Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Untold Story: How Immigrants Have Helped Revitalize Bronx Neighborhoods

Most Americans probably still think of the Bronx through metaphors of decline and decay, epitomized by the phrase, "the Bronx is Burning," but that phrase doesn't begin to describe what is happening in the borough today.. Yes, from the late 60's through the late 70's, large portions of the Bronx south of the Cross Bronx experienced disinvestment, arson and elimination of vital services, leaving vacant rubble filled lots that attracted huge media attention. But in the last 30 years, through the hard work of local residents and community organizations, almost all those vacant lots have been filled with one and two family homes, apartment buildings and shopping centers. In fact the Bronx has become a great American Success Story, perhaps the only large urban area in the nation ( and there are many) where neighborhoods ravaged by de-industrialization and disinvestment have been completely rebuilt. If you think I am exaggerating, go visit Buffalo, Camden, Detroit, Gary Indiana, Baltimore or Philadelphia and then drive around the Bronx. The contrast will make your head spin
One of the major factors contributing to the Bronx's revitalization, and one which is little discussed, has been immigration. Recent immigrants from West Africa, the Dominican Republic, the West Indies, Mexico and South Asia compose a sizable proportion of the people who have moved into the new housing placed on once vacant lots, and run many of the businesses serving the residents of those areas
If you want to see that influence brought to life, drive up the hill from Yankee Stadium to Highbridge and Morris Heights, two neighborhoods hard hit by the abandonment cycle in the 1970's. Not only will you see lots of newly built housing, if you observe the street traffic, and walk into neighborhood businesses, you notice the presence of the neighborhood's large West African and Dominican population. You will also, if you observe carefully, notice some mosques and Islamic centers, as most of the West African immigrants are Muslim. Their peaceful interaction with their neighbors has won them great respect and helped contribute to the neighborhoods revitalization.
If you go Southward and Eastward into Mott Haven and Morrisania, you will see similar immigrant influences, only in these communities the Mexican presence is stronger than the Dominican one. Once again, the business district is a key indicator as these neighborhoods contain a growing number of Mexican groceries and restaurants.
As someone who teaches, does research and works with community organizations in the Bronx, these images are ones I see almost every day. But I feel compelled to share them with people who may be influenced by rhetoric painting immigrants, particularly Mexican and Muslim immigrants, as a destructive, even dangerous force in our society.
From what I have seen in the Bronx, that rhetoric veers far from the mark. In Bronx neighborhoods, and in Bronx public schools, these stigmatized groups have been major contributors to the Bronx's revitalization. This is a story which must be told, and hopefully, my own university, Fordham, will commit itself to help telling it.


Lisa Cooley said...

Sometime in the 90s the Times reported that my old neighborhood, which they called Williamsbridge (a term I'd never heard) and included the Eastchester projects where I grew up, was the only neighborhood in NYC in which no ethnic or racial group was in the majority. What I remember from my childhood was that the Projects were mostly black and the surrounding neighborhood was Jewish, Italian, and also Black and Puerto Rican, so my memory supports what they said (I was born in 1960.)

More recently I visited a friend in the Lydig Avenue area, formerly a mostly-white area. What struck me was the predominance of South Asians. Still, it seemed very mixed. I'd live there in a heartbeat if I ever moved back! Right between both the 5 Morris Ave. station and the elevated on White Plains Road.

Buster said...

You might be interested in this book:

David said...

Immigration has always played a central role in the construction and development of our city, no question. In the past 25 years we have had high levels of immigration, especially from the DR, Russia, Ukraine, Mexico and Central America, China, various West African countries, etc. Those recent immigrants, along with young Americans who have migrated to NY must by now number in the millions. And what do we see? Crime has gone down every year during this period, jobs up, quality of life, up, and turns out to a huge win-win. The #NYC-ID promoted by the @NYCCouncil and @NYCMayorsOffice is a uniting factor. I only wish the rest of the country could get smarter about these issues.

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