Ordinary People Doing Remarkable Things: Part 3 – Andrew So | South Bronx United

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Since the 1980s the ruins of the Bronx have been replaced by thousands of new housing units. The past few years in particular, have seen the urban landscape of the borough change significantly. In 2009, the new Yankee Stadium was completed and according to an article in the New York Times last year, there are clear signs of gentrification of certain areas with newcomers being attracted by affordable real estate. But it will take more than a stadium and a few yoga studios to shake off the darker image of the Bronx. The South Bronx for example, which is the poorest district in the US, struggles with remnants of its turbulent past. Gang related violence, drug use and prostitution is still commonplace in certain areas. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. A number of determined people with a bottom up approach, who work with local community organizations, might just be able to turn the neighborhood around. One of these people is Andrew So – co-founder of South Bronx United – a man with vision who brought a community together.

Doomed to Fail

The South Bronx of the late 1970s was an unimaginable wasteland. It was an urban wilderness, a frightening no-man’s land existing of deserted stretches of real estate and plots of rubble. At its worst, which was right around the time President Jimmy Carter visited the South Bronx in October 1977, thousands of buildings were abandoned.

The intentional destruction of the Bronx was long in the making. After WWII factories were closed at the same time as waves of immigrants came to New York looking for a better life. New immigration and the clearing out of slums in Manhattan resulted in a serious overcrowding of neighborhoods in the South Bronx. Urban renewal, with its high-rise housing projects, destroyed street life. Jobs moved to suburban industrial parks and mass suburbanization took place. New highways were also built, destroying neighborhoods in the process. The construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, from 1948 to 1963, was the final nail in the coffin for the Bronx. The expressway cut across 113 streets, seven major roads, one subway line, and five elevated lines, displacing 60,000 people. Under the influence of New York City’s financial crisis of 1975, financial institutions decided not to invest in certain areas. Federal funds combined with a new dependence on welfare and diminishing city services resulted in anger, frustration and a loss of hope. A sharp rise in drug use and violence was the next step.

The property value plummeted and because of the redlining* by banks and insurance companies, owners were unable to sell their property at any price. Facing default on back property taxes and mortgages, landlords began to burn their buildings for the insurance money. In the 1970s, the borough averaged 12,000 arson fires a year; over thirty a day.

Transition

Today, drug trafficking, gang activity and prostitution are all still common throughout the South Bronx and although the crime rates have dropped, they are still very high compared to other areas. With 38 per cent of individuals living below the poverty rate, the South Bronx is the poorest district in the US, with high hunger rates and high obesity rates, both symptoms of poverty. Its school districts perform the lowest in the state of New York.

These statistics are shocking, especially considering the fact that the situation has improved significantly compared to how it used to be. But things are looking up. Besides the aforementioned housing developments, successful programs have been launched by the Health Department and the Department of Education. Community-police relations are being addressed and streets that were not more than desolated slabs of asphalt are being transformed into inviting green spaces at the same time that access to the waterfront is being improved providing a place for leisure and recreational opportunities.

Local efforts have been particularly vital in the transformation of devastated neighborhoods into vibrant communities. Non-profit organizations and other community revitalization initiatives are building communities from the ground up. Neighborhood based organizations and an army of determined people are participating in the rebirth of the South Bronx.

Andrew So – A Man With a Mission

One of these determined people making a difference in the Bronx is Andrew So, Executive Director and co-founder of South Bronx United (SBU). Founded in 2009, SBU is a nonprofit youth development organization that uses soccer as a vehicle for social change. It currently serves about 600 boys and girls, between the age of four and nineteen. Born out of the idea that community youth needed an engaging program to connect with that would also keep them off the streets, the organization has now successfully brought together youth from all the diverse backgrounds that make up the Bronx.

Andrew was born in Connecticut but grew up in California. After finishing his Bachelor’s degree from Stanford University he moved to New York where he earned a Masters of Science in Education from the Bank Street College in New York. He taught mathematics and special education at New Day Academy, a public secondary school in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx and also served as a special education coordinator. He has worked with Bronx youth in various other capacities from counselor to advisor to coach. Currently he runs the organization full-time.

In the past six years Andrew has seen quite a few changes in the area: “you can definitely see new developments. A lot of it hasn’t followed through yet, so we don’t know how it is going to turn out and whether it will be good or bad. Will it be better housing for existing residents or is it meant for new people from outside (gentrification)?”

Local studies have found that millions of dollars leave the community every year because residents were shopping somewhere else. Since these reports (2007) efforts have been made to bring back businesses to the area. These efforts seem to be paying off: “A lot more businesses are opening up; economically things are happening. The Yankee stadium area is also being developed which is good because up till now baseball fans would go to the stadium for a game, but straight afterwards they get on the subway and leave. People don’t experience any other parts of the Bronx, maybe building restaurants and hotels will change this”, according to Andrew.

South Bronx United first started practicing on the corner of a baseball field at St Mary’s recreational center – about 1.5 miles away from the Yankee Stadium. When a new field opened close to the stadium in 2009 they moved: “They built that field because the Yankees made an agreement to replace the parks (the stadium was built on what had been 24 acres of public park land) that were destroyed in the process of building their new stadium. There was quite a bit of controversy about it, spending $1.5 billion (the most expensive baseball stadium ever built) on a stadium, while there was already one there. For years there were no parks, leaving many community sports teams displaced, but the recreational grounds they replaced these parks with, are great. We started practicing immediately after it was finished, it is great to play on beautiful turf rather than a muddy baseball field”.

