Four decades ago, the Bronx was burning. Thousands of apartment buildings and houses were lost to arson. Crime soared. By the mid-1970s, the borough’s murder rate had nearly tripled in just five years, with more total murders than the entire city of New York sees today. Children were mugged in the street. Hundreds of thousands of middle-class residents fled. The people who stayed behind disproportionately depended on welfare and public housing.
Today, thanks to the neighborhood revitalization that began under Mayor Ed Koch, the revolution in policing and public safety that started under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the smart public and private investment of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and New York’s legacy of mass transit, the Bronx is boasting—of its new people, new jobs, and, believe it or not, trendy new restaurants. Cities from Detroit to Newark to Cleveland never recovered their midcentury population peaks—even Boston, considered a successful city, is 19 percent below its 1950 population—but the Bronx is set to exceed its pre-1970s population soon. More working people live there today than ever before.
The once-charred Bronx is so safe and clean that in November, two real-estate developers had to hire set designers to sculpt bullet-ridden cars and set fires in trash cans so as to seem authentically “Bronx” in hyping their new “luxury” property. Foreign tourists are eager to trek north to see “the real New York” before it vanishes entirely. But the borough’s boom hasn’t done enough to ease one of the most pernicious problems of the bad old days: multigenerational government dependency.
The Bronx started out rural. In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe moved from Manhattan to what is now the Fordham neighborhood in the north Bronx so that he could live in the country. Between the turn of the century and the start of World War II, the Bronx’s population grew almost sevenfold, to nearly 1.4 million people.
New York’s immigrant population wanted to flee crowded Manhattan, and the city’s new subways helped make that possible. In 1905, the New York Times reported that the first subway to the borough had encouraged “block after block of new flats and apartment houses . . . springing up as if by magic. . . . [S]ubstantial avenues that a few years ago were country roads are now lined with rows of substantial five and six story houses, all situated within easy walking distance of the new artery.” Jews—immigrants as well as refugees—from Europe made their homes in the south and mid-Bronx, less than an hour’s ride from midtown Manhattan. The Irish lived farther north.
By midcentury, though, the Bronx was well along the path that would make the borough emblematic of the crisis of America’s aging cities. The 100 housing projects that New York City had built in the borough starting during the Great Depression and continuing through the 1960s became incubators of crime and dependency. As early as 1955, the Times was warning that “a major share of the New York Housing Authority’s new construction over the past 13 years has been in the lower Bronx,” which, the paper felt, was destabilizing the middle class. Underclass people, too, the paper noted, were taking over private housing “that had already begun to deteriorate, and little or nothing has been done to halt the deterioration since.” A decade later, the Times was chronicling “heighten[ed] city tensions” as the population continued to shift, uneasily, from white and Jewish to black and Hispanic.
As the middle class moved out, landlords began taking on more tenants from the city’s growing welfare population. Even with welfare support, though, many who stayed behind couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the rent. Landlords, tenants, and drug-addicted squatters left property to burn. “I could see the change in school as my classmates all moved away,” says Michael Benjamin, a former state assemblyman who grew up in the South Bronx and attended high school in the borough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With each visit back home as a college student, he found the deterioration worsening.
The crime rate exploded. In 1967, the borough saw 141 murders. Just five years later, in 1972, 390 people were killed. Over the next decade and a half, hundreds of people lost their lives over radios, drugs, or other petty disputes. In 1972, the city’s chief medical examiner said that the problem was that “there are just so many handguns around, and a gun is a very deadly weapon.”
The government’s strategy when it came both to crime and burning buildings, writes Joe Flood in his 2010 book, The Fires, was “planned shrinkage.” By 1980, Police Commissioner Robert J. McGuire told the Times that the city, having slimmed its police force by 9,000 officers, to 22,000, had conducted a “vast social experiment. . . . [H]ow far can you cut back your police force before crime runs rampant?”
