Our hunt for a home led us to the outer boroughs. We didn’t follow the footsteps of NYU art students fromWashington Square to Williamsburg, and we didn’t join the ranks of young professionals who nestled themselves closer to Studio Square. Instead, we went north to a land we knew little about: South Bronx. Before anyone could say, “ Wait, isn’t the Bronx is burning?”, we were “on the 6” like a couple of “Jennies from the block.”
Anyone who has ever driven into Manhattan from LaGuardia airport has seen Mott Haven from the Triborough Bridge; the famous History Channel sign acts as a signpost in this oft-forgotten place. Some fifty years ago, city planning czar Robert Moses plowed multiple freeways through the borough, so drivers on the Bruckner Expressway heading towards Westchester see it in peeks out the window. If you’ve been to a Yankees game or the New York Botanical Gardens, you’ve torpedoed through the subway tunnels underneath Mott Haven.
But we stopped and stayed here in Mott Haven on Alexander Avenue.
While the most eye-catching buildings are the countless high-rise housing projects, there are three historic districts in Mott Haven with about fifty landmarked brownstones; my block, Alexander Avenue is the central linchpin of one such district. During the tumult of the 1970s, many houses were torn down or burned by landlords who collected insurance money for arson. Some of the houses are still vacant (except for clowders of feral cats) and in disrepair, but others have been renovated and make for a spacious alternative to the closets in the Village. Entire families, or in my case, ten friends, comfortably share a home. At least half of the residents on my block are homeowners, which makes this place unique for a here-a-lease, there-a-lease New York City. This has a noticeable effect on the care taken to maintain each home, and it also builds a sense of camaraderie; they’re sticking it out for the long haul.
Mrs. Joseph, a domino- playing diva and the matriarch of Alexander Avenue lives next door. Michael & Corrine are our neighborhood Helmsman; they organize community outreach events. Sean & Tony, the most committed porters you’ll ever find, play the watchmen. But Rudy, the king of the Mott Haven stoops, (who actually hails from another hood) teaches the best running ethnography of this place. According to him, the immigrant influxes went like this: first there were the English landowners who then sold large swaths of land to the neighborhood’s namesake Jordan Mott. Mott used the terrain along the Harlem River for his foundry and iron works factory. This led to an influx of industrial and shipping companies which were manned by Irish & Italian immigrants. Generations later the Irish & Italians moved out to the suburbs. Their vacancies were filled by African- American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Haitian families who are still here. In the last few decades, there has been an increasing number of immigrants from Central America too. And then there are the few recent graduates and young families who’ve come to the Bronx for its proximity to Manhattan, lower rents, and charm.
My neighbors paint a better picture of what the South Bronx was and their feelings about what it is becoming are far more qualified than my own, but I’ll share what I’ve watched.
Good news: the Bronx isn’t burning anymore. Today factories like Jordan Mott’s either sit empty or have been refashioned into artists lofts. Every once and a while a gallery will spring up. Some make it; others don’t. The neighborhood made headlines with the ” Go Greeners!” when word spread about Sustainable South Bronx. Green Roofs are growing with funding from groups like SSBx and Habitat for Humanity. A few cafes and restaurants serve New American fare, and they do a great job, but the taquerias still trump them.
But most things are still grimy. Once considered the Champs-Élysées of New York, the The Grand Concourse wouldn’t conjure up any such comparison for today’s Parisian. While the broad avenue is still adorned with the best art-deco buildings, the storefronts are patterned: bodega, barber shop, fried chicken & pizza store, laundromat, Caribbean restaurant, iglesia, florist, pharmacy, and then the whole thing sort of repeats itself. Rightly, it is populated by purveyors the pedestrian has demanded; this is what ought to be expected. The hustle and bustle is good and invigorating, but it does have the tired look of the main drag in the city’s poorest borough.
Given all this, it would be tempting to drop the GENTRIFICATION label on my cohort and me, but it’s not that simple.We stay in Mott Haven because we love Mott Haven, not because of what we presume it will become. Sure, the prospect of familiar downtown amenities opening closer to home is attractive, but imagining a Western Beef as a Whole Foods is horrible. There aren’t mommies wearing Moby’s or Toms wearing Tom’s up here, and there won’t be for a very long time. Fingers crossed.
All joking aside, we understand the real economic effects of higher wage earners moving into low income areas, and we are glad we haven’t seen a rise in costs. We’re especially glad for our neighbors who’d be burdened by those increases. I wish I didn’t have to hop on a train to work everyday, but unfortunately, I commute. It is a barrier; it separates me from the pulse of this place for twelve hours a day. Of that my neighbors and I are keenly aware.