The Bronx Phoenix
Fifty-seven years ago this month I was born at Bronx Hospital on Fulton Avenue in Morrisania. I am a Bronx guy through and through. So is my younger brother, Larry, an expat Bronxite living in Philadelphia. Recently, he sent me a T-shirt emblazoned, “You Can’t Scare Me. I’m From The Bronx.” That says it all.
The chip on our shoulder is real and burdensome.
We lived through the tumultuous 1960s, the arson and planned shrinkage of the ’70s, and the crack-fueled ’80s. The ’90s birthed the borough’s resurgence and this new century put us on a stratospheric trajectory.
Two phrases from the 1970s and ’80s best convey our sense of embattlement: “Don’t Move, Improve” and “Nos Quedamos/We Stay.” Today, fear of arson and loss of city services has been replaced by fears of gentrification and environmental degradation.
Growing up in a post-Korean War Bronx was a classic best of times, worst of times experience. I recall Jewish, Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican and black storekeepers, neighbors, classmates and two-parent households. Our harmonious multiracial and multicultural coexistence set us apart.
The Bronx has been a place of transition for every immigrant group that has set down in the borough. The only constant has been the place names. That churning has been both our curse and our blessing.
It has enabled the Bronx Democratic Party organization to smoothly transition from Irish dominance to an Italian-Jewish alliance that accommodated black and Puerto Rican political aspirations. Today, new nationalities—Dominicans, Albanians, Mexicans, West Africans—are making their collective way.
Nonetheless, Bronx political activists and residents, by and large, inherently mistrust government and the motives of elected officials. From abandoning the blighted areas via “planned shrinkage” of city services to closing firehouses to proposing a medical waste incinerator in Port Morris to building a public school above a brownfield, the residents have felt the stinging, callous hand of government.
“It’s their responsibility to make a difference in the lives of their constituents,” said Mychal Johnson, who has been active in the fight against FreshDirect relocating to the Bronx. “They (elected officials) need to work for the people, not themselves.”
That sentiment obscures the good work and advancement that politics has wrought in the borough. As a veteran of Bronx Democratic Party politics, I can attest to the diversity brought to the Bronx judiciary, legislative office and party posts over the last 33 years. In my view, former Democratic county leader Roberto Ramirez was most responsible.
The creation of the 12th Judicial District and the ouster of two sitting state Supreme Court justices in the early 1980s by then-county leader Stanley Friedman set The New York Times on the warpath against the Bronx machine. Today, the Times continues to view Bronx politicians askance.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s rise to statewide political prominence is quite remarkable for a county that 35 years ago lost political clout when arson, depopulation and redistricting took away an Assembly district (and Senate district).
His recent rise brings with it power that may surpass that of legendary Bronx Democratic leaders Ed Flynn and Charlie Buckley. An Assembly speaker from the Bronx creates a new center of gravity. Attorney Ravi Batra says that the “Bronx now has power-gravitas” and will blossom with effective deployment of that newfound power and influence.
Former Borough President Adolfo Carrión believes that a generational shift is underway. He likes the youth and professionalism he sees in the new corps of Bronx elected officials, such as Ritchie Torres, Michael Blake, Vanessa Gibson, and Marcos Crespo. Carrión, like Batra, believes the borough is better positioned politically than in years past.
However, Carrion seemed to speak for his former Bronx constituents when he said, “We remain optimistic yet wary.”
I’d like to see this generation of Bronx residents, community leaders and politicians unburden themselves of the chip on our collective shoulder and embrace our place in this new day.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (@SquarePegDem on Twitter) represented the Bronx for eight years.