New York

South Bronx Saviors or Sellouts?

Community activists and “self-gentrifiers” debate how to improve their borough without becoming part of the problem

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For residents of today’s Bronx, the borough is at once a blighted place from which to escape, and a resilient community alive with creativity and resistance. And for some it’s both: somewhere to work to improve their own lot as well as that of their neighborhoods as a whole.

I spent the month of December crisscrossing the South Bronx neighborhoods of Mott Haven, Port Morris, and Hunts Point, talking to Bronx-bred and -identified small business owners about their work and its relationship to their borough. I spoke with Instagram influencers and coffee shop owners and fashion designers, as well as local activists, and I heard this tension articulated again and again: Should the goal be to leave as soon as you can, or to stay?

There’s also tension around the issue of gentrification. In 2015, the NYU Furman Center named the Mott Haven/Hunts Point area one of the city’s top ten gentrifying neighborhoods, defined as low-income areas that had experienced higher-than-median rent growth since 1990. On some blocks in Mott Haven and Port Morris, construction sites are as ubiquitous as the infamous truck traffic.

One high-profile developer, Keith Rubenstein, is already launching new businesses — a coffee shop, a pizza place, a boxing gym, a fashion boutique — in the area surrounding his yet-to-be-built high rises along the Harlem River on either side of the Third Avenue Bridge. These were largely empty when I visited, but perhaps they won’t be for long.

In many gentrifying neighborhoods, the Furman Center report shows, rising rents have been accompanied by increases in average income. That’s not the case in Mott Haven/Hunts Point, where since 2000, the average rent has gone up by a third even as the average income has dropped 16 percent. More than 70 percent of households make $40,000 a year or less. And while the share of the adult population with college degrees is on the rise, Mott Haven/Hunts Point is the only one of the top ten gentrifying neighborhoods in which the number remains below 10 percent.

The Bronx residents I spoke with are well aware that gentrification is coming, but they are deeply divided over what to do about it. And since the community is so close-knit, and everyone knows everyone, the divisions are both ideological and intensely personal. Is a local fashion influencer a “sellout” for opening his boutique with the help of Rubenstein? What about a local tour guide who brings her clients to Rubenstein’s businesses? Or a coffee shop owner determined to seize the reins of economic development for herself and other local people of color through a process she terms “self-gentrification”?

What follows is a series of snapshots of these entrepreneurs and activists. Each of them is trying to shape the future of the South Bronx in their own way.

Jérôme LaMaar

Jérôme Lamaar is sitting atop a carpeted platform on a green plush throne, the back of which features three multicolored parrot heads made of cloth and tile. The branches and fronds of potted plants arch above his head while a fake but convincing Bengal tiger stands guard on his left. On his right, another life-size faux animal, this one a Swarovski crystal turtle, glimmers in the light.

“I knew I was different from the other boys,” he tells me, recalling his first job. As a young teenager growing up in Soundview, he worked in the checkout aisle at a grocery store. He was the only male cashier, and he would draw attention for the sketches he’d create while waiting for customers. But what truly set him apart wasn’t his job or his drawings or his sexuality, but his ambition.

“When I was working at Key Food, at the end of the night, I would yell out loud, ‘I’m gonna work for Baby Phat! I’m not gonna stay here like all the rest of you average people. I’m gonna work for Baby Phat!’ ” By age 15, he was, indeed, working for Baby Phat as an intern, later advancing to become senior designer and creative brand coordinator.

LaMaar is now 32, and we’re sitting together in 9J, his fashion boutique that he started with the help of Keith Rubenstein, founder of the Somerset Partners development group. I’m at his feet on a short wooden stool. The Google phone on his lap, like his white Nikes and his Swarovski turtle, is sponsored. With 130,000 Instagram followers — up 4,000 since I first drafted this sentence — LaMaar is a bona fide “influencer,” with Rihanna and Beyoncé among the “celebrity supporters” who have worn his pieces.

LaMaar’s store sits on Bruckner Boulevard near the border between Mott Haven and Port Morris, a few blocks from the Harlem River. The Bronx has the highest asthma-related death rate in the state, and the pollution from the constant truck traffic is now being compounded by a glut of new housing construction. Even on a cold winter day, it’s a bit hard to breathe.

