Rebecca Bellan writes about cities, culture, health, and travel. She is an executive assistant at Atlantic Media.
These Bronx natives have been here for years. In the midst of rapid gentrification, they say they are taking control and offering the borough cultural experiences that as youngsters, they had to venture downtown to find.
Natural beard oils, turmeric oat milk lattes, fashion pop-up shops, and an indie bookstore meets wine bar. This might sound like a game of hipster bingo, but it’s just the latest in a string of new offerings to greet the South Bronx. And while your first thought might be, wow, the Bronx is really gentrifying—and you wouldn’t be wrong—it’s not quite what it looks like. At least, not yet.
The Bronx is changing. No neighborhood is stagnant; it’s the nature and substance of the shifts that can cause friction. The South Bronx is seeing a boom of development and new enterprise and it is gentrifying in that it is a low-income neighborhood where rental and home sales prices have been rising rapidly. Median rent in the borough has increased by 45 percent since 2005, reaching $1,130 in 2016. In gentrifying neighborhoods a common grievance from long-time residents is that, in addition to causing prices to rise, newcomers have a different sensibility and don’t respect the neighborhood’s history and the locals’ longevity. But many new initiatives in the borough are from Bronx natives who are demonstrating a generational shift in mentality. They want the people who come after them to dream not of getting out of their hood, but enhancing it.
There is a common theme among those who grew up in the Bronx, says Amaurys Grullon, the 24-year-old co-owner of Bronx Native, a clothing store: the infliction of shame. “It’s a mindset, it’s a mentality,” Grullon said. “Because when you hear constantly that the Bronx is dirty, the Bronx is ugly, oh you’re from the Bronx? It mentally can cause some damage.”
According to Frederick Wherry, Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and author of The Philadelphia Barrio, in places like the Bronx, with higher poverty rates and a high percentage of blacks or Latinos, people perceive neighborhood disorder with bias. “They tend to remember more trash and physical signs of disorder on the sidewalk than there actually is,” he said.
Grullon said that seeing regular people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Desus Nice, and Cardi B make it while repping the Bronx helps to change the narrative. He and his co-owners, his sister Roselyn, and best friend Josue Caceres, staunchly support change in their hood. “We’ve been underrated for far too long,” said Grullon. “This Bronx history is just so beautiful to me. We have a diverse group of people, our buildings were on fire, our people were struggling, they built highways so you could drive through without even looking at the BX. And from nothing we created culture.”
Their shop on Lincoln Avenue looks at one of the first upscale apartment buildings to open in Mott Haven this century, the Clock Tower. But Bronx Native is tiny and true—covered wall-to-wall in tags and Bronx memorabilia, and it has become a cultural hub in the neighborhood. They’ve hosted poetry readings, open mic nights, youth-group workshops, and panel discussions with Tarana Burke, who named and birthed the #MeToo movement. Grullon says Ocasio-Cortez even held an informal campaigning event there last year.
Wherry says he has seen this before in transforming neighborhoods: “People inside the neighborhood and their community organizations, their leadership and their artists, are willing to push back and say that this is not just a material struggle, but also a symbolic struggle. They’re willing to counter negative symbols that have been thrust upon them. That’s where you start seeing a real difference and transformation.”
To Set Free Richardson, his way of mixing art with entrepreneurship is helping keep the soul of the Bronx alive. An experienced marketer, Richardson launched Compound 1.0 in Mott Haven in 2010. It’s an under the radar place where rappers and artists, athletes and marketers, some extremely rich, some not, come together to create anything from music for video games to limited edition toys.
Last week, he hosted a soft launch of his latest venture, Compound 2.0, a hip-hop inspired art gallery, the brainchild of Richardson and former rapper Mos Def, AKA Yasiin Bey. Located just under the Third Avenue Bridge in Mott Haven, in an area that was once a rough, undeveloped, used-condom-strewn part of town, the Compound 2.0’s mission is to showcase works from underrepresented artists. The new gallery is housed in a plain building that at first appears to be just another vacant Mott Haven space, but at the opening last week, a rainbow of people dressed in hip-hop haute couture style lined the street outside. Once the double black garage doors opened, inside looked like a SoHo launch as local Bronx icons mingled with outer borough folks.
“It’s a Manhattan-style art gallery in the Bronx,” said Richardson, who is relying on his marketing prowess and ability to connect different aspects of pop culture to make it a success. But some Bronx folks don’t want Manhattan ways infiltrating the Bronx.
Richardson was born in the South Bronx, and many would say he has as much right to say what he wants to see in the Bronx as anyone else. But no venture is an island: There is a tension that exists both between and because of these homegrown businesses and the development that follows them once the Bronx seems more like Manhattan, and therefore less “scary.” Richardson recognizes that: Walking from the Mott Haven Bar and Grill to Compound 2.0, he looked around and said, “This is about to be some shit.” He wasn’t just referring to his new venture. We were near the Mott Haven waterfront where there is a sense of trepidation as developers begin to claim this long-neglected space. Home to warehouses and industrial traffic for many years, the area has been dubbed asthma alley for its exhaust— and asthma rates in the Bronx are some of the highest in New York City and the country.
