In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson and Nicole Gelinas discuss the recent comeback of New York's northernmost borough. Read “The Bronx is Up.”
Brian: Starting in the 1970s the South Bronx became a synonym for urban decline. The northernmost Borough in New York City located just across the Harlem River from Manhattan, the Bronx saw many of its neighborhoods devastated by a cycle of crime and poverty. Even as the rest of the City of New York came roaring back during the 90s and 2000s, the Bronx seemed to have been left behind. Not anymore. Today the Bronx is back.
Joining me to discuss the surprising revival of the once burnt out borough is Nicole Gelinas, Searle Freedom Trust Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journaland a columnist at the New York Post. Nicole’s new essay, “The Bronx is Up,” will be the starting point for our discussion. It’s available in our latest issue and on our website. Thanks, Nicole, for coming by.
Nicole: Thank You, Brian.
Brian: Now just how bad did the Bronx get back in the 1970s?
Nicole: Well, it got pretty bad. If you look at the first part of the 1970s the murder rate tripled in just five years, and there were lots and lots of stories about the growing threat from the unregulated illegal guns, the growing drug trade. You’ve more and more murders over drug disputes, robberies, and so forth. So it just became a very unsafe place to live. You’ve this state assembly man Michael Benjamin I spoke to who remembers when he was mugged as a small child. And so people left. The Bronx lost 21% of its population really in just a decade and a half. It was really devastated and that created this cycle where people would leave, squatters would move into the abandoned buildings, oftentimes burned them down. Sometimes by accident, sometimes..
Brian: There was a huge arson problem right?
Nicole: Yeah, I mean you remember obviously the 1977 World Series with “The Bronx Is Burning.” Arson fires both by addicts living in buildings not having a power supply, setting fires, and arson on purpose both by landlords who didn’t have tenants for their buildings, they just wanted to catch the insurance money and walk away, and also by tenants looking in to move into public housing. And so a combination of all kinds of things but a lot of people just wrote the borough off as dead.
Brian: Well, things began to turn around I guess during the late 80s. What role did Mayor Ed Koch play in the revival that you discuss in your piece, which really has taken to the present to occur but began. . . The seeds of it were planted back then?
Nicole: Koch just showed that we weren’t going to give up, which is an important thing. In a lot of cities people have made the opposite decision. When you look at Detroit, looking to tear down abandoned houses. . .
Brian: To shrink the city.
Nicole: . . . Just turn them into Urban farms or make bigger lots. And Koch by contrast said, we are going to rebuild this housing that the private sector can’t do it by itself because it’s been so devastated by bad public sector mistakes including the uncontrolled rise in crime, the growth of the welfare states over the previous few decades. And so Koch put billions of dollars into reinvesting in private sector housing in the Bronx, giving people loans, grants, and credits to rebuild their own homes, giving landlords loans to purchase buildings, to get the buildings into good shape, and so it showed that. . . It showed the people who were still there, who might have been thinking of leaving, that we weren’t going to give up.
Brian: What role does investment in transportation and infrastructure play in this revival of the Bronx?
Nicole: Well, I think that’s a. . .
Brian: At least getting the Bronx back on its feet.
Nicole: Yeah, I think it’s a really big deal. We built these subway lines back around the turn of the last century, y’know a hundred years ago. We built the subway lines to encourage housing development outside of Manhattan, get middle class and working class people better quality housing so they weren’t so doubled up on the Lower East Side and other crowded parts of Manhattan. And when we built the subways owners built apartment buildings along the subways and middle class working class people moved into these new apartment buildings and when people left the subways were not crowded, people were not using them, but they were still there. And so now that people have come back the subways are there to get them back and forth to work. You’ve a property owner [who] said, one of the big selling points to people looking for a place that they can afford, which is certainly not Manhattan, not Brooklyn, not queens anymore, looking at the Bronx and their they find that they’re y’know [a] half hour, 45 minutes away from midtown Manhattan and so they are taking advantage of this infrastructure that we built a century ago. Without that infrastructure the Bronx couldn’t come back.
Brian: What other factors were involved in the revival? And we should describe the revival in a moment.
Nicole: Yeah, I think crime reduction is, along with the Subways, really the biggest factor. I mean we’ve gotten the murder rate down 91 percent over. . . going over a quarter of a century now. And so, is the Bronx perfectly safe? No. And that’s one of the problems with encouraging tourists to go up and do the Botanical gardens and do the zoo, walk around and see the Edgar Allen Poe houses, that tour guides around the world still tell people, don’t go to the Bronx. But it’s actually; statistically it’s not that much more dangerous than Brooklyn anymore. It is quite safe, and in the context of its history it’s very very safe.
Brian: Why did it take so much longer for the Bronx to come back fully than it took for the rest of the city, especially Brooklyn which in some ways was comparably placed?
Nicole: Well, you had the housing abandonment and also just this terrible reputation matters a lot. You know, the World Series, “The Bronx is Burning,” is inscribed in people’s memories, even people who were not alive then. So if you think about moving to the city people don’t think about the Bronx until they maybe ran out of other choices, and that a problem with. . .
