How the Bronx Came Back (But Didn't Bring Everyone Along)

Bronx Cheer

The New York borough that once symbolized urban decline is safer and more stable—but most Bronxites' lives are still precarious. 

October 12, 2015

Photos by Edwin J. Torres

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

The Bronx is on Fire,” a journal of the New York real-estate industry recently trumpeted, “Because the Real Estate Market Is Heating Up.” The headline deliberately echoed a famous line attributed to sportscaster Howard Cosell: “The Bronx is burning,” he is remembered saying—though he did not actually use those words—during a 1977 World Series game, as flames shot up in the beleaguered neighborhood beyond Yankee Stadium’s outfield wall. Images of a fiery comeback aren’t confined to trade publications: Under the headline “South Bronx Sizzle,” the Daily News this spring reported on rising property values in the Bronx’s most impoverished quadrant. Once a synonym for urban collapse, the New Bronx was now a hot property.

Some of the hottest new properties include purchases by Silvercup Studios—the Queens-based facility where The Sopranos and 30 Rock were filmed—of South Bronx land on which it will erect an additional 120,000-square-foot studio for other productions, and by the food-delivery company Fresh Direct, which announced it would build a 500,000-square-foot warehouse also in the South Bronx. Perhaps more remarkable still, veteran Manhattan developers have purchased land on the Bronx side of the Harlem River (which separates Manhattan from the Bronx) and unveiled plans to erect three 25-story market-rate apartment buildings. 

The numbers—well, some numbers—bear out the story of the Bronx’s surprisingly upward trajectory. Total property purchases in the borough (“borough” is the term for county in New York City) came to $2.4 billion in 2014, a 39 percent increase over 2013, and a 55 percent increase over 2012. In the first quarter of 2015, the number of building permits in the Bronx increased by 48 percent over the first three months of the preceding year. Since the mid-1980s, the Bronx has seen a boom in the number of rehabilitated or new affordable housing units. “Entire neighborhoods have been reconstructed over the past three decades,” says Dart Westphal, a city planner and housing consultant who is a longtime Bronx resident. “It’s one of the greatest redevelopments in the nation’s history.”

Two kinds of transformations are visible in the Bronx today. Throughout much of the borough, new affordable apartment buildings clad in light-colored brick abound, brightening a landscape otherwise dominated by century-old slate-gray six-story apartments. The newer buildings, funded by public dollars and built and managed by community-development corporations, house families with annual incomes in the $40,000 range, according to City Council Member Ritchie Torres. They’re a boon to working-class Bronxites, even though the units are still too pricey for many Bronx households. The second transformation—the one touted by the real-estate broadsheets and marveled at by the city’s newspapers—has sprung up on the edge of the borough’s poorest quadrant, the South Bronx. There, just across the river from Harlem, are a growing, though still small, number of market-rate condos and hip drinking establishments.

Apartment building rising on 153rd Street. 

The Bronx’s problem is not that most residents can’t afford those bars, much less those condos. It’s that they can’t afford the new and rehabbed housing units keyed to families with $40,000 incomes. It’s also that the families that once could afford those units no longer can, as rents skyrocket while incomes either flatline or fall. The Bronx looks better than it used to, but it is still the number-one center of urban poverty in the United States. Indeed, from 1989 to 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income in the Bronx declined by 23 percent.

Much of this decline is probably due to the changing composition of the population, as the upwardly mobile have moved out and low-income immigrants have arrived. Like the rest of New York City, the Bronx is growing: It has added roughly 270,000 residents since the 1980 census. Only a relative handful of the borough’s newcomers have higher incomes than existing residents. Most—fleeing unaffordable rents in Brooklyn, Harlem, or Washington Heights, or the deeper poverty of distant lands—come with incomes lower than the Bronxites’. While the median income of established Bronx residents in 2011 was, as the American Community Survey documented, about $20,000, that of those moving there from elsewhere in New York state was roughly $17,000, and from abroad, a bare $8,000. The Bronx is a step up for the newcomers, but their presence in large numbers also deepens the borough’s poverty.

As its population has bounced back, the Bronx has been adding jobs, their number increasing by 9,000 in the decade between 1982 and 1992, by 20,000 between 1992 and 2002, and by 24,000 between 2002 and 2012. Labor-force participation isn’t notably lower in the Bronx than elsewhere: In 2013, 74 percent of Bronx households had at least one person with wage or salary earnings, just five points beneath the national average. The jobs that Bronxites hold, however, don’t pay very much: 35 percent of Bronx workers are employed in low-end service-sector jobs, compared to the citywide average of 24 percent.

