It’s Official: The Times Declares South Bronx Is ‘Gentrifying.’ But Is it True?

26 Mar

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.

Advertisements

11 Responses to “It’s Official: The Times Declares South Bronx Is ‘Gentrifying.’ But Is it True?”

  1. FH March 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    Thank you for this piece. I too had concerns with it. From trotting out the tired ol’ “Bronx is no longer burning” headline trope to the tenuous, anecdotal evidence (organic produce in a supermarket, really?), I thought this article was reaching and perhaps even doing some (dangerous?) white-washing or rug-sweeping of serious issues in the area. Yes, the Bronx has come a long way. But something about that piece felt too forced. Not organic (heh) at all.

    I also agree with your hunch that this might be the result of hot-new-nabe hunting. Seems to me, that with the Bronx (the South Bronx especially), these writeups are cyclical. And if you add that recent NYMag Kingsbridge profile, it feels like we’re at the beginning of a brand-new batch of ‘new, hot (but not burning!!) Bronx’ buzz.

  2. Greg March 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    One more point to make in thinking about this story that I forgot to include (and was just speaking with a reporter from the Mott Haven Herald about), is about good things coming about in neighborhoods not equating gentrification. Many organizations, community residents, small business and the City have worked on bringing new resources and amenities to lower income neighborhoods with the purpose of creating these things for the current residents to enjoy. While these shops, farmer’s markets, parks, etc., may make a neighborhood more attractive, I don’t think they are what leads to gentrification. Rather, I think it’s a change in the collective consciousness based on many factors that makes a neighborhood more desirable to the point that earlier residents are priced out. A much larger trend in the Bronx is the loss of affordability without all the great new amenities that accompany gentrification. Anyway, there’s a lot more to think about here.

  3. Jay March 26, 2012 at 9:05 pm #

    While Greg is right in questioning the anecdotal story about white yuppies, I think he may have misunderstood the Times article somewhat. I do not think it claimed or meant to suggest that “gentrification has already occurred.” Instead, the claim seems to be that it is happening right now, and I think it is suggesting that this is a new development in the South Bronx.

    I think the data clearly suggests that the Lower Concourse is starting to gentrify, and it is more apparent if you look at a finer level of geography than entire Community Districts. The NY Times has a useful tool for looking at population change (http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/map?hp).

    It is a mistake to look at “gentrification” as a racial process, since it’s really about class. Harlem, for example, has primarily been gentrified by professional blacks. And in this instance, if you do actually invest the effort to use the Census ACS data, you will find that the two tracts (63 and 195) that report median income show that black households made more than white households. One might suspect that new white residents tend to be younger, and may have more disposable income, but Greg is certainly right that the data doesn’t show white folks suddenly pricing everybody else out.

    To the extent people want to look at race as an indicator of changing attitudes about the neighborhood, the reintroduction of whites into the Lower Concourse seems to be a small but unmistakable trend. If you check the four census tracts around the Grand Concourse and 161st Street (tracts 63, 195, 5902, and 18301), you will see that the white population had significant increases in all four, even while the total population decreased in three of them.

    The more interesting clues appear to lie in the housing units, though. The decline in population and the reduction in housing units in this area (along with low vacancy rates) suggests that larger families are gradually being replaced with smaller households and larger units are being consolidated from smaller apartments, both trends that are consistent with more affluent residents moving in. (Much of The Bronx has gone the other way, with private houses chopped up into more – often illegal – units to meet the demand for housing that is affordable to low-income workers.

    • Greg March 27, 2012 at 9:26 am #

      Jay, you make some good points. I still think the title is completely off, and claiming that the neighborhood is in the midst of gentrification is inaccurate and reckless. Yes, I think we all agree, including the author of the article, that many of the black and Latino residents make more than the white residents, but obviously the RE Section doesn’t mind making the case that a few hundred moderate income white residents equals gentrification.

      With regards to shrinking population: there is a huge citywide and Bronx-wide trend of an aging population. Almost every neighborhood has had a decrease in the percent of population under the age of 18. In neighborhoods without a lot of new construction this has often led to a population decline, including here in CB7 where the population went down by 2,125.

      Despite what you write about private houses being chopped up (which I wouldn’t disagree with you anecdotally) the new census data doesn’t show population increases in many areas you’d think this is happening. In other words, I don’t think you can isolate a shrinking population as a data trend specific to neighborhoods undergoing gentrification.

      Do you really think the loss of housing units is due to higher income residents combining multiple apartments/coops into bigger units?

      • Jay March 27, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

        I interpret the population changes somewhat differently in areas that are built out with multi-story buildings than in areas with many single- and two-family homes.

        The census had well-documented, unreliably low responses from chopped-up houses in areas with large immigrant populations. I believe residents were more sensitive in apartments where they might be evicted if somebody discovered the illegal units than in large apartment buildings.

        There is also the countervailing trend of foreclosures that emptied out a lot of smaller homes that drives some of the population decline in these areas. (By the way… I’ve heard you might be in the market for a house with a parking spot. There is a foreclosed house on Decatur between E. 207 and E. 209 that you might want to look into. I haven’t seen in on the market yet, but that might actually help.)

