One Bronx, many Bronxes

When I told my aunties I was going to live in The Bronx, I think they thought I was going to a war-zone. That’s understandable. It’s a place whose reputation precedes it, the name alone conjuring a host of associations. I think that’s partly to do with the definite article followed by a hard “x”, along with a host of media stereotypes. Hardly knowing the borough (where 1.4 million people live), I’d absorbed some of these pre-conceptions, but it’s only taken me three days to realise there are many Bronxes.

One of my numerous (sic) loyal readers said he’d done a Google Maps tour of the area where I’m living and it looked “leafy”. It is. In fact, it reminds me a bit of suburban east London, where I’m from. Both could be very loosely described as “affluent working class”, but as in London and most other cities, the socio-economic profile can change in a short walk. The constituency where I am has a median household income of $60, 173, significantly below the city’s, but double that of the area where I’m focusing my research, which is about 2 miles away.

I’ve been trying to establish exactly whereabouts in The Bronx I’m living and again like other places, these geographic labels are slippery. But I think it’s Allerton. However, in the naming of places, America sometimes prefers numbers! I’m in zip code (i.e. post code) 10469, Congressional District 14, New York State Senate district 34, New York State Assembly district 80, New York City Council district 13, Bronx Community District 11 and New York Police Department (NYPD) Precinct 49 (although I haven’t seen an NYPD cop since I got here, which is interesting in view of how the local and national “law and order” debate is shifting).

This bingofication of place reflects some significant American traits. It’s a nation of linear and numeric demarkations, famously laid out in grids and lots, the easier to enable the buying and selling of stolen land. It also has a Byzantine political system which has been in full evidence in New York City for the last 24 hours, when a bewildering array of positions has been contested in the primaries.

Sadly, this hyper-democracy doesn’t necessarily translate into a system of, by or for the people. I was speaking to a very seasoned Bronx community activist yesterday and his perspective on the elections was little different to the corrupt Tammany Hall system that dominated NYC politics in the 19th century, with today’s Democratic Party controlling the elections by rote, sometimes based on crude ethnic calculations.

I’m going to try to decipher some of this over the coming months, particularly in relation to a housing system out of control and made worse by last night’s decision of the city’s mayor-appointed Rent Guidance Board to hike rents for 2.3 million New Yorkers.

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