After years of striking out, Bronx hits a home run

As World Series arrives tomorrow, the borough shows it's no longer the poster child of urban blight.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Back when Fred Newman was in high school, the view from his apartment building roof was among the most cherished in all New York. After all, the sweeping vistas from the Empire State Building couldn't give visitors a bird's eye view of Yankee Stadium.

"I worked my way through junior high school scalping tickets to go up on my roof!" laughs Mr. Newman, now a political playwright and local activist.

Today, as then, Newman looks at the Bronx with a sense of hope and pride - especially with the World Series coming to town tomorrow. But the years between then and now have been little more than a tale of the severest hardship and woe.

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Since the 1970s, when home after home was set on fire and residents descended on the burned-out husks like scavengers, the Bronx has been the superlative of American urban blight. Earlier this decade, the Yankees even threatened to leave, worried that frightened fans were staying away.

Now, the Bronx is a town transforming. From Charlotte Gardens, where $200,000 homes have risen to replace the smoke and embers of 25 years ago, to the Grand Concourse, where America's largest concentration of Art Deco apartments is being refurbished, the Bronx has a vitality unseen since the days of Joltin' Joe and Mickey Mantle.

To be sure, any recovery must be kept in context. The Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the state, and the high school dropout rate is near 40 percent. But the progress, spurred by the strong US economy, increased investment, and residents' renewed commitment, has made the Bronx a model for how to overcome the most dire civic challenges.

"There's so much interest in what we've done that we're getting planning delegations from Germany, Austria, and England who want to see, firsthand 'the miracle of the Bronx,' " says borough president Ferando Ferrer.

Quantifying the recovery

By the numbers, the Bronx has made significant steps toward erasing much of its infamy. It has added more than 57,000 new and renovated housing units during the past decade, gained 8,000 private-sector jobs since 1994, and - mirroring the rest of the city- reduced crime by 50 percent.

"If you look at the numbers and what has gone on in terms of housing construction, of immigrant populations revitalizing neighborhoods, [the Bronx] seems to be in very good shape," says Sam Roberts, a New York Times urban-affairs reporter.

But more than that, locals say, the recovery can be seen street by street, block by block. Eurceline Simmons sees the changes every time she steps onto her lush backyard lawn, edged with mums and zinneas.

She remembers what her Charlotte Street neighborhood was like back in the '70s. Entire blocks looked "bombed out" then, she says. By contrast, her neighborhood today is graced by 89 single-family homes with market values comparable to those in suburban New York.

"I never would have believed they would build Charlotte Street again," Ms. Simmons says. "Now it's beautiful here."

Indeed, much of the Bronx has changed during the past two decades. By 1990, Puerto Ricans accounted for more than one-quarter of the population, up from 20 percent in 1970. In total, one-third of the borough is Latino, one-third is black, and one-third white and Asian.

Increasingly, immigrants from other areas of the Caribbean are also moving to the Bronx from the overcrowded Washington Heights section of Manhattan.

"I came here in 1989," says Danny Bahora, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago. As a college senior, he opted to live here over Manhattan. "My mom used to live in Manhattan and moved to the Bronx, and I fell in love with the place."

It's no Silicon Valley

Still, the Bronx has yet to feel the impact made by tremendous gains in the stock market and the technology sector.

"We ... have to rely on different sectors of the economy," says Ferrer. "With respect to the resale service sector, we've seen enormous growth, and manufacturing is beginning to come back."

For instance, Hagen-Dazs, the international ice cream company founded in the South Bronx 30 years ago, has launched major expansion plans. So has ABC Carpet, a large rug retailer.

Moreover, the borough is expanding a computer and employment training program for youths. Yet local officials agree that more is needed. "We need to bring in the kind of high-tech jobs that are going Upstate," says former state Sen. Pedro Espada. "But we are not now in a position to attract high-tech jobs because our labor force is isn't ready."

For at least this week, though, everyone here will be focused on the Yankees. And in many ways, the Yankees themselves represent how the Bronx's fortunes have changed. Momentum seems to be gaining to keep the Yankees in the Bronx, which experts say is key to the borough's continued upswing.

As part of the growing signs, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has submitted a budget request for construction of a new Metropolitan Transportation Authority station at Yankee Stadium. This would provide suburban commuters easier access to the stadium in the same way city residents are served by the subway lines.

In addition, Ferrer supports plans for the creation a "Yankee Village" to include a museum, restaurants, and other amenities in the stadium area.

"The Bronx has a long way to go," says Newman, but "it is making a serious comeback."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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