Albert Quiñones, a major figure in the cultural resurrection of the South Bronx during the decades when buildings burned and city government went MIA, died on Dec. 2 after a long illness. He was 65.
Quiñones’ hard-nosed style of advocacy won battles against city hall on behalf of his fellow South Bronxites, helping strengthen the sense of cultural identity for South Bronx residents from the Puerto Rican diaspora.
One of his most enduring victories was the creation of 52 People for Progress, Inc., a collective of South Bronx residents who fought to revive a derelict park at the corner of Kelly Street and Avenue St. John during the 1980s, when arsons and violent crime were rampant. Over the decades since its creation in 1990, 52 Park has gone on to become one of the city’s hottest venues for Salsa and Latin jazz. In its early days Quiñones helped spearhead a campaign to pressure the city to ramp up trash removal from the park and adjacent abandoned properties, before establishing Park 52 as a safe and attractive oasis.
World renowned Salsa musicians who attended PS 52 on Kelly Street across the street from the park over the years include Ray Barreto, Eddie Palmieri, Benny Bonilla, Orlando Marin, Ray Coen, Joe Quijano and Manny Oquendo.
Quiñones, who grew up across from the park, began a lifetime of involvement with its revival modestly: by painting a stake of wood on one of the park benches with blue paint that had been donated by a friend. He then led a small group of residents who took it on themselves to clean up the crack vials, syringes and other garbage that were strewn all over the park, then petitioned the city to renovate it and build an amphitheater where concerts for the community would be held.
Longtime residents remembered Quiñones at a meeting of Community Board 2 at The Point CDC on Dec. 17.
“He kept young people like me safe from violence” during the turbulent 1980s, recalled City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., who grew up on Vyse Street. “He wasn’t always easy to work with,” Salamanca conceded.
Maria Torres, The Point’s president, credited Quiñones for understanding the need for cultural centers where residents forgotten by their government could gather.
“The Point wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for people like him,” said Torres.
Quiñones’ advocacy also helped in the creation in 1984 of Rainey Garden, later Rainey Park, on Beck Street, and in 1989 of Demera/Santiago Garden on Avenue St. John and Kelly Street. In 1990 the 350-seat Teatro Miranda in 52 Park was inaugurated, and later became home to the popular 52 Latin Jazz Concerts Series. More than 200 concerts have been performed there over the years, featuring many of the same Salsa legends who had attended grade school at PS 52.
In 2013, again under Quiñones’ leadership, 52 People For Progress, Inc. teamed with the city to renovate Playground 52 and add a larger amphitheater, basketball courts with bleachers and a skate park. The playground reopened last year.
Grammy winning percussionist Bobby Sanabria called Quiñones “A true Nuyorican Street Warrior, Activist, Community Organizer, Concert Producer.” Of the weekly concert series, Sanabria said that “Al would charge a dollar to attendees that would go back in a kitty to maintain the park’s pristine appearance, a source of pride for the neighborhood, the Bronx, and NYC.”
“Al would honor musicians, friends, and anyone else who he felt deserved recognition from the park by bestowing an engraved ’52 Brick’ to them,” Sanabria added. “It is one of the great highlights of my life to not only have performed at the park several times, but to also have personally received one of these ‘Bricks’ from Al and all of the members of the organization who all loved and respected him.”
Longwood residents and Community Board 2 are now asking the City Council to rename the street corner at Kelly and Ave. St. John for him, and to name 52 Playground Inc. Al Quiñones Memorial Playground. Letters of support for the latter should be sent to James Melendez at email@example.com.
Al Quiñones left a son, a daughter and two brothers.