Clearly, the Bronx isn’t Brooklyn, where the arrival of more-affluent New Yorkers has transformed Willamsburg and a host of other neighborhoods, driving working-class and poor residents to seek cheaper shelter elsewhere. (Median household income in Brooklyn is roughly $46,000; in the Bronx, $34,000.) A walk down almost any commercial Bronx thoroughfare turns up few if any restaurants. Ninety-nine-cent stores abound, but 99 cents is apparently too costly: The store windows invariably feature 59-cent specials. With more than 40 percent of households in the South, West, and North-Central Bronx spending more than half their incomes on rent, there’s precious little money left over for anything more than dollar-store consumption.

Rent is far cheaper in the Bronx, of course, than it is elsewhere in New York (median rent in the borough is roughly $800, according to the New York City Rent Guidelines Board), but because property values are rising, rent is, too: In the past year, new tenants in the South and West Bronx have confronted rents that are 32 percent to 34 percent higher than the previous tenants’. Families “are doubling and tripling up in the apartments on the Grand Concourse and in the West Bronx,” says Mary Dailey, a Bronx community organizer since the 1970s who today is the lead community organizer at the Center for Community Change. “That’s what it means to be poor in the Bronx these days.”


FOR ALL ITS WOES, the Bronx has made huge progress since the 1970s, when it fell into an almost unprecedented state of disintegration. Throughout much of the borough, the South Bronx in particular, buildings were abandoned or set ablaze (often by landlords seeking to collect the insurance) in startling numbers. During the 1970s, the number of housing units in the Bronx declined from 509,000 to 451,000. Of the borough’s 289 census tracts, 44 lost more than half their buildings to arson or abandonment; seven lost at least 97 percent of their buildings. In that one decade, the population of the Bronx declined by 21 percent.

“In the seventies,” says Dailey, “you’d walk down the street past blocks of vacant buildings and there’d be packs of wild dogs; you’d have to figure out how to avoid them. In the late eighties and early nineties, people would drive in from the suburbs and stand in line, openly, for heroin; the lines would run down the sidewalk, down the block. Dealers would shout the names of the brand they were selling.”

“Today,” she continues, “the Bronx is nothing like what it was. The level of poverty is still overwhelming, but it’s much safer.” Like most urban areas, the Bronx has seen a huge decline in crime. In 1990, it was the site of 653 murders; in 2014, just 95. In the 41st police precinct, the notorious “Fort Apache,” murders declined from 44 in 1990 to 4 last year; in the adjoining 40th precinct in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood, they went from 72 in 1990 to 7 last year.

In line at a South Bronx Catholic Charities pantry. 

The rebuilding of the borough’s housing began in the 1980s, pushed not just by community activists but by Ed Koch—the first in a string of New York mayors to devote substantial city funding, abetted by pension funds, state appropriations, federal housing dollars, and Section 8 subsidies, to the construction of affordable housing or the rehabilitation of existing units. Indeed, from the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s, the city’s investment in affordable housing exceeded that of the next 50 largest cities, according to Mike Gecan, the longtime leader of the Nehemiah affordable housing projects for the Industrial Areas Foundation. Activists sought safety and housing; the city establishment understood that a Bronx so dangerous did New York’s reputation no good. “They needed to get rid of vacant land if only for reasons of social control,” says Tom Waters, a Bronx-based housing-policy analyst and activist.

Between 1987 and 2002, says Gecan, fully 15 percent of Bronx housing units were either built or rehabilitated. In 1980, as the fires began to subside, the borough had 451,000 housing units; by 2010, it had 512,000. In a borough that had long been a favorite conservative whipping boy for the presumed failings of liberal policies, the manifest success of the commitment of public funds to more and better housing offers a powerful validation of government’s capacities to enhance the public good.

Even as the Bronx grew and its housing stock improved, however, its middle class and many working-class residents still fled to safer communities with better services and retail establishments. Like most urban areas, its racial demographics were completely transformed. A borough that had been 98 percent white in 1940 and 27 percent white in 1990 was just 11 percent white in 2010—the lowest share of whites of any county in the United States, save a few that encompass Native American reservations or abut the Rio Grande on the Texas-Mexico border. By 2010, its African American share, which was a mere 7 percent in 1950, had grown to 37 percent of county residents, and its Hispanic share to 54 percent. But for Florida’s Miami-Dade, this was the highest percentage of Hispanics in any county east of the Mississippi. Yet the Asian population in the Bronx, in marked contrast to Queens, hasn’t really increased. In the 2000 census, Asians made up 3 percent of the borough’s population; ten years later, just 3.6 percent. In 57 percent of borough households, a language other than English (most commonly, of course, Spanish) is the language spoken at home. Single women head 31 percent of its households—again, the most for any county other than a handful of reservations and one in Mississippi.

