East New York, Brooklyn has long had a reputation as a tough neighborhood. If you aren’t familiar with the name or the neighborhood, it’s on the eastern border between Brooklyn and Queens, and faces Jamaica Bay.
It’s in a large valley created by the glaciers which tore through New York millions of years ago. One can stand at the top of the elevated terminal moraine at Highland Boulevard and see this large neighborhood spread out before your eyes, reaching towards the endless water of the bay. It’s pretty impressive.
Most people, if they see East New York at all, prefer to see it from that lofty distance. Most just pass through as quickly as they can, when on the road to or from JFK airport.
It’s one of THOSE neighborhoods – infamous in the city for its serious issues of poverty, gang activity, drugs, violent crime, and large sprawling high-rise housing projects.
Of course that’s only one side of the story. One rarely hears about the neighborhood’s tough and hard-working people, the positive activity and institutions there, along with some great architecture and history.
But for good or ill, it’s the kind of place that can fire you to great strength in the crucible of adversity, or crush you under its weight.
This is where Cory Nelson grew up. He decided as a child on these tough streets that he would not be consumed by the circumstances of his environment, but would use its lessons to enable him to succeed in life. For Cory, East New York was Motivation.
I spoke to Cory in his new restaurant space in Troy. He was busy building benches and the bar for his food incubator called the Troy Kitchen, located in a sprawling building on Congress Street that last housed downtown Troy’s only sizable supermarket .
Cory’s gotten a lot of press lately, and after he opens his Troy Kitchen this February 26th, at Troy Night Out, he’s sure to get a lot more. He’s got a great idea, lots of support, and he’s going to be very successful.
Cory is tall and handsome, with the natural grace of an athlete or dancer. He’s become a fixture in Troy’s downtown arts and culture scene, always showing up attired in a dress shirt and jacket, not the norm in a casual town like Troy.
I’ve watched Cory work a room like Bill Clinton, with the elegance of a young Harry Belafonte. He has “It” - that undefinable charisma that draws people towards him like a magnet.
But I wanted to go beyond the walls of the restaurant and talk to the man behind it. I want to share Cory’s inspiring life story. After all, it’s pretty impressive to even have a great life story when one is only in his late 20s.
East New York and Beyond
Cory was born and raised in East New York, along with his two sisters. He attended local schools. When it came time to pick a high school, Cory looked at his choices and picked the High School of Transit Technology, aka “Transit Tech,” also located in East New York.
New York City has a hundred year history of specialized high schools, geared towards training students to work in the city’s many industries. There are high schools for everything from garment center trades to business technology, to performing arts and the transit systems that move the city.
Students at Transit Tech can go on to well-paying jobs with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, running and working on the city’s subways. In addition to their specialized studies, Transit Tech also held another plus for Cory – they had the city’s best track and field team.
Cory’s run track since he was a child. At Transit Tech, he joined a team that with his participation, won city, state and national championships. Cory was a national high school champion in cross country and and indoor track.
Being an exceptional athlete led to Cory’s acceptance at St Augustine’s College in Raleigh, NC. There, the coach for the USA Olympic Track Team worked and trained his Olympic and college teams. Cory could have been one of them.
But he noticed a few things – the school’s academic programs were not what he wanted, and while he met a lot of professional athletes, he saw that none of them had been able to parlay their physical skills into strong financial futures. He began to realize that running fast was not necessarily running smart.
He transferred out.
He received a full athletic scholarship to Howard University, in Washington DC, the most prestigious of the traditionally black colleges.
Howard and other colleges like it were established after the Civil War, when most white colleges and universities would not accept African American students. The school has been training many of the country’s black doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and other professionals for a century and a half.
Although he ran track at Howard, Cory spent more of his time cracking down on academics. He graduated with a degree in industrial chemistry and computer science.
Of Howard University, Cory says, “Howard was the best thing to happen me. I was with people who looked the same as me, but we were all from different backgrounds and different places in life. It showed me my people in a much more positive light than I was used to in ENY.
It inspired me greatly to go out and do things that were different than the traditional paths of success that I was used to seeing."
Job opportunities in Troy brought Cory to Troy, and he arrived here in 2013 knowing no one, and knowing nothing about his new home. But he liked what he saw – a friendly city that offered a multitude of opportunities if one just had a little imagination and a lot of determination.
After only a short time, he decided to open an art gallery. And wouldn’t you know it – someone from his past in East New York came back into the picture! Troy really is a crossroads!
That story, and the rest of my interview with Cory in my next blog post, later this week. I hope you’ll join me for the rest of Cory’s story.
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My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.