Manhattan neigborhood fights off urban decay

The Washington Heights-Inwood section of Manhattan stands as a graphic contrast to the decay in many American cities, and in other New York City neighborhoods.

This multi-ethnic community lies in the upper reaches of Manhattan Island from 155th Street to 220th Street, between the broad Hudson and skinny Harlem Rivers. The stately George Washington Bridge casts a giant shadow on its western border at 179th Street. The South Bronx and Harlem, two of America's worst slums, border this bright nook of New York on the north and the south, respectively.

"Heights-Inwood" has only a few of the abandoned, burned-out apartment houses so common to the South Bronx. And even these eyesores are fast disappearing.

This is due in large part to the efforts of the Washington Heights-Inwood Consortium, a coalition of business and community leaders. The consortium of more than 40 leading corporations, educational institutions, and community organizations seeks to stimulate economic development. New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, faced with the possibility of major urban aid cuts from the Carter administration, has praised the consortium as an "excellent private counterpart" to government revitalization efforts.

One of the most active members is the Franklin Savings Bank. The Franklin and other lending institutions here are concerned with not letting local housing go downhill the way it has in the South Bronx and in parts of Harlem, where on many blocks only one out of every three buildings is occupied by paying tenants.

At a time when bank loans for housing are drying up in other parts of the city, as in cities across the country, housing rehabilitation money still is available at the Franklin Savings Bank and other Heights-Inwood banks. The reason is simple: The banks' main source of revenue is from community depositors , says David Hooke, the Franklin Savings Bank's director of community development. So the banks, he adds, owe their very existence to neighborhood people and are showing their gratitude by plowing money back in the community.

"To be realistic, there have been some of the same problems here [as in the South Bronx], but people are addressing them and intend to deal with them before they take on such massive proportions," says Kevin Sullivan, a Roman Catholic priest at a local Heights-Inwood church. "There has been arson, there are some abandoned buildings, but yet we've had a concerted effort by people in the community to get rid of these problems."

The renovation of a vacant 96-unit apartment building on Post Avenue is one of the most dramatic examples of this community- backed housing effort. A rubble-strewn lot lies directly in front of the building's "skeleton."

"If you see the vacant lot here and the burned-out building in back of it, you get a very negative impression of the neighborhood," Mr. Hooke notes. "But now, because the building is being renovated, it's most likely that taxpaying stores will be built on the vacant lot."

The Franklin Savings Bank and four other banks recently granted a $2.8 million loan for the renovation work. While the rents will be higher after the renovation is complete, eligible tenants will receive assistance under the federal "Section 8" subsidy program, under which a qualifying tenant pays 25 percent of his income for rent with the federal government paying the rest.

With housing stock better than surrounding areas and steadily improving, Heights- Inwood is one of the very few sections of the city which is experiencing a population increase, mostly of Hispanics but also of many other racial backgrounds. Hope Irvine, who chairs Community Board 12, says she believes that when the 1980 census figures are toted up the community may have some 200,000 residents -- up by 20,000 from 1970.

In fact, because of this population growth, the New York City planning commission has recommended that a new elementary school be built in Heights-Inwood at a time when the city agency has sought to slice the number of schools in other areas because of a declining population there.

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