For decades, the congressional district with the highest poverty rate has been the one encompassing the South Bronx. Renumbered and just slightly reconfigured after the 2011 redistricting, New York’s 15th Congressional District has the nation’s highest overall poverty rate (41 percent), the highest child poverty rate (53 percent), and the second-highest poverty rate for residents over 65 (33 percent). The national rate for seniors is 10 percent; the difference partly reflects the large numbers of South Bronx residents who came from abroad and thus collect little, if any, Social Security.


SO WHENCE—IN THE South Bronx, of all places—the higher rents, the upward pressure on property values from developers? Part of the reason is the geographic logic of New York City booms.

“Real-estate booms here start in the core area—Manhattan—and then spread” to the outer boroughs, says Josue Sanchez, a Bronx native who is associate director of L+M Development Partners, a firm that has built affordable housing and, of late, some more market-rate housing in the Bronx and such kindred communities as Newark. “This boom traveled to Brooklyn, then Harlem, then Queens: In Astoria and Long Island City [a Queens neighborhood close to Manhattan], land prices have tripled or quadrupled; you can’t develop rentals there; it has to be condos. It’s gone to Inwood and Washington Heights [in northern Manhattan]. Now, as the price of land reaches unfathomable levels everywhere else, developers are looking to the Bronx.” Those same unfathomable prices also provide the Bronx with a ready-made residential clientele: “Pricing in the Bronx would be at an attractive discount for people who can no longer afford Brooklyn,” Sanchez says.

New construction in the heart of the South Bronx. 

Many of the most buzzed-about developments, like the market-rate 25-story residences or drinking establishments like Charlies, are up and running, or are set to go up, on the banks of the Harlem River near the Third Avenue or Willis Avenue bridges into Manhattan, just a few blocks’ walk from 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, the center of the much more gentrified Harlem. The Bronx neighborhoods that have seen the development of some market-rate housing in recent years—the southern end of the Grand Concourse, Mott Haven on the borough’s southern edge—also are just a couple of skips and jumps from Manhattan, and home to subway stops with trains that within minutes can carry riders to Manhattan’s East and West Sides. The southern tip of the Bronx is a developers’ paradise: a jumble of abandoned factories that offers developers lots of space in a city that’s notably short on it, as well as the ability to avoid the hassles that would arise if there were any residents they had to displace.

To the extent that genuine market-rate housing is coming to the Bronx, it may best be described as riparian—a river-hugging environment with little in common with the surrounding fields, like the trees that abut a river but won’t take root beyond the river’s banks. In this case, the trees are the projected high-rises, the river is the Harlem, and the social and commercial life of its residents, their daily errands, will likely be conducted on the opposite shore.

One reason the projects planned for the edge of the South Bronx aren’t likely to spread inland, gentrifying as they go, is that the area has the highest density of public housing in the nation. The Bronx has 44,000 such units, while Brooklyn, with nearly twice the population, has 58,000. “It’s harder for high-end gentrification to happen anyplace where the density of public housing is high,” says Gecan, who headed a project that built some of the first affordable housing in the post-1970s Bronx. “They just don’t go together.”

The upscaling of the Bronx, however spatially confined, may find itself temporally confined as well. “Historically, when the booms finally reach the Bronx, they’re just about played out,” says Westphal. The invariable progression of investment from Manhattan outward, says Sanchez, has meant that periods of rising investment have to last many years for the Bronx to get its share. “This cycle,” he cautions, “has already lasted a long time.”

“Look at the years that Bronx property values boomed,” says Westphal. “1907, 1929, 2007. The seeming rule of capitalism is that the boom runs out by the time it reaches the Bronx. Maybe this time will be different, but I have my doubts.”


EVER SINCE THE BRONX began the large-scale construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing in the 1980s, it has been chockablock with community-development corporations—nonprofit community groups, some church-affiliated, that get public funding to partner with developers to build housing that its members, and others like them, can afford. “There was a good deal of community organizing in the seventies,” says Dailey, who was then one of the community organizers “trying to deal with the consequences of population flight and the radical decrease in city services when the city nearly went into bankruptcy. In the eighties, with the influx of housing funding, many of those groups went into community development. Only a few organizations maintained a primary focus on organizing. ”

The transition was understandable, and hardly peculiar to the Bronx or New York. Organizing in poor communities is never an easy task, and it often proved easier to sustain a development corporation than a grassroots activist group. With so much funding pouring into Bronx housing, the morphing of activist groups into development organizations was all but inevitable.

