by Gary Axelbank
February 11, 2019
Fifty years ago, in July of 1969, Mott Haven became the first Bronx neighborhood to be designated an official Historic District by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. In fact, all three of the area’s recognized Historic Districts are having commemorations in the coming months.
Along with the 50th anniversary of the Mott Haven Historic District that runs along Alexander Avenue between E. 138th and 141st Streets, both the Bertine Block Historic District (on E. 136th Street between Willis and Brook Avenues) and the Mott Haven East Historic District (on 139th and 140th Streets between Willis and Brook Avenues) were founded on April 5, 1994, which means they’ll celebrate silver anniversaries in just a matter of weeks.
According to the President of the Mott Haven Historic District Association (MHHDA) these three milestones are important to celebrate because many people who live in the Mott Haven area don’t know that they live in a special place.
“My next door neighbor has been here since the sixties and was not aware of it,” MHHDA President Samuel Brooks told thisistheBronX over coffee at the popular Mottely Kitchen (which is located in the Mott Haven East Historic District). “In 1969, the same year that Mott Haven became a historic district, Greenwich Village became a historic district. But guess what? The minute you go there you see all the signage, the tree guards, and the retro street lights. But here it’s sort of like an abandonment and that was why we decided to see if we can make us significant.”
Brooks, a lifetime resident of the south Bronx who founded the MHHDA three years ago, is fully aware of community fears over the area’s invading development and the displacement it could cause. But he sees the Historic Districts movement as a way to have locals put a stake in the ground to preserve their part of the Bronx.
“Why don’t we focus on protecting what’s already here and get people who have been long-term residents acknowledge and be familiar with the history of some of these buildings, rather than just focus on what’s coming?”
Part of that focus will include the forthcoming publication of a commemorative book and Six To Celebrate pamphlet from the Historic Districts Council that will serve as a guide for a walking self-tour for both visitors and residents. Mott Haven was selected as one of the city’s six neighborhoods to celebrate in 2017.
The history of Mott Haven goes back to the borough’s roots in 1639 when Jonas Bronck first arrived. Brooks’ idea is to preserve not only the spectacular architecture of the antique structures, but also south Bronx culture and music heritage, and at the same time improve quality of life.
While some might see new amenities like Mottley Kitchen as a sign traditional Bronxites are an endangered species, Brooks insists its affect is just the opposite. Along with local people like a young woman wearing a Bronx Documentary Center T-shirt working on her laptop over a cup of coffee, during the interview at Mottley Kitchen there was an influx of teachers and others who work nearby coming in for lunch. Brooks believes this integration of culture is exactly what the Mott Haven preservation movement is all about.
“Mottley holds community events, they do food drives, toy drives, exhibits from local artists, and hold children’s readings,” he said. (thisistheBronX publisher Gary Axelbank recently read to children there). “Anytime the community wants to have an event, the space is practically free. So they have integrated themselves into the community as opposed to saying, ‘come in here, spend $5 on a cup of coffee and we only want people that stop in an Uber to come in and grab their goods and disappear’.”
Maybe suprirsing to some, there is active Airbnb tourist activity hidden in the lower floors of the landmarked townhouses in the East Mott Haven Historic District. In fact, according to Brooks, he’s had people from 12 different countries stay in his house in just the last eight months. To make sure Mott Haven businesses benefit from the influx, he has started a discount program for visitors.
As far as the residential properties, predictably, purchase prices have soared in recent years. In the two decades he’s owned it, Brooks has seen the value of his own town house rise to seven times it’s original purchase price of $125,000. But our tour of his home (see the video) revealed that selling and flipping is not so easy, given the kind of restoration needed for centuries-old properties.
“It requires a lot of work to renovate it yourself,” he said. “I have three stories, 2,400 square feet that was built in 1889 on a landmarked treeline street, It’s highly desirable. But even though there are plenty of potential buyers, these properties rarely come on the market because people like living here.”