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Against Stereotyping

If I were to start a poll on where that street of handsome semi-attached houses was located, where would you guess? The New York area, obviously, but where? I’m guessing that not one in a hundred people would say “the South Bronx” but that’s Kelly Street north of 156th Street, in the Longwood neighborhood. This is not just the South Bronx, it’s near the area made famous in the 1970s as a symbol of urban decay, maybe a mile and a half from where Jimmy Carter visited Charlotte Street, maybe a mile from Engine Company 82. Firefighter Dennis Smith worked at Engineer 82 and wrote a book describing life at the busiest firehouse in the world as the neighborhood around was decimated by fires, many of which were arson.

The immediate neighborhood around this block of Kelly Street is a small historic district, but that, of course, would provide no protection from the forces that ravaged the area: disinvestment by banks and insurance companies, abandonment by the municipal government, and white flight. And, sure enough, there are stretches of new buildings dating from the 1990s to the present that mark where vacant lots had been before things started to improve. These good houses were built in 1899 when a few people still referred to this area as the “north side,” the natural complement to the east and west sides. There were railroad stations not far away and a few years later the IRT subway as well. In the end, the Bronx did not develop in the way that its promoters would have preferred, and ended up largely working class, but there are still remnants, like these houses, of what was intended.

While some neighborhoods – with Morrisania and Crotona Park probably top of the list – were so badly damaged in the 70s that they seemed permanently lost, they have been rebuilt. In some cases, the population has grown beyond the earlier peaks because houses and small tenements have been replaced by new apartments. The stigma of “the Bronx” and particularly “the south Bronx” is slower to go away. There’s an irony in the fact that the name “south Bronx” did not really exist prior to Carter’s visit and the attending publicity. A lot of reporters and policy makers who knew nothing about the Bronx looked at a map, saw that the area in question was in the southern half of the borough, and started calling it that. The group of neighborhoods now known by that name were called the west Bronx, because they were west of the Bronx River. Soundview is just as far south but is never included in the “south” Bronx because it’s east of the river. This may seem like a quibble, but it matters when “the south Bronx” is automatically dismissed, to this day, as an urban disaster area even though that is not true. Maybe it never was. Smith’s book describes the worst years in the area and there is still hope in it.