Urban men using street smarts to tone bodies

Hip-hop label wants to cash in on use of outdoor-fixture gym

August 16, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - On a recent afternoon, a half-dozen men built like boxers turned a Harlem street corner into an outdoor gym. Their equipment rose from the streetscape: scaffolding, a police and fire call box, a traffic control box and a pedestrian walk light.

The scaffolding provided bars for pull-ups. The men positioned themselves between the call box and the traffic control box to raise and lower their bodies. The pedestrian light came in handy for pull-ups, too.

"I come out at 9 in the morning and then in the afternoon everyday," said Antwan Smith, 18, who works out on scaffolding that hugs a four-story building at Manhattan Avenue and 118th Street. "It's a great stress reliever, and it doesn't cost me a thing."

Such scenes have become more familiar in urban areas from New York to Los Angeles to Miami. The workouts have become so popular that one young entrepreneur and filmmaker, Douglas Knox, is trying to cash in with an instructional exercise video that he produced.

The video, scheduled to be released in September, is part of the expanding empire of Ruff Ryders Entertainment. Founded as a record label by Joaquin and Darrin Dean, who were raised in Harlem, the 14-year-old company has cultivated some of hip-hop's biggest talents today, such as Swizz Beatz, the producer, and rappers Eve, DMX and Styles, whose single, "Good Times," is one of the summer's top 20 hits.

Ruff Ryders, which plans to distribute the video through Urban Works Entertainment and Ventura Distribution, sees The Thug Workout as a way to bolster its revenue now that record sales have slumped, in part because of Internet piracy.

Whether working out on a street corner is as effective as working out in a gym is an open question, but Ruff Ryders clearly thinks it has come up with a lucrative marketing tool.

The tape shows sinewy men doing pull-ups and chin-ups on playground monkey bars, scaffolding and street signs. In some scenes, the men perform acrobatic tricks. In another, an instructor shows viewers how to do pull-ups while doing the moonwalk. The language is, well, unsuitable for a family newspaper.

"People want to see the real grind," Knox said. "People like to see real TV. That's what we're selling. This video will definitely separate the boys from the men like a day care center."

Street-corner workouts appear to have been born more of frustration than amusement. The activity emanated from prison yards and are about rawness and gaining street credibility.

While in lockdown, some men worked out just to pass the time, only to return home with sculpted frames that inspired neighborhood friends to work out. With no place to go, they went to the streets, using their own weight as resistance.

"You always wondered how some guys got really nice bodies and they're always chilling," Gainey said. "You say to yourself, `I've never seen him pick up anything, and I'm always working hard at the gym.' Well, this is how he got it. He's at the park, while you're at the gym with your $150-an-hour personal trainer, who's saying, `Come on, you can do it.' We don't do that in the 'hood. We come at you hard."

On the Harlem street corner, on a day when the sunny haze hovered over the city like exhaust from an 18-wheeler, several men repeated dozens of sets of 35 chin-ups, dips and push-ups.

They relied on crates and the scaffolding. Peter Clarke, 24, who is featured in the video and was visiting that day from Mount Vernon, jumped rope with the speed of a boxer.

"We go at each other," said Orington Gordon, 26, of Harlem. "One of us will do a set and challenge the next man. No pain, no gain.

"That's a fact. If you don't feel the burn, there's no point to working out."

Val Sappe, 23, began working out on the bars, as he calls the scaffolding, after seeing neighborhood men working out. It has become a big part of his social life.

He says that people work out year round.

Sappe said that everyone wants to look toned and if the scaffolding were not on the corner, they would simply find other street furniture.

"People on some other blocks without scaffolding use telephone booths," Sappe said.

Smith added, "It's like a hobby and a sport. You get benefits, and the ladies love it."

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