Planned shrinkage became outright abandonment, as residents continued to leave. In 1970, nearly 1.5 million people lived in the Bronx. A decade later, the Bronx had hemorrhaged more than 300,000 people, or nearly 21 percent of its population. By the time of the infamous “Bronx is burning” moment during the 1977 World Series at Yankee Stadium, the South Bronx had become a national metaphor for urban decay. That same year, President Jimmy Carter rode through the borough in his motorcade to pledge federal help, seeing only “row upon row of burned-out buildings, the brick facades scorched black, windows hastily boarded up with . . . tin flashing, . . . junkies nodded out in vacant buildings” surrounded by “charred artifacts” such as “smashed-up televisions, wheel-less roller skates, cracked bathtubs,” Flood notes. “The South Bronx is now a household synonym for abandonment, hellish crime, devastation, [and] terminal urban disease,” journalist Sydney H. Schanberg concluded in 1981.
The Bronx’s recovery from this devastation began in the 1980s, when the city reversed its de facto planned-shrinkage strategy, stemming losses and helping the private sector to rebuild. Then-mayor Ed Koch could have surveyed those mostly empty blocks of the Bronx’s southern tier and decided to leave them that way. Cities such as Detroit are doing that today, letting people tend to urban farms where they once had neighbors.
Instead, Koch—heavily encouraged by local Bronx pols and nonprofits—resolved to start over. As the city’s economy rebounded from the 1970s and early 1980s fiscal crisis, Koch invested $5 billion citywide to lend money to companies and people who wanted to rescue abandoned or near-abandoned property. The investment paid off. Under the program, developers and homeowners built or preserved 112,000 houses or apartments in the Bronx, more than a fifth of the borough’s homes. The program didn’t just prevent decay; it reversed it. Richard Sica, vice president of Galaxy General Contracting, a development and building firm, remembers working with a nonprofit affiliated with the Montefiore Medical Center to purchase apartment buildings in Mosholu, in the northwest Bronx, before they crumbled beyond repair and harmed the area around the hospital. At the time, he notes, few banks would lend into a failing neighborhood in an iffy city. The city itself had to step in.
It helped, too, that some people never gave up. Mike Amadeo, a Puerto Rican native, is an internationally famous Latin songwriter. He’s also a small businessman who has run his record store on Prospect Avenue in Longwood, a neighborhood in the southeast Bronx, since 1969. In the 1970s, he remembers, he didn’t have to pay rent for two years—because his landlord had abandoned the building, leaving it without running water. Undaunted, he cleaned up on his own and kept selling records. “I saved the rent for my kids’ college,” he laughs.
The Bronx’s physical renaissance is a key part of tour guide Alexandra Maruri’s survey of the South Bronx. On a recent fall day, Maruri, who came to the Bronx from Ecuador as a child in the 1970s, guided a young German family to Charlotte Street in the Tremont neighborhood, the site of Carter’s visit nearly 40 years ago. After the family walked the street of neatly kept single-family homes, replete with Halloween decorations and dogs sniffing in yards, she showed them laminated photos of how it looked back then: like a bombed-out war zone.
People would not have moved back and stayed back, though, had New York City not kept them much safer. Indeed, Maruri’s “Fort Apache tour,” one of the most popular she offers through her Bronx Historical Tours group, takes its name from the 1981 movie, set in the 41st Precinct, which was known by that Old West–conjuring nickname. She ends the tour inside the lobby of the precinct station house, where her international tourists can meet and snap photos of real-life cops, look at maps, and hear about how much crime has dropped.
The 41st Precinct’s crime story is striking—and representative of the borough’s progress. In 1990, 44 people lost their lives to violence in the precinct; by contrast, in 2015, three people had been killed by early December, the same as in 2014. In the Bronx overall, 693 people were murdered in 1990—twice as many as died in the entire city in 2015. Last year, as of the first week of December, the Bronx had seen 85 murders, four fewer than over the same time the previous year, even as the city’s murder rate has increased slightly. In 1990, 17,862 people were robbed in the Bronx; this year, just 3,546 were.
