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New York Narratives: How Comic Books Changed One Bronx-Born Manhattanite's Life

Bronx native Jose Vega recalls growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s, and how Manhattan exposed him to the world

Jose Vega grew up "lower middle class" in the Bronx during the crack epidemic. Now, at 45 years old and as a resident of East Harlem, he reflects on how his lifelong interest in art opened up Manhattan—and by extension, the world—to him.

I grew up in a weird pocket neighborhood in the South Bronx, on 138th Street. My mom moved from Puerto Rico to Spanish Harlem. The story she tells is, before I was born, she had saved up her money to buy this little black and white TV, and she was asleep in the bedroom with my oldest sister and she heard somebody coming in through the window. They stole the TV. Since she got it on layaway, she still had to pay it off. After that, she was like, "Screw that." And they moved up to the Bronx.

We were cut off by the Bruckner Expressway on one end, and we had the East River on the other. And to our left and right, we had factories. So it was just three apartment buildings where it was a weird little neighborhood unto itself. Everybody knew everybody. And we could all play on the streets and stuff. People would keep a lookout for each other. It was really small town-ish.

Then we moved near the old Yankee Stadium. Growing up near Yankee Stadium was interesting, because at the time it was affordable, and they sucked. My best friend and I would bag groceries, raise the $1.50 you needed for bleacher seats, and go to a game for a few innings, and leave. Now, you can’t do that. I don’t even think $1.50 pays for a hot dog.

It was fun at first. Then crack hit and the neighborhood changed overnight. There were shootouts, people were selling drugs openly. What I tell people is my friend lived in the building next door to me, and I would be able to walk over to his apartment, and go all the way to his apartment door and just knock. And then overnight, when the crack stuff happened, all of a sudden you had to get buzzed in to everybody’s buildings. That was, to me, the big change.

I grew up in a culture where a lot of people are born on their stoop, live on their stoop, and die on their stoop.They never really explore.

The drug stuff affected the neighborhood for a decade. Until I went to college, it was still pretty rough. And the few times I’ve gone back, that corner’s still a spot but it’s nowhere near what it was back then. Later on during the Dinkins administration you had the TNT sweeps. They would just round up anybody, throw them up against a wall, and pat everyone down. I remember my mom yelling at me from the window to cross the street when I would go to the grocery store to buy milk or what have you—because they would just grab anyone regardless of whether or not you had anything to do with that.

I mostly got frisked for jumping the turnstile. I had a comic book habit to support, so I needed the money. My comics habit pretty much shaped my life. I always scored high on the state exams in reading because I was reading comics with vocabularies that were very advanced. The other thing that shaped my life was when I saw that they had free art classes at Parsons. I would go down there in junior high when I was about 11 or 12. I would take the train from the Bronx by myself on Saturday mornings to go to Parsons. And that opened up a whole new world. I would meet up with my best friend and he and I would wander around Manhattan. I grew up in a culture where a lot of people are born on their stoop, live on their stoop, and die on their stoop. They never really explore. New York’s an amazing place, and this gave me the opportunity to just explore.

Exploring Manhattan was interesting, because I grew up in—I don’t want to say poverty. I always tell people I grew up lower middle class, because I had friends who were living in poverty. There are degrees to that. But we were racially segregated. I don’t remember seeing anybody who was black or Hispanic holding a position of power. Whenever I saw a white person, they were a teacher, they were a police officer, that kind of thing. When we did go to church, the priest spoke fluent Spanish, but he was white. So, going to Manhattan exposed me to the fact that it wasn’t just these little communities. I got to see more people of different colors, of different economic backgrounds.

You saw more of everything in Manhattan.

You saw more of everything in Manhattan. Whereas my part of the Bronx felt like this little segregated community. In Manhattan, you saw more of rubbing elbows. My stop was the Yankee Stadium stop. The joke I always said was, "You knew when there was a Yankees game because that’s the only time white people went above 86th Street." It was always the whites got off at 86th, the blacks got off at 125th, and everybody else just kept going.

For high school I applied to several of the specialized art schools and didn’t get in. I wound up going to Jane Addams, which was a vocational school for girls. But because of segregation laws, they had to allow guys to go. My graduating class was 204 students, of which three or four were male.

Jose Vega

When I started there, the majors were things like cosmetology and nursing and secretarial. I took secretarial, which then interchanged into accounting. Could I have achieved more as a student had I been challenged more? Probably. Compared to the experiences of some of my other friends, high school was pretty good. I didn’t have to deal with violence. It’s sad, but I judge my school experiences in terms of exposure to violence.

New York had the summer youth employment program where they give kids a job for two months. Basically, it gives kids something to do over the summer. You get a job, you get a little check. Most of my jobs were up in the Bronx, and then I got a job with a theater company in Manhattan. And the owners of the theater had a son who was a year younger than I am. We’re still friends to this day. Prior to him, I’d been to one concert at Madison Square Garden: Duran Duran with Erasure opening in ’80-something. The one time I skipped school was to buy tickets for that. I was a pretty good kid. But Benson showed me other clubs. And that’s when I started exploring Manhattan more.