Brian: Because Manhattan and Brooklyn have become too expensive so. . .
Nicole: Right exactly, and so that’s why you see rental buildings, condo buildings going up in the Bronx, because you’re building middle class housing. Nowhere else in the city really is anyone building middle class housing.
Brian: Could you describe a bit what kind of development is taking place in the Bronx? How is it reviving in a way that perhaps would surprise outsiders to New York?
Nicole: Well there’s industrial development, breweries, factories, expansion of the import markets for the fruits and vegetables and meat and so forth. Really all of the food that you eat in New York City, whether at a restaurant or buy at the store, comes through the Bronx. So you’ve got pretty good working class high paying jobs for people working in the industrial sector. In fact they have a record number of private sector jobs in the Bronx now, more than 200,000 private sector jobs more than they’ve ever had. And there’s also. . . And the reason there’s industrial development is because the rest of the city is also too expensive now to do this. Queens, Long Island City, used to be industrial, now it’s luxury apartments five minutes away from Manhattan. And then there’s also just a lot of new bars and restaurants because people are staying in the Bronx and moving to the Bronx and even if you want to open up a restaurant, you can’t afford Manhattan rent, you want to do something experimental with the food, not just be constantly worried about having to serve the same old food just to get people in and out and pay the rent. This is really the only place where you can open up a new business. Many many small businesses, more small business creation than they’ve ever had.
Brian: You could describe this as gentrification. The same kind of gentrification that we’ve seen in Brooklyn. Has this shift generated, as gentrification often does, opposition from long-term residents?
Nicole: There is certainly gentrification, but it can be overplayed. I mean pretty much gentrification is a fancy word for middle class people, whether they’re young, a little bit older, people having children, they need an extra bedroom, looking for a place to live in the city, which is really what everyone is doing here. Whether you’re poor, middle class, or wealthy you want to commit to being in New York City and need a nice place to live and so that is what more and more people are doing. There’s some opposition. Ruben Diaz the Borough President has certainly seen this, but on the other hand there are a lot of people including Diaz who say, we want the Bronx to be a place where people want to live. You know nobody wants to live somewhere where nobody else wants to live. Things are not good when there is so much crime and abandonment that it is indeed cheap to live there, and that’s problem a lot of places have. You know Detroit is very cheap to live in. St. Louis is very cheap to go find an apartment, but the problem is people don’t want to live in these places. So it’s better to have this problem than the opposite problem.
Brian: What role have immigrants played in this revival of the Bronx?
Nicole: Oh immigrants have played a huge role, especially. . .
Brian: And where are they from?
Nicole: We’ve got immigrants from West Africa, a lot of Muslim immigrants, immigrants from Latin America, Dominican Republic, Mexico. You can go to really any Bronx Library any weeknight and see dozens of immigrants from Africa, from Latin America, and from some other places too, taking English lessons trying to find jobs, trying to find better jobs. A lot of people come here; they work in the buildings trade, especially the Hispanic immigrants. They may work in apartment buildings or work construction. A lot of women working as waitresses, working in the city’s industries that don’t need an education or don’t need the language skills until they can do better or their kids can do better.
Brian: The trends that you’ve isolated and described in your piece. Do you see them continuing into the future indefinitely or what in your view might threaten this kind of revival that we’re seeing?
Nicole: Well what could threaten it is, we don’t put money into transit because this system is already so overloaded. If you get onto the subway system in the Bronx it’s crowded, by the time you get to 125th street you’ve got people waiting on the platform that can’t get on the trains. Getting into the rest of Manhattan is very difficult so it’s. . . The Borough President proposed yesterday to build more housing over some railyards and get tens of thousands of more people with an affordable place to live, but we can’t really do that unless we invest much more into the subway system. So that’s one thing, and obviously the crime issue. If crime does ever start to tick up and stay up that means the whole city becomes more affordable and people gravitate towards the places that are safer and closer to Manhattan.
Brian: One of the striking images in your piece is the recent ad for luxury apartments in the Bronx. Could you describe that a little bit in closing?
Nicole: Yeah, these developers held a party, kind of showcasing these apartments that they are going to build in the South Bronx and they brought in. . . They thought it was clever to bring in burnt out cars with fake bullet holes in them and have fires burning in the trashcans and so forth. And y’know this is obviously not a good idea and it did upset a lot of people in the Bronx and they’re kind of right to be upset. I mean it’s in very poor taste. You know we shouldn’t have chalk drawings on the ground when someone is murdered. These are people’s real lives, and it does point out that there are certainly tensions with new people moving in, but in the scheme of things not the biggest deal in the world.
Brian: Thanks very much, Nicole, for joining us. . .
Nicole: Thanks, Brian.
Brian: . . . on 10 Blocks podcast. Nicole Gelinas’ new City Journal article is entitled “The Bronx is Up,” and it’s in our Winter Issue and it’s available on our website. You can follow Nicole on Twitter @NicoleGelinas. You can tweet your comments and questions about today’s discussion to us on Twitter as well @CityJournal with the hashtag #10blocks. Thanks very much, Nicole,
Nicole: Thank you, Brian.