In a discussion with students at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Bronx editor, teacher and historian Bernard L. Stein said that after the fires of the 1970s, the South Bronx found ways to rebuild more intelligently and sustainably. Edited excerpts from his remarks:
Local activists ignited the revitalization of the South Bronx. These grass-roots organizations included the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association and SEBCO (the Southeast Bronx Community Organization), which was based out of Saint Athanasius Church under Father Louis Gigante, an extraordinary priest who took the social gospel very seriously. And in Melrose there was Nos Quedamos – We Stay.
These organizations began to either rehabilitate buildings or later to build units. How could they do that? By the mid-1980s the city had recovered from the fiscal crisis of the ’70s and Mayor Ed Koch announced a plan to spend $4.2 billion over 10 years to create 100,000 new units of housing. A disproportionate share of that money – 36 percent of what ultimately became $5.6 billion – went to the South Bronx. Why? For one thing, the city already owned much of the real estate, taking it after landlords defaulted on their taxes. A third of that property was vacant land ready for development. The other important factor was that the borough president, Fernando Ferrer, got out of the way of redevelopment. That sounds like a small thing, but it really was a pretty noble thing. It was worlds way from the practice of Ferrer’s predecessor, who approved every builder and ultimately went to prison for racketeering.
The strength of the grass-roots organizations and Koch’s funding were two factors leading to the recovery. Then there was the contribution from people who were willing to stay or to return. Nos Quedamos developed a 33-square-block neighborhood, the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area, working from a base of 6,000 people living there – people who stayed. Finally, a number of non-profits helped finance what was needed – LISC (the Local Initiatives Support Corporation), the Partnership for New York City, the Community Preservation Corporation and others. They served as intermediaries between the banks and the community organizations. They could leverage that city money into more money. They could get loans from big banks, which increased the amount of money available and allowed rebuilding to happen.
The planners who argued against this kind of building said that nobody would want to live there. They were utterly wrong.
The developers put up a variety of styles of new housing – including some on a very small scale. Suburban-type tract houses were built on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx. You see other small row houses on Fox Street. A lot of people are very unhappy about these little units. If you talk to Harry DeRienzo, who is head of Banana Kelly, he rails against this kind of rebuilding. Urbanists hate these places with their curb cuts and their suburban look. But there are several reasons they worked. First of all there was the desire to do something quick, to show that the Bronx was going to come back. And the Partnership and the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes were able to get the money to create these small units quickly. Two, Freddy Ferrer was an urban planner, and he argued that one reason for the catastrophe was that these neighborhoods in the Bronx had been too densely built to begin with. And he advocated for less density. The third thing was that Father Gigante, for example, felt that urban renewal had pushed so many poor people into the borough that all these people didn’t respect the rights of others, of their neighbors. Gigante talked of the need to “retrain the people” coming into the neighborhood to respect property and to respect each other. This was a man who lived and worked and stood shoulder to shoulder with these people.
The planners who argued against this kind of building said that nobody would want to live there. They were utterly wrong. People wanted to buy these little houses on Charlotte Street and elsewhere. That demonstrates the value of small scale, of human scale, of open space in development. It’s a lesson for the city not only in developing poor communities, but in preserving more affluent communities. I think people want to live in cities, but they also want space and a sense of ownership.
Melrose stands as the greatest single success of urban renewal and planning that I have ever seen. When Nos Quedamos redeveloped Melrose Commons, there was a huge controversy. The Giuliani administration wanted to build either small-scale homes, or multi-story New York City Housing Authority buildings. People in the neighborhood said no. They wanted less tall and dense apartment buildings and two- and three-family homes where renters would pay the mortgage. That is a much more economically mixed neighborhood than, say, Charlotte Street or most of Hunts Point. The people in those row houses include a Bronx Community College professor, doctors, nurses, people of high middle-class status, paying market rents, and in many of the apartment buildings they are living with people of different levels of subsidy. That is a tremendously successful example of housing that works – built with full participation of those who remained.
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