New York was close to bankruptcy in the winter of 1971, and nowhere could this be felt more than in the Bronx. Many parts of the borough were so run down that a casual visitor would easily have thought a war had just ended there. Violence ruled on many corners, and a hundred gangs, with thousands of members, roamed the streets.
Already high levels of violence in the South Bronx seemed set to escalate on Dec. 2, when 25-year-old Cornell “Black Benjy” Benjamin, a member of the Ghetto Brothers gang, was killed trying to mediate a dispute between two other gangs. But instead of calling for revenge, the Ghetto Brothers initiated a gathering of gang leaders. Hundreds of gang members came together in a high-school gymnasium in the South Bronx. Instead of wielding weapons, they aired their grievances, voiced their frustrations with society, and negotiated a truce.
The Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting, as it came to be known, took place 40 years ago today. Its truce led to changes in gang culture. Gang members were allowed to enter one another’s turf. Battles that formerly might have been fought to the death on the streets were fought instead in code, on dance floors, where contestants bested each other with words and moves instead of guns and knives. And out of that truce came the birth of break dance and hip-hop, two elements of Bronx culture that became worldwide phenomena.
The central figure in the truce was Benjamin Melendez, the charismatic founder and leader of the Ghetto Brothers, a gang with hundreds, if not thousands, of members. (Melendez may have been the inspiration for the Cyrus character in the 1979 cult film The Warriors.) And after the truce, Melendez began a personal journey, during which he rediscovered and reclaimed his own Jewish roots.
I first learned about Melendez through Dvora Meyers’ story in Tablet Magazine last year. I am an artist, and exploring Jewish identity is a central theme of my work. I later met and photographed Melendez for a series of portraits about New York’s Jewish diversity and, after hearing more of his story, had the idea to turn his life into a graphic novel.
The work, which is in progress and excerpted here, is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with Melendez and other gang members and activists. While the novel focuses on the founding of the Ghetto Brothers and the historic truce, it is also a tale about the Puerto Rican migration to New York, the destruction of the Bronx, and the histories of crypto-Jews, gang culture, and hip-hop.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting, selections from the graphic novel, illustrated by the German artist Claudia Ahlering, will be exhibited starting Sunday at the Bronx River Arts Center, just a few blocks from where the historic gathering took place.