When I was in New York City for the first time more than 20 years ago (hell, that’s a long time…), I took the subway and thought to myself: „Just do not miss where to exit and end up in the Bronx“. While today it is a hip neighborhood, its reputation used to be that it’s dangerous with daily homicides and gangs ruling the streets. I have asked Jonathan Lessuck, a New Yorker by heart, who has lived in the Bronx for 25 years, if the reputation has improved and how the streets of the Bronx look like today.
Where’s this bad reputation of the Bronx coming from anyway?
During the 1910’s and 20’s, the Bronx saw a large growth in population as the subways expanded out of Manhattan, providing transportation for workers to the factories in lower Manhattan. During prohibition in the 20 – 30s, illegal smuggling of Whiskey grew rapidly and gangs established.
While Irish, German, Italian and Jewish immigrants left the Bronx, stranded Puerto Ricans and Afro Americans were resettled from Manhattan through the Slum Clearing initiative in the 50 and 60s. Also, the building of expressways through what had been stable working-class neighborhoods caused both the physical destruction of affordable housing and created areas where, due to years of construction activity, it was impossible for people to live. Watch The Tragedy of Urban Renewal here.
Public housing (CO-OP city) was one of the biggest projects building complexes accommodating 60.000 residents. Unsurprisingly, the Bronx turned into a deprived area with an increasing crime rate.
Besides the gang rivalries and the crime rate, there was another issue in the 60 and 70s. Many landlords mainly in the South Bronx set their buildings on fire in order to cash the insurance money. Poverty dominated and the Bronx sank into chaos.
And why is the Bronx way better than its reputation?
What has changed during the course of the last years in New York’s notorious neighborhood? I talked to Jonathan who has been living in the Bronx for 25 years. He explains his point of view and why everyone should have the Bronx on his bucket list during the next New York City visit:
Jonathan, you’ve lived in the Bronx for the past 25 years. Can you describe what has changed in the last years?
There have been many changes to the Bronx. Most of them have to do with creeping gentrification. While we have not reached the levels of displacement that Manhattan and Brooklyn have, we have felt the effects. As middle-class families have been pushed out of northern Manhattan, they have moved into the Bronx. This has made it harder for working-class families to afford rent. As a result, the Bronx has one of the highest rates of residents, especially families living in shelters.
I would say that “zero tolerance” has been a disaster. It has increased the population of our jails and prisons, especially among People of Color, and has used the police as a force of intimidation on most of the communities in the Bronx. The reality is the drop in crime levels has continued long past the end of the “zero tolerance” era.
Are there any parts of the Bronx you would not recommend a tourist to walk along during the day and/or at night? And why?
I think that there are areas of the Bronx that one should be careful in, as in any city. But I would rather talk about those areas that have been improving. The area around 149th street and the Grand Concourse, in fact, the entire length of the Grand Concourse, the West Farms section, Fordham Road, are all parts of the Bronx that are frequented by working-class residents of the Bronx, but not by tourists, yet they offer a lot in history. Beyond those, there are the Bronx Zoo, The Botanical Gardens, Arthur Ave (the real Little Italy) and City Island, all of which draw NYC residents from all over NYC and its environs.
What are the reactions when non NYer ask you where you live and you answer the Bronx? Do people ask you about the Myth and about the life in the Bronx, about criminality, about gangs? In the case of negative responses, do you feel offended? What do you tell those people?
Of course, I have received many negative reactions to my telling people that I live in The Bronx. I am not offended, because I understand the history of these impressions. From Howard Cosell saying “the Bronx is Burning” to movies and books like ‘Fort Apache – The Bronx’ and ‘Bonfire of Vanities” people who don’t really know the Bronx and the people who live here felt free to write some of the vilest racist pieces.
I tell people that they really need to come and visit the area before they accept anyone’s judgement. Again, are there problems, sure. But most of the Bronx, like everywhere else, is made up of families trying to get by, working hard against tough odds.
I read an online article dated July 1, 2018, about a slashing in the Bronx by Trinitarios Street Gang. It says: „The rash of violence has people in the Bronx scared to walk the streets, wondering how and when it will hit home.“
Do you agree? Are people scared? Is the gang violence still a major problem?
Yes, there are gangs in the Bronx, as in most areas in the United States. And I include gangs of all hues, from Los Trinitarios, to Bloods, Crips and the White Nationalists who sell meth in middle America. I would say that the quote above is not accurate. While there may be pockets where gang activity is an issue, it is not the kind of problem it had been thirty years ago.
Have you ever experienced a dangerous situation for yourself in the Bronx?
Is there anything you advise tourists when walking through the Bronx?
Most of the Bronx is home to people just like you, except that they have come from islands and countries that are not part of Europe. Go out and enjoy all of the things that you can find here that you won’t find at home.
Do you want to add a personal message to visitors? Anything you wish to add?
Get out of Manhattan. There is so much more to NYC than the areas most tourists stick to. Don’t be afraid to visit the parts of any city that are beyond the map you get at the hotel. Take a bus or subway to the end of the line, and see what you find there. That is how I travel, and you will learn a lot more about a place by doing that.
Thank you, Jonathan, for your honest point of view and your tips. I have forgotten my „subway-Bronx-trauma“ from more than 20 years ago and look forward to discovering the Bronx during my next New York City visit. And this is what you should do, too.
If you want to read more about Jonathan and his journeys, visit his blog “Travels in the 2nd half”.