The blocks around LaMaar’s boutique are relatively bereft of pedestrians, though they’re dotted with new businesses, many of which are supported by Rubenstein. Rubenstein is heavily invested in a project to bring seven new luxury high-rises to two sprawling waterfront lots nearby. He has also come under fire in the last few years for some tone-deaf moves, including an apparent attempt to rebrand the neighborhood “The Piano District” and an infamous party with a “Bronx Is Burning” theme that featured decorations like trash cans on fire and bullet-ridden cars.

9J is a dream come true for LaMaar. But it’s also part of Rubenstein’s effort to attract financiers and tenants — or to invest in the community, depending on how you look at it. (Somerset did not respond to an interview request.) “If you’re going to gentrify, you need to empower the people that have already been here first,” says LaMaar.

I ask LaMaar if he thinks that one day, he’ll pull up and find the block unrecognizable, and wonder if he did the right thing by being a part of the shift. “That happened at the end of last year,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, shit, this is happening so quick!’ ” He winces.

“But then on the flip side, I’m saying, ‘Cool.’ Because this is a place that everyone would drive through and never to. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, this has so much potential. I want to be a part of that!’ ”

A few weeks later, LaMaar emails with an update: “Please note, I am being removed from the space due to rising the rent.” He adds, “I am excited for this new chapter.”

Michael Hamlett Jr.

“Growing up in the Bronx, the whole idea is to get out,” says Michael Hamlett Jr. “The whole idea is to make something of yourself, to get out, leave where you’re from, and then come back and visit. And you’ve made it once you’ve done that.”

In 2015, Hamlett and his wife, Tiarra, started a borough-themed clothing company and website called the Bronx Brand. They recently used money they’d saved to buy a house in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to instead purchase a home in the borough, not far from the Mott Haven apartment where Hamlett’s grandmother has lived since 1973. Last week, their first child was born.

You’ll usually find Hamlett decked out in Bronx Brand clothing. The company’s logo features two arms, hands closed in fists, crossed over each other in an “X,” representing the Bronx. In some versions of the logo, three Latin words run under the image: “ ‘Ne Cede Malis’ means ‘yield not to evil,’ which is the Bronx motto,” he explains.

The words were originally the family motto of Jonas Bronck, the first European to buy land and displace indigenous people in the area that came to bear his name. As Hamlett and I discuss, Rubenstein’s proposed towers will be built on roughly the same parcel of land on which Bronck settled in the 1600s.

“Gentrification is neocolonialism,” Hamlett says. He sees a direct line between the actions of Bronck in the seventeenth century, highway builder Robert Moses in the mid 1900s, and Rubenstein and others today. Rubenstein, Hamlett argues, is a “developer pioneer” who’s “planting the flag” — much like “what happened with the first colonizers deciding, ‘This is ours now. This is our space.’ ”

Hamlett sees a centuries-old cycle playing out once again: People of color in the Bronx fight to build a community, they are devalued and dehumanized, and finally, they are displaced and eradicated.

“The Bronx was definitely a phoenix in the Seventies, and it rose from the ashes, led by the people here who just refused to die,” Hamlett says. “I think now what we’re seeing is the children of the phoenix.” But, he says, “after all this time, the people who fought to be here, the people who did everything they could to stay here, and are potentially at a place to reap all those benefits — they may get forced out. They may get displaced from enjoying what they never could before.”

Hamlett says he does his best to work with local businesses when he can. He features the work of several local artists on his website and has taken steps to build a customer base within the borough.

But just as often, he says, folks are divided, sometimes by ideology, and sometimes by plain-old jealousy. “It’s like you can succeed to a point,” says Hamlett, but past that, you risk getting labeled a sellout. “The fact that that’s the gut reaction is really unfortunate.”

Majora Carter and Sulma Arzu-Brown

Majora Carter, 51, won a 2005 MacArthur Fellowship for nonprofit community development work in her native Hunts Point, where she founded and led the environmental justice group Sustainable South Bronx, leading the fight against a proposed waste management plant and for a new riverfront park. A few years later she went into the private sector, and the Boogie Down Grind Café is one of her most recent projects. The space features exposed brick walls and repurposed wood. A local artisan’s jewelry is for sale on one wall.

