Urban renewal threatens a gritty Westchester Ave. gym to move…or close
Facing eviction, the owner of an iconic South Bronx boxing gym is vowing to fight on.
Located on the ground floor of a shabby former post office building across the street from an overgrown field, John’s Boxing Gym – known for years as Jerome’s Gym – has been a fixture on Westchester Avenue for the past three decades.
John Gjini, 35, took over the dilapidated “Jerome’s” seven years ago and rechristened it “John’s” after his now 13-year-old son. But even after producing two champion professional fighters in the last five years and serving as a safe sparring space for aspiring amateurs in the community, the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development served Gjini notice that he must shutter the gym within 30 days.
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” Gjini said. “It hurts, but I’m going to make it.”
Gjini has appealed to the City Council for help to secure grants to fund the relocation and keep the gym’s programs running. City Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The HPD said the city-owned building needs to go because its location has been “designated an urban renewal site,” according to press officer Juliet Morris. The project, to be called Triangle Plaza, includes two buildings with a planned charter school, supermarket and restaurants.
Morris said the HPD was “working with the boxing gym and have advised them that they may have additional time,” as long as Gjini agrees to leave by a designated date.
“I can’t wait for months,” Gjini said. “It’s time to move on and be thankful the gym has been here for 30 years.”
Stevins Bujaj, 21, has been training at John’s for five or six years and is a two-time New York Golden Gloves winner. He credited the gym and the “beautiful sport of boxing” for keeping him out of trouble in his youth and said John’s has continued to help “take kids off the street.”
“Kids love the sport,” he said. “It’s a great gym and it feels like home.”
Stepping inside John’s is like being transported into a gritty boxing film. Two 500-square-foot rings rise above worn hardwood floors, while punching bags of varying size and disrepair drop from the moulded ceiling tiles high above. On any given evening the thuds and thumps from fighters punctuate quick commands bellowed by their grizzled supervisors. There is a distinct musky odor within the gym that can only stem from generations of sweaty pugilists and their well-used equipment.
John’s is unapologetically old school. Victor Valle, 61, has been working with young fighters for 42 years. He said the gym is a good place to keep an eye out for the next burgeoning boxer with a “burning desire.”
Pictures of past champions and accolades adorn the walls – including large posters of Joseph “King Kong” Agbeko and Joshua “The Hitter” Clottey, former bantamweight and welterweight titleholders respectively. Both men originally hail from Ghana, but both have found a home at John’s for their training.
Another of John’s rising stars to find a home at the gym is 20-year-old Nisa Rodriguez. She lives three blocks away and has been training at John’s Boxing Gym for upwards of three hours per day, five days a week, for the last six years.
“It’s where I get down to practice my profession,” she said with a grin. “The gym has an aura. You want to train and compete here.”
Rodriguez has won three of the last four state Golden Gloves championships and earned the national title in 2011. She took a year off after her second tournament to have a son, Emerson, now two-years-old. Rodriguez said the gym has been “like a family” and nowadays even her son helps with her training, forcing Rodriguez into a sweat as she chased the toddler around.
“I’ve grown up here,” Rodriguez said. “My favorite bag is in the corner. It’d be a little buzz kill if they move, I hope it’s not far.”
Gjini doesn’t pull any punches about the predicament. “It’s like a fight,” he said.
“Even if you lose once and learn, you don’t really lose,” Gjini said as he scanned fighters of all ages, shapes and skill spar throughout the institution he helped maintain. “When I make it, it will all be worth it. Believe me.”