These articles appeared in neighborhood publications in Manhattan and the Bronx
This article originally appeared in Chelsea Clinton News
By Oliver Morrison
Lower East Side–The metal gates that cover storefronts at night often serve as blank slates for graffiti, but a pair of local artists wants to make them over into legitimate commissioned art spaces.
The city just awarded a Neighborhood Challenge Grant of $30,000 to the Lower East Side Business Improvement District (BID) to provide materials for artists to turn the metal gates that protect storefronts at night into public murals.
Called the “100 Gates Project,” it’s spearheaded by local skateboarder Billy Rohan and his girlfriend, the artist Jessica Blowers. They approached a few businesses last year about painting their metal gates but decided to expand their idea even bigger when they met Stanley George, the owner and pharmacist at Stanley’s Pharmacy, who had been looking for someone to paint his gate.
George and Blowers went back and forth about design ideas. “He wanted something to uplift the community,” Blowers said. “So when the gates are down people feel good instead of seeing all the graffiti on there.”
“It had to be all about bringing nature to the city,” George wrote. “That’s what our interior is about, so the exterior had to echo that vibe.”
So Blowers came up with the idea of painting cherry blossoms from the park in the spring. George liked the painting, but he went home that night and couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t right for the brand, he realized. His store was colored orange to symbolize health. So he had Blowers come back the next day and redo it, but this time as an orange tree.
A small crowd stopped in the street to watch Blowers work and George was so pleased he came back that night with his wife to look at it again.
“Stanley’s such a positive guy,” Rohan said. “He was like, ‘This could transform the whole city. This would be great for the neighborhood. He kind of inspired the whole thing.”
Although other businesses were interested, they were often reluctant to shell out the $300 it would cost for the paint. The new funding should provide plenty of metal canvas for the dozens of artists that Rohan said are interested in painting.
They believe this will make the Lower East Side an even bigger attraction for artists and art-lovers. One of Blowers first gate-murals was a portrait of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, near a park where Basquiat once lived. Not all of the work will have such a literal connection to the community. But Rohan and Blowers believe that by letting each mural be the expression of a unique artist’s vision, rather than a commissioned work by a business, the collective street gallery will represent the eclectic artistic sensibility of the Lower East Side.
The process of how businesses and artists will get matched up is still being worked out, according to Tim Laughlin, the executive director of the Lower East Side BID. “Everything will be unique and different, and that is very emblematic of what happens here on the Lower East Side,” Laughlin said.
Everyone is hoping that the murals will have a secondary benefit: deter taggers from vandalizing the storefronts with graffiti.
“In the graffiti world they want fame, that’s why they’re putting their name up everywhere,” Rohan said. “If you put that up over someone’s mural, that’s like saying you’re a dick, that’s the wrong kind of fame. Why do you want to be that kid that goes over someone else’s work?”
He’s seen the same thing work with skateboarding, a world he’s more familiar with. Business owners often got mad at kids for skateboarding in their neighborhoods. But when a skate-park went up, the kids suddenly had a place to express themselves. He’s hoping this project will encourage some street artists to participate rather than vandalize.
“I’m really still surprised that there still isn’t a place where kids can just go paint in the whole city in all five boroughs,” Rohan said. “You see that sort of thing a lot in Switzerland and France.”
Blowers and Rohan plan to start commissioning the first murals in April, when the weather warms up, and finish by the end of June.
This article originally appeared in Nypress.com on November 3, 2014. Upper West Side
After a long, contentious and ultimately unsuccessful battle to prevent its rent from rising, El Taller Latino Americano (The Latin American Workshop) held its moving party last Saturday at its old space on 104th and Broadway. But for a moving party, the community center staff and community members did very little moving. Instead, they ate empanadas, drank wine and drew on the walls, as Latin music filled the air, one last time.
“For normal people we should be packing everything,” said Bernardo Palombo, the founder and soul of El Taller. “But we decided to put more art out and to make more music and to keep on doing what we do until we have to leave next, next Friday. Which is less than a week.”
The landlord raised its rent this year, despite the center’s 20-year history in the space and letters from local politicians and community members hoping to keep El Taller in its current home.
