A Fighting Chance

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Meet Shavaris Buie, a young man with a purpose. On a cool spring morning, the 18-year-old is working out at Gleason’s Gym, the famed home to boxing champions past and present, located in an old warehouse beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

He starts out by standing in front of a full-length mirror. Then he punches, jabs, hooks-all while watching himself closely, looking for a flaw, looking to see if he has learned enough from his trainer. Next he gets in the practice ring, and does several three-minute bursts of punching furiously at nothing, each round followed by a brief rest. And that’s just the beginning-there’s punching the heavy bag, working with a trainer on his footwork, a lengthy stomach workout and hopefully, several rounds of sparring with an opponent.

That all lasts three hours or more. The taut young man, who boxes as a light welterweight at 139 pounds, will lose up to five pounds during the workout. And then? He’ll walk to the A train and go back home to Medgar Evers Houses, the housing project where he has spent his whole life. He’ll grab a bite to eat and head around the block to his favorite neighborhood hangout: another boxing gym, the one Buie started out in, the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center.

More punching. More weights. More advice from a trainer. Until he can’t lift his arms and can barely walk. Why? “Boxing is my out,” says Buie. His next words follow quickly, pushed out by his memories. Starting with his messed-up parents: the mom who he still sees on the street, looking doped up, acting crazy. A grandmother who works too hard to feed and raise her six grandkids. A scrape with the law that led to a stint at a boot camp upstate. All that pushes, motivates and drives Buie toward a clear dream.

“After I make the Olympic team in 2004, I’ll turn professional and make a living,” he says confident, but not cocky. He knows he can do it. Why not? He’s strong, he’s quick, and he works as hard as he can, more than the other boxers. He listens to his trainer. “And then I’ll move away from the neighborhood.”

Medgar Evers Houses is one of a pair of housing projects strung along Gates Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The sprawling complex includes not just 465 apartments in 11 six-story buildings, but several commercial properties. Among them is the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center, a once-famed gym that rivaled Gleason’s in the 1980s, producing champions like Riddick Bowe and Mark Breland.

That gym is tattered today. The toilets don’t even work, and only a few of the grizzled trainers are left; most have moved on to Gleason’s. And its future is even more uncertain than its present. The troubled housing projects that are home to both Buie and the gym are about to be reborn, their history of neglect-by penny-pinching landlords and the federal government alike-drawing, finally, to a close. A new regime will take over soon, led by nonprofit organizations and the tenants themselves, looking to create a new and nurturing world in this harsh corner of the inner city.

Their dream originated with the Community Service Society of New York, the 150-year-old social services and advocacy giant, which has chosen these housing projects as an ideal terrain for crafting a thriving community. CSS hopes that by providing not just decent housing, but the resources and expertise to support residents and encourage them to move from poverty to self-sufficiency, it can create a model for how to turn housing projects into nests of prosperity.

The plan for Medgar Evers includes not just an overhaul of the physical structures, with everything from new tiling in the apartments to new roofs for the buildings, but the addition of public space for the things tenants need to do-hold meetings, learn to use computers, and take advantage of services like job training, public assistance advice and mental health counseling. There’s also talk of a retail space where tenant entrepreneurs can sell wares, like handicrafts and pies. Tenants are considering turning a parking lot behind the Medgar Evers buildings into several children’s playgrounds, a garden that could double as an environmental education center and even an enclosed basketball court that would be sort of like a tennis bubble. “To keep the noise down,” explains Charlotte Rodgers, a tenant leader who has lived at Medgar Evers since 1974.

But for sports, nothing, they hope, will rival what they have in store for the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center, the largest enclosed common space in the entire complex, 3,800 square feet. “We really want to expand it,” says Rodgers. “Make it into an activities center, so there’s more than just boxing.” Adds another tenant leader, Ernestine Green, the chairperson of a committee that’s charged with making plans for the common spaces, including the boxing center, “We need classes in there to serve the whole community.”

The tenants and CSS have reached a consensus: The gym should nurture everyone’s fitness dreams-not just fighters. It should have more than just boxing rings, heavy bags and weights. Says Hazel Beckles Young Lao, director of the Community Building Project for CSS, “To put it simply, the women want a gym.”

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“For 15 years, HUD shoved its institutional head up its institutional ass as this project was looted in an avaricious and corrupt fashion. And the project became a shithole.” Such is the verdict of Richard Wagner on the housing projects that he and his staff at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A helped wrest from slumlords in 1996.

