The Bronx has quite a reputation. Grim and featureless slums as far away as Catena, Sicily have been dubbed "The Bronx" by their local residents. For decades, the name of the once-promising borough of New York City has been synonymous with urban blight and drug-related street crime—but it wasn't always so. This iconic borough, made up of many smaller, unique neighborhoods, has been host to both the American Dream and a decaying housing nightmare. The factors are complex and span centuries, but like a phoenix, the Bronx has begun its ascent from its literal ashes.
The original human inhabitants of the area now known as the Bronx had no written language. They left no written record of their time there, but evidence of the first human presence seems to date from about 5000 B.C. According to Professor and Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan, in The Bronx in the Frontier Era: From the Beginning to 1696 (Bronx, NY: The Bronx County Historical Society, 1993), these hunter-gatherers eventually learned the secrets of agriculture, sometime between 1100 B.C. and 900 B.C.
About 700 to 800 A.D. these roving bands began to develop into communities, tribes, which probably included the Siwanoys, the Weckquasgeeks, and the Manhattans, who also occupied the island later named for them.
Trade between villages was performed primarily by canoe, via the waterways that connected them, and footpaths were primarily for hunting parties.
In 1639, Jonas Bronck, born in Sweden, became the first European settler to live on the mainland, across from Manhattan to the north and east. He built his farm on the mainland with his wife and a few indentured servants, at a point just south of today's 150th Street. The Bronx River was named for him, and in 1898, so was the borough. The changing of the spelling is likely due to travelers orienting themselves by local landmarks. Traveling here would entail a journey to the Bronck's farm.
John Throckmorton and Anne Hutchinson were among other very early settlers of the area, but their stay was brief - and in Anne's case, tragic. Indian uprisings sent Throckmorton's camp fleeing for safety, and Hutchinson was scalped and her farm decimated. Despite hostilities between settlers and indigenous groups, still the Europeans came, in small but steady numbers, and their presence in the area grew.
The beginning of the 19th century found the Bronx still recovering from the ravages of the American Revolutionary War, and still a sparsely populated rural landscape. Dominated by farms that served the growing metropolis of New York City, the area began to achieve a slight fame with writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, who came somewhat later in the century to convalesce with his tuberculosis-stricken wife as he vowed to give up the drink.
The tales of writers like Washington Irving embodied the fears and social fabric of the locals of the time, with stories based on Hessian brutality during the Revolutionary War. The specter of the Headless Horseman in Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow was based on these German mercenary soldiers employed by the British, whose chief pay was the loot that they plundered from villagers in what would one day become the Bronx.
The City Moves North
The urbanization of the Bronx truly began with the entrance of the subway into the area in 1904. As the rapid transit came in spurts: 1905, 1910, 1918, and 1920, the subway and elevated train access to Manhattan caused the population of the Bronx to surge, as these rail lines built their tracks into the still-green fields and meadows.
"It is a simple task to chart the growth of the Bronx population by following the lines of the subway and elevated trains that were constructed during the late teens and 1920's," say Stephen M. Samtur and Martin A. Jackson in The Bronx - Lost, Found, and Remembered 1935-1975 (Back in The Bronx, 1999). "Apartment houses sprang up like mushrooms in the wake of the subway system."
While the development of the Bronx was originally under the supervision of Frederic Law Olmstead and the parks department, his plans for the "permanent suburb of the Bronx" were replaced by public developments that were much more urban than suburban in tone.
The Bronx was, from its beginnings, "A story of shifting people," according to Evelyn Gonzalez, in The Bronx (Columbia University Press, 2004), "who moved in to better their lot and left as soon as it improved."
In the period between the turn of the century and World War I, the Bronx underwent the transformation from a peaceful agrarian enclave of New York City to an urban landscape that was dominated by apartment houses, paved streets, and densely populated neighborhoods. New Yorkers who lived in the cramped tenement housing of Manhattan soon realized that for a nickel, they could live in a semi-rural neighborhood and commute to work in Manhattan.
By the time World War I was over, the surge northward was in full swing. Jewish and Italian families and second-generation immigrants moved in as the tiny villages with their plowed farmlands, orchards, and meadows quickly vanished. Prosperity brought continuing development of the Bronx.
Feast and Famine
The roaring '20s saw the Bronx and the nation in a period of spending and economic growth that seemed like it would never end - though of course it did, on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, when the stock market crashed. Yankee Stadium was opened in 1923, and became "The House that Ruth Built" because of the spectacular home runs of one George Herman "Babe" Ruth. Another world-famous attraction, the Bronx Zoo, opened in 1899.
The Depression's unemployment was only slightly relieved in the Bronx by the many public works designed by Edward J. Flynn, who was closely connected to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Bronx Central Post Office, the Bronx County Jail, and the Triborough and Bronx-Whitestone Bridges were among the large-scale public projects that went up during this era. Orchard Beach was a smooth crescent of ocean sand, dubbed by locals at the time as "The Riviera of The Bronx."
Despite the hard times and extreme need of the era, the Bronx remained a place where the streets were safe and families struggled to attain the American Dream. Throughout its history, in fact, the Bronx's stock was upgraded by each new building law and housing innovation adopted by the city. Apartments here were among the first to include elevators and designs that were aimed at making the spaces not just inhabitable, but livable. Indeed, with its wide streets, easy access to public transportation, and 25 percent of the borough designated for parkland, it became emblematic of the American Dream, and people looking for a better life continued to come to the Bronx in large numbers.