“It’s the same thing that’s happening all over the city,” Palombo said. “The little business, the independent businesses that are not part of a corporation have to move to some other place. There are less places where people can sit down and be human and not be texting or have to pay $250 to listen to opera.”
Instead of continuing the fight, he decided to hold a series of 35 concerts over the last six months to commemorate El Taller’s 35th anniversary. During one of the concerts the children started writing on one of the walls and it has since become covered with drawings and messages.
“Before leaving we are going to cover the space with our history,” Palombo said.
This was the final celebration and the walls were filled with paintings that El Taller would no longer have room for, as supporters and volunteers wandered in between its classrooms, recording studios and the empty gallery that has served as space for dance classes and experimental music concerts.
The sense of loss emanated from Nichiren—“I like to be called Nicky: I just learned how to spell my actual name”—Palombo, Bernardo’s daughter, a fourth grader.
“I grew up here, I don’t know any other spaces,” Nicky said. “I shared a room with my mom where I had all my games. It’s going to be sad.”
For her, the space is filled with memories about to slip away, of salsa music while she did her homework, the sounds of Spanish classes as she played on the computer. And then during summer, the snack that she ate between art and music classes with kids from the neighborhood.
But her favorite memory is when she fell asleep and woke up all alone. “I was still really tired,” she said, “You know when you’re more tired than when you went to sleep.” She was scared at first, but then realized that the noise she heard was Latin music coming from the room next door.
It was one of the many hundreds of concerts in El Taller. She wasn’t around for the time David Bryne or Pete Seeger played at El Taller and wouldn’t have noticed in any case if she had been there for Phillip Glass. But she said the concerts were always her favorite.
“It’s nice to lie down on my mom’s massage table or the sofa we have here,” Nicky said, as she pointed to a nook nearby. “It’s nice to listen to music and lie down and try to go to sleep if it’s not too loud.”
The center has received a grant from the national endowment of the arts to create a digital archive of its long musical history. The heart of the space is the music and art, Paolombo says, but they pay their bills by teaching Spanish, not only in their own space, but in schools and hospitals.
The ten years of Nicky’s life are, in some ways, emblematic of the way her father has tried to celebrate Latin culture within the context of New York—trying to pay homage to his Argentinian roots, while at the same time stay centered in New York.
“Our history is a cross-history. It’s not a Latin place,” Bernardo said. “We are a Latin-American place; it’s a culture of the Latin people living in New York.”
Bernardo speaks to Nicky in Spanish and she replies in English. Halloween is coming up and she tells me that in Argentina they don’t really celebrate Halloween. “It’s more like a festival where everyone dresses up,” Nicky said. “And my dad dresses up as a pirate.”
“How come that picture is only $25?” Nicky asks her dad at one point.
“We have too many to take with us,” he replies.
“Oh,” she says; her shoulders sink just a bit.
She doesn’t have a favorite painting; they’re all where they’re supposed to be. “A lot of people just come here and paint,” Nicky said. “They paint pictures and then give it to us.”
This is El Taller’s fourth move since it was founded, but the first in 20 years. In the ‘80s up to the mid-’90s, El Taller was located twice in Chelsea and once on the Lower East Side. Its latest move will take them to the Upper East Side in a space that is being retrofitted for them, in a building that was designed to house artists and needed an artistic non-profit that fit into the community.
“It is kind of a tragedy for most of us,” Bernardo said. “Is also an opportunity to go to a much more congenial space in a place where you are part of something—a cultural renaissance in El Barrio of Spanish Harlem.”
But for the next few months, El Taller will be based out of a church just a few blocks from their current space. Nicky hasn’t been to El Taller’s next home in the basement of the old P.S. 109, where 35,000 people have applied for 89 artists’ apartments. But she has been to the church on 99th Street where El Taller will live temporarily for at least the next four or five months.
“It’s small,” Nicky said. “It’s not really underground but you go down three stairs…it’s going to be hard to fit an office.”
This article originally appeared on nypress.com on October 15, 2014
A landmarked church on Central Park West is hosting a dinner-theater production of “Clue” to raise money for a new roof
UPPER WEST SIDE A man recently knocked on the newly refurbished, ornate wooden doors at the 4th Universalist Society church on Central Park West, and was met by a small huddle which included a maid in a skimpy French outfit, a man gripping tightly to a candlestick and a lot of suspicious looks.
