From Mecca to Slum
After living countless years in Manhattan, aka the center of the known universe (or so its residents believe), I now reside in one of the poorest, most underserved areas in the country — the Bronx. One might say it’s the urban equivalent of Appalachia, while most New Yorkers consider “the City“ and Manhattan as one and the same, with the other four boroughs as satellites revolving around the Emerald City.
Of course, the Bronx’s notoriety as the sixth circle of hell received the coup de grâce in the '70s when Howard Cosell interrupted a Yankee game to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.” The financial situation in the city of New York was dire at the time, but nowhere was it worse than in the Bronx, which was virtually abandoned in terms of any kind of fiscal help from the city or federal government. The south Bronx, in particular, became an international icon for urban decay and hopelessness.
Like most of New York, there remained pockets of safe, beautiful areas which withstood even the worst of times. Rarefied neighborhoods such as Riverdale were populated with the well to do, but taking public transportation to and from the area could be hazardous. My younger cousin used to attend an elite private school in Riverdale, but got mugged several times on the subway during the very long trek back to his Greenwich Village abode.
A Bronx Revival? Not So Fast
Realtors and the media have been talking about a Renaissance of the Bronx for quite awhile now. But the areas my boyfriend and I reside in have not experienced this phenomenon, being in the Fordham/University Heights sections in the northwest Bronx. True, there are some tourist destinations for the braver souls, including the Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Gardens, and the Bronx’s version of Little Italy, as well as a number of universities, most notably Fordham. There are some signs of improvement, such as a state of the art library and cultural center which replaced the old dilapidated library across the street. But plans to turn an old, huge armory into a shopping center is a project that has been talked about for many years, to no avail. The confluence of poverty, lack of resources especially for youth, failing schools and high dropout rates, drugs, and gangs makes it hard to envision many young people rising above the Boogie Down zeitgiest.
A Rarefied Past
There are many rundown but once opulent prewar buildings in the Bronx, none more notable than the ones that stretch along the Grand Concourse, once considered the Park Avenue of the Bronx. At the turn of the century, the Bronx was still mostly bucolic farm land, and Poe Park on Kingsbridge Road features another notable tourist destination: the still-intact cottage where Edgar Allan Poe went to stay with his seriously ill wife, to escape the unhealthy conditions of the inner city.
After the subway systems were expanded to the Bronx in the early 20th century, the borough became a destination for many middle class New Yorkers wishing to escape the slums of Manhattan. Apartments were rapidly built which included many heretofore unparalleled amenities, including doorman buildings with awnings and elevators.
As for me, I live in a coop building which is protected with 24-hour security guards, featuring beautiful landscaped grounds and spacious rooms, with a view of the Harlem River and upper Manhattan.
You Are Exiting Shangri-La
But when I went for my interview with the coop building committee several years ago, I was told in no uncertain terms that once one stepped out of the gates of this “hidden oasis,” as it is called, there might as well be a sign declaring: “Warning: you are now entering da hood.”
The vast majority of middle class folks would not be caught dead in my area these days, despite the fact that the whole stretch of Fordham Road is a shopping mecca. Not to bring race into the picture, but an area once populated by Jews, Italians, Irish, and other middle class groups is now mainly black and Hispanic, with immigrants, the working poor, single mothers, and teens who hang out in groups and gangs getting into trouble.
True Blue Poverty
At one time, I became acquainted with a few of the poor people in the area, and saw firsthand how they lived. It’s not pretty. This is true, unadulterated poverty. Aside from the working poor, most people are on food stamps and other forms of public assistance. Kids have babies early and often. Housing projects dot the landscape, and are particularly feared.
But don’t cry for me, dear readers, for there are advantages to living in an area such as this. In downgrading from a middle class environment to a very poor one, it is possible to live rather well indeed.
In their book The Millionaire Next Door, authors Thomas J. Stanley and William Danko interviewed numerous self-made millionaires and discovered a surprising fact. The typical American millionaire is self-made, owns his own business, and lives below his or her means. In this way, the business owner (often of a blue collar variety) can be thrifty enough (along with his coupon-clipping wife) to amass a fortune for himself, his wife, and his children.
Though my boyfriend and I may never be millionaires, we are the middle class version of this phenomenon and are thus able to live comfortably and well. As my boyfriend's brother once told me, the family motto of this very frugal, hard working family is "cheap is good; free is better."
Oy! The Bargains!
My boyfriend and I are both retired and on limited incomes, and were priced out of Manhattan long ago. The advantage of living in a poor area such as the northwest Bronx is that the cost of living is in exact opposition to Manhattan, where everything is as sky high as the landscape.
By contrast, most everything money can by is ridiculously cheap here: rents, clothing, food (though not as much as other items, but food stamps compensate for most folks), and any other items imaginable under the sun, many which can be found in the numerous 99 cent and up stores, which are virtually obsolete now in tony Manhattan. The commercial rents are much cheaper, so mom and pop shops still flourish. In addition, Fordham Road is a paradise for clothes shopping at rock bottom prices, fresh fruit and vegetable stands, ubiquitous cell phone outlets (even the poorest have these, along with a surprising number of cars), and an unparalleled library and cultural center. We became members of the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo, which has paid for itself many times over.
As middle class folks, we know all the cultural amenities many in this neighborhood of immigrants and poor do not. That is another advantage, along with quick access to Manhattan via two subway lines, or express bus.
So in short, we get a kick out of bargain hunting, anywhere from the local Rite Aid to the grocery stores, clothing stores, shoe outlets, 99 cent stores, and so on. It really is a rush to save money especially in these tough times, and a limited budget which has to stretch as much as possible. Living below one's means with some money in the bank for a rainy day is a good practice for anyone, from low to high income.
So let the naysayers warn about the dangers of the area. I say, "Viva la Bronx!"