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NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Sunday, February 8, 2015, 12:29 AM
When gunshots rang out like the Wild West and Washington Heights was the murder, cocaine and heroin capital of the city, there was one place where fights ended someplace other than the morgue.
In an unassuming apartment building on W. 163rd St. between Broadway and St. Nicholas Ave. was the Westside Gym. For 55 years, a narrow, crumpled stairway led to Artemio Colon, known as “Poppa,” who opened the basement gym in 1959 with two boxing rings and a dream.
When time took its toll and the old man wasn’t able to navigate the steps, his son Artemio Jr. kept the operation going.
The gym closed last July, with little notice, a symbol of the marching gentrification in this neighborhood and throughout New York City.
"I trained a lot of people," said Colon, now 93, who still lives around the corner, across the street from an elm tree that predates the Revolutionary War. “They didn’t listen to their mother or nobody. But they listened to me.”
When the Westside Gym opened its doors, Robert F. Wagner served as mayor and a subway token cost 15 cents. In the grand tradition of neighborhood boxing gyms, guys from the Heights packed its subterranean warren of gray rooms, hitting the heavy bag, sparring, lifting weights and learning the ropes.
Artemio Colon, now 93 (r.), landed in New York in 1946 and trained under famed boxing sage Cus D’Amato. Colon (pictured in the 1980s, l.) opened his own gym in 1959, and built it into a staple in Washington Heights.
It didn’t matter whether they won or lost. It took them away from the lure of gangs, drugs and misbehavior, taught them discipline and gave them the sense that there were options.
When the boxing business was booming, there were several active neighborhood gyms in every borough. Connie’s Gym on 125th St., Brooklyn’s Red Hook Boxing Club and the Bronx’s Jerome Boxing Club were among the casualties of waning interest and higher rents. There’s nothing like the Westside Gym in Manhattan any longer.
“Community gyms help kids in the neighborhood,” said Bruce Silverglade, the owner of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. “They are not a place where pros go. These mom-and-pop gyms are stabilizing centers in disruptive areas.”
When the tidal wave of drugs and murders disrupted the neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s, Colon provided a place where young men could find a safe corner.
“It was a little scary,” recalled Anthony James, a two-time Daily News Golden Gloves winner who trained there during the 1980s. “Guys were always selling drugs on that block out in the open, and people were always getting shot. Washington Heights was definitely out of control. But, he added, “If you were with the gym, no one bothered you.”
The diminutive Colon barred drug dealers, gang members, and other unsavory characters.
“No drugs in the gym,” Colon said firmly. “We never deal with them. I kept the street clean in front and let no one hang out. Even the kids never played ball here. No barbecuing. You have to move.”
The gym was considered sacred. Outsiders never intruded. Even the NYPD knew not to expect any trouble.
“I don’t recall any problems there,” said Deputy Inspector Wilson Aramboles, who covered Washington Heights as an anti-crime officer in the early 1990s. “The gym made a little dent in crime back then.”
NYPD Captain Ernest Morales, one of hundreds who trained at the Westside Gym said it “represented what it meant to fight your way out of poverty to fulfill the American Dream,” a safe haven for generations of children in the rough-and-tumble tracts.
If you were with the gym, no one bothered you.
Fighters and neighbors alike still mourn the fact that Colon had to close his sanctum down.
With crime in the city down overall, it’s difficult to determine what impact, if any, the gym’s loss will have. There were only two murders last year in the 33rd Precinct, which covers the neighborhood.
But if the major crimes are harder to detect, so are the men (and later, a few women) who walked down the block with a singular purpose.
“Everyone has gone to Planet Fitness,” James said. “Boxing is not what it used to be. We all get old. Colon can’t do it forever.”
Silverglade, who oversaw the moving of Gleason’s Gym from 30th St. in Manhattan to Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood in 1984 due to rising rent, said it’s gotten harder and harder for gyms to stay afloat.
“Insurance is extremely expensive,” he said. “Rents are going up. The cost of training is going up. At one time, there were a lot of bootleg shows and gyms could run shows and make a small profit. Now, there are so many rules and regulations combined with the economy make it difficult for small gyms to survive.”
