South Bronx, a scrappy survivor. Despite decades of decline, some say a small flower of progress is blooming amid urban blight

The first view of Charlotte Gardens comes as a bit of a surprise after passing through the eerie, ghost-town blocks of the South Bronx. In many parts of the South Bronx, children play on sidewalks strewn with glass and debris near rubble-filled lots and abandoned buildings. Sad-looking apartment buildings throughout the area need repair. Here and there, well-maintained blocks and business strips have escaped razing.

But there is no preparing for the sight around a broad bend on Boston Road -- the ranch-style homes with green lawns and white picket fences.

Charlotte Gardens looks like a suburb whirled in off a Kansas tornado, mistakenly set down in the South Bronx instead of the land of Oz. Certainly these homes seem out of place in an area that has drawn arsonists, drug dealers, and despair -- and has been a mecca for US presidents and others seeking media exposure.

The 20 square miles of real estate may have become the preeminent news symbol of urban blight and misery when President Jimmy Carter made a surprise visit to Charlotte Street in the fall of 1977. The world saw an area that looked similar to war-torn cities of World War II. The image flashed on television screens again when Ronald Reagan came a few years later. Fruit trees and a feeling of progress

The South Bronx continues to have the lowest income population of any congressional district in the United States. Nearly 43 percent of the people live below the federal poverty level of $10,610 for a family of four and unemployment is 45 percent among young minority men. Some people estimate the high school dropout rate at 70 percent.

Despite these figures, there is a growing feeling here that the South Bronx has turned the corner. Residents, local politicians, and people working in an area that lost 300,000 people in less than a decade say the South Bronx is a scrappy survivor.

And Charlotte Gardens -- owner-occupied homes with children and a dog playing in one back yard, a motor boat alongside another home, and flowering fruit trees planted at a third -- is probably the most visible sign of the change.

``Isn't it pretty?'' asks Myrtle Bennett, who was one of the first blacks in the neighborhood 23 years ago. She watched her Jewish friends leave, apartments burn, stores close. She's believes change is coming, but plans to keep her apartment. ``If you want to buy, you've got to have money,'' she says.

``The Bronx is bouncing back, even beyond our faith,'' says Fernando Ferrer, a city councilor born, raised, and educated in the South Bronx. Nobody believed single-family homes could be marketed to middle-income families in that part of the borough. ``We've proved something,'' he says. Helping a long-shot idea work

Charlotte Gardens was the idea of Edward J. Logue, former director of the South Bronx Development Organization (SBDO), who had already seen two proposals fail for political and financial reasons.

As developer and builder, SBDO joined with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which funded a feasibility study and financed two model homes, and the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, a community development group designated to sell the below-market-cost homes. In one month in 1983, 2,000 applications were handed out.

Who wanted these homes? Most of the 15 families now living in Charlotte Gardens were already South Bronx residents. A good number are city, state, or federal government employees. Their income ranges from $20,000 to more than $40,000 among two-income earner families. And the price was right, points out Anita Miller, former South Bronx director of LISC.

New York City sold the land for next to nothing. A federal Urban Development Action Grant helped reduce the cost per home and provided money for site improvements. State mortgages through Chemical Bank and a city real estate tax abatement also lowered the costs. The final price tag for the factory-built homes is around $50,000. Evolving as an immigrant community

In the 1920s and '30s the South Bronx grew rapidly as immigrant families from Manhattan's Lower East Side began to move up in the world. The Grand Concourse, the broad, tree-lined boulevard that runs through the area, was once called the Fifth Avenue of the Bronx. After World War II, the area began to change as families moved to the suburbs.

New ``immigrants'' began to move in, including blacks from the southern United States and Puerto Ricans. At the same time, the loss of manufacturing jobs in New York City began. Eventually 600,000 jobs were gone, leaving the new Bronx residents with few job opportunities.

Today the South Bronx is largely Hispanic and black. Mr. Ferrer's council district, which includes much of the South Bronx, is about 53 percent Hispanic, and 30 percent black. There is an increasing number of Asians, he says, particularly refugees from Southeast Asia. The Bronx hits bottom

``In 1977 to '79, even in 1982, people had written [the South Bronx] off. The problems were so deep, the devastation was so great,'' says Ms. Miller.

