by Carolyn McLaughlin
July 16, 2019
An excerpt from South Bronx Battles
What this book Is:
The journey described in this book demonstrates that the South Bronx’s revitalization is a great American success story. Far from being a desperate no-man’s land, the South Bronx, to me, represents the future of American cities as sites of struggle, immigration, innovation, and mobility. In these chapters, I show how the Bronx’s embrace and support of the poor and immigrants makes it a national model as an essential urban haven.
Based on my nearly five decades of working in the Bronx for social change, I’ve been compelled to write an insider oral history of this misunderstood, understudied, and under-valued slice of New York City. As a social worker and as someone who lived in the Bronx for 20 years during the hard times, I’ve penned a work of journalism, not a scholarly volume, that draws upon a range of primary and secondary sources, including interviews of longtime residents, published and unpublished reports, oral histories, and newspapers and books. I write as a participant observer who has the perspective of a social worker and a community activist. My aim is to provide a broad overview of the decline and resurrection of this borough, with a focus on lower income residents of the South Bronx, using my experiences and those of my informants to provide a visceral guidance through the narrative. I have drawn upon people I worked with for decades, including community residents, service providers, artists, environmental activists, academic experts, and policymakers, as well as more recent contacts. By bringing together these multiple points of view, I hope to give the reader a feel for the people of the South Bronx, their accomplishments and challenges. Some people are quoted many times at various points in the book when their experience relates to the topic being discussed. Many other people and organizations that I was unable to include in this book have made remarkable contributions and have compelling stories as well.
This book seeks to fill a gap in writings about the South Bronx by focusing on problems residents face and the response from communities, government, and human service agencies. It does not attempt to be a comprehensive history of the Bronx, but rather features selected issues I think are important based on my experiences and on conversations with people whose opinions I value. In sections of several chapters, I describe the progress CAB/BronxWorks made in developing comprehensive programs to support families as one example of the positive role social services can play in a low-income community. Other social service agencies have their own histories and achievements but I focus on the organization that I know best. Not enough has been written about the evolution and impact of human services on communities.
My adult life has been spent working to improve the lives of the people of the Bronx and I write as a determined community activist who cares deeply about what happens to this storied and complicated borough and to its residents. I also write as someone who is concerned about the tendency to blame society’s ills on poor people, rather than seeing them as assets who contribute greatly to our communities. The resilience and strength that the people of the South Bronx showed in living through the hard times and their contributions towards its rebuilding should be widely acknowledged and respected. The same resilience and strength resides in people living in other poor areas and they can, if nurtured with resources and opportunity, contribute substantially to reclaiming their communities.
In this work, I take a hard but empathetic look at the South Bronx, chronicling its fall and rise since the 1960s. I look at factors that caused the collapse of residential real estate, as well as the barriers faced by Puerto Ricans and African Americans as they moved to the Bronx. The stories in this book describe the role residents played in reclaiming their neighborhoods, including the many contributions from immigrants. The Bronx, in turn, provided a route to upward mobility for many. The mixing of people from many backgrounds created music and culture that had worldwide impact.
Based on my years of experience developing and leading a major social service nonprofit and serving on the board of directors for several other Bronx nonprofits, I make a case that the Bronx plays an important role in New York City, offering less costly housing to low-income native-born residents and immigrants who are priced out of the rest of the city. Indeed, the South Bronx is poor and, in many ways, needs to stay so in order to remain an affordable home for over 600,000 New Yorkers. This is not to say that individuals who are poor should remain so; quite the contrary. My whole career was devoted to helping people move out of poverty. This is also not to say that we don’t need to improve the Bronx, from schools to housing to basic infrastructure. Poor communities need and deserve an investment of resources available to residents in higher income areas. As an activist, I’ve worked day-in and day-out to improve education for children and adults, prevent homelessness, increase job options, lower crime rates, offer resources for healthier lives, and I plan to show how current initiatives in these areas are essential urban projects. This is also not to say that everyone in the South Bronx is poor, the majority are not, or that the South Bronx should be home primarily to low income people.
Rather, I want to raise a clarion warning about the danger of the ‘Brooklynization’ of the Bronx, an incipient phenomenon rapidly gaining momentum especially in the South Bronx. Thousands of units of luxury and affordable housing targeted to families with significant higher incomes than those who now live in the area are being constructed, raising concerns about displacement. People in the Bronx want a community that includes diversity of income as well as ethnicity, but just up to a point. That point arrives when people who move in are wealthy enough to change the economics of the area, to rapidly drive up residential and commercial rents. The Bronx should not become unaffordable for its current residents.
This book is a plea to keep the Bronx moving forward as a diverse area full of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and dozens of other countries while sustaining important African American and Puerto Rican communities. These latter two groups, who suffered the most during the Bronx’s worst years and played leading roles in building the new Bronx, are vulnerable to displacement along with the new immigrants.
And it is not just the families that meet the official federal definition of poverty that are vulnerable to displacement. Close to 60% of Bronx residents pay over a third of their income for rent and a third pay over half of their incomes. These high rent burdens, the worst in New York State, make it very hard for families to have enough money for their other essential expenses, food, utilities, transportation, clothing. High rent burdens also make families susceptible to loss of their housing. Displacement has huge social costs, for the families who lose their homes and jobs and for the city as a whole.
Yes, the South Bronx is the poorest urban county in the country. But this does not mean that low income people in the South Bronx are poorer or worse off than in other parts of the country. It just means that there are more people who are poor. Many people think poor areas are bad areas which need to be radically fixed, usually by people of wealth and influence. But poor neighborhoods are not necessarily bad neighborhoods. The Bronx has many assets, assets that are particularly crucial to low income people such as good public transportation, basically sound housing stock, comparatively low crime, accessible health care, higher educational opportunities, improving parks, a relatively high life expectancy and a robust social services support system. These assets make the Bronx, although far from perfect, a place that low income families want to continue to call home.
The South Bronx was poor 40 years ago and is still poor but many of the residents are different people. For most of its history and continuing to this day, the Bronx has been a place where families work to build futures that are better than their pasts. As they become middle class, they decide to stay or move to a higher income area. If they stay, they are likely to invest in the community and help family, friends, neighbors who are still struggling economically. If they move, their apartment is likely to be re-rented to an immigrant family or to other low to moderate income family. In neither case is there a disruption to the local economics. The neighborhoods continue to evolve at a reasonable pace. Rents rise but not astronomically. Locally owned businesses are not forced out to make room for posh stores and restaurants. Families can continue to work towards their dreams of a better future.
Neighborhood groups and individuals are actively raising concerns about displacement and gentrification. They are pushing back against proposals for “affordable housing” that would not be affordable to current residents. They have concerns about increasing density and the loss of mom and pop businesses. They are worried that the people who move into apartments that will rent for the $3,500 a month that are now being constructed on the waterfront will change the fundamental nature of their communities. They feel they helped the Bronx by staying during the bad times and have contributed towards the new Bronx. They are worried if they are priced out, they will have no place to go.
Many Bronxites really care about their communities. As in previous generations, they are fighting to preserve their neighborhoods. Their ideas on how to mitigate the displacement crisis facing the borough should be taken very seriously by all levels of government, as the power of government is needed to counteract speculation in the real estate market.
Carolyn McLaughlin, a social worker, moved to the Bronx in 1968. As the the executive director of BronxWorks from 1979 to 2013, she was closely involved with issues of housing, homelessness, AIDS, immigration, and education, and, with skilled staff, developed programs for children, teens, adults, and seniors. She currently serves on the Board of the Bronx River Alliance and the Foundation Board of Hostos Community College.
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