As the Bronx grew poorer, reviving community activism became correspondingly more challenging. “For effective community organizing,” says Dailey, “you want a somewhat economically diverse group of people. Even if the majority of members are low-income, you need some members and leaders who are not dealing with the ravages of a poverty-stricken life—having to move all the time, dealing with crises that poverty brings.”

Mother and daughter from West Africa passing a Jerome Avenue 99-Cent Store. 

At times, the Bronx has been known for a vibrant, sometimes radical, working-class politics. Housing projects built by clothing workers unions before and during the New Deal became home to concentrations of left-leaning activists; a friend who grew up in one of those projects in the 1940s once told me that as a child, she assumed every household’s morning papers were The New York Times and The Daily Worker (the paper of the Communist Party). In 1917, Socialist Party mayoral candidate Morris Hillquit, running on a platform of opposing U.S. participation in World War I, won 31 percent of the Bronx vote (he won 22 percent citywide); in 1948, Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who had Communist support, won 17 percent of the Bronx vote (he won 2 percent nationwide). 

Today, the Bronx has no comparable political culture or organizational life. “In my district,” says Ritchie Torres, who represents the central Bronx on the New York City Council, “we have some organizations that have a rich history of community organizing, but in general, civic society in the Bronx is lacking. My district has 160,000 residents, 60,000 registered Democrats, and 6,000 voters. With such a low level of civic engagement, we’ve had a lot of public officials who ended up in jail. And this comparative lack of civic and organizational infrastructure has been a challenge for the Working Families Party”—the New York progressive group that backed Torres’s successful 2013 council candidacy, and whose supporters, Torres included, constitute a majority on the council.

When Torres ran in 2013, he was a 24-year-old district director for a councilman from an adjoining district. He’d made a name for himself by exposing landlords who kept their buildings in disrepair. His youth, he says, was a factor in his victory: A number of prospective voters lived on the top floors of six-story walkups—a climb Torres had no trouble making. He’s one of the youngest members ever to serve on the council, and is the first openly gay council member from the Bronx.

A few blocks south of Torres’s district office is the Arthur Avenue corridor—a sparkling two-block island of Italian eateries, bakeries, specialty-food shops, and sidewalk dining to which connoisseurs of Italian cuisine, or people who just want a good cannoli, flock from miles around. “They come from Westchester, Manhattan, Nassau County,” a veteran counterman in an Arthur Avenue meat market tells me. “They don’t come from around here.” The neighborhood, says Torres, is largely Mexican, though of late it is home to Albanian immigrants as well.

“The Bronx is arguably the birthplace of the affordable housing movement,” Torres says, and he sees his job as a vehicle to revitalize that and kindred progressive movements. He’s beginning modestly. “I’m trying to build more of civic infrastructure in my district,” he says. “Like all council members, I was given $1 million in discretionary funds, and we’ve held elections—with precinct walks, phone banks, ballot boxes—across the district, where residents vote on the projects they want to fund with that million.” So far, the residents have voted for security cameras on streets and in schools, and for renovations to parks.

“I was born in a public hospital in the Bronx, grew up in public housing in Throgs Neck [in the Southeast Bronx], attended public schools here, and take the subway to get around town—I’ve never owned a car,” Torres says. Not surprisingly, he has become one of the most eloquent and persuasive defenders of public institutions in the life of the poor and the polity.

The Melrose public housing projects in the South Bronx. 

“We have a severe crisis of affordability in the Bronx,” he begins. “Here, in Fordham [the neighborhood where his district office is located], more than 50 percent of households pay more than half their income in rent. They’re all at risk of becoming homeless. Public housing [home to roughly 170,000 Bronx residents] keeps tenants’ rent to 30 percent of their income. The trouble with private affordable housing is that most units are increasingly unaffordable to the poorest residents. In my district, where median household income is close to $20,000, most of my constituents are priced out of affordable housing.” Before the 2008 crash, some investors used debt financing to buy up tracts of affordable housing, Torres says, planning to displace the tenants and charge higher rents that would pay off the debt and generate profits. The crash ended that particular play, but not before it jacked up housing costs that haven’t come back down.