“Good evening. Have any of you given any thought to the Kingdom of Heaven?” the man ventured.
“Go away,” another said. “Our lives are already in danger.”
This was the first full run-through of a new production of “Clue,” based on the ubiquitous board game and 1980s cult-classic film. It is a full dinner-theater production that runs for two weekends in mid-October and kicks off the 4th Universalist’s campaign to raise a million dollars to repair its roof.
This is the congregation’s biggest fundraising campaign since the 1980s, when the 19th-century building was saved through an outpouring of community support. Now, 30 years later, the roof is in need or repair, and they’re borrowing a slice of the 1980s to kick it off.
The congregation has recently staged the Vagina Monologues and the Laramie Project, two challenging plays that match the church’s ethos of serving as a “beacon of liberal religion on the Upper West Side.”
“We are the only church that hosts the ‘Vagina Monologues,’” said one of Clue’s co-directors, Erin Bigelow, who is also a member of the church. “So whenever anyone says I can’t believe we are doing that in a church, I say it’s not that kind of church.”
So even though a play with multiple bludgeonings, strangulations and knifings might not be well received at other churches — no matter how close to Halloween it opens — Bigelow chose the play because she wanted to do something a bit lighter.
And because the movie is popular, a number of professional actors and working comedians volunteered to take part in a rehearsal process that stretched over several months.
Peter Coleman, 29, the actor who plays the character Mr. Wadsworth, is one such dedicated fan and working actor, who says he has performed in 40 states. He rented the movie from Blockbuster over and over again as a kid and now shows it to friends if he learns they haven’t seen it.
So when Coleman found out from an actress that he had missed the auditions, he was forlorn. “I told her if some great tragedy should befall your Wadsworth, you let me know,” Coleman said, who later dropped and broke a cocktail glass when he found out the good news that the part was indeed open. “Well he didn’t die or anything, he just had to drop out.”
Before the show, the audience will eat dinner that has been donated by local restaurants, served by waiters who will later play cops, and then, just as the sky becomes totally dark, an actress will enter the gothic hall and the death and mystery will begin. Stage lights and sometimes just flashlights will point the audience toward different areas of the church where the action is happening.
“No one will be able to watch the entire show facing forward,” Bigelow said. “And the cast is also going to play with the audience a little as they move around in the space, especially when they are searching for bodies and guns.”
“There may be a moment where I turn to someone and say, ‘Do you think this even possible?’ Or ‘I’m just exhausted, are you?” said Lorie Barber, who is playing Mrs. White, a character who murders all her husbands.
In addition to nostalgia for the original, the play may benefit from the recent surge of popularity in police procedurals and murder mysteries, such as CSI and Law and Order. “Clue” both makes fun of and depends on the suspense of its modern counterparts on Netflix, according to Bigelow.
Not the case in depictions of murder-mystery from just thirty years ago. “People are just falling over and there is absolutely no care for fingerprints and DNA and all the things we care about when there is a murder today,” Bigelow said.
The production also benefits from active and eager parishioners. “I asked for 38 dozen brownies to be baked because dessert will be brownie a la mode,” Bigelow said. “Everyone is so excited to showcase their own brownie recipe.”
The Fourth Universalist Society’s building on 76th Street and Central Park West is unique among Unitarian Universalists, according to Rev. Susan Milnor: typically their sect uses simple New England meeting houses favored by the puritan sects they grew out of.
“We’ve had people say it must’ve been a cathedral: it wasn’t,” said Sheila Powers, the head administrator at the church, who added that membership has included Lou Gherig, P.T. Barnum and, one of its biggest supporters, Andrew Carnegie. “It was built in 1895 by Universalists and this is what they wanted at the time.”
Although the church space is often rented out for TV productions, Fashion Week and frequent weddings, it’s not enough to cover the big, long-term capital expenses of the historically landmarked space.
“Even though the church is huge and gorgeous, we only have 115 members and these members come from all over New York,” Bigelow said. “That’s one of the things I love about the community: we’re from all different socioeconomic backgrounds.”