Carter first launched the boutique coffee shop as an outpost of Manhattan-based Birch Coffee. It is an outlier near the center of Hunts Point, where dollar stores, fast food, and bodegas proliferate. When it opened, she was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We like to see the work that we do as self-gentrification.” An anonymous community member printed up the quote on a sticker, attributed it to “Local sell out, Majora Carter,” added #ColumbusSyndrome and an image of a coffee cup, and put it up on a nearby wall for the public to see.

Carter now co-owns the renamed Boogie Down Grind Café with fellow local resident Sulma Arzu-Brown. Arzu-Brown, 39, proudly wears a T-shirt with the full text of the sticker, and a framed sticker also hangs in the hallway of Carter’s nearby offices. Carter stands by the term “self-gentrification,” which she says she first heard used by a university president in North Carolina. She says it’s simply a belief in “development by us and for us.”

Arzu-Brown elaborates, saying that she sees gentrification as somebody from the outside coming in and making the neighborhood “better,” displacing locals in the process. “I don’t need anybody to make me better,” she says. “And I don’t need anybody to come into my community when we have people in my community exactly like me and Majora. I know a lot of us. We believe in self-gentrification. We believe in making it better for ourselves.”

Carter’s self-gentrification work isn’t limited to her coffee shop. She runs her own consulting firm, and she created StartUp Box, a company that employs local residents to run quality assurance for software developers. During one of our conversations, she took me to see another fledgling project: a storefront two doors down from the Boogie Down Grind. There was a half-finished countertop near the entrance, its wood surface freshly cut and not yet painted. Sawdust littered the floor. The space would soon be fully converted into a new fitness studio, which would be run by yet another woman of color and native New Yorker. “Our grand scheme,” Carter says, “is all about talent retention.”

She recognizes that her efforts at self-gentrification will not eliminate displacement of local residents and businesses. But she is tired of the argument that all displacement is bad and must be avoided. “I’m OK with some types of displacement,” she says. “There are some things here that nobody wants.”

Carter sees her enterprise, in part, as a continuation of the work that’s been done by some of the very activists who stand against her now. The idea that she can open a boutique coffee shop in Hunts Point, hire local baristas to run it, and sell the work of local artists inside, while local residents enjoy a communal space, might have seemed crazy a decade ago. Yet it’s happening, and represents “some of the unintended consequences of the really good work that a lot of folks in the social justice industrial complex actually did.”

Carter and James Chase, 51, a white Midwesterner who is Carter’s husband and business partner, argue that economically diverse communities are far healthier than low-income communities, which are already plagued by cycles of displacement via eviction. They question the wisdom of fighting for the status quo — what Carter calls “the sanctity of preserving poverty.”

“We are very aware,” adds Chase, “of the cost of doing nothing.”

Arzu-Brown identifies as both Latina and black, as well as Garifuna, a cultural and ethnic heritage in which she takes immense pride. She says she hopes to help local children into careers in business, law, and science — and not just, for example, social services. She also says she wants to empower existing businesses alongside new ones, and wants to continue to offer new opportunities to local residents first.

But ultimately, she says, “gentrification is coming. The goal is to get some of our community members to get a piece of the pie. To hold some stake in something that they sacrificed for. It’s only fair, it’s only right.”

Ed García Conde

“It’s tone-deaf. It’s bullshit,” says Ed García Conde when I ask him about Carter’s term. “What the fuck is ‘self-gentrification’? People who are for gentrification somehow want to romanticize it and say, ‘Well, there are good things about gentrification.’ No. By definition, gentrification is displacement. That’s all it is.”

García Conde, 42, is a Bronx-born Puerto Rican journalist and activist with years of experience as a real estate appraiser. He founded and runs the blog Welcome2theBronx, which provides exhaustive coverage of the major forces and events in the borough. He expresses disappointment with pretty much every entrepreneur I’ve interviewed, viewing them as complicit, to varying degrees, in the South Bronx’s gentrification.