Medgar Evers and its sister project, Gates Avenue Houses, were built in 1973, as part of a federal program designed to lure private investors into expanding the supply of affordable housing. In exchange for building and maintaining apartment complexes, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development gave private realtors hefty tax breaks and management fees. But investors discovered that the federal government wasn’t paying very close attention. A savvy owner could earn big profits by low-balling their costs, or, worse, through outright neglect. Why invest in repairs, security and maintenance, if HUD wasn’t making you?

In 1985, Medgar Evers was sold to a realty company headed by Brooklyn investor Phil Rosenberg. Problems at the projects went from terrible to much worse. Violence, drugs, prostitution, rat infestations and backed-up sewage were increasingly common, and people started calling the projects “Gates of Hell.”

In a series of precedent-setting lawsuits, Wagner sued Rosenberg and his partners for failing to provide decent living conditions despite millions in subsidies. (The courts ultimately dismissed the suit, ruling that the tenants didn’t have standing to sue their landlords.) HUD moved in to take the complex back, and succeeded in the summer of 1997 [see “Sweet Victory,” October 1997]. A long court battle ensued and wasn’t fully resolved until last November, when a federal judge backed HUD’s right to take over the project.

For the Community Service Society, the opportunity to work with tenants at Medgar Evers and Gates Avenue came along at just the right time. For years, says Allen Blitz, director of the CSS Housing Development Assistance Program, the agency was looking for a troubled housing development where its tenant organizers could operate in an environment where residents could also take advantage of the organization’s considerable expertise in social services, education and training. CSS needed a project big enough to make it worth its while to “do more than housing,” Blitz says. “We could do community building.” So they began to look at HUD projects that were in trouble, and found Medgar Evers and Gates Avenue, where CSS organizers had already helped build the tenant outrage and unity that led to the HUD takeover.

Once they had successfully kicked out the old landlords, CSS and the tenants focused on pushing HUD to fix up its mess. An interim manager beefed up security, repaired doors and windows and replaced decrepit appliances. Then CSS decided to encourage the residents to think about tenant ownership, so that HUD couldn’t just give or sell the project to another private developer. The tenants agreed. “They couldn’t see going back to the days of a private landlord who would do what they want and the tenants would have no say,” says Brent Sharman, director of the CSS Ownership Transfer Project.

After running the project itself for nearly five years, HUD last year awarded the complex to a partnership of several nonprofit organizations-CSS, the Settlement Housing Fund, Long Life Information and Referral Network, and the tenant association itself. Once all the details are finalized and the title is legally transferred-probably in June-the group will begin a $24 million rehabilitation of the apartments as well as the common and commercial spaces. (Once the Medgar Evers deal is done, HUD plans on also giving the 160-unit Gates Avenue Houses to the same tenant and nonprofit partnership.) Says Rodgers, “Our long fight is finally over.”

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Although the project isn’t yet theirs, CSS “community building” is already underway. Its staff is offering activities at Medgar Evers mostly focused on youth: tutoring, scholarships to summer camp, children’s theater workshops, field trips to sporting events and college tours for high school students. Such activities are just a small sample of the community development plan that CSS and the tenants are envisioning. To say their vision is ambitious sells its hopes short. According to Young Lao, one tenant summed up their future dream like this: “We want Gates Avenue to look like Park Slope.”

What does that mean? Young Lao sums up the hopes of CSS and the tenants like this, breathlessly: “It’s a revitalized neighborhood that provides quality goods and service for the people who lives there. Its people’s pockets are filled enough to take care of their families. And they have what they need to get a good job and stay healthy. It’s a place where families are involved in their children’s lives so that community institutions have to take notice of what they think.”

The last point is crucial. CSS believes it can do more than improve the lives of the project’s residents; the reclamation of Medgar Evers is envisioned as a starting place for the revival of the whole neighborhood. When those tenants and their families no longer have to fight just to be safe-and with the experience of revitalizing own homes-they’ll be prepared to be the leaders of the new Bed-Stuy. Fighting for good schools. Demanding decent police. Electing responsive politicians.

For now, though, the work of CSS and the tenants is more mundane. Utopia won’t come until tax breaks are negotiated, bank loans are signed, security concerns are resolved and section 8 housing vouchers are secured.