A recent sermon used a Sikh poem and a story of Christian redemption to explain the meaning of the Jewish High Holidays. “We have everyone from atheists to agnostics, to people who have some belief in the theist philosophy,” said Powers. “It’s an absolutely complete, all-encompassing, accepting belief system.”
But the inclusiveness of the church also meant that Bigelow had to alter the original script to eliminate some jokes.
“We understand how the jokes were written as funny in 1985, but they are no longer funny in 2014,” said Bigelow. “This caused a little bit of controversy in the cast, but you know what, we win. It’s not that kind of church but it does have to be all-inclusive.”
“So when people ask, ‘Did you change the ending?’ Kind of, a little bit,” said Erica Ruff, who is co-directing with Bigelow.
Although the villain of the church’s struggles may not be as exciting as the villain of the play, the directors were quick to call out the culprit.
“It’s father time, with no money, in the roof,” Ruff said.
This article originally appeared at Nypress.com on September 30, 2014
CHELSEA The burlesque performer Little Brooklyn had just received a standing ovation for taking off her clothes, virtually, with an iPad slowly revealing her skin underneath her gown, even though on stage she still had her dress on. The virtual stripping managed to get the crowd going more than any of the actual bared breasts had so far.
And then the crowd erupted again, for a performer who sashayed to a Latin rhythm, undulated a series of hula-hoops around the body and ripped off ruffled sleeves while lying prostrate.
“It was our first man meat of the night,” growled the emcee into the microphone after Ben Franklin IV, a former theater actor from a conservative family in Virginia, finished his first ever performance at the New York Burlesque Festival.
There were lots of long lashes, busty bras and silk stockings at the 12th annual burlesque festival, which ended on Sunday night at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea. But each of the four nights also featured its share of chiseled chests, thick thighs and balding brows.
The presence of male burlesque performers, like Franklin, is unremarkable these days and yet still novel enough to get the crowd thumping.
The top 50 burlesque performers in the country included just three male performers back in 2009, but that number doubled by 2013, according to 21st Century Burlesque Magazine. It has spawned sub genres, such as nerdlesque and circ-esque, for science fiction and circus themed acts. They even have their exclusive “boylesque” festival in the spring, which has increased from 30 to 40 performers in just two years.
“Back when I started there was one really long-running weekly in New York called Star Shine,” said Jonny Porkpie, one of the only male performers in 2004, who performed on Friday. “Now any night that you wanted you could find a show, probably three.”
This has meant more work and attention for performers. Mr. Gorgeous, who had just won the top title of Mr. Exotic World in Las Vegas at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, said that a few years ago he was doing 75 percent circus work and 25 percent burlesque. Now those numbers are reversed, and he rotates between 10 different performance spaces, including the Slipper Room on the Lower East Side and Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo. Now, instead of paying his own way, burlesque festivals fly him around the country to different venues.
Some say its popularity is just part of the general rise of burlesque since the late 1990s. Other performers say that men make the shows more dynamic, by giving straight women and gay men in the audience more to hoot for.
“Couples want to come and not feel guilty. They want to celebrate and get excited together,” said Nicole Rizzo, director of the Gypsy Lane Cabaret in New Hampshire, which has four male performers and six female performers, and will be attending the festival for the first time this year. “We’re animalistic. It’s in our nature.”
Producers tend to prefer that women perform classic acts that mimic the performances of female icons from the past, such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Dixie Evans, according to Darlinda Just Darlinda. She creates edgy neo-burlesque in Bushwick, but performs and teaches classic burlesque in Manhattan to make money.
But male performers say they have more freedom to experiment.
“As a man we don’t have as many archetypes or legends to pull from so there isn’t really a set away in how we do a classic male burlesque act,” said Matt Knife who dressed in steam-punk clothing for his performance Thursday night. “We’re defining what a classic male burlesque act is.”
Burlesque regained prominence around 15 years ago in part by embracing all kinds of female body types: the same has been true for the more recent rise of boylesque. Performers use burlesque to feel in control of their bodies.
“You’re taking off your clothes in a room full of people who are either going to love or hate you,” Knife said. “Even if the audience isn’t liking what you are doing, you can turn it around, you can maybe make them laugh, freak them out a bit, turn them on, then scare them. It’s a vulnerable power.”
