The Long Reinvention of the South Bronx

Peter L'Official on the Mythologies Behind Urban Renewal

In the autumn of 2015, the Bronx burned again, if only for an evening. A pop-up art show in the South Bronx two nights before Halloween called “Macabre Suite” featured fires burning in trash cans and a sculpture fashioned from bullet-riddled cars. Guests of the party posted photos to social media with the hashtag #thebronxisburning. The party was organized by a private real-estate firm in Manhattan that plans to build a $400 million-plus residential-and-retail complex on a stretch of industrial waterfront on the Harlem River.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat who represents the area and was then the city council speaker, criticized the “woefully out-of-touch developers” for putting on such a show: “The South Bronx deserves respect—not a tasteless party that reduces Mott Haven and Port Morris to a sad caricature of urban blight.” Both the risible insensitivity and justified outrage on offer made it difficult to see an essential point: such events, no matter how thoughtless, no matter how outdated the stereotypes relied upon might be, are exercises in demystification.

A party like “Macabre Suite” is designed to bring those who never would have set a willing foot in the Bronx beyond Yankee Stadium to the borough and demonstrate to them what a real estate developer might describe as the “potential” that lies in places like the South Bronx. Trash fires and abandoned cars are here made mere accoutrements to a sales pitch, defanged of all menace, emptied of threat.

In the wake of its most difficult days in the 1970s and 1980s, the Bronx has been hard to “see” clearly beneath the layers of myth, stereotype, and urban legend stoked by its many representations throughout popular culture. That one of the Bronx’s originating myths—Howard Cosell’s apocryphal “Bronx is burning” call—would later be used to drum up investment in luxury real-estate development offers an irony so astonishing that surely not even the bombastic sports broadcaster could have imagined what his quite-literally-legendary quote could trigger.

The Bronx of today has largely grown beyond these iconic remnants of its past. A visit to the suburban enclave of Charlotte Gardens in the early 1990s would have confirmed this—and, now, a walk through a Mott Haven or Port Morris that is filled with art galleries, subway-tiled coffee shops pulling shots of espresso, and locally-owned stores selling Bronx-branded merchandise offers an entirely new definition of “urban renewal.”

A clothing line like Bronx Native, which takes as its central icon and logo the familiar visage of an abandoned building, aims to reclaim “the lone tenement” and reinvest it with a sense of pride, in the manner of Latin jazz innovator Jerry González reinvesting “Fort Apache” with new meaning.The specter of the 1970s and 1980s lingers, but it is now the shadow of gentrification that is creeping northward from Manhattan.

Parties in poor taste pale in comparison to the threat of displacement. Out of New York City’s 59 community districts, the Bronx is home to six of the top ten community districts facing the biggest threats of displacement in the city. Out of these, Community Board 5, which covers the University Heights and Fordham neighborhoods of the borough—where I grew up—faces the biggest threat of displacement in New York City. And for the past year, I have watched outside of my living room window as a pair of 25-story luxury towers rise just south of Metro-North Railroad’s Park Avenue bridge.

That project sits directly north of the two parcels of land being developed by the real estate firm behind the “Macabre Suite” party. The South Bronx waterfront, once entirely industrial, will soon appear as nearly indistinguishable from the newly built-up shorelines of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Long Island City and Astoria, Queens, all of which now feature packed enclaves of steel- and glass-clad residential towers. Once completed, these new, upscale Bronx towers will call the poorest congressional district in the nation home.

Will the South Bronx live on film, as it did, to varying degrees of exploitation, excess, and lunatic excellence, in the 1980s and 1990s?

These neighborhoods were among the first to have had their individual identities swallowed under the sobriquet of the “South Bronx.” Now some of these same developers want to rename parts of the South Bronx once again with handles that would be laughable—“SoBro”—if they weren’t also painful to set down in print. Port Morris, among the southernmost neighborhoods in the borough and therefore most deserving of the cardinal direction “south” in the South Bronx, suffered its own attempted rebranding as “the Piano District.”

