Bronx Burns No More as NYC’s Poorest Borough Comes Back: Cities

South Bronx
A man throws a basketball in front of an empty building in the South Bronx in New York City. With Brooklyn and now Queens succumbing to gentrification, the Bronx endures as a bastion of working-class life in New York. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Jerome Raguso, known locally as the Cannoli King of Arthur Avenue, has lived his whole life above the family bakery in New York’s other Little Italy.

Gone are the days when he and his buddies threw some wood in a metal garbage can to grill steaks or set up tables on the sidewalk to dig into plates of his mom’s pasta. But vanishing too are the gangs, violence and drugs that gave a local police precinct the moniker -- celebrated in a 1981 movie title -- “Fort Apache.”

The poorest borough in New York is shaking off the embers of the 1970s, when arson was so rife that “The Bronx is burning” became a catch phrase. The South Bronx has been rebranded as “SoBro,” featuring sushi bars, lofts and boutique hotels attracting European tourists.

“We really believe the Bronx is up and coming,” said Douglas Brookman, director of operations for Empire Hotel Group, which opened a hotel in 2013 in the once-dilapidated Bronx Opera House -- a vaudeville venue that hosted the Marx Brothers and Harry Houdini.

The climb will be arduous.

Almost 30 percent of the Bronx’s 1.4 million residents live at or below the poverty line. Although its 9.3 percent unemployment rate in December resulted from the steepest drop (1.3 percentage points) among the boroughs in 2014, it remained the highest, and compared unfavorably with the citywide rate of 6.4 percent. It ranked last in job growth between 1990 and 2014, at 17.7 percent, according to the state Labor Department.

Immigrant Draw

The northernmost of the city’s five boroughs and home to Yankee Stadium and the 265-acre Bronx Zoo, the Bronx accommodated a generation of middle-class sons and daughters of immigrants in the early and mid-20th century. While Art Deco apartment buildings still line the boulevards of the Grand Concourse and Jerome Avenue, the borough struggled to recover from white flight and subsequent depredations.

“The biggest challenge is getting rid of the outdated stigma that people still have about the borough,” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. wrote in an e-mail.

With Brooklyn and now Queens rapidly gentrifying, the Bronx endures as a destination for immigrants who swell the drab post-war high-rises -- like 1520 Sedgwick Ave., the birthplace of hip hop. Spanish is the mother tongue of a Latino majority. What attracts new arrivals is the affordable housing coupled with the decline in crime.

The median price of single-to-three-family homes, co-ops and condominiums was about $317,000 in the last three months of 2014, $8,000 less than 10 years ago, said Jonathan Miller, president of Miller Samuel Inc., a residential-property appraiser in New York. Median housing prices in Brooklyn increased 44 percent to $585,000 in the same period, he said.

Bargain Rents

Rents also are compelling. For $1,650 you can find a three-bedroom apartment in Mott Haven, the trendiest part of the Bronx, the price of a studio in the eastern-most end of the Upper East Side.

“We don’t think gentrification is a bad word, but we have to figure out what that means for us,”said Marlene Cintron, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. “We want the Bronx to remain the place where more languages are spoken than any other borough, and where kids who go away to college want to and can afford to return.”

That might be a tough sell. Those who make it big stay gone. Jennifer Lopez -- aka “Jenny from the block” -- has a penthouse in Manhattan and a place in the Hamptons. Chazz Palminteri, who wrote and starred in the autobiographical film “A Bronx Tale,” lives in Westchester County.

Annabel Lee

It’s hard to imagine the Bronx was once open countryside, not even part of the city. Yet there are reminders of the bucolic past: from leafy Riverdale to a tiny wood cottage that was the last home of Edgar Allan Poe.

While the Yankees -- known as the Bronx Bombers -- remain a major draw for baseball fans and families take the kids to the zoo or Botanical Gardens, other New Yorkers have little reason to cross into what remains a comparative wasteland with little in the way of entertainment -- just one bookstore and two movie theaters.

What the Bronx has in abundance are vexing social problems. It came in last in a statewide ranking for health and education. Diaz said in his State of the Borough address that only 18 percent of working-age Bronxites got a college degree, compared with 60 percent of Manhattanites.

On the other hand, crime has plummeted, with only 95 homicides last year compared with 653 in 1990. More than 16,000 housing units are under construction, half of them subsidized. Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to create a 73-block swath of housing, shops, offices and schools along a stretch of Jerome Avenue served by the subway, a project that could change the way New Yorkers view the Bronx.

New Jobs

The lure of tax breaks convinced online grocer FreshDirect to build a 500,000 square-foot distribution center in Mott Haven; a 300,000-square foot television and film studio will rise in Soundview. The addition of more stops along the Metro-North commuter line and the conversion of a five-acre former armory into the largest indoor U.S. ice-skating and winter Olympic training center are among the biggest investments the Bronx has seen in decades.

Back in Little Italy, where the 57-year-old Raguso’s father opened Gino’s Pastry shop in 1959, the issues are becoming increasingly mundane, a welcome evolution. His biggest headaches these days include parking and health regulations and competition from big-box stores.

“Now, you sit outside on the sidewalk and you get hit with a violation,” he says. “I had someone come in the other day who wanted me to decorate a cake he’d bought from Costco. I did it only because he was a senior.”

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