Mr. Gorgeous, who won the Beefcake award at last year’s festival for his six-foot five, muscular stature, said burlesque is less about body physique than artistic form.
“When I view another act, I’m really not judging or thinking about the way their body looks,” Mr. Gorgeous said. “If I wanted to see a ripped body and a huge dick I would just go to a strip club. I’m more interested in the concept.”
The boylesque performers usually come from avant garde theater and circus acts that overlap with burlesque, and frequently identify as gay. They say that taking off their clothes has added a different dimension to their previous performances and brought them more attention.
“The thing I love about burlesque is it’s a performer-driven art form,” said Jonny Porkpie, who just turned 40. “The person doing the act is the same person who choreographed it, conceived it and made the costumes.”
Porkpie doesn’t think boylesque is fundamentally different than the comedy and theater work he used to do. “I got an email from a high school friend who said ‘You know, of all the careers I’ve seen yours is the most unexpected.’” Porkpie said. “Actually it’s the same thing I always did, I just take off my clothes now.”
This appeared at nypress.com on September 9, 2014
By Oliver Morrison
The founders of Birch Coffee let their business plan percolate and are ready to expand
Jeremy Lyman, co-founder of Birch Coffee, readily compares his company to that of a famous – if fictional – drug kingpin.
Birch Coffee is about to celebrate the opening of its fourth location on the Upper East Side on Sept. 10, and Lyman thinks that, like the two characters in Breaking Bad who started an unlikely brewing business together, this is just the beginning.
So how far along is Birch compared to Walter White’s crystal meth gig?
“We’re at the moment before Walt says that he’s in the empire business,” said Lyman, meaning that, though Birch is growing, it is not yet one of the independent coffee cartels, like Stumptown or Blue Bottle. But within the year he and his cofounder, Paul Schlader, hope to make some inroads: they have plans to open their own roasting house and another new store in the Financial District.
“Before we get to a point where we’re just growing out of control, it’s super important that the stores are functioning well,” Lyman said. “We’d rather work out all the kinks when we have four or five stores than have those same kinks when we have 20 stores.”
Five years ago, Birch looked like anything but a nascent coffee empire.
Lyman was working a corporate desk job that he hated, and Schlader had been working in restaurants for fifteen years; neither of them knew anything about coffee. But Lyman loved coffee shops and Schlader had always wanted to own a business, so they moved forward with their pet project at a time when Starbucks was closing hundreds of stores and the future of coffee shops was far from certain.
They were working 100 hours a week at their Flatiron shop but made only $100 on their first day, and started piling up credit card debt. Employees were quitting faster than they could hire them and Schlader was drinking so much coffee that he eventually had to give it up entirely for over a year.
And then a Stumptown coffee shop opened a block and a half away.
“We immediately thought, forget it,” Lyman said. “We shouldn’t even have opened.”
Instead of crushing Birch, however, the competition fueled Lyman to strategize a better business plan. He hired his masseuse, who had just opened a business-consulting firm, to help guide the company. Lyman learned to delegate and not micromanage. He and Schlader doubled-down on what they’d learned from working in restaurants—incredible service—even if Lyman admits their coffee wasn’t as good as they were telling people.
A loyal customer texted Lyman in the middle of the night when her plane landed, and said she would be “eternally grateful” if some of the iced coffee they delivered in growlers was waiting for her when she got home.
“I didn’t have anything better to do,” said Lyman, who lived 10 minutes from her apartment. “So I just dropped it off.”
That got their growler delivery service started. And just when money looked like it was about to run out, a big catering gig came through. Toward the end of their first year, a neighborhood blog selected Birch over Stumptown for best neighborhood coffee.
“It was so silly, but for us it was really important that first year,” Lyman said. “It kind of showed us, just because there is a big player a couple of blocks away, you’re not insignificant.”
Their iced coffee became their signature, in part because of the special care they put into the brew and its delivery. But then it really caught on when they dressed up as Walter White and Jesse Pinkman for a marketing campaign, just as Breaking Bad’s popularity was peaking.
They have continued to prioritize service above all else, with the quality of their coffee now coming a much closer second. Schlader now roasts all their coffee himself and does a taste test of new and old coffees every Friday.