A billboard—located not at all far away from the billboard where Sisters Grace and Edgar witness the “miracle” of the angel Esmeralda in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and one, like the “Occupied Look” decals that are designed to be seen by drivers heading to and from Westchester County and Connecticut—advertised the neighborhood as such in 2015. The list of developer-backed purchases seems only to grow as the days go by.

(First experimented with on derelict buildings in 1981 and expanded in 1983, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s (HPD) “Occupied Look” (alternatively, “decorative seal”) program consisted of painted vinyl decals that depicted a “lived-in” look of windows, curtains, shades, shutters, and flowerpots that were applied to sealed openings in a building’s facade. The program had operated, until its 1983 expansion, largely by resident request in various neighborhoods, including the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn but was eventually extended to adorn buildings along the Bronx’s most well-traveled corridors—perhaps most famously, Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway.)

The sight of such development leaves one not at all nostalgic for ruin, but rather bafflement at the way that an event like “Macabre Suite” suggests that I, or any past or future resident of the Bronx, ought to look back wistfully at its most painful signifiers. I stare at the glowing lights of the as yet unfinished luxury high rises reflecting on the Harlem River and wonder what Bronx these new residents will be nostalgic for ten, twenty years hence, when nostalgia was a privilege afforded so few to those who grew up in the Bronx of the 1970s and 1980s.

Almost assured, by this rapid growth, of a markedly different future than its infamous past, how, then, will the South Bronx live on in our memory? Will it live on film, as it did, to varying degrees of exploitation, excess, and lunatic excellence, in the 1980s and 1990s? In a sense it already has. In 2016 the Queens-based film and television production company Silvercup Studios opened up a production facility in the Port Morris section of the South Bronx after purchasing a building for $15 million and investing another $20 million to transform it into four production studios.

Now, York Studios is opening a 175,000-square-foot production studio in the Soundview neighborhood—a project that its owners hope draws major production companies as tenants to its campus, given the massive uptick in both demand for and investment in streaming content.

So the South Bronx that approximated a studio backlot with the application of the Occupied Look decals to its abandoned buildings now welcomes multimillion-dollar production studios in its midst. In light of horror film Wolfen’s ersatz Charlotte Street cathedral, one wonders what imagined ruins might already have been constructed inside these massive, multi-story facilities.

What version of the Bronx will live on in music, even if the metaphorical center of hip-hop has shifted elsewhere in the nation—certainly much farther south than the South Bronx—and continues to do so? Or might the spirit of the Bronx instead take after the work of the actor, dancer, writer, performance artist, and singer Okwui Okpokwasili, whose powerhouse 2014 one-woman show, Bronx Gothic, depicts—rather, embodies—the lives of two young, vulnerable black girls growing up in 1980s New York City.

It is an interdisciplinary work, incorporating visceral, violent movement with dialogue, sound, and installation art—a synthesis, much like the borough that inspired its creation. Captured in documentary form by the filmmaker Andrew Rossi in a film of the same name, Okpokwasili’s performance channels the perspective of Bronx natives—much like the youthful protagonists of Abraham Rodriguez Jr.’s fiction—but gives them corporeal manifestation.

Bronx Gothic explores, in part, the often fraught dynamic of performing as a black and brown body in pain—often for largely white audiences—without necessarily offering the possibility of transcendence of that pain, which is notion that Rodriguez’s fiction asked (and to some critics, didn’t sufficiently answer) as well. Okpokwasili was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2018 on the strength of this and other projects, and for what seems to be a promising career of multidisciplinary work.

Or will the South Bronx live on, as urban legend or otherwise, on television, as a historical and cultural curiosity to be discovered by those born tomorrow, found and selected for an evening’s entertainment on whatever streaming service—or future technological marvel—comes to rule the roost? Netflix’s two-season-long musical television series The Get Down, directed by Baz Luhrmann and which premiered in 2016, situated itself in the murky area between mythmaking and historical representation—a space created, in the Bronx in 1977, by young black and brown people who had the imagination to remake themselves as superhuman.

The series reflected the era that it depicted: uneven and uncertain, frantic and fraught, and always open to possibility (that is, until it was canceled at the end of its first season, reportedly after then being the most expensive production in Netflix history and one of the most expensive in television history, costing over $120 million to make). Despite the fact that it drew deeply upon the rich musical, visual, literary, and cinematic history of the Bronx, it also leaned just as deeply into un-self-consciously romantic evocations of urban ruin, proving how difficult it remains to evade such renderings, and how much the idea of the Bronx still floats somewhere between myth and history.

