In 1849, Jordan Mott, inventor of the first efficient coal stove, founded the Mott Iron Works on the banks of the Harlem River in what is today commonly referred to as the South Bronx. Many of his works endure: The manhole covers and drainage grates his factory produced have a half-life rivaling that of Uranium-236, and they continue to perform their humble services throughout the five boroughs. The foundry itself, however, was torn down years ago, and it has been mostly old-timers who knew about Mott’s other legacy: The South Bronx’s official name is Mott Haven.
If recent indications prove accurate, though, the area may soon join Dumbo and Williamsburg as a hot Manhattan-border neighborhood, with all the baggage—including an inane new realtors’ sobriquet, SoBro—that such status brings. Mott Haven’s scattered factories (the ironworks attracted a number of other industries, including, rather charmingly, piano-making) are being converted into lofts at a stiff pace, and an increasing number of artists and professionals are taking advantage of the relatively low rents that the area still commands.
Furthermore, away from Mott Haven’s industrial drags, entire blocks of well-preserved brownstones endure. Many of them still feature their original detailing (stained-glass transoms, cast-iron banisters), and a few are flatly luxurious beneath their timeworn hides: Alexander Avenue was known as “Doctors Row” and “the Irish Fifth Avenue” at the turn of the last century, after the children of immigrant ironworkers had risen to more prosperous positions.
It would be wrong, however—ethically as well as factually—to ignore the burden of late 20th-century neglect that continues to weigh upon Mott Haven. Robert Moses slammed his fist into the neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, “clearing the slums,” stacking the displaced in spiritless public housing towers, and sealing them behind a rampart of expressways: the Bruckner to the east and the Major Deegan to the south and west. The middle and upper classes fled, blue-collar jobs moved away, and crime and poverty soared. Mott Haven became the South Bronx of infamy, and remained so until the drug and gang wars finally began to burn out in the early 1990s.
A recent visit to the neighborhood revealed dramatic improvements, though not a wholesale transformation. The sidewalks along 138th Street bustled with shoppers, many of them cooling off with fresh liquados from a streetside fruit vendor. Mothers and nannies chatted on benches in St. Mary’s Park while their charges played in the grass. The row of antiques stores on lower Alexander Avenue (which were there long before the first loft conversion) buzzed at 10:30 in the morning. And telltale signs of real estate and economic rejuvenation—new AC units and satellite dishes—hung from many windowsills and cornices.
A silver lining to the dark cloud of Moses-era public housing also became apparent: Unlike the massive projects in the Lower East Side and Bushwick, two other neighborhoods on the rise, many of the apartment complexes in Mott Haven were built on the existing grid, and airy, treelined alleys connect them to the public streets on either side. With pedestrians passing through and retail spaces on either side, there is reason to believe that, as Mott Haven revives, the residents of the towers will not be marooned.
Thus far, however, “gentrification” is too strong a word for the local goings-on. Only a few places catering specifically to the loft crowd have opened; you’ll have a much better time eating out if you know your lechon from your lechuga, and more fun at the local clubs if you know how to salsa. And you’d better have a good excuse if you’re not a Yankees fan. Mott Haven is, in short, still a purebred Latin Bronx borough, and the Baby Björn crowd is years away. But even the local precinct house is getting a facelift. With public money trickling into the South Bronx, serious private money probably isn’t far behind.
Boundaries: Harlem River to the west and south; Bruckner Expressway to the east; and 149th Street to the north.
Transportation: Trains: 4, 5; 6. Buses: 1; 2; 15; 21; 32; and 33. The 15 crosses into Manhattan, traversing the island along 125th Street.
Main Drags: 138th and 149th Streets; Third , Alexander, Morris, Willis, and St. Anns Avenues; Bruckner Boulevard; Grand Concourse; Major Deegan and Bruckner Expressways.
Prices to Rent and Buy: To rent: one-bedrooms from $700 to $1200; two-bedrooms from $900 to $1500; lofts from $1000 and up. To buy: Lofts from $200,000, brownstones from $400,000.
What to Check Out: Dozens of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican restaurants line 138th Street east of Third Avenue; judging by the long lines, any one of them is a good bet. The Blue Ox Bar (2576 Third Avenue; 718-402-1045) and the Bruckner Bar and Grill (1 Bruckner Boulevard; 718-665-2001) host poetry nights and art-related gatherings, and serve up gastropub fare and a selection of draft beers. Do not miss—or mess with—the women of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, who battle every so often on the rink at the Skate Key (220 East 138th Street; 718-401-0700).
Crime: The 40th Police Precinct reported eight murders in 2004, down from 18 in 2001; 38 rapes, down from 55; 454 felonious assaults, down from 648; and 281 burglaries, down from 656.
Politicians: City Council: Maria del Carmen Arroyo, Democrat. State Assembly: Carmen Arroyo, Democrat. State Senate: Jose M. Arroyo, Democrat. U.S. Representative: Jose E. Serrano, Democrat. U.S. Senators: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer, Democrats.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 27, 2005