Gleason’s, like the Times Square Gym, had a heavy roster of professional fighters training and sparring but added fitness training, women’s boxing, and white collar boxing some time ago.
“If I was relying on actual boxers, I would never be able to survive,” Silverglade said. “The big fitness chains are in competition with the boxing clubs. As people are getting older they don’t remember the value of boxing. They go into Equinox and the other new places. And the gym owners,” he added, “are getting older. I’m here at five in the morning and I leave at seven at night. And we don’t have those trainers like Artie Colon and Ray Arcel around anymore.”
Colon landed in New York City in 1946, just after World War II and ahead of the the “great migration” of Puerto Ricans who arrived in New York City a decade later.
Armed with an eighth-grade education and a wiry physique honed in the tobacco and sugar cane fields, the 25-year-old found work as a cook at Luchow’s, a famous German restaurant on 14th Street, as a tailor and then, finally, as a building superintendent.
Everyone has gone to Planet Fitness; boxing is not what it used to be.
He discovered the Gramercy Gym and trained under Cus D’Amato, the mentor of world champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres and, later, Mike Tyson.
“Boxing made me what I am,” Colon said. “I traveled all around the world. Cus taught me how to box, how to take care of myself. He was like a father to me. Whatever I knew in boxing, he teach me.”
Later, while running his own gym and shuttling fighters to matches around the city, Colon served as the super of the gym’s building. So long as floors were mopped, the repairs made, the boiler fixed, the gym was his.
The block is quieter now; it’s as if the gym has been erased. The steps down to the basement have been straightened, and the sign removed. The space is being converted into yet more apartments, and a building across the street is now a high-priced co-op, which neighbors call the “white building” because only white people, they say, can afford to live there.
Dario Rosario, 78, who mopped up blood in the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center emergency room night after night during the '80s and '90s, has lived at the corner of 163rd and St. Nicholas since 1967. He misses the gym. “That's the only thing we had here,” he said. “Now they are smoking marijuana in front of the building.”
The Westside Gym is gone, relegated to memory and the history books like so many long-standing icons, another lost piece of the city’s vanishing lore.
“That’s the way life is,” Colon said. “I feel sad. A lot of people miss the gym. That’s the way it goes.”
Some of the city’s storied neighborhood gyms that have been KO’d by factors including higher rents, skyrocketing insurance rates and operating expenses, and the proliferation of health clubs.
DAS Boxing Center
Jefferson Boxing Club
Empire Sporting Club at the Gramercy Gym
Times Square Gym
New York City Gladiators
Boxing Club Zaragoza
Boxing Gym Aaron Davis
Lost Battalion Hall
Cowboys Boxing Club
Rhino Fight Team
Brighton Boxing Club
Evolution Boxing Club
Kid Kelly’s Boxing Gym
Sunset Park Boxing Center
Sometimes people bond over the smallest things.
Sitting behind his captain’s desk covered with files, complaint reports, and official NYPD notifications along with my Timberland boots perched at the edge, Steve Bonano and I discovered that we had the same sophisticated culinary palate. It was uncanny. We both dined at the same establishment but at different branches and knew the menu as intimately as the chef. We ate there more than we cared to admit, which likely accounted for his slightly chubby physique and as I call myself, svelte with a twist.
“I always order at Taco Bell” my sentence began and Steve chimed in at the same time. “Combo number three!”
We both laughed and exclaimed, “Three tacos and a soda!”
Each time we saw each other we called out “Combo number three!” I can still hear his laugh.
Many people knew him better than I did. My time was spent sitting in his office chatting about life on the job. During my two years embedded in the 23rd Precinct for my book project,23rd Precinct: The Job, I learned the rhythm, personalities, politics, intelligence, and eccentricities of the men and women who worked there. The blue wall is kind of a strange thing because from the inside, everyone has an opinion. And sometimes more than one.
The politics inside of every precinct and the New York City Police Department can be more demanding or draining than the work outside in the streets. Not everyone likes each other and some are fearful of the man or woman standing next to them, the fear that someone wasn’t street smart no matter where they grew up or wasn’t particularly adept at police tactics or had a temper or that a mistake could cost them everything and anything, including their lives. As an observer, I often wondered how people managed to get through the day. But they did with the hope that a split second decision would be the right one.
