As the proud owner of 93 pairs of sneakers, Jose Rivera knew that his 94th was awaiting him behind the register. Nonetheless, as he entered the downtown Allentown apparel store wearing his usual black T-shirt with the words “END GUN VIOLENCE” boldly on the front, Rivera gravitated towards the far end of the floor to investigate the fresh stock of kicks.
“This is my sanctuary, my bodega, my corner store. I come here, it’s part of my culture,” said Rivera as he walked into DTLR Villa at Hamilton and Eighth St. in downtown Allentown.
He scanned the sneaker display filled with Jordans and his favorites, Jordan 1s. There were Nike Air Force 1’s and even Timberlands. But one caught his immediate attention—another Jordan brand shoe, this one featuring the new “Hemp” colorway.
After spending the next few minutes poring over practically every pair and walking out without something new to add to his ever-growing collection, Rivera was determined to come back before the day was over.
Leaving his sanctuary, his escape from the outside world, Rivera stepped out in his Jordan high tops adorned with bright green laces to continue fulfilling his renewed purpose in life—one of service to residents in Allentown’s Center City and his goal of returning to school at Muhlenberg College to earn his bachelor’s degree in business administration.
“How do I help? How do I serve?” Those are the questions that run through Rivera’s mind every day when he walks up and down Seventh Street as Promise Neighborhoods’ director of community, transformation, recovery, reentry and health equity.
This is a vital function with Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, whose mission it is, according to the organization’s website, “to create safe, healthy, vibrant, inclusive neighborhoods, where children succeed in school and where adults and families thrive and want to live.”
With 12 homicides and more than 41 shootings in Allentown this year, the city is on track to surpass the level of gun violence in 2019 and 2020. In 2020, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an online database that tracks gun violence from 7,500 law enforcement, media, government and commercial sources, six people died as a result of homicide in Allentown. In 2019, there were 63 shootings, nine of which were fatal.
According to Promise Neighborhoods outreach intern Zaleeae Sierra, who was introduced to Promise Neighborhoods by her grandmother, this unfortunate reality facing Allentown has not changed much since her youth.
“For me, I went to Florida for six years, so I left when I was 10 years old but I came back and have a clear view of what’s changed. I left because of the violence that was here because my uncle passed away from gun violence. [We] came back and we’re still fighting the same fight, it just doesn’t change,” Zaleeae said.
The city’s gun violence rates mirror the bigger nationwide problem. According to statistics from the Gun Violence Archive, there were 991 gun violence deaths among individuals 17 and younger in 2019, a number that increased to 1,375 in 2020 and has only continued to surge with 1,165 deaths and 3,216 youths injured in 2021.
Despite his dedication to extending a “hand up,” not a hand-out, and inspiring change within the neighborhood, Rivera did not always have this community-oriented mindset. From his early years growing up on 193rd and Creston Ave, St. James Park in the Bronx and later moving to Chicago, in an attempt by his mother to escape the gangs that attracted him, Rivera was transplanted to Pennsylvania in the 1980s.
“At eight years old, I was already hustling and bustling the streets from riding the bike down the street and getting 100 dollars a day yelling if there were police coming,” he said.
For a young Rivera, this budding relationship with the gang, the Latin Kings, came with the perks of free Chinese food and a weekly pair of new sneakers.
A grade school teacher predicted his future. In the fifth grade, and already living in Allentown, Rivera recalled the advice of this teacher: “Tell your family to save for bail money and not for college.”
Although he remained a consistent honor roll student up until he decided to drop out in the 12th grade, Rivera lived up to the expectations that were set out for him in the culture of the inner city and eventually found himself incarcerated.
Despite being in and out of prison for a significant portion of his life, he continued to rise in the ranks as a King and, at one point, controlled 250 men across 25 state prisons as a member of the state council.
However, in 2000 Rivera attempted to leave the Latin Kings, but the gang wouldn’t let him.
“On Father’s Day, they found me bloodied up, 27 stab wounds by Central Elementary School. They left me there for dead, my own Latin Kings. Just because I wanted out, because of the rank that I had, the position I held they were scared that I was gonna go tell,” Rivera said.
“It took me a year to learn how to walk again.”
This was not the end of Rivera’s trauma, though. As soon as he could walk again and “could taste the blood” in his mouth, he was shot and once again behind bars.
Released in 2019 after serving his latest stint, a 13-year sentence on drug distribution and trafficking charges. Upon his release, Rivera was unsure of where to turn next. For him, prison was his safe space.
“For the first time ever, I didn’t know where I was going. I came out of prison, I wasn’t home yet.”