Torres chairs the council’s public-housing committee, and sees the city’s public-housing stock, which still is home to nearly 600,000 New Yorkers, as a distinctly positive part of urban planner Robert Moses’s complex legacy. For decades, the city’s public housing—which constitutes 15 percent of all the public housing in the nation—provided decent living spaces in well-maintained developments and was the greatest source of affordable housing for poor city residents. For the past several decades, however, the federal government, and then state and local governments, saw public housing as a failed model and opted to fund publicly subsidized private housing instead.

The dim view that most public officials and their constituents take toward public housing, however, is in large part the result of decades of underfunding. “Public housing is in a state of catastrophic decline,” Torres says, “due to a perfect storm of disinvestment. In 1998, the state cut off all operating subsidies; the city did the same in 2003. If a private landlord cut off funding for the operation and maintenance of his building, there would be legal consequences.” Federal funding has been greatly reduced as well. “The New York City Housing Authority [the city’s public housing agency] has capital needs of $17 billion to bring all its housing stock into good repair over the developments’ life expectancy. It gets $300 million a year from Washington.”

“There is no constituency for public housing,” Torres continues. “Its residents are black and brown and poor; they have no political power. One look at public housing and it’s clear that black and brown lives don’t matter.

“Public institutions are the great equalizers in American life. Housing, hospitals, parks, libraries, transit—all are in deepening decline. A $15 minimum wage would be an appreciable improvement in the life of the Bronx, but it won’t change the dynamics that are driving inequality here so long as the neglect of the great equalizers—public hospitals, housing, transit—persists. We’re constrained by Washington and Albany’s disinvestment in cities. We can’t increase the minimum wage, we can’t even install speed cameras, without Albany’s approval.”


HOW TO OBTAIN the leverage to better the Bronx’s lot is, clearly, no easy challenge. To keep housing more affordable, says Mary Dailey, the city could offer developers grants and incentives to retrofit or rehabilitate properties in return for setting stricter affordability standards. But the key to affordability in the Bronx is less about rents than it is about preserving and expanding public institutions, and raising its residents’ wages.


Rush hour, 3rd Avenue and 149th Street. 

One promising development is the deal that community activists struck with the company that is redeveloping the immense Kingsbridge Armory in the West Bronx into the largest ice-skating facility in the world, with nine rinks and a 5,000-seat arena. The armory had lain unused for years when the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition first proposed to the city back in the 1990s that the space be converted to schools, a bookstore, a park, and a community center. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the city and the coalition found a developer willing to transform the armory. And while the developer’s plan to develop an ice-skating facility was a far cry from what the coalition had initially sought, the coalition had altered its demands accordingly. If the developer wanted the city’s approval and assistance for the project, it would have to adhere to a community benefits agreement that required the facility to hire half its workers from the surrounding neighborhoods, and pay them a living wage of $10 an hour. Community benefit agreements were first devised by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and the national organization it spawned, the Partnership for Working Families, provided a road map for the Bronx coalition’s campaign. The agreement was reached in 2013, and when the facility opens in 2017 (or, given developments’ vicissitudes, 2018), it will provide much-needed jobs to the community. (In light of the successes of the Fight for 15 movement to raise minimum wages, and of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for a $15 statewide minimum wage, the level of the living wage the facility will pay will likely be renegotiated.)

Somewhat surprisingly, the Armory deal is one of the first community benefits agreements in New York City. It provides a template for possible future agreements with employers like Fresh Direct—if major projects continue to locate in the Bronx, and if Bronx community and labor activists can develop the clout to persuade local elected officials to withhold approval unless the companies agree to provide decent jobs to local residents. That’s a lot of ifs—few Bronx neighborhood organizations have the track record of the Northwest Coalition; a consistent share of borough elected officials have a history of cutting sweet deals for developers in return for payoffs; and the continued relocation of studios, warehouses, and major retail outlets to the Bronx can’t be assumed. On the other hand, the stretch of abandoned factories on the Bronx’s south shore is one of the few remaining sites in New York with room for major developments, and the new crop of elected officials affiliated with the Working Families Party favor such policies as community benefit agreements. Whether the South Bronx can produce an organization as effective as the Northwest Coalition, however, remains unclear. The poverty there is deeper and more extensive, the political disengagement much more pervasive.

At their best, however, community benefit agreements cover relatively small groups of workers. Like the rest of urban America, the Bronx cannot solve its most fundamental problems on its own. The disinvestment in public institutions and the abysmally small paychecks its residents take home can only be remedied at the state and federal levels. Even more than new affordable housing, much less the strip of gentrification set to rise on its boundary with Manhattan, what the Bronx needs most is a raise.

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