Growing up in the south Dr. Michael Burke never imagined he would be living in the Bronx. But, for the past 11 years Burke has called the Boogie Down home.
Burke, 53, was born and raised in Savannah, Ga., by Cecile and Lagree Burke. His mom, a retired math teacher and his late father, an electrician, taught him the values of hard work, education, to treat people well and not to be afraid to ask for help
As a child he would visit his grandmother Mattie Harris in Williamsbridge, but his first real experience with the Bronx was at age 20 when he spent the summer with her. Two years later after graduating from Hampton University, Burke moved in with her as he took a job in Connecticut with a chemical company.
He told the Bronx Times he was not used to the fast pace life and unfriendly people.
“It was one hell of a difference,” Burke said.
After a while he relocated to Connecticut, but continued to visit Harris on the weekends. Burke stayed there for a couple years, yet still had a thirst to learn.
He moved back to Georgia and obtained his master’s in organic chemistry from Georgia Tech, a master’s degree in industrial chemistry from Clark Atlanta University and a PhD in polymer science from the University of Akron.
While Burke was in school until age 35, he wanted a good education and to be challenged. From there, he worked in Ohio, Chicago and Rhode Island before returning to the Bronx in 2009.
He taught part time at Bronx Community College and at Lehman and in 2015 launched ASIR Materials, a company that makes components for phones.
“I initially thought I wanted to be an engineer,” he recalled. “You couldn’t have told me that I wouldn’t have been working in chemistry.”
Burke lives in the same home his grandmother resided in. Harris was well known in the neighborhood and served on the community board and precinct council and even had a street named after her.
Her passion for helping people and being accountable was passed on to her grandson.
According to Burke, the Wakefield he saw as a kid and young adult does not resemble what it is today. The area which was once diverse is now just developers coming in and building.
“I see the changes that are happening and some of the change quite frankly I don’t like,” he stated.
He recalled that when he first made the Bronx his home crime was high in Wakefield. In fact, one person on his block was allegedly harboring gang members.
Burke didn’t see white collar workers and wondered what made them leave the community.
“How do I make where I live better?” he asked. “What can I do to impact change?”
Burke attended community board meetings and began to understand more of the ins-and-outs of CB 12 and in 2016 was appointed to the board. Then in October 2020, he was elected chair.
Burke noticed that in the past there was minimal discussion on issues and often, it was just voting and approving liquor licenses. He wanted his board members to do their homework and not be afraid to challenge each other or developers.
Going forward Burke wants to improve the economic wealth in the community, find ways to provide better health care and have sources for fresh quality food like farmers markets.
“You couldn’t have told me that I would be the chair of the board,” he commented. “I think now what I like about the board is people are asking critical questions. You can always learn from somebody.”