Although Lyman and Schlader have proved themselves to be shrewd businessmen, they won’t be making their employees wear corporate uniforms anytime soon.
“I never want to hear someone describe working at a Birch Coffee Shop as a corporate job, that would be the worst thing I could possibly hear,” said Lyman. “I didn’t want to have to wear slacks and a button down, I wanted to wear a t-shirt, jeans and flip flops if I wanted to. If I am comfortable with what I am wearing physically I am in a much better emotional and mental state.”
And while Lyman and Schlader give talks at coffee conferences and been featured by business publications, Lyman isn’t sitting on Walter White-sized stacks of cash when he goes home.
“It’s not about how much money I have in my bank account because if I told you, you would definitely not go into the coffee business,” said Lyman. “But I’ve never gotten up and looked in the mirror and been anxious about looking in the mirror. And that was what I looked like every single day before. I haven’t felt that in five years and to me that is the epitome of success.”
This article originally appeared in nypress.com’s five Manhattan publications on July 1, 2014
By Oliver Morrison
Suzette Simon wants the world to take comedy as seriously as any other art form. She’s preparing for the start of the eighth season of Laughter in the Park, the outdoor comedy series that she founded in 2007, which has been responsible for bringing over 50 shows to 10,000 New Yorkers. Just as people make it a point to see Shakespeare or Swan Lake, Simon wants standup in the park to be an essential summer offering.
Simon started doing comedy after working as a producer on the TV show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” She would make her friends laugh with stories about trying to track down people to appear on the show.
“Once I didn’t realize the guy I was talking to was actually a pimp,” Simon said.
Simon didn’t know how to get started as a comedian, so she started doing routines in subway stations, a venue with its own unique challenges. “Cops are the worst critics. They just kept throwing me out,” she said.
In 2007 Simon decided to form an outdoor comedy series, so she could get some stage time.
The first year didn’t go so well. “The sky got darker and darker,” Simon said. “By the time the headliner arrived you could hear the crickets and this one bum growling. It was just horrendous.”
But the second year, she learned more about which spaces worked for outdoor comedy, put up posters and people showed up. For some it was their first time seeing live comedy and they liked it so much they hugged her after the show.
That’s when she realized that she was onto something more than just her own stage time. This was a chance for people who might not ever seek it out on their own, to see live comedy for the first time and bring New Yorkers together for laughter.
“There are 8 million strangers and we can yell, bark, cuss, and fight. That is our easiest connection with 7.99 million people that are sharing the city with us,” Simon said. “But it is not easy for anyone to smile, to laugh, to connect.”
But the summer shows’ demanding production has meant that in the past few years she has been too frazzled to perform herself. Simon also says it’s a struggle to convince cultural organizations that comedy is as worthwhile an art form as any other.
Last year she received a grant from The Madison Square Garden Company that allowed her to put on six shows, pay for all her expenses and pay all the performers. But this year she didn’t receive the funding because, she says, the foundation wasn’t convinced that comedy was a serious art form.
“They don’t understand that the guy that really makes you laugh on a stage has been in basements and alleys and dark theaters and bars for the last five years,” Simon said.
Because her nonprofit NYLaughs doesn’t have a lot of money, she has to wait until a couple of weeks before the events to confirm that her comedians don’t have any better paying gigs. Because most of them are performing outside for the first time and they can only do clean material, Simon says, “It’s the first time they’ve ever been able to perform in front of their kids: their kids can’t go to clubs.”
The audiences in the park tend to reflect the full diversity of the city. “It’s not just all comedy about white Jewish men,” Simon said. “It’s families, it’s couples, it’s people on dates, it’s people jogging by to see us. We’re a spectacle.”
But that spectacle doesn’t work everywhere. When she tried to do it at Union Square Park, instead of sitting down to escape the frenzied pace of the city, audience members watched standing up and left without staying for the full 90 minutes. So she limits the shows to a few low-key locations in Manhattan, such as Tompkins Square Park, although she hopes that someday, with more funding, she’ll be able to take it to the outer boroughs as well.
Part of her motivation to do philanthropic comedy is to atone for her daytime work as a reality TV producer. She is the person who, after tragedies such as the Boston bombings and Hurricane Sandy, has to call up victims and convince them appear on TV.
