Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Bronx Tale-Development Without Gentrification-Published in OAH Newsletter

A Bronx Tale- Development Without Gentrification

Mark Naison
Fordham University

During the last twenty years, the Bronx, New York’s most multicultural borough- 85% Black and Latino according to the 2000 Census- has undergone a remarkable process of economic and cultural revitalization . While much of the nation still thinks “the Bronx is Burning” ( the title of a popular book and ESPN miniseries about the Yankees) the vacant, rubble filled lots that once attracted presidents and visitors from all over the world are now filled with shopping centers, town houses, apartment buildings and one and two family homes. If you go to the corner of Charlotte Street and Boston Road ( three blocks from 174th street stop of the #5 train), where Jimmy Carter came to view the devastation in 1977, you will not see a single abandoned building or piece of land in any direction. Moreover, Crotona Park, three blocks to the north of Charlotte Street, which in the 70’s had no working street lights and was rarely used by local residents ,has been transformed into an urban oasis with a pool, 20 professional level tennis courts, excellent baseball and soccer fields, a nature center, and summer concerts featuring the Bronx’s greatest doo wop singers and old school Hip Hop DJ’s.

But what makes this transformation remarkable is that is has occurred, at least thus far, without significant displacement of the Bronx's immigrant and working class residents. Whereas Harlem and East Harlem, the Lower East Side, Williamsbugh and Park Slope have seen neighborhoods once plagued by abandonment and decay attract wealthy professionals and massive private investment, new housing in the Bronx , most of it built by non profit organizations, has almost entirely been purchased or rented by neighborhood residents or new immigrants from Africa, the Dominican Republic and the Anglophone Carribbean . If you walk through the South Bronx neighborhoods that have been most dramatically transformed, Morrisania, Melrose, Hunts Point, and Morris Heights, you will see bodegas, hair braiding salons, travel agencies, African groceries, Caribbean bakeries and numerous evangelical churches, but no sushi bars, Starbucks or outdoor cafes. While there has been some movement of artists and professionals into neighborhoods south of Yankee Stadium, the biggest new migration into the Bronx has come from immigrant and working class families displaced from Harlem, Washington Heights, the Lower East Side and parts of Brooklyn. Rents in the South and West Bronx are the lowest in the city, but still present a challenge for working class families because wages in the city's service economy are so low. Many Bronx apartments and private dwellings contain multiple families and the major Bronx shopping districts, the Hub ( at the intersection of 149th Street and 3rd Avenue), Tremont Avenue, and Fordham Road are packed with people during daylight hours seven days a week. The days of abandoned storefronts in the Bronx are long gone.

The story of the Bronx's revival begins with churches and community organizations, who in the worst years of the arson and abandonment cycle, created non profit development corporations to rehabilitate buildings that could be salvaged, and build new units on abandoned lots. Organizations like South Bronx Churches, the Mid Bronx Desperadoes, Nos Quedamos, Banana Kelly Improvement Association, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation, all of whom made affordability the major criteria for new housing they constructed, are the real heroes of the Bronx's revival. But the Bronx, has also benefited from improved political leadership, especially in the Borough Presidents office, whose last two occupants, Fernando Ferrer and Adolfo Carrion, have worked closely with community organizations to attract new housing and businesses without changing the demographic profile of Bronx neighborhoods. Area universities have also played a role in the Bronx's revival, both by sponsoring cultural programs open to community residents, and by investing in affordable housing. There is not one university in the Bronx which pursued development plans which have displaced low income residents, a record which universities in other parts of the city, and other parts of the nation, would do well to imitate

The Bronx has a rich cultural life which is accessible to residents and visitors. Hostos College, at the intersection of the Grand Concourse and 149th Street, has an excellent art gallery and wonderful musical programs that highlight the Bronx's Latin heritage ( The Bronx Museum of the Arts, at 165th Street and the Grand Concourse, has wonderful collections featuring Bronx history and third world cultures, and excellent film series and musical programs ( The Bronx County Historical Society, on 209th Street and Bainbridge Avenue, has an excellent archive and a museum which features permanent and special exhibits ( www The Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, at the intersection of Bedford Park Road and Jerome Avenue, has world class entertainment at affordable prices ( And the Paradise Theater, one of the largest art deco theaters in the world, at 188th Street and Grand Concourse, has recently been reopened for concerts and sporting events ( featuring artists ranging from Patti Labelle to Grandmaster Flash.

The major visitor attractions in the Bronx are also worth visiting- Yankee Stadium, The Bronx Zoo, the Bronx Botanical Gardens. So are the Bronx's two great restaurant districts, Arthur Avenue, which features excellent Italian food, and City Island , which has many good seafood restaurants.

But if you want to get off the beaten path and see one of America's most inspiring urban success stories, take the #5 train to the Bronx, get off at the 174th Street stop, and stroll south on Boston Road to Charlotte Street. After you've walked around and seen where whole new neighborhoods have been created in a place which was once a worldwide symbol of urban decay, then walk down Boston Road to 169th street to McKinley Square, once the cultural and commercial center of the Bronx's African American Community, and treat yourself to some West Indian beef, chicken or vegetable patties (you have a choice of two places). What you see, and you experience, will show you that neighborhood development need not displace working class people. It can empower them, and build on their cultures and aspirations