Like most native New Yorkers, I take a kind of special pride in being from the City. The City, for most, means Manhattan. For me, the City has almost always referred to what has been, until recently, one of New York’s least respected boroughs, the Bronx.
Most outsiders only know the Bronx as the birthplace of hip-hop and a symbol of the kind of urban decay that befalls a giant county when you blend Seventies-era arson, white flight, and large-scale state and federal disinvestment. My Bronx is a scruffy David to Manhattan’s Goliath: birthplace to Grace Paley, New York’s first designated state poet, and home to James Baldwin’s alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School.
I moved back to the Bronx last year based on my internal image of the Bronx, which is indelibly linked to my nostalgia for a place that’s been underestimated for most of my life. As long as being from here or living here has been a signifier meaning you were poor, it meant there has been nowhere to go but up.
What I didn’t expect to negotiate is what it would look like to move back as parts of the borough have started to thrive.
My current block features a new luxury condo building with a rooftop swimming pool. Nearby, the Mottley Kitchen serves avocado toast. The coffee shop previously known as Filtered Coffee has been rebranded in the past three months as Double Dutch Espresso. This year, three women of color from the Bronx graced the pages of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list — Cardi B, Tarana Burke, and Jennifer Lopez, about the last of whom Kerry Washington, another daughter of the Bronx, wrote, “She made me believe that you could come from where we came from and achieve whatever you imagine is possible.”
In the Fall 2015 issue of The Prospect magazine, longtime Bronx resident, city planner, and housing consultant Dart Westphal called the reconstruction of entire neighborhoods in the Bronx over the past three decades, “One of the greatest redevelopments in the nation’s history.”
I should have guessed this moment was coming. When the old Yankee Stadium, which I used to peer into when the 4 train passed by it, was demolished to make way for the mammoth, impenetrable one, it was a sign that a time would come when the Bronx Bombers weren’t the only symbols of a thriving Bronx. But I’ve never really been a baseball fan. I rooted for the Yankees because I grew up in the Bronx. You always root for the hometown team, even when you’ve been a homeless kid.
My mother and I came to New York City from Philly, arriving in Harlem in 1984, when I was six. Distant relatives of ours lived in a high rise for seniors near 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. There were lots of reasons we couldn’t stay with them, but the main one was that I was too young by a number of decades to legally live there.
Instead, my great aunt sent us to the Bronx. The now-condemned and closed Roberto Clemente shelter was our first address, then a subsidized housing apartment near Burnside Avenue. Back then, evicted tenants’ first stop was the Emergency Assistance Unit on East 151st Street — a way station of sorts where homeless families waited until cots opened up at shelters anywhere in the city, where they would wait again for an apartment to come open somewhere.
“Somewhere” was almost always in the Bronx, which still boasts one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the city and is one of the reasons the borough has resisted (and some argue always will resist) large-scale gentrification. After Burnside, we lived near Fordham Road, then Southern Boulevard, on the other side of Little Italy just past the Bronx Zoo.
I never had time to imagine what thriving in the Bronx would look like, but I also never imagined living anywhere else. Most of the time, I just wasn’t confident I would survive my childhood.
The public and community school system was broken. There were almost no white people in our neighborhoods. If anyone had a dog, it was a chihuahua that mainly stayed indoors like a cat. I was an adult when I learned that there had once been enclaves in the Bronx that were predominantly Jewish and white. That seemed to be completely relegated to before, a regal past, like luxury apartments, which then referred mainly to the beautiful, aging buildings lining the Grand Concourse erected before the reign of Robert Moses.
I grew up here with my mother for most of my youth until I was away at college in Poughkeepsie. I worked hard at school and I was lucky — I got out, first for Texas, eventually to the West Coast. When I left New York eighteen years ago, the racial and cultural makeup of the Bronx was the same as it is now: majority Latino, Black, and first- and second-generation immigrants.
When I moved back to the Bronx for the first time in nearly a generation, amidst what looks like and feels like a renaissance, I came to Mott Haven. To the Bronx natives who never left, I must look like any other newcomer and sometimes I feel like one, even though I wrote this place on my heart as a child and have carried it with me everywhere I’ve lived.
Charter schools complement the public schools now, bordered with community gardens in some places. More white people have arrived, some of them occupying the otherwise cavernous luxury condos around us. They have brought larger dogs, like German shepherds, which they walk around past galleries and pop-up shops that host parties featuring fewer people who look like me and more who look like them.
When I used to say I was from the Bronx, I would get a look of sympathy or pity. Now, eyebrows go up. Someone will say, “I hear there’s cheap real estate there,” the closest you get to a compliment in the City.
I supported the Bronx Book Festival Kickstarter, though I believed it to be more farfetched than it ended up being; the same thing is true for the Lit. Bar, the new brick-and-mortar bookstore scheduled to open this summer in my neighborhood. I’m not used to being from a place that’s cool and don’t know what it means to be from a place that is now, suddenly, inconceivably, becoming hip even while most of the Bronx remains unchanged, poor, and struggling.
Now that the Bronx is rising like a phoenix from the ashes, it has a lot of the amenities I’ve always wanted for my hometown. But as the ascent of my hometown continues, so does the gap between what the Bronx is becoming and the residents who have always been here, and who have made it what it was.