Building New Housing Without Youth Centers and Stores Doesn’t Create Community- Reflections on a Walking Tour of Morriansania
Dr Mark Naison
Last Wednesday, I led a walking tour of Morrisania for 25 interns from a community legal services organizations called “The Bronx Defenders.” The group, mostly consisting of law students, was young, sharp, and keenly observant. The tour is one of my favorite events, as it gives me a chance to talk about Morrisania’s unique history as one of the nation’s most racially and cultural integrated communities in the US from the late 1930’s through the early 1960’s and to boast of its unmatched legacy of musical creativity The tour also gives me a chance to talk about the arson and abandonment cycle which hit the neighborhood in the late sixties and lasted through the late seventies, leading to a loss of nearly half the neighborhoods housing stock, and nearly sixty percent of its population, between 1970 and `1980
Despite the tragic events the tour covers, it usually ends on a somewhat upbeat note because of the wave of new housing construction taking place in Morrisania. Each time I do the tour, it seems that another vacant lot is being filled with two or three family townhouses, or six to eight story apartment buildings, to the point where there are almost no vacant lots left. Even during the current economic crisis, the rebuilding of Morriansania’s housing stock has continued unabated, with new construction being initiated someplace in the neighborhood almost weekly.
But though this wave of new construction is certainly gratifying, especially to someone who lived in the neighborhood, or who visited it regularly during those terrifying years when huge stretches of Morrisania and nearby Hunts Point offered a depressing vista of garbage filled lots, abandoned cars, and wild dogs roaming the streets, there were some critical things missing amidst what some people would consider a miracle of urban revitalization
One of these is youth centers. During our three mile walk through Morrisania, going through the neighborhoods major thoroughfares ( Stebbins Ave, Prospect Ave, Boston Road, 163rd Street) as well as many side streets, through we saw what had to be several thousand new units of affordable housing , but not one new gymnasium, Boys and Girls Club, PAL Center, or YM/ YWCA
To many members of my tour group, this seemed like an example of incredibly poor planning. Bringing thousands of new residents into a neighborhood, many of whom are young immigrant families with children, without making any provision for indoor recreation space, or organized sports leagues, for children and adolescents was a virtual invitation to these youngsters to spend their leisure hours in the street. In a community which already had a serious gang problem and a thriving drug economy, this was a prescription for disaster. Several people we met in the neighborhood, especially longtime Bronx youth worker and neighborhood advocate Hetty Fox, said that the absence of constructive youth activities had created a vicious cycle of drug related violence, and brutal, often indiscriminate police harassment that made life in Morrisania extremely dangerous and stressful for neighborhood adolescents, especially adolescent males. She spoke of the “genius of youth” being wasted in her community and called the destruction of human potential taking place in the Bronx as just as bad, if not worse, as the destruction of the borough’s housing stock that took place in the 1970’s.
Shaken by Hetty Fox’s comments, our group looked at all the newly built housing we passed, with more cynical eyes, and noticed something else missing- stores and commercial space. Frankly, this was something I had never noticed before on my walks through the neighborhood, but the group’s observation was right on point. There large portions of Morrisania, most notably along Stebbins Ave ( now Rev James Polite Place) where scores of new multiple dwellings had been erected without so much as a single grocery store being opened to serve what were probably thousands of new residents. The same was true of new housing built along Home Street, Union Avenue, and other secondary thoroughfares. Not only did such an absence of commercial development make shopping more time consuming and inconvenient for Morrisania residents, it missed an opportunity to spur the creation of small businesses, which among other things, promote sociability among old and new residents, provide an outlet for ethnic enterprise and create legal job opportunities for neighborhood youth.
By the time we had finished our Morrisania tour- at a great neighborhood small business called Johnson’s BBQ which had been in the same location for over fifty years- we were all feeling that a huge opportunity had been missed to recreate the nurturing atmosphere and community spirit that Morrisania had once possessed during the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. In their rush to fill the city’s desperate need for affordable housing, city officials and local community groups had neglected to provide room in their plans for two critical components of a healthy city neighborhood- youth programs and small businesses. The result was a neighborhood which, on the surface looked healthy and dynamic, but was plagued with drug problems, police problems and a sense of trepidation among many residents about what would happen to their children when they reached adolescence.
It’s time we start doing the kind of wholistic planning that my good friend Leroi Archible ( known throughout the Bronx as “Street Man”) has been recommending for years, and start building youth centers, ballfields and strip malls in every portion of the Bronx marked off for “redevelopment.” Throwing up housing without other services and amenities is a poor prescription for creating community
June 16, 2009