9:30 am Jul. 20, 20121
“It was not unusual for me to get one of our kids running through a settlement house with a note saying ‘out by 3 p.m.,’" said Harry De Rienzo, of his time as a housing activist in 1970s Hunts Point. “What that meant was that the buildings were going to be torched at 3 p.m. and everybody had to get their stuff and get out.”
De Rienzo, founder and C.E.O. of Banana Kelly (so named for the shape of Kelly Street), said that in 1976, when he moved into a house in Hunts Point, there were 103,000 people in that community-board area, and by 1980 there were only 33,000.
Seventy percent of the housing stock disappeared around the same period. It was that era when Jimmy Carter gazed at the rubble of Charlotte Street, planned shrinkage proposals (similar to those in Detroit) left the neighborhood for dead and banks had long stopped lending. The Bronx was burning.
At a discussion Wednesday night at the Museum of the City of New York tied to an exhibit on activism, five veterans of the struggle to rebuild the Bronx discussed in front of an audience of about 80 people how the community responded after the fires.
De Rienzo said it may have looked like a wasteland, but groups like Banana Kelly, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes arose to restore housing and lobby the lethargic city government for more help. Institutional support came from the Catholic church as residents fought to take over and preserve their own housing.
The group adopted the transactional, Alinsky-style of organizing whereby enemies and allies were always changing. Some groups and actions worked better than others, panelists admitted, but there were plenty of success stories among them.
Angel Garcia, former director of South Bronx People for Change, explained how they picked a problem and determined the target for their direct actions: They went to the city’s department of housing preservation and development to complain about abandoned buildings and rats. To prompt action on prostitution, they targeted the borough president.
There was an unapologetically nostalgic tone to much of the proceedings.
“When I was organizing in the '70s, as bad as things were, people could eat, put clothes on their back and they could afford the rent,” De Rienzo said. “Today, I think that a lot of the supports, social and public, are mostly gone.”
Panelist Joe Muriana, a former director of the NWBCCC, urged the room to deconstruct the term "South Bronx."
“While it started off as a term that was geographic in nature, it really morphed and evolved," he said. "It became a byword of mythology."
The geographic definition shifted, as the border of the “South Bronx” moved northward to the Cross Bronx Expressway, or even as far north as Fordham. (Muriana later said that locals used to joke the South Bronx border would reach Yonkers.)
“The fact is 'the South Bronx' really came to mean a destructive dynamic that was a cycle of disinvestment, arson, abandonment, and then total destruction,” he said.
A generation removed from the rest of the panel in their 50s and 60s, 34-year-old Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, director of The POINT Community Center in Hunts Point, represented on the panel the modern face of activism. She pointed out she wasn’t yet born when some of the original leaders were meeting in church basements, and said she grew up with the physical remnants of the crack epidemic and physical dissolution of the neighborhood.
She said the approach to helping modern youth had evolved, and stressed de-normalizing the area’s problems and teaching children to imagine solutions beyond what they saw around them.
“So that was one road that you saw, ok, abandoned buildings and you didn’t think anything of it because that’s just the way it was," she said. "And then there’s the other section where you’re like, ‘You know what? I see this, but this is not right. This is not supposed to be the way it is.’”
Today's South Bronx still makes up the poorest urban congressional district in the United States, and violent crime rates in the Melrose and Hunts Point areas are among the city’s highest. But the poverty, still deeply endemic, is less apocalyptic. Ideas like planned shrinkage are now scoffed at in New York (though they are policy in places like in Detroit and elsewhere).
Over the years, the city and federal governments have become somewhat more responsive, facilitating notable urban-renewal projects like the large mixed-use complex Melrose Commons, which includes Via Verde as well as the South Bronx Greenway.
“You go through the Bronx today and you really wouldn’t recognize it,” Terry-Sepulveda said.
She said the lessons that community-improvement activists learned in the Bronx could be applied in other cities in America, and around the world.
"There's a South Bronx everywhere,” she said. “Everywhere.”
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