Culture and History of the South Bronx

The South Bronx has a rich cultural history and is home to some of the most vibrant communities in the City. While the South Bronx is comprised of a conglomerate of neighborhoods, the Third Ave BID services the Melrose and Mott Haven neighborhood in Community District 1. The South Bronx is home to thriving Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, African American and West African communities.

According to the 2015 Bronx Community District 1 Community Health profile, 72% of our community is Hispanic, 25% is Black and 2% is White. What’s more, 28% of our community is foreign born and 36% have limited English proficiency. The South Bronx is, and has a history of being, one of the poorest neighborhoods in NYC.

While issues of poverty and unemployment are not unique to NYC or the Bronx, the South Bronx’s history of disinvestment and disenfranchisement has positioned itself to historically bear the adverse consequences of social or economic tensions in the City. In order to fully understand the plight of the South Bronx, we must examine it’s history at the start of the twentieth century.

 

The Bronx underwent rapid growth during the turn of the twentieth century, as it residential development boomed and subway lines extended further South in the Bronx, making travelling to and from the inner borough of Manhattan more accessible. Thousands of Irish, Italian, French, German, Polish and Jewish immigrants settled in the Bronx. The South Bronx was considered a ‘Jewish Borough’ up until the early 1960’s, where it experienced what is now known as ‘white flight’. During this time, the borough’s German, Italian and Jewish populations either migrated further South in the Bronx or left the borough entirely, leaving behind mostly Hispanic and African American populations. Essentially, the South Bronx went from being two-thirds non-Hispanic in 1950, to two-thirds black or Puerto Rican in 1960.

 

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Source: The Library of Congress

As the Bronx was developing at the start of the twentieth century, it’s economy took a hard hit during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. The Bronx experienced growing rates of job loss and unemployment, which contributed to the South Bronx making up about 66% of NYC’s unemployment rate in 1939. By 1976, The Bronx would have experienced the loss of 500,000 factory jobs, as well as a growing urgency for public assistance and welfare services. By 1960, roughly a quarter of the families in the South Bronx were receiving welfare and the effects of the Bronx’s white flight and economic decline were felt more than ever. The race riots of 1964-65 were crucial in the fight for social and economic reform amongst African American and Latino communities in the South Bronx and instrumental in the citywide welfare rights campaigns that began in 1966.

The 1960’s was a crucial decade in the history of the Bronx, as it exhibited some of the earliest signs of the South Bronx’s ‘urban decay’. The construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway between 1960-1963, cut through the heart of the South Bronx, leaving thousands of residents displaced from their homes and forcing some local businesses to shut down. What’s more, the South Bronx began to experience gradual population decline, as property values decreased, vacancy rates increased and it’s housing stock aged unmaintained. The South Bronx was in crisis, and quality of life in The South Bronx took a sharp decline during the mid 1960’s to the mid 1970’s.

Due to the redlining of The South Bronx, it’s property values continued to plummet to record lows and more and more properties were left vacant and unmaintained. As citywide spending was cut during the end of Abraham Beame’s mayoral candidacy, landlords were left with little incentive to maintain or improve housing conditions, and often strategically allowed for their properties to be taken over by gangs or converted into federally funded welfare hotels. As landlords found themselves unable to make a profit off of their real estate, and low-premium fire insurance became available in the 1970’s, many landlords burned their buildings to collect their insurance money. The Bronx was Burning in the 1970’s, and entire blocks of buildings were reduced to ashes. By 1980, over 40% of the South Bronx had been burned down or abandoned. This not only severely crippled the South Bronx’s housing stock, but it accelerated the decay of its local economy and it’s neighborhood fabric.

 

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Source: New York Post article ” Why the Bronx Burned”

 

Since the 1970’s the Bronx has seen substantial development and investment in its housing stock and quality of life. The Bronx, which was once symbolic of urban decay, is constantly being transformed through revitalization and urban renewal efforts. While not all of the Bronx’s history since the 1970’s has been pretty, it is undeniable that the Bronx is seeing record levels of development, population, business and job growth. According to the NYS Comptroller, the Bronx’s population grew 26% between 1980 and 2017, becoming the fastest-growing county in the New York State, and it’s unemployment rate fell to a new record low of 4.7% in May 2018. What’s more, the Bronx is seeing record levels of investment, with the City investing over 1 billion dollars over the past decades in revitalization projects throughout the Bronx and private investors investing 1.5 billion dollars into the South Bronx in 2017 alone.

The South Bronx has become a hotspot for investors and is awaiting the completion of major infrastructural and developmental projects that will radically transform the neighborhood in the coming years. Most recently, governor Cuomo awarded the South Bronx 10 million dollars through the Downtown Revitalization Initiative to invest in projects that will support our community and it’s vision. Major projects along the waterfront such as the Harlem River Yard, Bronx Point and various housing developments will dramatically transform the South Bronx’s waterfront and provide accessibility to a waterfront that has been underutilized since the late 1900’s and left inaccessible to Bronx residents.

 

 

 

Sources:

The South Bronx by Evelyn Gonzalez

PBS’s A Walkthrough of the Bronx (https://www.thirteen.org/bronx/index.html)

The New York State Comptroller 2018 “An economic snapshot of the Bronx”

Bisnow “Game Changer: Big-Name Investors Bring Cachet The Bronx is Craving” (https://www.bisnow.com/new-york/news/neighborhood/bronx-brookfield-jamestown-commercial-real-estate-investment-87885)

Curbed “South Bronx’s transformative development boom, mapped” (https://ny.curbed.com/maps/south-bronx-new-york-construction-map)