        In an area with established, large buildings, I’m not sure where else the units could go. It’s not like the Lower Concourse had an increase in abandoned or condemned buildings. Co-op sponsors combining little studio apartments into larger units seems like the most likely interpretation (and it seems consistent with a few open houses I’ve seen).

  4. Steven Romalewski (@SR_spatial) March 27, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Great critique, Greg. And interesting comments as well.

    I looked at the interactive map of race/ethnicity change in the area developed by our team at the CUNY Center for Urban Research, and the Census Bureau’s block-level data that we’ve mapped support Greg’s point that any modest (slight, even) increase in the white population has been dramatically offset by an increase in the Latino and/or black population.

    Here’s an example: http://bit.ly/GTLm19 The map on the left shows the patterns of predominant race/ethnicity in 2000 by block, on the right it shows 2010. Green color-shading indicates predominant black population, orange color-shading indicates Latino. Comparing the two visually, some areas have remained predominantly black or Latino, others have switched from one to the other. Few areas have become less concentrated regarding either category.

    Also, you can click anywhere on the map to reveal block-level population counts by race/ethnicity for 2000 and 2010. The blocks around the Grand Concourse/161st St station that @Jay discusses above show some increase in whites, but overwhelmingly more increases in either Latino or black population. (You can change the transparency of the color-shaded block map with the slider in the upper right, to reveal streets and local features, so you can orient the map near the subway station or any other area of interest.)

    We also have neighborhood-level tables (that you can also download on your own) if you’d like to examine the data at that level: http://www.urbanresearchmaps.org/plurality/#nabes

    Agreed that race/ethnicity isn’t the only (or primary) lens to observe how a neighborhood is changing. But it’s a critical factor, and it’s the main characteristic that the Times article used, so it’s fair game to emphasize in response.

  5. bronxmatters March 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    Just learned that the Bronx Documentary Center on Courtlandt Avenue in Melrose is planning on having a panel discussion in the near future about gentrification http://bronxdoc.org/post/19950019966/gentrification-in-the-bronx

  6. chriscrowley March 28, 2012 at 9:27 am #

    Just discovered this blog today. Thank you for this excellent critique, Greg.

    The Times has been pushing perspectives like this for at least 15 years, going back to those “woah! antique district!” articles. If you look at their archives, you can see a lot of similar headlines … You have to question what stake they have in the matter. (Was it the current BP Diaz who said, paraphrasing, the BX is repositioning itself as the premier destination for middle and working classes New Yorkers?) As a former Fordham student who fell in love with the borough (the Bronx, not Fordham!) I hope it doesn’t just become another one of those places to WEAR ‘the real’. I don’t know what I would do without Little Accra.

    Does anyone know when that discussion is happen? The page you linked to doesn’t give solid date, or was it yesterday?!?

  7. Greg March 28, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    One more thought to throw out there: can we look to recent college graduates (especially those who are not originally from the five boroughs) to get a sense if gentrification is occurring? I raise this because my experience with Fordham students and recent graduates is that they are not considering moving to the south Bronx, except for a few more radical activist types, and even they are often ending up in either Brooklyn or upper Manhattan. Even many young folks who work in Bronx nonprofits are choosing to live outside the Bronx.

    I think it’s an interesting population to consider for this because recent college grads (again, those not from NYC, which means they are more likely to be white) with moderate incomes and no children are often in the front lines of gentrifying a neighborhood. I’m thinking about some friends of mine (three young white women) who straight out of college rented a three bedroom in Prospect Heights back in the late 1990s. They couldn’t afford Park Slope but wanted to be close to it and they were in an early wave of change in that PH. Would three single white college grads working in Manhattan at decent entry level jobs rent a three bedroom apartment on the lower Concourse? Do others think this might be another question to ask to find out if gentrification occurring?

    • chriscrowley March 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

      I think its a great question question to ask (and very telling to answer_, and one no one else (ie NY Times or journalists trying to strike ‘gold’) seems to be concerned with.

      Will the college students move there? I think, for a lot of people, they see much more fertile territory elsewhere. Brooklyn is still Brooklyn–it still has that social cache, especially for people not some from the Northeast. There are lots of places to live in Brooklyn that are still relatively cheap that are very close to Williamsburg and the LES–and when I say close, I don’t just mean subway ride.

      Here’s the thing about college students moving to the South Bronx: you have to really love the Bronx to live there, ESPECIALLY the South Bronx. Not just because of socioeconomic issues, but because it’s not the most convenient place–and it’s also kind of the end of New York. The South BX might only be 20 mins from Union Square, but it feels a lot further to most (there is an unspoken distance between the two.) That unspoken distance doesn’t exist in Brooklyn, because all of that is part of Downtown.

      (I’m trying to present the perspective, not endorse it.)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bronx Links Wednesday : Norwood News - March 28, 2012

    […] their homes around the Grand Concourse area near Yankee Stadium. UNHP’s Gregory Jobo Lost, in a guest post on the new blog Bronx Matters, says the Times might be getting ahead of […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: