African American Studies
Elias Karmon is a businessperson, philanthropist and community leader in theBronxfor the last seventy years. Karmon Graduated NYU’sSchoolofCommerceand Accounts Finance in 1932 and entered into the industry of wholesale clothing. Not long after he began working his boss died and his boss’s family sold him the business, but Karmon merged with a bad businessperson and the business soon collapsed. After his first business failure, Karmon thought it would be easier in the retail business; he bought and opened a shop in Morrisania in between 1939-40. Karmon would own the shop on Morrisania for the next ten years. His original clientele was mostly Jewish people, Italians, Greeks, then Black people and later Hispanics predominately fromPuerto Rico.
After Karmon opened the store in Morrisania, he joined the Urban League, which came to theBronxin 1950. Council members and politicians Bertha Schwartz and Mildred McCarthy sought Karmon to join the Jackson Democratic Club. . TheJacksonDemocratic club was significant for having black political leaders. Karmon helped Walter Gladwin become the first African American elected official from theBronxin 1952; Karmon’s store coordinated and ran Gladwin’s campaign. Also Anne Withey a black woman became a corporation council member and Ivan Warner ran for State Senator and was elected after Gladwin became a judge in the 1960s.
Karmon’s store developed a significant African American clientele because it provided the latest fashions, including Zoot-suits. Colin Powell was also a customer of Karmon’s store when Powell lived on Kelly Street and during his time in the ROTC. Powell was the only customer Karmon knew who went to college and they enjoyed each other’s company.
In the 1940s, people fromHarlembegan moving into Morrisania and the community was very aware of the social and cultural changes occurring. The Urban League had the “The Meat Cutter’s Unions” and became very involved in housing in theBronx. By the 1950s, Morrisania was trying to establish a “balanced community” with 40% white, 40% black and the last 20% including other races. At the same time, the Forest Neighborhood housing and the Woodstock Terrace began development with the same theory, but became predominately black. Karmon also involved in housing in the South Bronx, including St. Mary’s housing with the Bronx Welfare and Health Council. The St. Mary’s housing caused a great uproar because Middle Income Housing would not receive the same facilities as the lower income housing. Karmon had trouble finding organizations that would help Middle-income housing, however the project did succeed in getting community facilities in the housing project. St.Mary was not intended to fit into any quota like other housing projects, but rather function on a first come, first served basis.
In the housing developments, there was initially not a big problem with gangs, but the problem grew depending on the region (“we did not have the issue of gangs on Prospect we get it onLongwood Ave.”) In the 1950s, Karman also became involved with the local schools. He was appointed by Jimmy Lions as a member of the Local School Board and he worked with Dr. Benjamin Strought on the area south of Hollywood Ave and North up to Parkchester, which included the schools P.S.99, P.S.23, P.S.39, P.S.50, P.S.52, P.S.62, P.S.75, and P.S.48. The committee often visited the schools, and Dr. Strought created the “East Bronx Community Council” that worked with everyone in the community, including parents and the council addressed people’s complaints. In the late fifties and sixties Karman was the delegate from the Central Board of Education to district seven and worked with schools. When there were parades, it often composed of students from at least ten or fifteen different schools, including boy scouts and the City Missions Society.
Karmon also became involved in the issue of public sanitation and as he put it, “the city woke up to the fact that the streets were dirty.” George Bishop was in charge of theBronxand divided responsibility in each neighborhood. Karmon was chairperson of district twenty-two of the sanitation department and the department taught citizens how to use garbage cans and convinced Landlords to help maintain the apartments they rented with paint, doors and cleaning the sidewalk. In addition, theNew York Citypolice department and Health department offered their services.
Prospect Ave was a classy, important and commercial street and the hub of activity with many different department stores took place down on 3rd Ave and 149th Street. The fifties was a very optimistic time because everyone had sturdy jobs, but in the sixties trouble was brewing, especially after constant blackouts. People began migrating from Morrisania to Parkchester and then toCoopCity. People also began hearing about drugs in the sixties and especially heroin. Karmon never saw it directly, but there were plenty of drug rehabilitation centers around.
During the Bronx Fires Karmon saw people fill out their housing applications a year early and purposely burn down their apartments so they could move into housing sooner, because otherwise the wait for housing was two to three years long. However, Karmon was constantly present at the housing he owned and rented to ensure there were no major problems and he never had his property burn down. Karmon saw the warning signs of losing business as the class of people who shopped in his store changed to the least affluent of the community. However, he personally was finically stable because he also had real estate, most of which was in theSouth Bronx. The building where his store stood, which later became his office and the renter of several other business is still intact. After he decided to close his retail business, he made the store his office because he was still heavily involved in real estate and people still came to him for help like before. Karmon was a well-known man, if anyone had a problem in the community they were sent to him: “I was like a social worker.”
Beginning in the forties, but especially in the sixties banks began using red lining concerning theBronxwhich made it almost impossible to obtain loans or mortgages. This led to the development of the lay owned federal bank in 1959 to grant loans to people in the red lined district for people particularly onProspect Ave. If landlords needed money for a mortgage, they had to go to second raters and “pay through the nose.” Another way to borrow money was with finance companies, which were widespread throughout the neighborhoods and had high interest rates. Banks were not as scared of political involvement in behalf of the community as they are now.
Businesspersons began leaving in the fifties and especially the sixties. The atmosphere changed in the sixties, people more scared and carry less money around.
The worst time Karmon remembers for theBronxwas during the two blackouts: 1966 and 1977. There was terrible looting, shooting and burning down of property. The second blackout destroyedProspect Aveas a well off business area and it has never been the same since.
In 1952, Karmon became President of the Prospect Ave. Neighborhood Business Association and represented that association at the Chamber of Commerce.
Karmon was also involved in the Bronx Council of Arts and health services, such as the building of a newLincolnHospital. Karmon was on the board of Lay Revisory Committee of the Lincoln Hospital for nineteen years and the chairperson for nine years, yet he had trouble getting support for the project until Ramon Velez of the Hunts Point Multi-Service helped
Karmon, Elias. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive Fordham University.
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