It feels like forever ago that I ditched my NYU dorm room for a studio apartment in the South Bronx near 3rd Ave-149th Street subway station on the 2/5 train line. I surprised a lot of people by the mere fact that I lived there; I ended up surprising myself that I lived there for over five years. By NYC standards, the cost of my rent was unbelievably low, and working as a security guard, it was the best I could afford.
The South Bronx has a bad reputation. It makes sense somewhat. One time a neighbor I knew well had his right hand wrapped around in gauze. I asked him what happened and he told me that last night there was a shootout in the streets and when he instinctively ducked with his hands raised, a stray bullet found itself in his left hand. He told me this nonchalantly, as if it was just another day in the neighborhood, and I realized then that the loud noises that had woken me up last night was the sound of gun fire. Still, there’s not many more scary stories I have to share about my five years living alone in the Bronx. The community – mostly immigrants from countries like Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ecuador – was friendly and closely knit. Spanish music often blared on the streets outside well past 2AM, even as all the stores closed at 6PM and cop cars started patrolling. I remember my time there fondly, and I honestly think the bad reputation of the area is unwarranted.
I do think the Bronx is a neglected borough. There’s a feeling that people are survivors here, and if you walk around some areas, you can notice a few abandoned lots and buildings in disrepair. My own studio unit by year three had to undergo significant reconstruction because otherwise, my bathroom would have crumbled. The sense is that neither government nor corporations care about the people here, so they have to stick with each other. The sense of solidarity among the people here is quite remarkable.
With most of the residents being black, immigrant from South America, or both, I dare any visitor to the Bronx claim that racism is over in the United States. The amount of support that comes from outside appear to be bare bones, examples of which include inadequate funding of schools, parks, non-profits, libraries, and stores. The borough has the most homeless shelters and juvenile detention centers out of all NYC boroughs, and the history of many of many such places is that the office of the mayor built them without much consideration of how the people in those community would feel about such establishments in their backyards. In the 1950s and early 60s, when Jews, Italians, and white people lived in the South Bronx, the city government and companies gave a lot of love and care to this area. After the white people moved down to Manhattan and built obstructive highways and above-ground trains cutting into residential neighborhoods in the Bronx, the reputation of the borough has become so that if I tell people I live here, their gut reaction is a concerned and shocked “wait, you live where?!”
I wonder a lot how things could be different and better in the Bronx. At the same time, I worry that any outsider trying to improve the Bronx even with the best intentions might contribute towards gentrification, resulting in displacement of the original residents and wealthier lighter-skinned people taking over. Witnessing how many places in Brooklyn and Harlem changed in this manner, it makes sense that legal protections for tenants are the strongest in the Bronx. It might be a neglected borough, but the people here survive holding dear to the belief that it’s better to be neglected and be left to struggle, than to be kicked out and lose their homes.
Even though I have lived in the Bronx for a total of about six years (counting that I lived in my current residence in the Bronx for about a year), I admit I should be considered as an outsider. I probably always will be. I would like to do my best to lend my support and advocate for the people here, but I keep at the forefront the worry that I could turn out to be an outsider contributing to gentrification. I agree with a lot of the sentiment here, that neglected or not, Bronx largely belongs to people living in the Bronx. Outsiders are welcome of course, but they don’t get to dictate the future of the community.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ll be moving soon. My application to a studio apartment unit very far up in northeast part of the Bronx has been approved. Obtaining this apartment was much more challenging than when I was looking for an apartment back in 2006. I couldn’t use craigslist because nowadays, that site is populated by scammers saying they’re missionaries to W.Africa/Nigeria needing a $500 deposit before they can schedule an apartment viewing. It’s maddening to me that there are so many unscrupulous people out there who spends so many hours of their lives to exploit desperate people needing affordable housing. I will end up renting a studio that costs almost twice the rent I used to pay for my old studio unit in the Bronx. I don’t quite know what to make of this reality.
After I come home from being a social worker, I tend to get very introverted and a bit anti-social, so I’ll be glad to once again live alone without roommates. My living space will be a lot smaller, and I actually think that’s a good thing. I witness a lot of pain, loneliness, and the hardships of poverty so much at my job that living so spaciously as I currently do has me feeling awkward and uncomfortable at times. I’m so used to living in small private spaces, generally surrounded by video games and books. I think back to my days living in that studio unit, and I think that’s when I was most comfortable.
That comfort also had with it this sense of survival, that I was doing my best to make it in NYC. I felt like was being just like everybody else in the area, finding ways to afford living there, trying really hard to contribute and give back to the community. Even as an outsider, even as a security guard commuting to Queens and then attending college courses in Manhattan, there’s always been something about living within my means in the Bronx that gave me a sense of belonging and solidarity.
I’m not sure my moving will mean something similar again. It’s a step though. Somehow, after all these years, I’ll be back to living in a studio in the Bronx again, and this time, I’ll be working and trying to support tenants in the Bronx as well.