Just off of 3rd Avenue in the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven, an imposing red warehouse sits behind a high wire fence. From the street, the industrial film and television studio of The Blox TV is unassuming. But inside, it’s buzzing with activity, as a small team of writers and producers works to finish a series of videos for the web on the Bronx.
The mission of the project is simple: to change the way viewers perceive the Bronx by highlighting aspects of the borough that few people know about.
The Blox TV and another website, Bronx Narratives, are convinced they can do that by covering their favorite parts of the Bronx from an artistic point of view. Both outlets produce stories featuring strong visuals and commentary about everything from arts, culture, and history to politics and news.
Gary Axelbank, who is the host of BronxTalk, a local television show, said he thinks that projects such as Bronx Narratives and The Blox TV could bring new life to the local media landscape.
“This new era has a chance to really change the image of the Bronx,” said Axelbank, 62, who grew up in Van Cortland Park. “One of these videos of someone who lives in Castle Hill, or a video of the Bronx Zoo, that can get thousands of viewers. And that’s how you change the nature of the Bronx.”
The Blox TV was started by two non-Bronxites who were drawn to the borough years ago because it was unlike anywhere else that they’d lived.
“The Bronx is one of the only places I’ve seen that has a sense of community,” said Marco Shalma, a filmmaker, producer, and co-founder of The Blox TV. Shalma was born in South Africa and traveled to over 50 countries before settling in New York, but the Bronx seemed different to him. “People here connect on a true level, and you don’t get that anywhere else.”
Despite his love for the Bronx, Shalma realized that much of the news coming out of the borough was negative.
“If you Google the Bronx, the first few pages are filled with negative stuff, like violence and crime,” he said.
In an effort to focus on the more positive aspects of the borough, the filmmaker and producer, who owns a production company called Round Seven, began talking with his business partner Gillian Todd a few years back about pursuing a project that would focus on what makes Bronxites proud of their hometown. Shalma and Todd finally launched The Blox TV this past fall with funds from Round Seven — since then, they have developed close to 70 short videos about the borough, and have released some 50 on their YouTube channel. One of their main series is called, “BloxPedia.”
The web series aims to give viewers insider knowledge of the culture and little known facts about the history of the Bronx. Already released videos include stories about “the break,” a hip-hop term that originated in the borough and refers to the moment in a song where everything stops but the percussion. Another tells the story of the Piccirilli Brothers, Bronx residents and sculptors who carved the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Blox TV team has also brought in local talent to develop shows about their own personal connections to the Bronx.
Tyler Dow, 25, one of the hosts selected at an open casting call for The Blox TV, was heading to the Bronx Wrestling Federation — an underground wrestling ring celebrating the tradition of Mexican wrestling, or “Lucha Libre” — on a recent Saturday to check it out for a story. He said a spot like this is just one example of a well-kept Bronx secret.
“I think people see the Bronx through a very skewed lens, based off of just five or six train stops,” said Dow, who is from Co-op City. “There’s so much more to it.”
The Blox TV producers encourage hosts to develop shows that highlight their interests, as well as their connections to the borough. Host Richard Washington, 27, an aspiring actor, recently wrote shows about Shawn Martinborough, a Bronx-born comic artist who has drawn works for Marvel, as well as Bronx Heroes Comic Con, which attracts fans of comics and graphic novels each year. Washington, who is a fan of all things related to comics and superheroes, first heard about the project from his cousin, Jerome LaMaar, who owns South Bronx boutique 9J on Bruckner Boulevard.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I first came here,” said Washington. “But once Marco explained the whole concept to me, I thought ‘oh wow, this is my chance to really showcase what I’m interested in.’”
Bronx Narratives, a website started in 2014, by photographer Dondre Green and two fellow Bronx natives, Hoay Smith and Dekota Letman, recently released its first print magazine at Gun Hill Tavern in Port Morris. The publication is heavily visual, featuring bold, colorful photos of restaurants, style influencers, art exhibitions and events throughout the borough. The team started the website with a similar message of changing the typical stories coming out of the Bronx, which often focus on violence or poverty.
“I wanted other people to identify and interact with the borough differently,” said Green. “The best way I knew that was through photography.”
In its inaugural print issue, Bronx Narratives featured a spread on vegan restaurants in the borough, a profile of Hanoi Evangelista, a host of BronxNet Community Television; and a story on hip-hop artist Swizz Beatz’s controversial No Commission art show in August 2016, which was criticized for showcasing few Bronx-based artists.
The teams behind Bronx Narratives and The Blox TV are young, but they understand that the borough is changing rapidly. As new restaurants and hip art galleries come in, there is always a lingering fear that longtime residents will be pushed out, or that neighborhoods will lose their authenticity.
“For me gentrification means exclusion,” said Shalma. “You create something that doesn’t involve the community. But we want inclusion, we want conversation.”
This is one of the reasons The Blox TV has also brought in young people from the borough to work on the show. In the Bronx, where high school graduation rates are historically the lowest of any borough in New York, The Blox TV team said that mentoring young people is an important part of their work with the community.
“We want to be able to encourage young people in the Bronx, and show them that they don’t have to leave in order to be successful,” said Todd. “We’re highlighting people that are successful artists and entrepreneurs; that are choosing to stay and re-invest in the community.”
Gary Axelbank, who has been hosting his television show for more than 20 years, said that he hopes these projects will change the perception of the Bronx that some might get from reading the local news.
“I want people to understand that we have people with incredible soul, and people who lead dignified lives. And it’s not always pretty — but there is an incredible soul and dignity all across the Bronx. If we can continue to communicate that, it will be great.”