With so much on their plate, the future of the boxing center is not the biggest issue facing the next owners of Medgar Evers. But in their seemingly endless series of meetings, when they do get a chance to discuss it, the redevelopment team is sketching out a plan for the gym that sets it as a shining cornerstone of the new community that they’re building for themselves.

Young Lao says in their planning conversations for the gym, the tenants kept returning to one thought: “All the women wanted facilities at the boxing center where they can go to and exercise.” The tenants most involved in rebuilding Medgar Evers are nearly all women in their thirties, forties and fifties, and their vision for a healthy community, not surprisingly, reflects their needs. They’re women who worry about the diseases that have struck down their mothers and sisters, like diabetes and stroke and heart disease. About feeling better, having more energy. Losing weight.

Fitness, for these women, isn’t so much about being the best. Staying healthy and not getting sick are what they want out of the gym.

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At one p.m. on a Tuesday, there are four fighters training at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center. These are the pros, or at least the advanced amateurs, who come when it’s most quiet, so they can work closely with their trainers.

The head trainer is Everett Faber, an intense Bed-Stuy native who’s worried that the gym’s new owners will prefer anything to boxing. “They might want to put a damn Jenny Craig in here, I heard,” says Faber, hurling the name of a chain of weight-loss centers. “We don’t know. We’re left in the dark.”

Not that Faber and the other Bed-Stuy trainers think that the gym can only house boxing. After all, they currently allow martial arts classes in the basement. The project’s tenants want fitness classes? Aerobics? Yoga? Fine. He points to the building’s large basement and says, “They could be right down there. Why not down there?”

Such athletic alternatives could work, says Faber, with a slight sniff, but only if Bed-Stuy Boxing Center staff are in charge. “We need control of this area,” he says, pointing to the main floor of the gym, with weights and punching bags strewn around the boxing ring. “It has to stay under the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center umbrella.”

The Bed-Stuy Boxing Center has been around since 1970, founded by revered trainer George Washington, who was once a sparring partner for Joe Louis. The gym moved around various Bed-Stuy locations for its first 20 years, until it moved into its current location at 275 Marcus Garvey Boulevard.

The gym had its heyday in the 1980s, thanks in part to the financial assistance of politically connected board members who sought government grants, according to trainers. At one point, say many familiar with the New York boxing scene, it was clearly one of the best gyms in the city.

Those days are long gone. “There’s been a decline in the gym and the trainers and the quality of the fighters,” observes Bruce Silverglade, the owner of Gleason’s Gym and a veteran promoter and expert on the city’s boxing scene.

Even Faber, one of the last old-guard trainers left at Bed-Stuy, acknowledges that. He wearily points out the gym’s problems. There’s no running water for toilets or showers. There ceiling is pocked with unpatched holes. Much of the gym has no electricity.

The harshest assessment on the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center’s current condition comes from trainer Harry Keitt, a gruff and often hilarious 46-year-old who was the centerpiece of the 1999 Academy Award-nominated documentary On the Ropes, a vivid diary of Keitt’s efforts to prepare three Bed-Stuy Boxing Center fighters for the 1997 Golden Gloves tournament. Keitt, himself a fighter who made it to the finals of the Golden Gloves in 1978 at age 21, left the Bed-Stuy gym in 1999 after a dispute with its current board of directors.

Today, he’s at Gleason’s training fighters, including Shavaris Buie. Of the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center, he says sadly, “The gym’s dead. The lights ain’t working. The showers are cold. The place is funky. Instead of breeding champions, they’re breeding diseases.”

What went wrong with the gym is unclear. Most of the trainers, fighters and observers, like Keitt, blame the gym’s board of directors and managers for failing to bring in enough money to keep the place up. It should cost only a few thousand dollars a year to at least keep it open; they pay only $1 in rent, and all the trainers work for free. “Their only overhead is light and heat,” says Keitt disgustedly. “And they still can’t make it.”

Some say the gym failed to make the most of former students who got rich-like Riddick Bowe, who started training at Bed-Stuy Boxing Center when he was 12 and ultimately earned more than $100 million as the world heavyweight champion in the early 1990s. After beating Evander Holyfield for the title in 1993, Bowe returned to Bed-Stuy Boxing Center for a well-publicized visit to the old nabe. “He came back to the gym and saw that Mike Tyson’s picture was hanging on the wall. And his wasn’t,” remembers Clifford Ziegler, a 60-year-old trainer who worked there then. “And Tyson had never even been to the goddamn gym.” According to Ziegler and others, Bowe was so angry he never donated money to the gym, which they say he had promised he would.

