Goodbye Boogie Down

The final word here (for now at least) should go to the place I’ve called home for the last six months. Where else could strut its stuff to a nickname like ‘The Boogie Down”?

As I realised very early on, the Bronx is many things, with a diversity running from deep urban poverty, to a sleepy New England-like fishing village and everything in-between. But there is a sense of a unifying, renegade identity that has often reminded me of east London.

I arrived knowing virtually nothing about the place. I’d done a couple of flying visits in the past, but must admit to some of the same prejudices that I now find objectionable and know to be wrong.

The stigma derives from the 1970s when the South Bronx, in particular, became synonimous with urban decline and abandonment. Stereo-typing and racist media representations, most notoriously, the film “Fort Apache, The Bronx” conveyed to people who’d never been there, a lawless danger-zone.

However, the myth was based on a grim reality. Looking at photos of the Bronx from 50 years ago, I wonder if any place has suffered such destruction, except from war or natural disaster? The decade of fire, vividly captured in a film of that name, refers to a place crisis-mode capitalism had declared surplus to requirements.

Like an English steel or coal town, the scars of such callous abandonment take decades to heal. Although the fabled “recovery” has clearly happened to some extent, the apartment block refurbishments and relatively new buildings on once derelict sites, can’t disguise multiple deprivation that’s probably as bad as it was half a century ago. Likewise, the social dislocation and environmental pollution of one un-civil engineering project – the Cross Bronx Expressway – is as poisonous today as it was when Marshall Berman described in 1982. He wrote of the damage done to his childhood home: “Why did it go? Did it have to go? Was there anything we could have done to keep it alive?”  Decades later, some Bronx residents are asking similar questions [1].

But there are many Bronxes and although I’ve seen things to make me think another period of “planned shrinkage” is here, there’s a spirit about the place that again invokes its tradition of independent, radical non-conformity and resistance. There’s a thread linking the Coops and Amalgamated housing co-ops, rent strikes, the lyrical humanity of Abel Meeropol, the Young Lords, Hip-Hop and the current crop of Progressive politicians representing the borough. I think of Tower Hamlets, Liverpool, Glasgow and Barcelona.

There are many, less political, things I’ll miss about the place. There’s an everyday street civility that isn’t forced or fake. Although I found it irritating at times, there’s a loud exuberance and of course, much of this is infused with Latino, Caribbean and African culture, often reflected in people’s stylish dress. For a densely populated and often noisy area, it can also be quite peaceful, with reminders that most development has happened within the last 100 years. I was very surprised, one summer evening, to see a skunk snuffling towards me and racoons also live there, as well as lots of birdlife and distinctive black squirrels. The New York Botanic Garden, just up the road from where I lived, is wonderful in its own right, but especially because it preserves some of the ancient woodland that once covered New York.

Bronx politics, is messy, like its streets. Despite having three high-profile young Congresspeople, my abiding impression was of old-style, ethno-centric, machine politics, where opportunities for real change are tightly restricted by the Democrat Party and its career politicians, most of whom were conspicuous by their absence at housing campaign activities.  (I was very disappointed to find very little sign of the Democratic Socialists of America organising in the borough.)

That’s a worry because the Bronx, like many other places in the US, faces a very tough 2022. New York’s eviction moratorium ends on 15th January, putting thousands of Bronxites at risk of homelessness. This will be compounded by loss of COVID income assistance, including the child tax credits which are just one casualty of the pathetic defeat of Biden’s social infrastructure package. That will particularly hit the many Bronx residents of public housing, for which a promised $80 billion investment has now been shelved.

I fear there are grim times ahead for the Bronx.  But without wanting to romanticise, there is some comfort and optimism to be found in the resilience and social solidarity of its working class.  Sadly, many of its people have known hardship for most of their lives.  They’re survivors.  Living in a country of such wealth and potential should be about more than surviving though.     

Sunrise over Co-Op City

[1] There are some plans to mitigate the negative impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway

The plan to transform one of New York City’s dirtiest freeways into green space | New York | The Guardian  

Time will tell if they survive the mauling of the Build Back Better budget. 

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