What happened? Police and prosecutors attacked the gun scourge. Broken Windows policing allowed cops to stop criminals for small offenses—and take their guns before they could commit bigger ones. Landlords and tenants alike in Bronx neighborhoods praise the NYPD’s long-standing program to deter trespassers from apartment buildings by authorizing cops to stop and question people lingering in lobbies, hallways, and courtyards (though such practices have slowed over the past half-decade, due to court challenges during the Bloomberg years and now the de Blasio administration’s different policing approach). A patron at the Hunts Point Library on Southern Boulevard in the southeast Bronx doesn’t miss the street-side prostitution and drug dealing once common to the area.
True, much of the South Bronx won’t be confused for a paradise. Workers at check-cashing shops in Hunts Point still labor behind bulletproof glass, and iron bars fill the windows of many apartments. But a lone woman can feel reasonably safe waiting for a subway train in Hunts Point in the evening—unthinkable in the 1970s, 1980s, or even much of the 1990s.
Maruri and other Bronxites are frustrated that outsiders continue to perceive the borough as dangerous, in part because global tour books tell people not to go there. “The Bronx is as safe as Brooklyn,” Maruri says. Though the Bronx’s murder rate is slightly higher, the borough’s overall crime rate last year was nearly identical to Brooklyn’s, with about one serious crime per 100 residents. And while tourists don’t yet venture to the Bronx in the same numbers as they flock to trendy Brooklyn, the ones who do come north feel safe once they’re there. Maruri’s German tourists were comfortable enough walking around to let their young son trail behind them, peering around corners and up at elevated tracks. And they stayed in the Bronx for lunch when the tour ended.
People could not have repopulated the Bronx had it not been for New York’s critical physical infrastructure: its subways. Even after so many apartment buildings went up in flames, the subways that had brought middle-class workers into Manhattan each day survived. Sica, of the Galaxy development firm, notes that in building or buying an apartment building, a critical selling point—just as it was a century ago—is its proximity to public transportation. A single, albeit crowded, ride to midtown in under an hour (usually) is a big draw, especially for people accustomed to commuting to midtown from, say, Harlem. New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to build four new Metro-North stations through the Bronx, including in Hunts Point, to bring commuters into Penn Station will make the borough even more attractive to Manhattan workers.
The Bronx has also prospered from being a part of New York City’s economy. Without New York, the Bronx would likely have suffered the same fate as the nation’s other postindustrial cities. Thanks in part to the Bronx’s legacy of housing projects, 30 percent of its residents remain poor, compared with 20 percent for New York City as a whole; the borough’s $34,388 in average household income trails well behind the $52,259 citywide average. Yet unlike Detroit, Cleveland, or St. Louis, the Bronx has long benefited from richer taxpayers in the rest of the city. Otherwise, it could not have paid for its policing, its transit system, or its investments—particularly during the Bloomberg years—in public parks, social and educational services, and cultural institutions.
Consider just one modest program: the New York Public Library’s English-language classes. Go to its Hunts Point branch on a weeknight, and you’ll see two dozen immigrant students in a classroom, laboring over their English lessons after hard days at work in restaurants, apartment buildings, and barbershops. On a Monday night in November, instructor Myrna Holguin gently prodded her students—hailing from everywhere from the Dominican Republic to Burkina Faso—to get up and switch tables with one another so that they could talk to new people. “I read the ad for the class on the bus,” says Benny, a 20-year-old barbershop worker who came to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic last year with his family. His 16-year-old brother, he reports, is in high school and learning English more quickly. “I like New York City,” he says. “This country is a better opportunity for me.”
The Bloomberg administration also invested $61.8 million to renovate the High Bridge, a pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River between northern Manhattan and the South Bronx. The bridge reopened this year. And the city’s commitment to Bronx residents’ well-being has taken other forms. The borough suffers from persistently high obesity rates because of lack of exercise and bad diets among its many poor residents. A 2011 city report noted that four in ten residents of the South Bronx drank more than four sodas daily, compared with one in ten for the Upper West Side. Looking to nudge people toward healthier behavior, Bloomberg awarded valuable street-vending licenses to vegetable and fruit hawkers. Maruri notes that this competition has spurred neighborhood supermarkets to offer better fruits and vegetables.
