By Gregory Lobo Jost
This time it’s not even a prediction, but a bold declaration that the south Bronx has been gentrified. Based almost entirely on anecdotal evidence, Joseph Berger of The New York Times Metro section has painted a picture of an area of the south Bronx on the Grand Concourse as a new middle class hub where white folks don’t just go for Yankee games.
While the amazing housing stock along the lower Grand Concourse — mostly built in the 1920s and 30s and chock full of art deco gems — is no secret, the area has been largely working class/working poor with a smattering of middle class black and Latino residents (think public sector workers) for the past few decades. (Tip: Read Constance Rosenblum’s Boulevard of Dreams if you are looking for a great book about the housing on the Concourse and its fascinating history. I appropriately read it while on jury duty on 161st Street a few years ago.) Berger simplifies the complicated reasons behind the decline of the area down to “white flight and urban disenchantment,” though to be fair that’s not the point of the article.
The point, rather, is that “more middle-class professionals, many of them white, are … buying co-ops with sunken living rooms and wraparound windows for under $300,000 in Art Deco buildings that straddle a boulevard designed to emulate the Champs-Élysées.” While this is likely true, the question is whether the numbers are significant enough to declare something so controversial as gentrification having already occurred.
Fortunately, the new Census data should help us sort this out. While Berger claims the numbers back him up, I find this a stretch at best. He writes, “An analysis of three ZIP codes along the southern Concourse shows that from 2000 to 2010 the non-Hispanic white population, though still small, rose by 17.5 percent: to 3,055 from 2,600.” So, 455 new white people in three zip codes over ten years is enough to declare fully completed gentrification?
My own analysis of census data I pulled from the City Planning website (much easier to access than the confusing new Census American Fact Finder site), shows that Bronx Community Boards 1 and 4 (which comprise the western part of the south Bronx in the vicinity of the lower Concourse) added a total of 16,216 people from 2000 to 2010. Much of this population growth is thanks to new affordable housing constructed on the vacant lots remaining from the earlier periods of abandonment. Broken down by race and ethnicity, the black population dropped by 664 and the white population grew by 504 — not that different than the number cited in the article. However, Mr. Berger fails to note that almost all of the growth is among the Latino population that increased by 17,516. I just don’t see how 500 new white residents in the midst of 17,500 new Latinos equals gentrification from a purely racial definition.
Income data does show a slight increase in median household income in Bronx Community Board 1, but in general incomes in the west and south Bronx have not kept up with inflation in the past decade and there are much bigger trends going on, though they don’t grab the same headline attention.
Berger also assumes that this new white, middle class influx is responsible for the clear signs that lower income folks will be priced out (what folks generally assume gentrification to mean) such as: “a yoga studio, arugula and organic spinach at the local Foodtown supermarket, a weekly farmers’ market in the warmer seasons and a new deli that sells croissants and banana-chip yogurt muffins.” What Mr. Berger fails to realize is that yoga is popular across many demographics, as is the idea of eating healthy. Farmer’s markets are now in many parts of the Bronx, and many residents flock to them to use their SNAP (food stamps) allotments and Health Bucks that are a great Department of Health program to make farmers’ markets more affordable for low income residents. Also, last I checked, Fresh Direct does not deliver to any Bronx neighborhoods outside of Riverdale, despite the recent sweetheart deal to get them to move their headquarters to the south Bronx, but that’s another story.
Don’t get me wrong, the article overall is not that bad. There are some moderate and middle-income folks moving to the area, which I think almost everyone agrees is a good thing, and might be worth something of a story. The article also cites the fact that there have always been black and Latino middle class folks in the neighborhood, which isn’t news at all, but does conveniently back up the story line. What is extremely problematic, both from a racial and real estate perspective, is declaring that the arrival of white grant writers, guidance counselors and school teachers means that gentrification has already occurred.
This looks like the Times is feeling it’s time to get back to its old agenda (boosting property values and discovering the next hot neighborhood before anyone else) and the uncovering of very little corroborating evidence gave the editors just enough confidence to run the ridiculous headline. The Bronx has already suffered greatly from real estate speculation in the past few decades (see Freddie Mac in the early 1990s and Predatory Equity in the last decade) and this headline recklessly disregards this history.
Gregory Lobo Jost, a Norwood resident, is deputy director of University Neighborhood Housing Program.