The steep decline of the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center has begun to attract attention. Rumors abound that former welterweight champion Mark Breland, who also got his start there in the 1980s, wants to take over the gym. Local U.S. Congressman Ed Towns is getting involved, too. “Their board is weak,” says Towns. “We’re hoping we can strengthen the board and make the gym great again.” Board members did not return calls seeking comment.

Despite the decrepit conditions and drain of talent, Bed-Stuy hasn’t lost all its luster as a gym that prepares elite fighters: Its current boxers include Leon Hinds, a 19-year-old who won the local Golden Gloves in 1999 and made it to the semi-finals of the national amateur championships in April.

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When Shavaris Buie was 13, a friend said his father was making him go to a boxing gym. Right away, Buie knew that was something he wanted to do. He loved sports and even more, he loved physical contact. Wrestling. Slap fighting with his buddies. Grandma resisted, but he persisted, and when Shavaris was 14, he stepped foot in the gym.

At first, being at the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center didn’t work. The trainers taught him a single drill and then left him alone to repeat it for two weeks. It was boring. Disgusted, he stopped going.

And then he got in trouble with the law-he won’t say what-and was sent to boot camp upstate, the Sgt. Henry Johnson Youth Leadership Academy in South Kortright, a rural facility for about 60 city teens that prides itself on being a gentler but still tough alternative to drill-sergeant style boot camps. The facility claims an 81 percent success rate at preventing recidivism.

For Buie, going away to boot camp was tough, but it was also a revelation. “I decided to turn the negative into a positive,” he says. What was essential, he decided, was to not get in trouble a second time. If he did, real prison would follow. “I’ll be with the big boys next time,” Buie realized.

So he came back and decided to finish high school. He also went right to the boxing gym-seriously this time. When Keitt moved on to Gleason’s, Buie followed him there.

He’s just 50-50 as a fighter so far-he’s won four and lost four-but his optimism is unflagging. He made it to the Golden Gloves semifinals earlier this year and has a plan for continued success. First come the Empire State Games in July, followed by the Metro Games. If he does well, doors will open and he can compete in national amateur fights: the Junior Olympics and the Nationals.

And then, ultimately, will come 2004. The Olympics. Athens. Celebrity. Money.

But Shavaris doesn’t have to be a successful pro or even an amateur champion to benefit from all his hard work, say trainers and fight fans, who call places like the Bed-Stuy Boxing Center essential proving grounds for inner-city young people. They are fully aware that for every Riddick Bowe, there are literally thousands of young boxers who, at best, win several amateur fights in local tournaments. Unlike basketball, where success can at least potentially lead to a chance for higher education, boxing has no connection to colleges or universities.

Boxing breeds men, not champions, they say; it instills discipline and moral correctness. By showing up on time, completing grueling fitness routines, taking orders from adults and eating properly, teenagers learn that success in life comes from focus and hard work. “Positive involvement like boxing can make the difference between making it and going to jail,” says Rep. Towns.

Adds Faber, “It delivers discipline. Our fighters don’t have to become boxers. A lot have gone on to be in city government. To be police officers. There’s even a doctor or two,” says Faber.

Boxing in a neighborhood like Bed-Stuy is also essential just because of what it’s not. It’s not drug dealing. It’s not robbing. It’s not gunplay. It’s not unprotected sex. It’s not drinking forties. It’s not smoking weed. It’s not joining a gang.

The sport of boxing itself needs the Bed-Stuy Boxing Centers of the world, the trainers also admit: it’s such places that have always produced the best fighters. “It’s a rough-tough neighborhood,” says Ziegler. “You grow up there and you can’t be afraid of anybody. Most of the kids are like that-they don’t scare much. They’re used to dealing with fear. Everyone in Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East New York-they’re all like that. That’s where you grow up fast.”

For Buie, boxing his way out of Bed-Stuy is plan A, plan B and plan Z. If his professional boxing career doesn’t pan out, he doesn’t have any other clear options. He’s personable and sweet, but his job skills are few. He’s currently unemployed. He’s not in college. He says he’s looking for jobs, but admits it’s not his main focus. Boxing is.

“Training at the gym is like school–it’s preparing for a test,” Shavaris says. “And all my running and training and punching and all that? That’s my homework.”