By the time I met Steve, his career as a street cop and undercover cop on the streets of the Bronx confiscating guns was behind him and he moved steadily up the police ladder, from sergeant, lieutenant, captain, deputy inspector, inspector, to deputy chief. He earned a Masters degree from Harvard University; was awarded the Combat Cross, NYPD's second highest medal; commanded the elite Emergency Services Unit; and flew a helicopter in the NYPD’s Aviation Unit. He served for 30 years. Steve loved working for the Police Department and somehow never seemed to be scalded by sarcasm or weariness, but with intelligence, warmth, and enthusiasm.
I remember him like series of snapshots, when you see people in a fixed point in time and then they are gone.
A licensed helicopter pilot, Steve spoke about flying seriously ill children to different hospitals for medical treatment. Others worried about how green the grass was. But to Steve, other lives mattered.
An eBay purchase of mine included a Speed Graphic camera, one of those old cameras that you see in black and white movies, but I couldn’t figure out how it worked. Steve had the solution. His father, he said, was a camera buff so he called him up, made the introduction and instructed me to call him. Tony Bonano, who lived in the Bronx and worked as a physicist, showed up in front of my building several days later, a tall, thin, elegant man who knew exactly how that camera worked. He set up a portable stool in front of my building and taught me how to shoot like a pro. We walked around the neighborhood, teacher and pupil, and took photographs of trees and buildings. I will never forget that.
What I most remember, though, is something kind of silly. Somewhere I had picked up one of those wooden paddles with a rubber ball attached to an elastic string that we all played with when we were kids. We were sitting in Steve's office and I pulled it out of my bag. He was impressed. After a few hits and misses with the ball hitting me in the eye, I surrendered it to Steve who stood up from his desk in uniform. With the glee of a ten-year-old, he proceeded to smack the ball around the office.
“Great stress reliever!” he called out.
After about 30 minutes, I excused myself for an appointed ride on patrol with two partners on the four-to-twelve.
“I’ll leave you to your fun,” I said. “But I gotta get to work.”
“Me, too,” he said.
I waved goodbye, walked to the end of the hallway and turned around. There he was, still hitting that small red rubber ball with the paddle.
Around the end of the 1990s or so, Steve moved up to the 34th Precinct, which covers Washington Heights and Inwood. I was working on another book project and we ran into each other from time to time.
“Combo number three!” we called out and reminisced about the paddle and ball.
“That was great,” he said, and I promised to bring him another one. I must have forgotten because I never did.
Steve left the NYPD to become head of security with Barclay’s Arena in Brooklyn and I thought this would be a chance to reunite after catching a boxing match or two. But he never had the opportunity to enjoy his life after the NYPD. He was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer thought to be a result of the many days he spent working at Ground Zero after 9/11.
While he was undergoing medical treatment last year, I sent him a wooden paddle with a red ball and a note in a small Tiffany shopping bag. The note advised him that we were unlikely to be a bone marrow match since he is of Puerto Rican and Dominican ancestry and mine is Greek, Russian, and Austrian. But, stranger things have happened and if he happened to get a craving for combo number three. . .
Steve Bonano died today, Friday, January 16. He was 53. His wedding date was a week away.
He is the third person I know from the 23rd Precinct who is no longer with us: Sergeant Kevin O’Rourke was killed in Afghanistan in 2012, a man known for his equanimity and problem solving skills; and Officer Kay Carroll who died of breast cancer in 2013. She was one of the first women on patrol, who talked about rolling around with suspects in the gutters of Brooklyn, wearing the policewoman’s uniform of a skirt, blouse, stockings, and pocketbook and then being taunted in the stationhouse for the crime of being a woman.
I think of the lives they touched, including my own; the impact they've had as pieces of this city’s history; and the promise of what they could have been.
In Steve’s honor, I considered stopping at a local Taco Bell and ordering combo number three.
Not the same anymore.
