This is Then & Now , a monthly column by Adrian Shirk on the history of buildings in New York.
There is a famous photograph of Jimmy Carter during his 1977 visit to the South Bronx, walking through the rubble of Charlotte Street. It’s a black-and-white print, several figures silhouetted against an urban desert of brick and ash. A few apartment buildings emerge in the background against a bright plain sky. Carter looks mystified. During the two-block tour, he reportedly instructs one of his housing staffers to “see which areas can still be salvaged.” Then he squints into the textureless landscape before him. “Maybe we can create a recreation area and turn it around . . . ” The Times reporter describes the area as looking like the “result of wartime bombing,” ushering in language that would shape public discourse about the Bronx for the next three decades.
From this point on, Charlotte Street becomes visual political rhetoric. In 1980, Ronald Reagan campaigns at Charlotte Street, using it as evidence of Carter’s failed promises. He stands on the same pile of trash, mobbed by protesters. One woman asks what he’s going to do for them, and a visibly flustered Reagan screeches over the jeers, “I’m trying to tell ya! I can’t do a damn thing for you if I don’t get elected!” Four years later, Jesse Jackson visits Charlotte Street during his Democratic bid. He walks through the ruins, too, and stays the night in a housing project nearby. A decade passes. The rhetoric remains the same. But when Bill Clinton visits Charlotte Street in 1997, he finds himself, instead, in Charlotte Gardens.
Between Jackson and Clinton’s visits, something extraordinary has happened. In Clinton’s Charlotte Street photo, he stands by a sidewalk lined with trees and grass. Behind him is a beige split-ranch house with a front lawn and a tidy white fence. It’s fall. A nearby dogwood is turning orange.
I moved to the end of the 2 train about a year ago, to the street where Woodlawn gives way to Yonkers. My primary modes of transportation are the 2 and the 4, which run above ground all the way to Grand Concourse, so I spend a lot of time looking out at great swaths of the Bronx, which is bright and lively and full of all kinds of strange and surprising architecture. At some point, in the solitude of my home, I came across a grainy video taken of the Bronx in the early eighties, showing block after block of abandoned buildings and blown-out cars, and I began to wonder how or when such supreme ruin was restored. Was it? Where was the patina from the decades that the Bronx was burning?
The legend is that at a 1977 Yankees game, a helicopter broadcaster said, “Well, ladies and gentlemen—the Bronx is burning,” and though there is no record of this, it is scorched in civic memory as the moment when the private crisis of the Bronx became public. Slumlords were hiring gang members to torch their depleted properties. And gangs controlled the majority of borough resources. The destruction was so swift and unwieldy, that even firehouses and police precincts were abandoned by city workers. Trash collection ceased. And a lot of people—1.2 million residents—still lived there.
The tide had been turning for the Bronx since the 1950s, when the Cross-Bronx Expressway was blasted through the borough by Robert Moses , tearing up housing and neighborhoods, displacing entire communities, and rendering the borough, by design, “a place to get out of” (Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air ). Then middle class white flight, followed by Nixon slashing urban renewal funds in the sixties. Eventually these kinds of shifts, undergirded by systemic racism and classism, engendered a total civic abandonment of those who were still there. “[ W]hat happened to my Bronx,” Berman says, “was only the largest and most dramatic instance of something that was happening all over,” leaving the poor—mostly black and brown people—to carry on in the divested American city.
What often gets left out of the master narrative of late-century Bronx is that by the early seventies, there were already significant restoration plans in place, mobilized almost entirely by local, grassroots operations. Among the prominent organizers was Genevieve Brooks, who would later become the borough’s first female deputy president. Early on, Brooks helped to secure the return of sanitation services, as well as neighborhood trash clean-ups, and she helped create a daycare under community control that still exists today. When the fires came, she quickly grew weary, sleeping with her “ shoes by her bed many nights ,” lest she had to flee flames. So Brooks started a coalition of community groups that she named, like a benevolent version of The Warriors , the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes.
In an interview for the PBS series Makers , Brooks says, “When funders would come in, and they said ‘How are you going to do this? Everything around here’s abandoned,’ I’d say, we’re going to do it house by house, block by block, building by building.” The Desperadoes helped allocate city funds to restore apartment buildings, secure rent subsidies and rent-controlled leases, and buy up abandoned parks, one of which sold for a dollar. But the Desperadoes’ flagship project—the most visible in part because it was the most surreal—was Charlotte Gardens.
In 1983, the Desperadoes presented a plan to build eighty-nine freestanding, single-family houses along the decimated corridor of Charlotte Street. The houses were going to have yards, driveways, fences, back decks. Brooks says, “The powers that be, the planners—everybody was against it. They said it wasn’t going to work because it’s in the South Bronx and it would be destroyed.” And yet the city went forward anyway.
The houses were built at about $110,000 each and sold for between $50-59,000, subsidized by federal funds, as well as by the city and private foundations. According to CNN , 90 percent of the houses were sold to low-income Bronx residents—and in some cases, homeowners were able to pay off their mortgages in under fifteen years. Today, these properties are worth upwards of $500,000. In an unprecedented sweep, there were suddenly eighty-nine families who had the kind of capital and equity that had been made so freely available to the white middle class following World War II, but which had been, implicitly and explicitly, denied them til now.
By 1994, all of the houses had been built and sold, and today, in the middle of the South Bronx, you will find a small suburban-style neighborhood along Charlotte Street.
