Elena Martinez leads a tour group on Prospect Ave.
Elena Martinez leads a tour group on Prospect Ave.

Folklorist revives South Bronx’s musical past

Since the late ‘90s, Elena Martinez, a folklorist from Morris Park and co-producer of the iconic film “From Mambo to Hip Hop,” has led tours through the streets of the South Bronx where many famous Latin musicians lived and performed.

The Latin Music of the South Bronx walking tour, shows tourists and salsa aficionados the places where the music has thrived, giving the predominantly Hispanic community a voice.

“Like a lot of New York City history, many Latin venues here in the South Bronx are gone,” said Martinez while leading an Oct. 18 tour, adding that many venues that flourished during the arson-plagued 1970s have faded into history.

With laminated pictures from the 1950s of the intersection of Longwood, Westchester and Prospect avenues, Martinez starts her tour explaining that this busy intersection housed many Latin venues, from theaters to records shops.

“You could see salsa shows in theaters, clubs, everywhere,” she said.

The tour’s first stop, the colorful, landmark Casa Amadeo music store on Prospect Avenue, has sold salsa records since 1941. Its Puerto Rican owner, Mike Amadeo, called his store a “music and public accomplishment.”

But salsa is not only a musical expression of a community; it is also a way to bring Latinos together, Martinez said. She continued east on Avenue St John and Kelly Street, stopping at 52 Park in Longwood where “the real good salsa shows happen,” she said.

The park, named after Middle School 52 across the street where famous musicians like Eddie Plamieri and Ray Barreto attended, has been a meeting place for residents to share ideas and concerns or to listen to the songs the neighborhood made famous during salsa’s heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Before famous salsa singers like Palmieri rebuilt the playground in the late ‘80s, the park was abandoned for many years said James Melendez, a member of 52 People for Progress, the Longwood volunteer group that maintains the park.

“We painted [all columns and chairs] in blue,” said Melendez, adding it is “the only blue park you will see in New York City, and it’s because we painted it ourselves.” The park receives little help from the city, he said, adding that for more than 20 years the volunteers, in collaboration with musicians like Palmieri and Amadeo, have improved the park to provide a better quality of life to the community.

Places like 52 Park have traditionally served as meeting points where people organized talks and marches, Martinez pointed out, adding that the music was fundamental to organize protests against substandard services in the neighborhood.

“Places are important because [they] connect people to the community,” said Martinez, who was born and raised in the borough. “I have roots in this community, my father grew up with musicians, so it’s also my history.”

A Boston resident who will soon be moving to the Bronx, Luisa Harris, said she loved the tour. Harris added that she was happy to learn “how people use art and music as a means to strengthen the community.”

The Latin Music of the South Bronx Walking Tour was organized by Casita Maria in conjunction with the Arts Society as part of SBCT Festival: Cinemusica City.

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