By 1930, with over one million people living in the Bronx, the face of the area was decidedly Eastern European Jewish (49 percent of the population), though many were recent European immigrants of middle-class Irish or Italian decent. Meanwhile, it had become the place to move for people who were taking a step up on the socioeconomic ladder. The apartments were newer, more spacious, and surrounded by parks, tree-lined boulevards, and open land.
This positive view of the Bronx had eroded by 1960, according to Gonzalez. "Population shifts, racial change, housing deterioration, and residents' search for better housing were exacerbated by housing shortages, suburbanization, erection of public housing and Mitchell-Lama co-ops, and a changing economy. In addition, federal highway construction and urban renewal programs coincided with an outbreak of drug-related street crime, leading to abandoned and burned buildings, and white flight."
When World War II came to a close, the nation enjoyed an era of great prosperity—though the effect on the Bronx was not as positive. Soldiers returned, and new families grew as the baby boom produced a record number of new Americans. Housing was in shorter supply and people left the Bronx in large numbers, seeking out the newer housing developments that included backyards for their children, and automobiles of their own.
Legendary city planner Robert Moses - holding 12 administrative titles at one point in time—claimed vast areas of The Bronx for new "projects," which were designed for low-income residents, and new superhighways that were designed to accommodate the age of the automobile. Wreaking havoc on several densely populated neighborhoods, Moses bulldozed the Cross-Bronx Expressway for ten years through the 1950s and 60s.
As the residents left or were driven out, a new face of the Bronx emerged. Puerto Ricans were coming in record numbers during the 1950s (think West Side Story), and blacks from Harlem were moving north (think Colin Powell, the future general and politician). The South Bronx went from being two-thirds white in 1950 to being two-thirds black and Puerto Rican in 1960.
Meanwhile, the sound of R&B began to take shape around Morris High School, and the Italian teenagers were developing doo-wop. Later artistic innovations that developed in the Bronx include rap, hip-hop, and American-style salsa.
Teenagers were developing new art forms, but they were also grouping into gangs during this era. During the decades following 1960, violence between them escalated and in neighborhoods that were quickly uprooting, the anarchy of gang violence began to take hold. The drug epidemic showed its face strongly in the Bronx, exacerbated by returning Vietnam Vets, who were introduced to drugs overseas.
The Bronx is Burning
The 1970's marked an extreme low point for the Bronx. As New York City itself almost went bankrupt by 1976, the housing situation in the Bronx was dire. As private apartment buildings suffered from wartime controls on rent and collection, the buildings aged, and the landlords were unable to pay for taxes, repairs, and regular maintenance. As tenants eventually abandoned these uninhabitable conditions, addicts looking to pay for drugs scavenged the buildings for scrap. In the end, it was more profitable to destroy these buildings than to salvage them.
Unscrupulous landlords began systematically employing local youths and arson to cash in on insurance policies. The practice spread like wildfire.
The highly publicized tours of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan through the rubble that was once the thriving heart of the Bronx seared an image of desperation and devastation into the world's mind, and—fairly or not—the Bronx has been a symbol of urban blight ever since.
The Borough Today
Beginning in about 1980, residents of the Bronx began to take matters into their own hands. A host of community groups and non-profit organizations sprang up in response to the ongoing urban decay, and the ensuing construction became more owner-occupied, and less based on tenants. Some of the areas, like Charlotte Gardens, evoke the original suburban dream of the Parks Department's original vision.
Other projects are even more ambitious. The South Bronx Greenway project, spearheaded by community activist and organizer Majora Carter, aims to overhaul the South Bronx waterfront from a blighted, polluted barrier of concrete and industrial sites into a useable, valuable green space for the area's residents.
According to the Sustainable South Bronx's website (www.ssbx.org), "The South Bronx Greenway will create bike and pedestrian paths around the Hunts Point and Port Morris waterfront, as well as include on-street connections. Various points along the Greenway will include: Hunts Point Riverside Park, the Bazzini Piers, Tiffany Street Pier, and Barretto Point Park, and a potential connection to Randall's Island."
The Greenway project already has the support of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), and is now in the process of fundraising and taking the first steps toward making the dream a reality. The project will also include tree plantings, environmental cleanup, and a host of other innovations, the goal of which is nothing less than changing the face of the Bronx.
In addition to the Greenway project, residential development is also picking up the pace in the Bronx—where some 300 units are on the drawing board, particularly in areas like Riverdale.
For example, Arlington Suites, a new 400-unit condo is slated to begin construction on Riverdale's Arlington Avenue in early 2008. The building will offer the kinds of amenities that have become de rigueur in Manhattan and much of Brooklyn—Italian marble floors, top-of-the-line appliances and finishes, and full-time door staff—but for less than half the price. While it's pretty much impossible to find a two-bedroom condo anywhere in Manhattan for $800,000, that's exactly what buyers will get in this new development.
Also in Riverdale, the new 65-unit Solaria condominium features deluxe materials and finishes, some serious views of the Hudson River and Manhattan from its 20 stories, and something more unusual still: a private observatory. The building will feature a rooftop dome equipped with a high-powered telescope for any resident wishing to take the idea of an impressive view just a little further. The one- to five-bedroom homes start at around $750,000.
And that's really just the tip of the iceberg. Today, the Bronx has real neighborhoods again. Crime is down, communities are mobilizing to improve the value of their properties, and even the land in the South Bronx is in demand. It may not yet be as wildly prosperous as it was a century ago, but there's no doubt the borough is on the mend—and that's worthy of a different kind of Bronx Cheer.
Denton Tarver is a freelance writer living in New York City.