My father is in town and we take the 2 train to the Museum of the City of New York. The first thing we see inside is a 1950s photograph that’s been blown up the size of a wall—and the photo itself is of a wall in Harlem, fly-papered with a “Fight racial and religious hate” campaign from the Institute for American Democracy. On it, a cartoon freckled white boy is crying. “I am SO an American,” he says, to which a disembodied word bubble responds, “You bet, Sonny . . . no matter what your race or religion.” Below the crying white boy, playing jump rope on that Harlem street, are four real-life black girls in braids and pinafores, smiling and laughing at the camera.
Upstairs, there is an exhibit about activism in New York over the ages. I listen to a young tour guide gesture to the Civil Rights corner. “And you know, while all of this action around police brutality was going on, at the same time, there were things like this ,” she says, pointing to a display titled Conservative Activism, where hangs a 1960s bumper sticker with bubble letters: “Celebrate our police heroes!” No one, not even she, reacts to the shadowy resonance in our presence. I move on to the top floor, where Mel Rosenthal’s South Bronx of America is on exhibit: big gelatin prints of collapsed buildings with blacked-out windows; hunks of concrete piled up in an alley; boulevards devoid of people. But mostly there are portraits—a teenage girl striking a pose outside her building; three men playing cards; a grinning mother and daughter clasped together beside a pile of rubble.
Afterward, we take the 2 train to 174th Street. We walk under the tracks, alongside a couple of apartment buildings, a warehouse, and then there they are.
It’s very quiet. The houses are nearly uniform in their make, all ranch and split-ranch style, taupe and yellow and sometimes pink or green. They look pristine, powerwashed, almost. The siding sparkles. Each has a garden, painted fence, fruit tree, maybe a boat trailer, maybe a driveway. Charlotte Gardens still looks like a new neighborhood, perfectly preserved.
But, man—it’s quiet, like a suburban street straight out of the eastern reaches of Queens, or Jersey, or anywhere outside of a city. Boston Road and Southern Boulevard are just out of sight and earshot, but this area seems completely sealed off from the Bronx outside of it. The sidewalks are empty of people except for one guy washing his blue sedan, and one old woman smoking a cigarette in a folding chair on her front lawn who smiles at us as we walk by.
We zigzag through the three blocks, silent. We look mystified. I realize we’re on Carter’s photographic tour, following Charlotte Street all the way to the edge of Crotona Park, where the Bronx resumes its cacophony of traffic and pre-war apartment buildings and a staggering art deco junior high school. We don’t say much, but when I speak, I’m wondering why the city didn’t construct multi-family buildings, and my father is wondering if they ever questioned whether they were taking a strong existing social fabric and replacing it with a weaker one?
Charlotte Gardens is an extraordinary urban renewal feat, don’t get me wrong. I am still sitting here dreaming of this bygone New York City that invested in affordable housing and was willing to bet on the side of justice. There is that. But there is a shadow side of suburban-style development, too: capitalism, debt, isolation.
Last year, there was a party in Mott Haven, the south edge of the South Bronx. Developer Keith Rubenstein was celebrating his attempt to rebrand the neighborhood “The Piano District,” named for all the old piano manufacturers that had once populated its warehouses which he was now turning into luxury lofts. The décor for the party included trash can fires and bullet-riddled cars, and the event’s hashtag was #thebronxisburning.
There’s a lot of things going on here: the abject tone deafness aside, this gleeful poverty fetish is straight out of New York’s Gilded Age, when folks like the Guggenheims used to host “Poverty Balls.” Mott Haven was once, not long ago, stigmatized for things like real trash can fires and real bullet-riddled cars, or at least the ideas of those things. Despite Rubenstein’s investment, “The Piano District” hasn’t really stuck, but the rents are going up.
The story we tell about the Bronx is changing—even the story we tell about Charlotte Street in particular. In the new Netflix series The Getdown , Charlotte Street is mentioned approximately a dozen times within the first half-hour of Baz Luhrman’s Technicolor pilot and it’s the heart of the action: It’s where the four young friends have a run-in with the Savage Warlords; it’s where the mystic graffiti artist leaves his most recent tag; it’s where the kickback-driven councilman lays his claim. In the background, an apartment building is burning to the ground.
Perhaps this kind of gleeful retelling is whitewashing. Or maybe it’s generous, generative, offering a new narrative: The Bronx is cool, the Bronx is fun, the Bronx had and has a rich social fabric everyone should envy, should have always envied. The old narrative being: This place is scary, this place is a failure. But what becomes tricky—or downright sinister, I don’t know—is that the old narrative was used by civilians and government to abandon the place and the people in it; the new narrative will be used by those same civilians and government to push people out.
I think the Bronx could resist this, in a way that much of New York has not been able to. The Bronx is huge, rangy, ungridded, harder to capture. It has always been ethnically diverse and economically homogenous, and so the cultural enclaves like those in Brooklyn neighborhoods are not so neatly replicated up here. It is the only place where something like Charlotte Gardens could have happened, where there was enough time to lay groundwork before someone like Keith Rubenstein cooked up a plan. Bronx organizers have had twenty years to watch the patterns of development in New York and plan a response, in ways that Brooklyn could not.
SoBro is a joke until it’s not. I recently found myself at a small church in Norwood, a social justice ministry that is the most interracial, interclass, intergenerational congregation I have ever seen. They meet in the cafeteria of a Catholic girls’ school, though they are not Catholic. In the announcements, they rallied for everyone to demonstrate against the Jerome Avenue Rezoning Plan, an urban planning initiative that would render the busy, vibrant district along the 4 line more commercial, displacing much of the dense, low-income population. Then they sang an Old Testament prayer from Jabez, set to a gospel melody. “Enlarge my territory,” everyone sang, in unison. “Enlarge my territory.” People began to rise from their folding chairs, hands to the air. “Enlarge my territory.” Though Jabez was using the metaphor of property, neither he nor anyone in that room meant land.