With the help of a mentor and professor at Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC), Ismael Arcelay, Rivera found his new home. Arcelay, who taught Rivera when he previously attended LCCC, and where he would enroll again under the Second Chance Pell Grant Program, came to pick Rivera up.
“There’s a place for you,” Arcelay told him when he arrived at the prison complex. Then, Arcelay proceeded to walk Rivera into Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley.
There, at the Promise Neighborhoods headquarters on Hamilton Street between Eleventh and Twelfth streets, Rivera found a new mission and crew to associate himself with.
“I was there every day for two weeks, during the day but at night I was on Seventh and Turner. Seventh and Turner is home base for me. I walk through this neighborhood, I eat from this neighborhood, I talk to the people because I’m relatable,” Rivera said donning baby blue Jordan 1’s and a pink Nike sweatsuit.
In Rivera’s opinion, though, the sneakers he owns are not just for style. They have a more unique purpose. “I don’t call them sneakers, they’re icebreakers.”
“It gives us something to talk about, we have a conversation now. I don’t have to talk about nothing else. We’ll talk about sneakers [but] every time he sees me now, he’s gonna dap me up, say what’s up, and we’ll go for a little walk in the neighborhood.”
Relatable in both style and life experiences, at 50 years old and still a loyal member of the Latin Kings, Rivera now serves an important role at Promise Neighborhoods.
In addition to this vital job at Promise and his lifelong affiliations with the gang, Rivera is a dedicated third-year student at Muhlenberg. Rivera is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in management. “I might be late to the party but I’m still dancing, I’m here,” Rivera said.
However, while the College has been a valuable resource for him, Rivera doesn’t shy away from calling the school out when he thinks it is wrong. At the same time, he doesn’t back down from people in power.
Rather, Rivera works alongside some of the most influential individuals in the Lehigh Valley. Most recently, he has partnered with J.B. Reilly, the city’s biggest real estate developer. And despite building a close, working relationship with Reilly, to the point where Reilly purchased a laptop to help Rivera keep up with his classes, Rivera has remained vocal about how Reilly’s emphasis on building luxury condos is not helping the plight of lower income residents.
While rolling out his $1 billion development plan, Reilly has not addressed the fact that rents are increasing while inner-city residents continue to live in broken-down housing at inflated rates.
“I give it to him, he worked hard, he started from the bottom up, so I don’t take away his work [but] I just have to take away when don’t see the harm he’s [Reilly] causing. And for me, it is always about the harm. As a developer, you should know the strongest part of your building is the foundation, the strongest part of these buildings is the community because that’s the foundation,” said Rivera.
“You built the emerald city, but we control the yellow brick road.”
Prior to reaching this fulfilling moment in his life, Rivera had to overcome some personal obstacles. After leaving a job at the Samuel Adams Brewery in Breinigsville that was negatively affecting him as he began “falling right back into the same negativity” and “chasing paper,” Rivera returned home to Promise Neighborhoods.
“I left that. I came back to Promise Neighborhoods, I volunteered for a year, and I earned my title,” Rivera said.
Walking Seventh Street and building relationships with community members, Rivera earns his position every day.
Traveling all across “home base,” Rivera’s presence can be felt. Walking the uneven sidewalks and ground littered with bottle caps.
Running into an old friend, fellow community-builder and recovering drug addict, Michelle Collazo steps off her row home stoop to greet Rivera and thank him for all of his help.
“He’s [Rivera] a pillar of our community. From the streets, to the books, to educating, to coming out into the streets and educating us, to doing what’s the best thing for us in our positions,” Collazo said.
“I needed help with my GED, I needed help for college, he gave me all the information I needed so that I can set up the foundation to become the pillar [that] we have to provide.”
Collazo is applying the resources given to her and is “living proof” of that in the work she is now doing for her community.
After sharing her story, and before parting ways, the two had to discuss one more thing- sneakers. Telling Rivera to check out Nike’s new online feature, she teased him about his overflowing closet of sneakers.
“90 pairs of sneakers,” she said. Without hesitation, Rivera responded to correct her. “93,” he said. “94 is waiting for me at the Villa right now.”
And surely, before returning to the Promise Neighborhoods headquarters, Rivera kept his word and purchased his 94th pair- Jordan 1’s featuring a dark blue and white colorway.
Rivera said, “I’m no longer that self-serving person, that it was [all] about me. I just walk and I help. I don’t know what my job is, but I know I’m doing a great job at it. I could have you follow me around, and I’ll show you that I put in work. It’s always about the people, it’s always about the community. We’re nothing without the community.”