I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about local history or do any research at all before I went to a neighborhood to troll for maps and that I was only going to comment on current conditions and first impressions but I realise now that this approach is silly and ignorant and does a disservice both to myself and the neighborhood I’m attempting to describe. A neighborhood today is the product of its history; its fabric, culture and demographic the result of decisions made by its residents and its elected officials as well as events in the wider world. I was taught this humbling lesson through my trolling of the fascinating and confounding borough of the Bronx and meeting the crazy, resilient and normal people who live there. I mean I could have spent the next few months pointing out the little quirks and oddities I found around me but without historical context, they mean nothing at all. The little yellow house I took a picture of? The chickens? The masses of community gardens? Nothing.
Why are there so many community gardens in a city where land values are so high? Why is there so little original, 19th Century housing in the Bronx whereas Brooklyn still has vast swathes of the original housing stock? Why is the Bronx so poor here, mere miles from Wall St and Midtown?
To answer these questions I first trolled through the unreliable minefield that is Wikipedia and feasted upon the myths and legends there. I discovered that the Bronx was once a much different place than it is now.
Before the map thing, I’d only been to the Bronx twice. Once to buy a record player and another time to go to the zoo. I had heard something of its reputation as a rough place and no place at all to live or to visit after dark. I had heard the words ‘South Bronx’ uttered as a sneer, an oath, a warning but had no clear idea of what actually they meant. I then read some real books that were actually published, written by people who either lived in the Bronx or studied in a college of some repute and what I learned blew my mind. I’ve been terrorising friends and strangers alike with tales of the Bronx and now I set down in pixels this incredible story of birth, destruction and rebirth.
Now I grew up in North Liverpool during the 1980’s so I have some experience with declining populations, high unemployment, half abandoned housing estates stalked by drug addicts and bored youths looking for a fight and whilst it wasn’t exactly ‘white flight’ that happened to Liverpool, there was ‘middle class flight’ - they fled the inner city (and probably Liverpool entirely) as unruly elements and lethargy threatened to overwhelm the weakening social order, the increasingly ineffective and under funded police force and all presided over by a government that was seen by many of the residents who were left behind to have, if not actually precipitated and encouraged the decline in Liverpool’s fortunes, then had at least done nothing to try to halt it. North Liverpool hardly seemed like a viable community at all, or at least the part of it that I lived in didn’t. 25% unemployment, vandalism everywhere and only two people on our street owned a car. We played a game called man-hunt in the beautiful old abandoned grammar school across the road until a smack head burnt it down trying to cover his tracks. Our little gang would set fire to anything we could get away with; there was so much fuel about- they filled the inner walls on the Radcliff estate with straw, by Christ! We weren’t even the bad kids.I remember as a time of piss, puddles and fires.
What happened to Liverpool during the 70’s and 80 and 90’s mirrored what was happening in many Western urban centers but the decay and destruction in the Bronx was so rapid, systematic and total that it threatened to engulf the Bronx completely. The devastation was so total that some local politicians and industry leaders thought that it would be better to withdraw the remaining residents and, ‘blacktop the whole area and make it an industrial park.’ You have to watch the otherwise feeble film Wolfen to see some great footage of how it was. Visitors to the Bronx likened it to post war German towns and this in a place that was mainly farmland less than a century before. Like every good urban tale, it begins in the 1840s and it is, of course, a history of real estate and it is very difficult to tell this tale without telling you a history of Bronx real estate patterns. I’ll begin next time. For now I leave you with the progress I've made on the Bronx so far. This is the South Bronx and I've nearly finished it except for a bit over to the left and I've been over there 3 times and there just are no maps there. Poo.