There has been a lot of talk on social media lately about the situation in the South Bronx. If you are not familiar with the Bronx, it is an area of New York City with a less-than-stellar reputation despite being the birthplace of several notable figures such as actress Jennifer Lopez, salsa musician Willie Colón, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The South Bronx is also recognized as the origin of hip hop as a style of music and as a culture. But since the 1950s, and more particularly in the 1970s, the Bronx has struggled with crime, violence, drugs, and a cycle of poverty.
Recently, real estate developers like Somerset Partners and the Chetrit Group made a billboard announcement near the Third Avenue Bridge that has polarized social advocates, social media, and the South Bronx community. The billboard advertised the developers’ plans to mold the South Bronx to encompass “Luxury Waterfront Living,” “World-Class Dining, Fashion, Art,” and “Architecture.” Specifically, the Somerset an Chetrit have plans to develop about 2,000 apartments along the waterfront of South Bronx, and they want to rename the area “The Piano District.”
The blatant plan to gentrify the area has presumably added logs to the fiery controversy that started after the city announced a plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory, a massive structure in the Bronx, into an ice-sports center. Housing activists in the area have complained that local landlords have already begun resorting to threatening and harassing tactics to get low-rent tenants out in anticipation of the more affluent and higher-paying tenants who would inevitably flow into the area as the Bronx developments. Citizens have complained that since the announcement regarding the Kingsbridge Armory, landlords have been raising rents, frivolously taking tenants to court, threatening tenants, and attempting to organize themselves into a union of sorts.
When the billboard announcing the new Piano District arrived, the gentrification opponents became even more vocal. Members of the community and others took to social media to voice their outrage. A new movement, aptly called #WhatPianoDistrict, quickly generated numerous memes that have been circulating around the Internet of late. Adding insult to injury, the developers hosted a party, curated by Lucien Smith, celebrating the plans for the upcoming development. Several well-to-do celebrities were in attendance, including basketball star Carmelo Anthony, actor Adrian Brody, and fashion models Gigi Hadid, Lexi Boling, and Naomi Campbell. The party was themed as a historical reference to the “Bronx is Burning” era of the 1970s when more than 97% of the areas buildings were lost to fire and/or abandonment.. Burning trash cans, rusted cars with bullet holes, and derelict structures were among some of the decorations that appeared in the show. The event even saw a performance from rapper Travis Scott. The entire affair was not taken well by the residents, especially among those residents old enough to remember growing up in that particularly dark.
What residents fear most is gentrification, the process in which locals are typically priced out of a neighborhoods because prices are pushed northward. Gentrification is usually accomplished through the replacement of low cost entertainment venues, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. with more expensive counterparts. Once landlords perceive an incoming increase in property values, rents are raised considerably. The limited availability of low-cost alternatives for daily living, the higher expenditures, and possibly even the unwillingness to share space with the affluent forces poorer residents to move farther and farther away from the gentrified areas where costs are lower. A notable example of gentrification at work can be seen in our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. But in the South Bronx, as a not-so-subtle symbolic nod to gentrification, the dilapidated warehouses where Somerset and Chetrit threw their infamous party are set to be demolished. In their place, six residential buildings, coffee shops, restaurants, and art galleries will all be constructed.
Another smaller player in the gentrification battle, Spaceworks, is a non-profit organization that has also been developing affordable long-term studio spaces for artists to work in. Spaceworks has thus far operated primarily by leasing publically-owned buildings, such as the Williamsburg Library and offering a space for artists to work. By offering these opportunities to artists, Spaceworks is indirectly contributing to the gentrification struggle by making the area more attractive to individuals that could crowd out the local population. Nevertheless, Spaceworks maintains that it leases its spaces out to local artists rather than those seeking shelter in state.
In spite of all of this, however, since the 1980s, the South Bronx had already been seeing some form of urban renewal, albeit at a limited pace, through subsidized multifamily homes and brand new residential structures. Some commentators believe that the arrival of willing developers and attractive new residential structures may help to reduce the prevalence of violence, drugs, and street gangs that have plagued the area for decades. Furthermore, the area is predicted to see an increasing influx of capital that can help the local economy and improve conditions with the borough. The developers alone spent more than $58 million for the sites last year. Certainly, the future of the Bronx is weighing heavily in the minds of residents, but whether the plan to develop the area is a positive or negative experience for the Bronx still remains a topic of fierce debate. Though the developers appear to be confident in their plans to renew the South Bronx, they appear to have a long road ahead of them in the court of public opinion.