The Clock Tower building on Lincoln Avenue near the waterfront is blamed, or credited, with igniting the development explosion in Mott Haven. Since it opened in 2002, real estate investment in the area went from about $1.9 million in 2003 to about $111 million in 2016, according to real estate industry paper, The Real Deal. On the waterfront, the bones of two new developments are beginning to materialize, with about 430 units that will look out on Manhattan and the Harlem River. All of the units are scheduled to be rented at market rate according to an industry report. Yet, the Bronx is the most rent-burdened borough with 60 percent of Bronx households paying at least a third of their paychecks to rent. Despite rising rents, the poverty rate in the Bronx remains the highest of New York City’s boroughs—28.4 percent in 2016.
“Give it five years, and we’re not gonna recognize this area,” said a 28-year-old local of Dominican descent, wearing merchandise from Bronx Native. Though he didn’t want to include his name, on the street outside of the Compound 2.0 launch, he spoke passionately about fears for his changing borough as stylish people streamed past. Born and reared in the Bronx, he said he loves his hood, but it was getting unaffordable; his rent has gone up to $1900 a month for a one bedroom. “Every month, I’ve managed to scrape it together, but it’s only a matter of time. I’m getting pushed out: I’m gonna have to live in New Jersey.”
Majora Carter is another Bronx native who’s bumped up against this sentiment. Carter grew up in Hunts Point and fought against environmental blight being inflicted on the Bronx, winning a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2005 for her efforts. But by 2013, The New York Times was writing articles about Carter titled: “Hero of the Bronx Is Now Accused of Betraying It.”
“I don’t remember anyone who showed promise as a kid who wasn’t told early and often that you’re gonna grow up and be somebody, and what that meant, really, by association, was you’re gonna measure success by how far away you get away from here. And that sears itself into people’s minds,” Carter said at her coffee shop, the Boogie Down Grind, located just a stone’s throw from where she grew up. “People in the Bronx, and the South Bronx in particular, we like nice things, too.”
Her shop is a small, quaint venue. If the prices seem offensively high to some locals, others might ask, why shouldn’t Bronx residents be able to choose between a $1 bodega coffee and a $5 latte? “Change is going to happen,” Carter says. “And we know the cost of doing nothing. This is where I think the social justice industrial complex has done a fantastic job of making poverty a cultural attribute. Like it’s something to be preserved and anything else is inauthentic.” Carter believes that gentrification happens when people in certain communities are taught to believe that their neighborhood has no real value. In 2016, the median home values in the Bronx reached $378,000, but according to Trulia, trends are showing a four percent year-over-year rise in median sales price.
“I feel like now, I’m representing my community at a very pivotal stage where developers are seeing the Bronx, they want to come build,” said Rafael Salamanca Jr., the New York city council member representing Mott Haven and other South Bronx neighborhoods. “I welcome it, but I welcome responsible development … I want to make sure that they’re being built for us. We can develop the South Bronx, bring in businesses without gentrifying the community. I’m a living example of that. I never left my community. I’m raising a family here, and I have many friends who are doing the same thing. But that’s why I also take building affordable housing very seriously.“
For Noëlle Santos, it’s about creating opportunities for her people, a mission that she sees mirrored in most of the new businesses that have cropped up around the South Bronx. She is scheduled to open a bookstore, the Lit.Bar, this fall in Mott Haven, an important addition in the borough infamous as the only one without a general-interest bookstore since Barnes & Noble departed in 2016. Santos, who has been in this part of the South Bronx since moving from another Bronx neighborhood a decade ago, said she wants to create “that pipeline from the Bronx to the publishing world. Most of us have no knowledge of how publishing works. Imagine if 12-year-old Noëlle knew that writing or opening a bookstore was an actual career. I was never exposed to it.”
Wherry said that homegrown evolutions like the one that’s happening in the Bronx are a way of saying, “We don’t need to be what you would have us be. And in some ways, what you would have us be is a staging ground for others to move in and move us out. We’re not here to dress a neighborhood up for transformation that involves our removal. Instead we’re here to better our own lives and push back against an unfair narrative that’s been debilitating.”
This new surge of pride is keeping innovative minds in the hood, and it’s shifting what culture looks like in the Bronx. By staunching the brain drain, these residents believe they are creating a community that is open to more varied forms of expression and taste. After all, not every kid in the Bronx dreams the same dreams. For some, expression might be dropping beats on a street corner, for others, attending a punk night at the Bronx Museum; and for some Bronx natives it means opening and frequenting the type of coffee shops and venues that they once had to venture out of borough to find.
These Bronx-born entrepreneurs consistently say that the borough is going through an awakening, both culturally and economically and the figures bear it out: In 2017, there were more businesses in the Bronx than at any time since 1975. But the question remains, will all of these native efforts to create new businesses and new-style spaces ease the pain of gentrification, or will these homegrown efforts make the borough appealing to deep-pocketed buyers, thus pricing low-income, long-time residents out?
Daniel Baker, AKA Desus Nice, of the Desus and Mero late night comedy show (soon to join Showtime), was among those at Compound 2.0’s soft launch last Wednesday. Nice is from the Bronx and said he loves the energy he’s seeing here from his fellow natives. “It’s like a little village,” he said, “like the early days of Williamsburg before it turned into a film set.” When asked if he thought the Bronx would turn into a film set, too, he said, “No, I don’t think so because of the people here. Everybody’s coming together.”
Nice said he just moved into one of the new luxury condos in the Bronx. “It’s sad because other people in the building are telling me, ‘Don’t go outside. The projects are out there.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo, I grew up with people from the projects.’ People are not embracing the community. But if we keep working together we can push back.”