How would we make it home? What would be waiting for us? And how bad would it be to get jumped and no one would be there to save us?
But that’s not what happened. It turns out, even if the threat wasn’t real, it wasn’t just us who thought so. Waiting at the schoolyard gate, as our protection, were a few of the »Black Spades«, wearing those famous denim jackets, with gang name and logo on back. And they walked us home. And they kept us safe. And I remember being aware that this was a special moment – that something serious was definitely happening if the »Black Spades« were walking a group of eight year olds home from Catholic school through Soundview. They didn’t talk to us. But, they didn’t need to. We knew we would make it to our apartment building without anything happening to us. We knew we would be safe.
And let me tell you, that is a great feeling for a kid to have had on the streets of the Bronx in the 1970s.
Gregg Bucken Knapp är professor vid Förvaltningshögskolan på Göteborgs universitet.