New York’s powerhouse growth means that more and more people need to move north—as far north as the Bronx—to find affordable living. The borough offers more than its fair share of what’s left of the city’s middle-class and working-class housing, and new construction means more homes for people of all income levels. In 2011, the last year for which detailed data are available, the Bronx’s average asking rent for a vacant apartment was $1,200, lower than the city average. For all apartments, vacant and occupied, the Bronx offered lower rents compared with the rest of the city, with three-fifths of apartments renting for less than $999, compared with two-fifths of all city apartments.
Sica, of Galaxy, inspects a brand-new two-bedroom apartment in Kingsbridge Heights: quiet, with a big kitchen and a nice view. The apartment is one of more than 50 that his firm will soon rent in the building, once the city provides a certificate of occupancy. The two-bedroom unit likely will go for $1,600—meaning, based on common ratios, a necessary income of $60,000. But where else in New York will you get a new two-bedroom apartment less than an hour away from midtown?
Bronx real-estate economics are also friendly for entrepreneurs—a restaurateur who can’t afford to compete in Manhattan can open up his Mexican eatery or bar and grill in Mott Haven or Port Morris—and for developers, including Somerset Partners and the Chetrit Group, which plan to build luxury apartments and condos in the more industrial neighborhoods of the South Bronx. Yes, they want to sell the condos for above the half-million range for small units, and they want to rent the apartments out for well above $2,500 a month. But millionaires won’t be buying or renting these apartments—middle-class couples who can’t afford Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Queens waterfront will.
All these forces—lower crime, investment in housing and transit, and a flourishing city—have combined to create an encouraging picture. Today, the Bronx is home to more than 1.4 million people. Between 1990 and 2013, the borough’s population grew by 17 percent—faster than the city’s overall 15 percent, and much faster than Brooklyn (5.2 percent) and Manhattan (5.8 percent). The parts of the Bronx that suffered the most in the 1970s—including Mott Haven, Melrose, and Morrisania—have logged the most impressive growth. The four community boards that constitute the South Bronx grew by an astounding 25.9 percent in population between 1990 and 2010.
Though the Bronx has a high birthrate compared with the rest of New York, much of the borough’s recent population growth has resulted from immigration. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of foreign-born people living in the Bronx rose by 22.1 percent, more than triple the city’s overall rate. Nearly a third of residents in the Central and South Bronx are foreign-born. More than three-quarters of the Bronx’s immigrants hail from Latin America or the Caribbean, mostly the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Mexico. Newcomers from Africa have become more numerous as well. A 2013 city report noted that the Central and South Bronx have “one of the more diverse mixes of immigrants” in the city, including a growing number of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, and Chinese.
Most startling are the Bronx’s employment figures. In 1990, 420,700 Bronx residents had jobs. Today, though, the Bronx has 547,200 workers—a 30 percent increase in 25 years, faster than the city’s 23 percent overall growth rate. Job growth outpaced population growth in the borough by nearly twofold. In October, the Bronx’s unemployment rate was 6.5 percent—a real feat in a borough that once regularly had double-digit unemployment rates even as the rest of the city did well. The number of residents in the borough who don’t work or seek work has also shrunk. The percentage of Bronx adults currently participating in the workforce is 59.5, not drastically lower than the nation’s 63.8 percent rate.
