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PEP Feb 2008
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  La Voz
Latinoamericana
     
 

Public Employee Press

EMT & cameraman Joe Conzo
documented a dying neighborhood and the birth of hip-hop


The growing urban deterioration symbolized by Charlotte Street in the South Bronx was captured by Joe Conzo back in 1977. President Jimmy Carter paid a visit to the street that year and President Ronald Reagan visited in 1980.


Joe Conzo, a member of Local 2507, was born and raised in the South Bronx where he still works. He captured the early days of hip-hop with his camera. Conzo is in front of a mural on the corner of Intervale and Westchesteravenues with the late rapper Big Pun in the background.


The cover of the new book “Born in the Bronx,” documents the rise of hip-hop with photos by EMTs and Paramedics
Local 2507 member Joe Conzo.

By ALFREDO ALVARADO

Most teenage boys in high school learn quickly that skill with a guitar or a drum set significantly increases their popularity among the girls. As a chubby teenager at South Bronx High School during the mid-1970s, Joe Conzo picked up a camera instead. Girls, he noticed, enjoyed being photographed. But he also wound up as the school photographer and took scores of pictures of the new neighborhood heroes, rising hip-hop stars like the Cold Crush Brothers, DJ Charlie Chase and Tony Tone, classmates of his at South Bronx High.

Conzo’s South Bronx roots run deep: He is the grandson of Dr. Evelina Antonetty, the late community activist who was known as the “Hell Lady of the Bronx.” As the founder of United Bronx Parents, Antonetty was instrumental in introducing bilingual education and summer lunch programs in the public schools.

“She taught me that the politicians, the elected officials, they work for us,” said Conzo, who says demonstrations and protests were his childhood playground.

Conzo was front and center at the birth of hip-hop. With his camera, he was also an eyewitness to history as his South Bronx neighborhood went up in smoke. Despite the growing urban blight around him, he also remembers being surrounded by a community that was close-knit.

“If Miss Smith, the next door neighbor, gave you that look because you were doing something wrong, you stopped what you were doing,” he recalled of his days growing up. “You respected your elders. There were family values.”

After high school graduation Conzo did a five-year stint in the Army, where he worked as a medical specialist, and later worked at Lincoln Hospital. However, he had a growing problem with recreational drugs that evolved into a serious addiction and led him to sell his cameras. His mother saved his boxes of negatives.

A night in jail and a judge who ordered him to enter treatment helped Conzo turn his life around. He then enrolled at La Guardia Community College, where he received his EMT license and began to work for the city in his old neighborhood.

An advocate for members
On Sept. 11, 2001, Conzo was unfortunately involved in another historic moment.
“My most vivid memory of that day was seeing everyone running away from the towers, while the police, firemen, EMTs and Paramedics were all running into the burning buildings,” said Conzo. He was one of the first to arrive on the scene at the World Trade Center and helped evacuate people who were trapped in the adjacent Marriott Hotel. “I thought I had seen it all,” he said of that tragic day.


DJ Charlie Chase gets ready to rock the house at Norman Thomas High School in the Bronx. LA Sunshine, right, brings in the crates of vinyl records to start the party as Tony Tone looks on.


Born in the South Bronx, hip-hop leaves the neighborhood and arrives in Manhattan, where it takes over the legendary Roseland Ballroom in 1982.

 


Tony Tone spins his records at the Zulu Nation anniversary party back in 1981 at the Bronx River Projects while Afrika Bambaattaa and Busy Bee wait their turn.



The new book also features
posters and flyers used to promote parties, this one was designed by graphic artist Buddy Esquire.

As a member of the Executive Board of Uniformed EMTs and Paramedics Local 2507, Conzo has testified at Congressional hearings in Washington on behalf of first responders who worked at Ground Zero and are now suffering from health problems caused by the toxic air at the WTC. “Are we going to have to wait until more people die?” he asks. Conzo helped train EMT Felix Hernandez, who worked in the recovery effort and died in 2006 of a respiratory illness apparently caused by the toxic substances he inhaled at the disaster site.

A few years ago one of Conzo’s old friends from the Cold Crush Brothers introduced him to a European record collector who was doing research on the early days of hip-hop. The encounter led to an elegant coffee table book based on Conzo’s photos from the early 1970s. “Born in the Bronx: a Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop,” shows those historic formative days through posters and Conzo’s trained camera eye. Key to the book’s dramatic success are moving shots of the neighborhood’s decline and crisp black-and-whites of legendary competitions among rap crews.

“Because of his artistry we have physical proof of stories that would otherwise be too fantastic to believe,” writes Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, from the Rock Steady Crew, in the book.

While the success of the new book has generated an article in The New York Times and exhibitions in the Bronx Museum and in London, Joe Conzo remains a community activist at heart. “With my job I can be an advocate for my community,” he said. “That for me is the most fulfilling thing and that’s how I get high today.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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