Many of the structural and economic conditions that caused both the historical and the mythical South Bronx still exist there.

One of my earliest memories involves looking out the backseat window of my parents’ car at these strange drawings that filled the windows of some of the buildings that lined the Bruckner Expressway. To a child’s eye, they looked like slightly bigger versions of the kinds of things that schoolchildren might have drawn when asked by their teacher to draw a house. I note this half-remembered detail (that, in part, inspired me to write about the Bronx) to convey that—having grown up listening to and loving both the music and now global culture that this place spawned, having watched television and films that aim to either faithfully or cartoonishly evoke its streets and avenues—the Bronx has always been to me not merely fact and symbol, but a lived experience.

Watching The Get Down’s ambitious blend of fiction, fantasy, and fact felt both exhilarating and apropos, but also uncanny and confusing. Real fantasy was conceiving something as earnest and ardent as Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style—one of The Get Down’s source texts—and actually pulling it off with a mere fraction of the budget of The Get Down. Inventing an entire way of being—of rhyming, of moving, of listening, and of seeing—and watching it become the lingua franca of popular culture is, truly, the stuff of legend.

I can’t know exactly how other audiences watched The Get Down, or what they wanted out of its curious blend of reality and representation, but for those who knew how utterly fantastical the actual fact of the Bronx was during this era, perhaps it was this unresolved tension between fiction and fact that left many viewers unsettled, and the series largely unwatched.

“In the rubble fields by Charlotte Street” is hardly a long-lost war poem written in the style of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” though the visage of Charlotte Street itself suggested the elegiac mode. Rather, it’s the quoted location of a majestic graffiti mural in The Get Down, painted by one of the series’ central characters. Even after the show’s titular crew of kids risk life and limb in trespassing gang territory in order to see the mural, the show revisits an imagined Charlotte Street—somehow always smoldering with computer-generated smoke—many more times during the first half of the series.

Indeed, these rubble fields form the show’s central and animating set piece. In The Get Down’s first episode, Luhrmann borrows an overhead shot (amidst clips taken from other films and documentaries of the era) featuring the Wolfen ruined cathedral, partly to illustrate the geography of the “rubble fields by Charlotte Street.” For the show’s protagonist, Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero, these ruins are—as they were for so many other artists, writers, photographers, thinkers, and builders—alternatively a site of wonder, of disquiet, of danger, and ultimately, of triumph and transcendence. Their recurrence in the plot is no accident. Charlotte Street is at the heart of the show’s physical and spiritual terrain because as we know, Charlotte Street defined the image of urban ruin to America and much of the world.

But neither the Bronx, nor Charlotte Street, looks like that anymore. The borough is no longer burning, and hasn’t for a long time. These facts are simple, yet significant, and they bear repeating. However, many of the structural and economic conditions that caused both the historical and the mythical South Bronx still exist there, and threaten places and spaces like it elsewhere.

We must remain sensitive to the ways that urban legends like the South Bronx—wherever in the world those “South Bronxes” may be found—are simply metaphorical constructions for a host of more complex, contradictory, and troubling social phenomena that can’t be explained away in a word or phrase. There are more insidious employments of such specious legends, and we must be wary of their use in the political and societal scapegoating of places and—most importantly—the people who call such places home. It is our duty to understand such problems beyond the frames and schemes and ready-made narratives already familiar to us.

The lessons of contemporary representations of the Bronx, like The Get Down, are ones that many of the writers and artists who inspired creations like it never needed to learn about the South Bronx. They, too, were often trapped within the context of the Bronx’s urban legends, the most successful of which were able to escape, transcend, or reveal that legend for what it was.

Ruins don’t need to smolder all of the time in order to be remembered. Sometimes the world is expressive enough as it is.

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Excerpted from Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin by Peter L’Official, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2020 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Peter L'Official
Peter L'Official
Peter L’Official is Assistant Professor of Literature at Bard College and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and GQ.





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