This was back in the day when you could go to the Village Voice, flip to the back, and you go buy a ticket and see a show. I was never a club person, but I was a concert person. So I went to a lot of those venues. I think the first show my friend from the summer theater job took me to was Red Hot Chili Peppers at Roseland, and the opening acts were Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam. And it was $15 to get in. We also saw Nirvana at the City Center.

Being in New York, you had those opportunities to see these amazing things. And going back to the Bronx, had I never broken out of that little neighborhood, I would’ve never experienced a lot of the stuff that I got to.

One of the other changing moments was in high school. I won an art contest, and I got to fly to Italy for a week. Going to a whole other country, to someone who had never really set foot outside of New York City, was really eye-opening. I remember when I came back, the first thing I thought was, "I wish everybody could have this experience." People just get complacent and don’t want to see more than what they’re used to. I think I really started to move beyond that when I started going to Parsons. Once I discovered the shows and stuff and got past my fear of going to them, that’s when it all started. And also, since my college was in Manhattan at the time, I was forced to go down there for that.

My first semester at SVA, I was with one group of people for the entire first semester. I was in a class where it was predominantly white. I had never experienced that. It was middle class people, people talking about their backyards and their pools. To me, that was the stuff you saw on TV. It was a totally new experience.

After college I tried to get freelance work, and that was varying degrees of unsuccess. I did the retail thing, just to have money, and I worked at Toys "R" Us on 14th Street. There, I met an editor at Marvel. The toy companies will do things like short pack toys. That means, they’ll have one figure, and the case will have sixteen, and they’ll put one figure in the box that’s different from the other fifteen. It makes it very scarce. So you get the toy collectors, who will go crazy over it. This editor wanted to get one of these short packed toys. I was like, "Alright, I’ll trade you this toy if you give me a portfolio review." I guess he admired my ballsiness. He gave me the review, and he was impressed by my work and a few months later, I was working there.

I was doing art corrections, so anything that was screwed up went by my desk and I had to fix. And then they went bankrupt. They laid off 200 people in one day. I was making minimum wage, and no health insurance. I could see how my salary was hurting them.


After that, I bounced around. I stayed in touch with some editors, tried to get some work, got varying degrees of success, or unsuccess, and then just went back into retail at Nobody Beats the Wiz. After that, I wound up working at the place I’m at now. Because of the vocational skills I learned in high school, I do accounting.

Since I’ve been at this job, we’ve had terrorist attacks, we’ve had Hurricane Sandy, we’ve had another blackout, and the city just keeps going. You talk about retiring and everything, if you’d ever want to leave the city. I don’t know if I could leave. I think I’m gonna die here.

I live in a co-op, and it’s a large building, so we have our own little community. It was founded in the ’50s for middle class black professionals and creatives. So we have a lot of professors and artists. I still consider myself an artistic, creative type. My wife and I try to maintain the feeling of the building. Not to generalize, but what you’re getting now is the professional, financial people who move into a building and my experience has been that some of those are the people who won’t greet you in the morning. It doesn’t hurt anybody to say, "Good morning." When you have the community feeling, little things like that will lend a part to it.

Even when you see people hanging out on a stoop near the building, you say, "Hey, how’s it going?" And that serves two purposes, as I’ve learned growing up. Those people are doing what they’re doing, but if they see that you’re cool, they’ll look out for you. So these new people who can’t even acknowledge anyone else in the neighborhood are making an enemy by not extending a simple olive branch. I think that change is over all of New York City. Where you’re getting people who are so involved in the rat race of it all that they never stop to acknowledge, or help out, their neighbors.

It doesn’t hurt anybody to say, "Good morning."

When I lived on St. Nicholas Avenue, I didn’t know everybody in that building, but I knew everybody on our floor. I remember, one of my neighbors once knocked on our door at 2 a.m. He lived alone, and he was freaking out. He had been to a party where somebody slipped him something. Thank God it wasn’t anything serious, but because he had a relationship with us, he was able to come knock on our door and ask for help.

To me, that’s part of the community experience: You all support and help each other. We grew up in a three bedroom but with only one bath, which really sucked. But we had a dining room, and the entranceway was all marble. And people started vandalizing it with graffiti and stuff. And I remember my sister and I doing a collection in the building to buy cleaning supplies, to try to scrub the graffiti off. That didn’t last long.

I always wondered why you’d walk in certain areas of Manhattan and see buildings that looked just like the buildings I lived in, but people took care of those buildings. Why couldn’t we take care of our own things? We were given, for lack of a better word, these buildings that were beautiful, architecturally stunning buildings, and we just destroyed them with graffiti.

I had family who did graffiti on the subways and all that stuff, and it drove me nuts. Years later, when I lived in housing for a bit, I coached a youth basketball team and one of the things I stressed to those kids was, "You live in this neighborhood. Don’t piss on it." You need to take care of where you live.


New York Narratives is a collection of first-person accounts commemorating, celebrating, and reflecting on the lived experience in New York City. Read more stories here.

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