Our search for a building brought us to the four-way hillside corner of 1157 Fulton Avenue and 167th Street. On the opposite corner was a fenced playground with functioning chain and metal seat swings, climbing bar, a slide, and broken glass covering the asphalt. On one side of the street was a chop shop/junkyard, on the other was Saint Augustine Catholic Church an embassy of patience and compassion.
The building was a double four-story structure with a flat roof that had a direct view of the Empire State Building in downtown Manhattan. A southern exposed solid brick wall stared at the open lot next to it and the northern side was next to the continuing row of five similar buildings that made up the remainder of the block. All the windows in each of the buildings were intact. Snuggled next to the backside of 1157 was a one-story cement structure with doublewide garage doors.
As James Mejia, Edward Sierra, and I stood on the front stoop, one side of the building appeared to have residents. Curtains hung from the first floor windows and there were two or three cars in the street directly in front of the building. A barrel fire was burning next to the stoop. Before we could inquire within the residence, a large black man with a warm smile slid out from under one of the parked cars in the street and stared up at us. His name was Tom Brown. He, his wife, and another couple lived on the first two floors of one side of the two-sided building that was 1157. Easily, like he had known us for some time, Tom shook our hands while looking us in the eye. We asked about the building and he began to tell us its history. He and his wife had birthed and raised both their kids in the place. In recent years, after everyone else had moved out, they had kept two vicious dogs in the part of the building that was vacant and it was covered from top to bottom in dog waste. The dogs were gone but the mess remained. Another couple lived on the floor above Tom and his wife’s first floor apartment. Although the dogs and present tenants had kept the place free from leaking rain and broken out windows, all of the plumbing and heating systems had been scavenged, so there was no water, no heat, no electric. There was gas and Tom Brown told us they heated their apartments with stove and oven and were paying their gas bill. Electricity was a wire they had run from the nearest electric pole to their apartments.
Tom Brown sat next to us on the stoop of the magnificently suitable building. He did not say much, as James and Edward did most of the talking concerning our intentions. We wanted to rehab the building, move in three dozen white hippies with their children, set up a free ambulance service for all residents of the South Bronx, deliver babies, and be active community developers, all the while being dependable and honest. Tom listened and a few more neighbors began to gather around the stoop and barrel fire near where we were sitting with Tom. The barrel fire, the down-home and welcoming atmosphere, the kindred spirit of people speaking the truth made time disappear. The energy moved around the group until Tom Brown became the capacitor to our request. And when the moment was appropriate he responded, “All right.”