Is the Bronx New York gentrified

The South Bronx is slowly rising from the ashes

Thirty years ago, New York's South Bronx was a symbol of urban neglect in the United States. Since then, the birthplace of the youth movement hip-hop has recovered, even if the stigma still lingers.

Niklaus Nuspliger, New York

The Bronx is certainly not the most popular of the five boroughs in New York City. It is said that the average New Yorker only takes the trip to the far Northeast to visit the Botanical Gardens or the zoo, or to watch a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. The fact that the Bronx is traditionally avoided by tourists and residents of other parts of the city is not just for geographic reasons. Rather, the South Bronx, which is only separated from Manhattan by the narrow Harlem River, has a reputation for being a socially neglected and dangerous area - a stigma that in the USA actually only applies to an area with a very high proportion of Afro-American and Hispanic people Residents can relate.

The decay

The Bronx Museum of the Arts doesn't fit the stereotype of a non-location. The modern converted former synagogue with an elegant south glass facade is located on the Grand Concourse, a boulevard that was built in the late 19th century on the model of the Parisian Champs-Elysées. The museum mainly shows works by contemporary local artists, but is also a cultural center for the quarter. Since 2011, for example, at the “Bronx Stories” event, local cultural workers have been invited to tell a story or give a performance in front of one of the works of art.

A frequent guest at the event is 60-year-old Bobby Gonzalez, who has his gray hair tied in a ponytail and describes himself as a “storyteller”. Gonzales was born the son of Puerto Rican immigrants in a council estate, one of the many "Projects" in the South Bronx. He tells of a happy childhood, of his parents' general store, of a feeling of togetherness in the settlement where blacks and Latinos lived together in modest circumstances.

Gonzalez's family history also reflects the social changes the South Bronx experienced in the 1950s and 1960s. At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews in particular lived in the flourishing area, but there were also immigrants of Italian or Irish origin who had moved from Manhattan's overcrowded migrant quarters. But in the post-war years, many medium-sized families turned their backs on the area and moved to the suburbs. Historians refer to the phenomenon as “white flight” and, at the time of racial segregation, it was also a reaction to the rapid influx of Afro-Americans and poor immigrants from Latin America. The construction of a freeway through the middle of the South Bronx as well as regulated rents contributed to the drop in the value of the properties. Unemployment and crime rose as more and more residents began to leave the South Bronx.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is on fire," said a sports reporter in 1977 during a live broadcast of a baseball game from Yankee Stadium. The quite literal statement still stands for the situation in the Bronx in the 1970s: homeowners who could no longer sell their properties let the buildings go up in flames in order to be compensated by the insurance companies. Social housing tenants also committed arson in order to get new housing allocated in other quarters.

The police and fire brigade were overwhelmed, around 40 percent of the buildings are said to have burned down or been abandoned by 1980. “Like Dresden after the war” was a common metaphor at the time to describe the area affected by disintegration, gang crime and open trade and consumption of crack. When Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan visited the South Bronx with their respective election campaigns in 1977 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the national spotlight fell on the neighborhood that has become a symbol of urban neglect in the United States.

The youth culture

"The images from that time are still present in the minds of many people," says Bobby Gonzalez, "even if the area has been continuously improving for 20 years." In the beginning, it was neighborhood groups like “Nos Quedamos” who decided to stay in the neighborhood and were committed to rebuilding. In recent years, however, the City of New York has also supported the implementation of over a dozen residential projects in which condominiums or rental apartments are offered at affordable prices. In the past decade, the South Bronx, with a population of over 600,000, showed a population growth for the first time in four decades.

Aside from a young New England singer who recently moved to the South Bronx, the Bronx Stories event features many Hispanic and African American artists who are often inspired by the hip-hop tradition. The poems, songs and stories are about solidarity and community, but also about social injustice, racism and police violence. It also cultivates pride in the South Bronx origin, which hardened you early and prepared you for the adversities of life. The audience makes itself felt with a murmur of approval, heckling and applause.