Pay-to-Play

SBU Seniors v. NASA United

SBU Seniors v. NASA United

Compared to basketball, which is very much developed as an inner city sport, soccer is a suburban sport. It has few inner city programs and is a so called pay-to-play sport. European soccer teams look all over the world for the youngest and most talented soccer players. These prospects aren’t charged for their uniform, equipment, travel, tournament and coaching fees. Instead the club pays them and even their families may receive some financial benefit. The situation in the US is quite different. The best coaches work in suburban areas. The more games their club teams win and the more tournaments their teams attend, the more players will fight for the chance to pay the club to play on next year’s team. In this model poor areas get left behind (inner-city and rural areas) and there is a big risk that US club coaches do not develop their talent but instead, sign as many players up as possible. The pay-to-play model makes a relatively cheap sport like soccer very expensive says Andrew: “for those kids who are interested in playing soccer it is easy and cheap (compared to for example football, baseball or ice hockey) to get started. But because competitive/organized soccer in the US is pay-to-play and costs anywhere between 2000 and 4000 dollars a year, none of our kids at SBU played in competitive soccer teams before.”

A Unifying Sport

SBU literacy day

SBU literacy day

Before SBU was founded, there were some existing soccer programs, like neighborhood/community programs, family leagues, Mexican, African and Honduran leagues. Andrew envisaged something more than this. He wanted to unite youth from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in one club: “I did after-school soccer practice at the school I worked and I saw kids from all over the word, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Nigeria; who all loved the sport, and who were all very talented. Other kids whose families have been in the US for a long time like Dominican, Puerto Rican and African American, didn’t know anything about soccer, but they wanted to do something after school. They wanted to be part of something, part of a team, be with friends in a positive environment, rather than just being out on the streets. So that is really where SBU started. ‘United’ is a term used often in soccer and there are many teams which have ‘united’ in their name. But in our case, ‘united’ really means something, we are uniting different people from all sorts of different backgrounds”.

Today, South Bronx United is the most diverse soccer club around. Uniting about 600 kids from over 30 countries, it is a true success story. But for Andrew it was never just about the number of soccer players at SBU: ” I didn’t just want to have a big soccer club. It was really important, especially in the South Bronx, to have the educational component, and having the goal to motivate the children to stay in school, doing well in school and making sure that they graduate and go to college”.

More Than Just A Soccer Club

South Bronx United SSBU 97 strikers visit Princeton University Left: Andrew So

SSBU 97 strikers visit Princeton University, on the Left: Andrew So

SBU has three soccer programs; the travel program, which is a competitive program involving year-round high quality training (the boys and girls who are part of the travel program are required to participate in education and character development programming). Secondly there is a recreational program which is open to all children and thirdly there is a developmental program which is all about character development for children with special events, clinics and camps. The educational component Andrew talks about falls into two categories: an after school tutoring program and a college prep program. Besides an extensive mentoring program, SBU is about to hire their first full time social worker: “We want to meet the needs of youth and families and strengthen the academic services and social support we provide. In order to do so it is important to have a professional social worker and a one-to-one mentoring program. All our high school seniors are matched up with mentors (volunteers).We provide a support network; make sure that kids have someone to go to. Many of them have parents who are absent, or who are working late. Some parents are, for example, taxi drivers; they work double shifts and never see their kids. If these children don’t come to us, they end up going to peers, or end up in gangs or street groups which takes the kids off track.”

Future Plans

Most programs are up and running and are incredibly successful. But there is always room for improvement. Two areas in particular need more work according to Andrew. Trying to address the high rates of obesity in the South Bronx, the SBU finds it hard to reach children who struggle with weight issues. With a few exceptions, most children who want to play soccer and sign up for SBU are not overweight.

SBU Rising Stars at Larchmont

SBU Rising Stars at Larchmont

Another group that is hard to reach is girls. The club has five boy’s groups and only two girl’s groups and really struggles to recruit more girls. SBU is not an exception; New York City doesn’t have a girl’s soccer team: “There isn’t much out there for girls who want to play soccer. A lot of our boys have sisters and they know about the sport, but many refuse to play. Also, it is challenging to determine how to address those cultural norms that frown upon women’s sports. We tried to contact schools and let them know we have a program. A lot of it is through word of mouth, flyers and posters. Boys bring girls from their school. There are some strategies, but we need to improve them. With the boys we hardly had to do any recruitment, but it is much more difficult with the girls”.

Andrew feels these issues can be addressed and more people can be reached once SBU has developed school programs: “If we can go into schools it is much easier to reach kids. The US Soccer Foundation funds and runs successful programs which are all about health and nutrition. The toughest groups to reach, like girls and kids who aren’t already physically active, are easier to reach in schools. But this is something we are working on!”

Help out!

Non-profit organizations like South Bronx United are helping change the landscape but only thanks to public support. Ninety percent of South Bronx United’s funding comes individual donations, business contributions, and foundation support. You can help change the lives of Bronx youth through soccer and education, by making a donation at www.southbronxunited.org/donate

* Redlining is the practice of arbitrarily denying or limiting financial services to specific neighborhoods, generally because its residents are people of color or are poor.

2 Comments

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  1. Lori Peek

    Elke! What an amazing story about an amazing person and program! Beautifully done!

    • Elke Weesjes

      Well thank you very much Lori. Really appreciate your feedback..

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