You never know who you’ll meet in
Gotham or where they’re from, be it an exotic locale like Hong Kong or Buenos Aires
or Paris or, well, Madison, Wis., which was a first for me. And then there’s
Cut and Shoot, Tex.
“Only one I know!” proclaimed the
colleague who introduced us.
“Back when I grew up, there were
only 20 people living in that town,” the native of Cut and Shoot said. “I’m so
happy not to be there. I love New York City.”
Well, I looked it up. The population
of Cut and Shoot is now over 1,000, which is just about the size of a few
apartment buildings on the Upper West Side. She told me how the town acquired
“Well, it’s Texas,” she said.
Apparently, Cut and Shoot is named
after some disagreement among residents back in 1912 — the reason differs
depending on the source, she added — but got its name when a young boy at the
scene of the brouhaha announced: “I’m going to cut around the corner and shoot
through the bushes in a minute.” No cutting or shooting occurred that day.
I gave this some thought.
“If the town were being settled
now,” I surmised, “in this era of technology, perhaps it could be called Cut
My visit to the main post office on 33rd and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan on Saturday afternoon netted this exchange after I handed the clerk, a friendly woman who expertly weighed and added postage stickers to my manila envelope. Service at this branch was fast and efficient with at least five clerks on duty. My late aunt Peggy of Oak Ridge, Tennessee is the only person I know who had better service: The front door of her house was left unlocked and the mail carrier used to open the door, call out her name, and sit down for a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. In this part of town, everything is locked, packages are left outside of my apartment door, and coffee? Fugheddaboutit.
Clerk: Would you like to add insurance, stamps, (another six items here) and American Express gift cards?
Me: Only if they're free!
Clerk: The only thing free is my smile.
Me: Not even a pen?
Clerk: Pens? The Post Office doesn't give us pens. We get our pens from TD Bank.
(I actually found one on the counter when I visited two days later. It mysteriously found its way into my handbag.)
The tables in the main lobby of the post office.
Back in the old days, mail was delivered by bicycle.
A horse drawn wagon for delivering mail.
Looking out onto 8th Avenue.
The booths where the clerks sit.
Revolving doors leading in and out.
At one point, their relatives delivered mail, too.
One of the many pens that find their way into my bag.
Putting business before sentimentality and matzo balls, the owner of the Hotel Edison has decided to end the run of the Cafe Edison before the end of the year. A another piece of New York City gone.
Replacing the Cafe Edison, replete with its handprinted signs, matzoh brie, corned beef and coffee served at the bustling counter, with a high-end polished restaurant with a top chef isn't just about brick-and-mortar and dollar bills. An entire community of New Yorkers - from struggling actors to more successful ones, producers, stagehands, writers, folks from the neighborhood and other New Yorkers, out-of-towners sitting down for a comfortable meal in a place without pretense - will be displaced. Finding that atmosphere in a Starbucks is hardly the same or inspirational. I know. I've tried. And it isn't the same.
Cafe Edison was founded in 1980 when Harry Edelstein was invited by the real estate developer, Ulo Barad, to open in its current space on 47th Street. Barad and Edelstein were both Holocaust survivors with Barad, a man deeply involved in his past, serving as a board member and supporter of Yad Vashem and The Simon Wiesenthal Center.
When he died last year, the property passed on to his son, Gerard, who elected not to renew the lease of the Cafe Edison. Gerard Barad spoke of the dedication of the family synagogue in Fort Lee, the building named in honor of his parents. "For my father and my family this synagogue represents togetherness and connection between the many generations of our family."
Welcome to my website!
As a writer, editor, journalist, photographer, filmmaker, and teacher, my published books include the award winning The Prizefighters: An Intimate Look at Champions and Contenders; 23rd Precinct: The Job; and Cop on the Beat. I'm a proud member of PEN, the literary organization; The Newswomen's Club of New York; Society of Silurians; Women in Communications; and the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance. Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn and Long Island, I currently reside on the island of Manhattan in Inwood.
Do enjoy my work. Please note that all writing, photographic images, and videos appearing on this blog or anywhere else are copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without expressed written consent. Copyright 2015 Arlene Schulman. All rights reserved. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.