BXTRA with Sarah Blesener and Chavier Leon

–Tatyana Turner


“When you finally go back to your old home, you find it wasn’t the old home you missed, but your childhood.”

During the summer of 2016, I skimmed an article in the New York Times titled, “From Boys to Men in the South Bronx.” The article discussed a young photographer, named Sarah Blesener, who is taking on project photographing high school students growing up in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. The main focus of the photo series is a sixteen-year-old young man by the name of Chavier Leon who is an aspiring Latin artist. The feature image in particular captured my attention and at that moment, I knew I had to get in contact with the photographer. It was a picture of Chavier and two of his other friends in front of Patterson Projects…my first home.

Months later, after BXTRA was up and running, I decided to reach out to Sarah to ask if I could meet with her and discuss the series she is working on. Almost immediately she got back to me saying she was interested, and the bonus was that she could have Chavier be part of the episode as well. So much good news in one email.

My intentions on covering this particular episode was to hear from a teenager’s prospective on life in the South Bronx, especially since the neighborhood has pockets of gentrified spots. I also wanted to expose Sarah’s perspective. She is a woman from the mid-west who was not familiar with the area until she covered Chavier. I wondered what her perception was before taking on the series.

The first home that I ever lived in is only one-mile away from where I currently live. I pass by it pretty often, but rarely walk on its grounds. That was until January 27, 2018, when I was scheduled to see Sarah and Chavier. Prior to the interview, Sarah and I arranged to meet in front of Chavier’s apartment building. She texted me the address, and ironically, it was building my mother was raised in.

It was much smaller than what my mom and I remembered. She explained how the building used to look before I was born and pointed out her old apartment as well as the apartment of some of her lifelong friends. A few short moments later, I met Sarah in the lobby and we went to Chavier’s apartment, located directly above a family friend of ours.

Though people may perceive the project to be cold and harsh; Chavier’s apartment was one of the warmest and most inviting atmospheres I’ve ever walked through. After a brief meet and greet, we decided to take the streets and start shooting the video.

After walking for a few brief minutes, we stopped at the corner where it says, “Welcome to Patterson Houses,” a sign that faces the construction of upcoming residences in the area. The first question I asked was : ” gentrification can happen, but you wouldn’t want the Bronx to lose what one thing?” His response : ” What I don’t want the South Bronx to lose is simply the memories…because think about it, we have all these old buildings that are now being gentrified,  but the most precious things are the memories. If you can’t keep the memories then I don’t see the point in taking that store away or that house away. During his quote, the screen flips to the new residential buildings and rubble towards the Third Avenue Bridge that will is in the works of becoming high rise buildings.

As we continued our journey, we discussed the recognition he received in his high school after being featured in the New York Times. At one point, Chavier seemed to be hesitant about the area we were walking in. ” I’m nervous,” he stated. We were approaching the 40th Precinct. After giving Chavier some reassurance, we proceeded to the second question. ” How does seeing negative media coverage of the Bronx affect you?” His response : “To be honest, it affects me in a harsh way,” said Chavier. ” In Sarah’s photo series, it shows Chavier reuniting with his older brother who spent a few months away in jail. ” It hurts because its a community where we fight to get what we want and sometimes we fight in a manner that is not the right way but we have to do what we have to do to get our stuff. ”  Statistics show that the South Bronx is one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. More specifically, an article in the Daily News listed Patterson Projects as the most dangerous housing projects in all of New York City due to poor sanitation and high crime rates.

You could look back on poverty, you could look back on into a whole bunch of problems in these type of communities and that’s why I love being here…we all stick together through the poverty, though the gentrification, through every other problem and that’s the great thing that I mostly love about the South Bronx…the Bronx in general.”

Sarah was asked how she perceived the South Bronx prior to meeting Chavier. She admitted that she had a negative perception that was heightened after working as a journalists in the city. The photographer further explained that according to the statistics she dealt with while working, New York City was seeing a drop in crime rates except for the South Bronx area. After meeting Chavier, however, she has a different perception. ” I think by being here I’ve only been accepted, his family is really welcoming, his friends are welcoming…I’ve seen a pretty awesome world.” She has a message for those who are not familiar with the Bronx, ” Do not just take a headline just for a headline. Don’t be terrified to make new friends; come here to see it for yourself.”

Sarah has been photographing Chavier since he was fourteen-years-old. As the youngest in her family, she thinks it’s really cool to watch someone grow up. Sarah says that the biggest change that she sees in Chavier is his confidence.

On our way back to Chavier’s apartment, we stopped at the Bronx Native shop and I introduced the two to Amaurys, hoping to spark a helpful connection. The Bronx Native shop is constantly hosting different events and sometimes are in need of artists to perform. Since Chavier is in the process of growing his music platform and the Bronx Native is in need of performers; the two decided to exchange contact information to help grow each other.

After the visit, I had a discussion with Chavier off of the camera. I asked him how and why he got into music in the first place. The teen said that he started singing when he was five years old as part of a church ritual. Singing then grew to learning instruments such as the guitar. Though Chavier has a passion for Bachata, he hopes to perform in  a wide-range of other genres as well.

At the close of the interview, I asked Sarah and Chavier, ” If you could be extra something…what would that extra thing be?”

For Sarah, that extra thing would be passion. She stated, ” the more passion you have the more meaning [your work] has.”

Chavier says he wants to be extra humble.

” You have to be humble, if you’re not humble, then you really can’t progress,” said Chavier. ” …you have to help others [whom]  you encounter when you’re on that path.  Being humble expands the love, and that’s what we need in this world, love…and of course, peace and positivity.”

Sarah and Chavier added a dynamic taste to BXTRA. We got to see what its like for someone not familiar with the Bronx to experience the area despite the negative stigmas attached to it; we also got to see a young perspective of someone living in the South Bronx and in the process of chasing their dreams in one of the toughest parts of the concrete jungle. The two added wisdom and food for thought during the episode.

If you are someone who has not yet been to the Bronx, check it out! You may run into extraordinary people like Sarah and Chavier. In the meantime, feel free to check out the full episode below.

Sarah to continue her photo series until next year when Chavier is a senior in High School. You can see the New York Times article by clicking this link.

Chavier recently released a song called, “Amor Atrapado,” which can be found on Sound Cloud.

Check out the video below along with some photos from the series.

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Tatyana Turner is a Bronx native who grew up in the Mott Haven and Grand Concourse sections of the borough. She has experience in print journalism and photography. In December 2016, Tatyana graduated from Temple University with a degree in Communication Studies and returned to her home in the Bronx where she is applying her skills to further discover the extraordinary people and places in the place she calls home.

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