More Like The Bronx

For many New Yorkers the Bronx is an infamous place of legend, irreparably branded by Howard Cosell’s declaration during the 1977 World Series that “the Bronx is burning.”  

And there it sits in the collective imagination, an eternal symbol of urban decline. 

The first time I had a friend over from my high school in Manhattan, she clutched my hand the whole way home, a taut bundle of anxiety from 96th Street to 205th Street. I couldn’t understand what was so terrifying about being on the D train. Walking home from the subway, she crossed the street to keep away from an African-American man coming toward us. He was my neighbor.

To this day, when I tell people where I grew up, they often assume that I mean Riverdale, the mostly white, affluent enclave just north of Manhattan. I'm used to the awkward silence when I proudly explain that no, I'm from the working class Bronx. One time a woman patronizingly expressed pity for my entire childhood. What’s implied is that homogeneous wealth makes a neighborhood a nice place to live. I’m often mistaken for someone who shares these values, because I don’t look like the people I was raised around. 

I grew up the minority in an ethnically and socio-economically diverse community, which taught me that different is more than just interesting—it’s desirable. 

I was not, and am not, sorry.

The Bronx is where I learned to speak Puerto Rican Spanish, where Dominican men hanging out in bodega doorways made sure I got home safe at 2 a.m. It’s where my downstairs neighbor, a California go-go dancer turned religious Sikh, taught me to meditate. And where a summer job waitressing morphed into an anthropological survey in which I watched recent Albanian immigrants compete against the Italian old guard to out-tip me. 

It shouldn’t take a wave of gentrifiers to prove the Bronx worthy of investment. But the borough is a victim of prejudice, neglect and bad planning, cut off from the economic revival of Brooklyn and Queens and judged guilty for the crimes perpetrated against it by others. 

Robert Moses, the creator and the destroyer, slashed through its communities nearly 70 years ago to build the Cross Bronx Expressway. Later in the 1970s, at the height of the fiscal crisis, New York City’s housing commissioner actually proposed "planned shrinkage" to save the tax base by withdrawing services from its disease-infected limb. Decades of corruption have robbed residents of decent representation and tax dollars, further pillaging the borough’s reputation. 

Policies, not residents, are responsible for the Bronx’s comparatively stunted development. Insufficient infrastructure and investment have nothing to do with cultural or class differences, despite the prevailing bias. 

Take public transportation. The Bronx has a natural geographic disadvantage. Located far from midtown and lower Manhattan, it’s a long commute to the city’s commerce centers. Continuous express subway service could help bridge the divide, reshape the real estate landscape and spur economic development. Moreover, it would better connect the city to the borough's existing human capital and cultural resources. 

The Bronx is not a luxury product and it doesn't have to be to warrant respect for what it is, or investment in what it could be. 

In fact, if it were up to me the rest of the city could stand to be a little bit more like the Bronx.


Alexis Grenell (@grenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.