It was during the breakup in the 1970s that hip-hop emerged as a youth culture on the street in the Bronx ghettos. Today hip-hop is one of the USA's most successful cultural export products. Contemporary music can no longer be imagined without the spoken word rap or the DJ, and graffiti writing and breakdancing have also found imitators all over the world. Children from well-heeled European families now wear wide-cut and low-slung trousers like the ghetto kids of the Bronx at the time.

At home in all forms of hip-hop is 21-year-old Nelson Seda, who goes under the stage name "Chief 69" and lives in the South Bronx, where people are still proud to have founded the global lifestyle. In contrast to the times of the origins, violent gangs are no longer part of the movement, explains Seda. However, the artistic fights known as “battles” were also a form of reducing physical violence between the gangs. With the success of hip hop, according to Seda, commercialization has taken place. “Today everything is business,” says rapper Luis Henrique Canada, who goes by the stage name “North Star”. "Graffiti writers get paid to paint walls, and rappers buy entire basketball teams." Social awareness can only be found in the underground scene. "Hip-Hop is supposed to bring people together," says Nelson Seda, "like a speech by Martin Luther King."

"Bronx Stories" is organized in the museum by Bridget Bartolini, a young New Yorker from the borough of Queens who has grown fond of the Bronx. The local art and cultural scene is lively, more authentic and less aloof than those in Manhattan or the “in” districts of Brooklyn, she says. With its occasion to attract audiences from other parts of the city, Bartolini wants to question the image of the Bronx, but above all to create a cultural meeting place for the local population. At the same time, she expresses concern that such events will make the South Bronx more popular and thus pave the way for gentrification. “Will the very residents who have worked to improve the area then have to leave the neighborhood?” She asks.

The renewal

There has been repeated talk of the upcoming gentrification of the South Bronx in recent years - which is pleasing to the real estate industry, which has started to market the area under the trendy name “SoBro”. The term gentrification, which originates from urban sociology, stands for a process in which richer, initially often young and avant-garde-tinged newcomers displace the poorer residents of a district because of rising rental and living costs. In New York, which is still heavily segregated, the term often has an ethnic component: In April, the New York Times declared the South Bronx to be a zone of gentrification and reported on young white professionals and artists who have recently been living in the area.

Residents argue about whether there can be talk of gentrification. A look at the urban statistics, broken down by ethnic group, shows that 500 whites, but also 17,500 Latinos from other New York neighborhoods, have moved here in the past decade. According to rapper Luis Canada, the living conditions of local residents have only improved to a limited extent: "The proportion of teenage pregnancies is high, schools are bad and people suffer from asthma." Canada and the storyteller Gonzalez also note that change is taking place. Rents rose, and Gonzales reports of newly resident “hipsters”, but also of a strong increase in immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America, the Middle East and West Africa. “It's a good thing that the neighborhoods are changing due to new immigrants and newcomers, it has always been like that in New York,” he says.

How these changes will shape the area remains to be seen. The old stigma and geographical boundaries may ensure that the South Bronx doesn't turn into one of New York's new trendy neighborhoods too quickly. The area appears to be too large and heterogeneous for general statements, and the developments appear contradictory. While the Art Deco buildings on Grand Concourse Boulevard are reminiscent of old heydays and new cafes and galleries have emerged in quarters like the busy Melrose, other streets seem poor and underdeveloped. The situation is similar with the once notorious crime, which, according to residents, has fallen sharply, but is still virulent depending on the street section.

After only five stops you can take the subway from the South Bronx to the traditionally upscale residential area of ​​Upper East Side in Manhattan. White passengers are now increasingly boarding the subway, which was previously mostly occupied by dark-skinned passengers. The Upper East Side is located in the congressional electoral district with the highest median income in the United States. Only a few kilometers northeast, the South Bronx no longer burns. But the last census two years ago showed that almost 40 percent of the population here still live below the poverty line - and that the area has the lowest average income in the entire country.