“When you see a disaster, you think ‘Oh my goodness, I gotta give blood,’” Simon said. “When I see a house falling on a woman, I think ‘I hope she can still reach the phone.’”
And partly she just wants to contribute to the city she loves. “I’m from Brooklyn,” said Simon. “My heart, my veins pump sewer water.”
Hip-hop duo teaches young people the art of rapping
At the age of seven, two years after Patty Dukes moved to New York from Puerto Rico, she started writing down rap lyrics so she could understand the words.
She didn’t hear many girl rappers and none were Latina. So when she rapped, she kept it to herself.
Even after graduating from Hunter College with a degree in creative writing, Dukes dismissed the idea of becoming a performer until she met rapper Reph Star, who recorded her.
“I had never heard my voice recorded. That changed my life,” said Dukes. “Even though it might not have been that good, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s really good. Why can’t I?’”
Dukes and Star went on to pair up as hip-hop performers six years ago, calling themselves Circa ’95. They have since built up a sizeable fan base. In December, the duo performed new material at Pregones Theater on Walton Avenue, and is hoping that appearance will help launch a tour.
In their pre-Circa days in 2007, Dukes got a taste of the biz when she auditioned for the Cuervoton rapping competition. The judges liked her work but told her she needed to write her own song. With less than a week to prepare, she called Star, wrote a song and won the New York competition. The duo was then flown to Chicago to compete at the national level.
“I was wearing a dress and wearing sneakers, and I was the only girl there,” said Dukes. But the record deal they were promised fell through.
“It was a learning opportunity to see how quickly things can change,” said Dukes.
With no record deal, Star and Dukes started working in the community. They have hosted a radio show, acted in theater productions, led workshops in schools, recorded an album, created a clothing line and performed at countless local events.
“In the Bronx when you see organizations and non-profits in the community, you’re going to see Circa ’95,” said Fred Ones, who produced the duo’s first album, Free Lunch.
“It’s an institution,” said fellow Bronx artist Julian Gerena-Quinones, 32, who started rapping with Circa years ago. “It’s grown into an educational component, a way of giving back to the community, teaching young people how to connect with their hip hop roots.”
Star and Dukes support themselves by leading local hip-hop workshops for young people, including a weekly group at the DreamYard Art Center, where they go by the moniker Bronx Rhyme Factory. They start classes off with simple improvisational rhyming games. By the end of the eight-month workshops, students are expected to write and record their own songs.
One group of young people that attended one of their workshops several years ago at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education has since formed its own hip-hop group, The Apollyions. Star said he overheard one young performer tell a visitor that The Rhyme Factory saved his life. “That’s why we do it at the end of the day,” said Star.
The group is frequently sought after to perform at local schools, where they have the students in thrall. Last year, Circa performed at a Hunts Point school for a group of antsy fifth graders right before vacation. “It was one of the craziest crowds we ever had,” said Star.
Over the six years the duo has performed, they say, their music has evolved. It isn’t as angry now and they don’t use profanity.
In one song, Dukes responds to someone who assumes that, as a Puerto Rican, she should look like Jennifer Lopez.
“It’s this idea that we have to be sexualized, that we have to be shapely, that we have to be these big booty girls,” said Dukes.
As educators, they are more careful about how they craft their lyrics.
“Myself and Reph we’re both products of the free lunch program,” said Dukes, referring to the title of their first album. “But it automatically sections you off in this world as this low income student. But we are much more than that.”
They rap in both English and Spanish, reflecting the Spanglish upbringing of their neighborhoods. Fans have told them that they connect with lyrics such as, “Too light to be black, too black to be Spanish.”
“They’re part of this new bilingual hip-hop musical trend which is very much part of the Bronx culture today,” said Mark Naison, 67, professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham.
Although Star and Dukes use personal material in their lyrics, they don’t reveal their ages or use their given names, Patricia Marte and Amilcar Alfaro-Martell. They maintain that preserving some mystery helps empower them when they go out on stage.
“It’s kind of like having a super hero identity,” said Dukes. “Maybe I’m not Superman in real life. But in these moments I can be.”