And the Bronx itself has jobs to offer—214,000 in the private sector. That’s a modern record, and more than a third more than the borough offered to its residents in 1983, state comptroller Tom DiNapoli wrote in a 2013 report. Contrary to popular belief, these Bronx jobs aren’t low-paying, though many are available to people without college degrees. The average private-sector salary was $43,610 as of 2012, higher than in Brooklyn or on Staten Island. Half of Bronx jobs in the private sector are in health care, social services, or education, with marquee hospitals and universities providing positions across income levels. Small businesses are also thriving, especially in the South Bronx, where entrepreneurs grew their ranks by 25 percent between 2000 and 2011; the number of restaurants doubled over that period. New restaurants and stores helped create nearly 6,500 jobs between 2007 and 2012. Hunts Point, in the southeast Bronx, is home to the biggest produce, meat, and fish distributors in the world. The produce market alone employs 10,000 people. FreshDirect, the retail food deliverer, is moving from Queens to the Bronx and says that it will add 1,000 jobs to its current 3,000. While costs prohibit many companies from operating big warehouses in Manhattan or Brooklyn, the Bronx, at least for now, offers cheaper space. Amazingly, the Bronx was the only borough that did not see the number of jobs decline during the post-2008 recession, DiNapoli notes.
A booming borough has created the inevitable gentrification backlash. Locals fear that their neighborhood will become like hipster-rich Williamsburg. Some Bronx residents criticized real-estate developers Somerset Partners and the Chetrit Group in November for holding a “crime chic” party at their South Bronx site. “What person in their right mind,” blogger Ed Garcia Conde asked the Times, would agree that displaying burned-out, bullet-ridden cars was a good idea? “Can you imagine the response if we held a party themed with vestiges of the Holocaust?”
Borough president Ruben Diaz understands these very real concerns but is more sanguine about the future—especially because he has a keen memory of the past. Though he, too, worries about the lack of housing for poorer and working-class people, he notes that “I played in rubble” as a child. “I lived in this borough when the average homicide rate was 600-plus a year. I’m honored and pleased to be . . . developing housing.” So far, he says, “all we’ve seen, and we have to keep it, is a benefit to the Bronx. We deserve good things as well.”
The Bronx’s most serious problem isn’t new prosperity but old poverty. One reason the borough continues to be so poor despite its extraordinary changes over the past two and a half decades is its concentration of public housing. The Bronx, with 17 percent of the city’s population, has a full quarter of its public-housing residents—102,384 people, or more than 7 percent of the borough’s population. Bronx public-housing residents’ average household income, $22,050, resembles the city public-housing average, as does the average duration in public housing—20.1 years, compared with 21.6 citywide. It’s the sheer number of these households that makes a difference. When and if New York ever fixes its public-housing system—encouraging people to move up and out rather than stay in place, effectively forever—it will make a big dent in the Bronx’s chronic poverty. Viewed another way, it’s hard to say that people are poor, at least as traditionally understood, when the city has given them an invaluable lifetime asset of cheap housing, for an average of $450 a month.
What could stall or reverse the borough’s improving fortunes? Rising crime, for one: Mayor Bill de Blasio has kept the borough’s murder rate down in 2015, even with an uptick elsewhere in the city. But as of early December, the number of Bronx robberies is up 8 percent since last year. A failure to invest in transit, for another: already, overcrowding on the trains, plus increasingly unpredictable service, harms working New Yorkers’ quality of life for a good two hours a day. Discouraging housing development is another risk: state and city pullbacks on tax credits for new housing could make it harder for landowners to build. And the borough’s burst of industrial jobs isn’t an unalloyed good. Constant truck traffic creates dangerous conditions for pedestrians, and pollution exacerbates asthma, a widespread Bronx affliction. A speeding delivery-truck driver recently decapitated a woman on a Bronx sidewalk. The de Blasio administration could do much to improve poorer residents’ quality of life by enforcing speed limits and idling rules, as well as keeping trucks on designated routes.
But as long as the city doesn’t return to the mistakes of an earlier era—above all, the mistake of giving up on the future—the borough has considerable cause for optimism. To reverse the order of the old Broadway song, in New York, the battery is down and the Bronx is up. “Come see for yourself,” says Diaz. As more and more people come to New York City and seek affordable living, they will need somewhere to go, and that somewhere is the Bronx.