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Beyond Charlotte Street

Breaking the South Bronx Stereotype

By David H. Feinberg

Three years ago the South Bronx became much more than a decaying inner-city neighborhood. On October 5, 1977, a motorcade of black limousines normally used to shuffle New York's elite around midtown Manhattan brought Jimmy Carter to Charlotte Street. And as Carter gazed at crippled tenements and mounds of garbage, the South Bronx became a symbol of the devastation of America's inner cities.

Charlotte Street shocked President Carter. "Here was this farmer from Georgia," commented Edgar Cordona, a South Bronx Community leader, "who came from a world of beautiful scenery, fishing ponds, to see that he is president of something unbelievable in the most powerful nation on earth."

As Carter gawked, he leaned towards Patricia Harris, then the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and instructed her to "see which areas can still be salvaged. Get a map of the whole area and show me what could be done." These words became a hope to the residents of the South Bronx. Yet today Charlotte Street is still desolate--President Carter has yet to put his words into action.

Today, more than 600,000 live in the South Bronx, a population equalling that of Boston. But unlike Boston, one out of three of its residents are supported by public assistance: welfare, food stamps, social security, unemployment insurance or some other government program. Two years ago, Community Board 5, one of the six community boards of the South Bronx, had the highest welfare dependency rate in the United States. The 1970 census revealed a median annual income of $5,500, with $7,183 considered the baseline for a "low" standard of living in the New York area. At that time, 70 per cent of the teenagers in this community were out of work.

In 1976 one out of every four live births in the South Bronx were born by mothers under 19 years old. Almost a third of the pregnant women in the area receive late or no prenatal care. The infant mortality rate is almost 50 per cent higher in the South Bronx than it is in New York City as a whole. And drug addiction and drug related deaths are twice as high.

Charlotte Street once was at the heart of a thriving working class neighborhood densely packed with five-story walk-up apartments. Today, only two homes remain. Beginning in the 1950s, the draw to the suburban dream and federal highway construction and low-interest home mortgages for the middle-class encouraged the upwardly mobile residents of Charlotte Street to move out.

As the new suburbanites settled in to split levels in New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island, they left behind neighborhoods eventually inhabited by much poorer people. Falling rent forced landlords to neglect and then abandon buildings. Vandals ripped anything of value from the tenements or just torched them. Arson became a carefully planned and profitable activity as landlords burned their buildings to collect fire insurance, making the area charred and hollow.

Three years after the presidential visit, the administration still has not brought salvation to Charlotte Street and the rest of the South Bronx. But on June 30 the South Bronx Development Office (SBDO) announced a block-by-block plan to revitalize what has become the most publicized slum in the country. The plan outlines a strategy to build from the areas of strength that planners have found in the South Bronx. The SBDO recognizes that the South Bronx, as devastated as it is, is not all like Charlotte Street. Beyond this wasteland is a collection of stable commercial and residential communities, a superhighway system that could lure industry back into the area, and community leaders determined to revitalize the South Bronx despite the paltry contributions of the Carter administration.

Arthur Avenue with its commercial energy and tightly-knit community spirit embodies the determination of South Bronx residents to revitalize their neighborhoods. The smell of fresh fish fills the street. Vegetable and fruit stands sprawl on the sidewalk. Shoppers double park their cars as they run into bazaars to buy homemade pasta, bread, or Italian pastries. This is the old New York ethnic dynamism, thought to have died in the South Bronx with Charlotte Street.

"Italians have had the best urban experience of any immigrant group in the United States," Ed Logue, the director of SBDO, says as he walks down Arthur Avenue, pointing to it as an example of an "area of strength" in the South Bronx. It is the commercial heart of a small Italian community called Belmont in the northern part of the South Bronx, with a residential vibrancy that will make it a springboard for the area's revitalization.

At the end of Arthur Avenue, however, the scene suddenly changes--four large blocks of vacant land covered with overgrown weeds mark the outer boundary of Belmont. But here Logue has received federal fundings for the construction of 66 owner-occupied homes to be sold with various subsidies to lower-middle-class people. Logue predicts that the project will further the stability of this part of the South Bronx by attracting new homeowners to the area. He believes these homeowners, like the residents of Belmont, will take a more active interest in the up-keep of their community than would renters. For SBDO, the promotion of private ownership is a key to fostering the community pride necessary to revitalize the South Bronx. And what Logue is doing in Belmont he is repeating in three other relatively stable parts of the South Bronx.

Belmont is a small neighborhood, but along the full length of the South Bronx lies its commercial and cultural spine. The Grand Concourse was built at the turn of the century as a speedway for the Rider and Driver Club of New York. By World War II, however, the Concourse was a fully developed residential strip containing the greatest collection of Art-Deco buildings in the United States. It was a street attracting people from all over New York, the home of the wealthy and influential leaders of the Bronx.

Today, the ramshackle Art Deco buildings are a pathetic reminder of its grand past. But SBDO has targetted the Concourse as a top priority revitalization project. If the project succeeds, the Grand Concourse may regain some of its old status, and its prosperity may once again spill into its side streets and nearby commercial districts. But if this 40-block pillar of the South Bronx continues to deteriorate, there is little hope for the rest of the area.

Logue's strategy to strengthen the Concourse focuses on a building-by-building commitment of federal funds. Last week, he received a special allotment of $320 million in government subsidies to rehabilitate 1,000 housing units along the Concourse. This sum, combined with New York City's normal allottment of housing funds, may be the stimulus needed to bring the South Bronx back to its former grandeur.

Belmont and the Concourse are just two communities beyond the wasteland of Charlotte Street. But they shatter a common misperception of the South Bronx as a community without hope. The South Bronx is more than just, as Ronald Reagan describes it, "A bombed out London after the war." There's life in the South Bronx, but it lies beyond Charlotte Street.

On 149th Street, in the Hub, one of the South Bronx's two largest commercial districts, there's a traffic jam ten hours a day. Cars are double parked, and people mill around on a street as crowded as any in midtown-Manhattan. Fordham Road is even busier. The Alexanders and Loeman's department stores are jammed with frenetic bargain hunters.

Community groups have joined master-planner Logue in his efforts to redevelop the South Bronx. On Kelly Street in the southeastern part of the area, a group called the Banana-Kelly Community Improvement Association has renovated five vacant buildings with CETA workers and "urban homesteaders." The homesteaders used their own labor as equity in financing the purchase of an apartment they rehabilitated. In one of the worst areas of the South Bronx, on 168th Street and Washington Avenue, another homesteading group, the People's Development Corporation, has rennovated five other tenements. Their remodeled buildings sport solar energy panels, greenhouses, storm windows and other energy saving equipment. At Hunts Points, the Bronx Frontier group runs a windmill on the East River to capture energy that turns the debris from vacant lots into raw construction materials. And the Catholic Church, led by Father Louis Gigante, has built 1,000 units of subsidized housing in the area's southeastern section. In the next three years, he plans to build 1,500 more apartments.

Today, the South Bronx has the potential for rebirth. And if this rennaissance comes, it will result from the dedication of the area's leaders and residents, not from Carter's limousine excursion to Charlotte Street. The hope for the South Bronx resides in the pride and the spirit of the people who live there--and in their aspiration to rebuild their neighborhoods into the communities they once were.

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