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The Bronx: For Better or Worse
I have often written about my birthplace, the Bronx, having lived there for the first twenty years of my life, until 1960. It was never a particularly vivid or exciting place, but it had enough vibrancy to fill me with images that I still resurrect, and take pleasure in. I have also gone back to visit every four to five years, to take a look at the remnants of its past, and see how the Bronx has changed. But last time I went, the desolate, burned-out wasteland of the seventies and eighties had fully turned into a more intact though colorless environment. Traveling through these dreary lifeless streets caused me to lose any interest in making the trip again any time soon.
But for better or worse the Bronx is always with me. On a recent trip back to New York on the Metro North from the Berkshires, the train stopped at the upscale Westchester suburb of Katonah. It suddenly brought to mind a very different world - my mundane neighborhood park - my own green sanctuary - the similar sounding Crotona. I can remember my mother pushing me in a stroller through the park, weather no obstacle, to visit her Yiddish-speaking parents who lived in a beige brick apartment house walk-up 15 minutes away. Their neighborhood was slightly poorer and more run-down than ours (yes, a large Jewish working- class and poor community existed in New York then), and I recall my mother taking me to buy chickens at an unhygienic, noisy kosher butcher's on a street lined with tenements with stone stoops. The shops customers were mainly middle-aged women wearing floral-patterned housedresses, who were wheedling the butcher to give them better cuts of meat, and its floor was covered with feathers and entrails mixed with sawdust. I also could see the Orthodox-Jewish butcher's wife and their burly, bearded, black-skullcap-wearing son quietly drinking tea with jam in a small back room that was part of the cramped apartment they lived in. The look and feeling of that butcher shop lingers in my mind, for it strikingly captured a particular Bronx era and milieu.
There are other memories, especially one of me at thirteen on a cold, snowy evening trying to add a hook shot to my limited repertoire on my neighborhood schoolyard basketball court. After a couple of hours, with a light snow descending in the dimming light, I finally mastered the proper arc and touch on the shot. Clearly, ball-playing prowess was one of the prime sources of status for adolescent males in the 50s Bronx. Those boys who played poorly or had no interest in sports were often treated as non-persons or even bullied as momma's boys. But I knew then that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be more than an above average schoolyard player. That evening, when I obsessively struggled to improve my basketball skills, was one of those rare times when I made this kind of concerted effort to realize my adolescent fantasies of athletic stardom. Sports had an outsized meaning for me in my teens - there were times nothing else seemed as important. This memory powerfully encapsulates all those yearnings.
But it's not the Bronx of those years that has recently gained coverage in The Times. According to The Times the Bronx is undergoing resurgence. A real estate developer has plans to build the city's first upscale outlet mall in the Bronx, to compete with malls like the Woodbury Commons in Central Valley, N.Y. and the one in Secaucus, New Jersey that offers racks of Versace, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren - all at a fraction of Madison Avenue prices. And the southern end of the once polluted Bronx River has seen a rebirth with a mélange of newly created small green parks. According to The Times' Michael Kimmelman, its "long term goal is the creation of a greenbelt along the Bronx River as it winds south from the Bronx Zoo."
Other evidence of this supposed renaissance is that the Bronx has picked up more than 52,000 people in the last 10 years, more than any other borough. But the positive signs should not be overstated. The last census ranks the South Bronx congressional district as by far as the poorest one in the nation, with over a quarter-million people in living in poverty. And if there are a few more white middle class families living in the Bronx, much of the population gain is from Hispanic residents who have been displaced from other parts of the city that are gentrifying in actuality, such as Washington Heights, and parts of central Brooklyn.
The Bronx will never turn into a hip Brooklyn. In the 70s they had similar average household incomes, but now the average Brooklyn resident is around 23 percent richer than the average Bronxite. That fact is no accident since 19th century Brooklyn (a separate city then with its own economic base), contained local elites who built expensive town houses on tree-lined streets. Those town houses may have hit hard times in the 70s and 80s, but were perfectly suited for gentrification
when Brooklyn became a destination for Manhattanites, and hipsters, artists, and middle class families from out of town; while the Bronx in the 19th century was basically a haven for immigrants, and most of its housing was of a modest nature and not particularly suitable for gentrification. So, the Bronx may be improving, but claims of a rebirth are premature - seemingly more a real estate developer's way of inflating the value of the housing, than really turning into the Promised Land.