“I’m not anti-development. I’m not anti-progress,” he insists. But “any job that’s a small business — I don’t care how small it is, it could be a dollar discount store — it’s important. It’s no less important than putting in a bank, than putting in an office building. You’re destroying someone’s livelihood, a family, who are most likely homeowners.”

He does, however, find common ground with Carter on one key point. When I ask if gentrification is an accidental result of community organizing, he doesn’t blink. “Always,” he responds. “It is.”

García Conde points approvingly to hybrid buildings in Manhattan that feature ground-level business spaces that the business owners can buy as condominiums, with co-op living units above. He cites local businesses that he thinks are doing a good job of listening to and working with the community and giving back, such as Porto Salvo, an Italian restaurant on East 161st Street run by two business/life partners who also own two restaurants in Hamilton Heights. And he introduces me to his friend and fellow activist Mychal Johnson, a black Chicago transplant who has lived in the South Bronx with his family for the past fifteen years and also has a background in real estate. Johnson co-founded South Bronx Unite, which has created a list of ethical principles for private development that the group hopes to pressure real estate developers to pledge themselves to.

For a final community-based economic development model, García Conde brings me to the Third Avenue Holiday Market, a project of the local Business Improvement District, of which he has recently become a member. He sees the market as an example of businesses owners working together to serve the existing community, instead of just potential future investors. Located in a curtained-off front corner of a former Walgreens in the roiling center of Mott Haven, the small market features a handful of local vendors who have paid nominal rents to sell clothing, baked goods, and other gifts. Christmas carols play in the background. There’s a DIY feel and a true sense of community as García Conde greets friends and strangers in both English and Spanish. Like many of the businesses I’ve visited, there are some customers, but not many.

Alexandra Maruri

I’m standing with Alexandra Maruri outside a construction site in Mott Haven. We’re talking to the site superintendent about the new hotel that will soon stand in what is now a hole between two warehouses. We can’t see the hole, as we’re on the street-facing side of the temporary thin wooden wall surrounding it. As we talk, a huge piece of unseen machinery — a backhoe, perhaps? — nudges the wall accidentally. Then it happens again, and this time, spurred by Maruri’s concern, we walk a few paces. Within ten seconds, we hear a massive crashing sound. The machine, for some unknown reason, has thrust itself violently against the wall, which has collapsed forward onto the street. If we hadn’t moved, we’d probably all have been hospitalized. “I’m very aware of my surroundings,” she tells me later. “When you grow up in the Bronx, you tend to build survival skills.”

Maruri is an Ecuadorian-American in her late forties. She grew up on the Grand Concourse in the Seventies and early Eighties before moving north within the borough. She is the founder of Bronx Historical Tours, which attracts tourists, former residents, and some locals. One of her pet projects is fighting for better signage near historic landmarks. She also enjoys scavenging in construction sites for artifacts.

Maruri has agreed to give me a personal walking tour of the South Bronx, incorporating historical research and her own experiences. She points out everything from new construction to a crumbling hole in the sidewalk she says has been there since she was a child. If we were back in time forty years, she tells me as we walk along a formerly dangerous stretch of Third Avenue, we “would have to run.” Instead, we pass a sleek new Comfort Inn & Suites.

As we walk by small businesses, Maruri offers me, as she does her regular clients, a chance to stop inside — for coffee, baked goods, etc. She makes no distinction between locally owned businesses and those backed by outside dollars, like Filtered Coffee, one of Rubenstein’s investments. She doesn’t get a cut from any of these businesses, but she doesn’t go out of her way to avoid the perceived gentrifiers, either. Her philosophy is simple: “I support everyone.”

Maruri knows that her seeming embrace of gentrifying businesses has earned her criticism from some activists, and it bothers her, in part because she sees a double standard. It seems to her that certain businesses get criticized while others get a pass. “Show me the criteria,” she says, a bit facetiously, tired of the moral policing.

But Maruri is hesitant to talk in too much depth about gentrification: “I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.” At one point, after visiting a run-down post office, she wonders aloud, “Does gentrification have to come into the picture for us to get better services? That’s a big question.” She doesn’t answer it.

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