Millie Velez, who has been in the South Bronx for 27 years, watched the change. When her family moved here, they were one of the first Hispanic families in a neighborhood of Jewish and Italian residents. In the '60s deterioration began. By 1970 ``everything was burning,'' says Ms. Velez. Neglected buildings were victims of accidental fires or, too often, arson, as building owners sought profit from insurance payments. By 1975 the drug problem had also grown.

From 1977 to '81, the turn began, says Ms. Velez. It was in part because the area was so spent; there were few buildings left to burn. The South Bronx had hit rock bottom. Local groups take a stand

In the mid-to-late '70s, those who remained began to take a stand. Groups with names like the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, Banana Kelly, and the Southeast Bronx Community Organization formed and began to fight the demolition of their neighborhoods.

Because of the effort of groups like Banana Kelly, people began to look at their neighborhood ``in a positive way,'' says Ms. Velez, who has been associated with that group since it began in 1977. Their block cleanup efforts improved morale. Rehabilitation of buildings offered some employment for youths. But it has been hard work. On Kelly Street, it has taken seven years to clean up the block. One building remains to be fixed, and work will begin this year.

The people at a recent town hall meeting at Community School 61, right next door to Charlotte Gardens, are a barometer of changes that have since occurred.

Mayor Edward I. Koch was another barometer of change on that particular night; he was born in the Bronx and has lived nearby, attending that very school as a child.

Some questions to the mayor reflected concerns that are critical in the South Bronx. A young homeless mother, who is living with friends, wanted to get into public housing so she could get her four children out of foster care. A leader from Claremont Village, the largest, high-density housing project in the city, asked some sharp questions about police protection. Two young women asked about employment, one wanting to know why there seemed to be no minority workers at a nearby construction site.

Councilman Ferrer, too, credits the new cadre of community and religious leaders as a key element and points out that they have matured into savvy workers.

``We've been through it all,'' he says. ''[The leaders] want to get to the bottom line right away.'' Instead of noisy protests over issues, these leaders will simply pick up the phone and get to the right official when they have a complaint or question, he says. Drug abuse, lack of housing temper optimism

There has also been an emphasis on regaining jobs in the area. Both commercial and industrial rents are going up, a positive sign, observers say. Several industrial parks are either getting under way or are planned. Bathgate, which is eight blocks of industrial park, has commitments for 61/2 of the blocks. Spearheaded by the SBDO (which was founded after Jimmy Carter's visit highlighted the area), the industrial park has funding from the federal government, state, city, and regional sources.

But despite the joy over positive signs, there is realism about the long agenda still ahead. Housing for the homeless has become a hot issue in an area with a lot of space but few resources. Some residents notice a resurgence of open drug dealing. There are too many youths ``out on the streets with nothing to do,'' says one young woman on the Grand Concourse. She has looked for a job for more than a year. Federal funding a necessary catalyst

One of the biggest concerns in the South Bronx is that slashed funding, particularly from the federal government, appears likely to stunt growth that has just begun here. And residents insist they are not just interested in federal handouts -- but in money to allow them eventually to become independent. Banana Kelly began as a sweat-equity program to rehabilitate buildings on Kelly Street.

Now the group has rehabbed many buildings and developed new units. It manages apartments for the city, runs youth programs, has a weatherization program, and a construction crew that even bids on work outside the Bronx. Their goal, says Velez, is to become financially independent. But groups like these, some observers say, could never have become self-sufficient without government funding to help them begin.

Without deep subsidies for housing from the federal government, the South Bronx can't be rebuilt, Ferrer says flatly.

``We can build for moderate income, and maybe that will free up some units in existing buildings. . . . But it doesn't come close to replacing what we have lost. Our poor are becoming more acutely poor.''

``And we still lack the resources to deal with the acutely poor,'' Ferrer says. ``It may be true that we don't have tent cities, but we are expending gargantuan resources for the homeless. People are doubling and tripling up in both private and public housing.''

He says the situation could become volatile. This feeling is echoed by others.

``We have turned the corner, but we can't run,'' says E. Eldred Hill of Community Board Three. ``People feel things are turning. As they see changes, hope increases. That's good and bad.''

He explains that if there are no resources to fulfill that level of hope -- if there are another two years with little new housing -- that hope will dissapear. Area residents, who have seen the long, hard fall and subsequent new footing of the South Bronx, are naturally stoic.

Says longtime resident Arlene Allen: ``It takes a long time to build things up again.''

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