Grassroots, not politics, stirs hopes in South Bronx
New York — Three years ago this month, President Carter came to the South Bronx, perhaps America's worst urban slum, and stood in an area that looked more like Berlin after World War II than part of New York City. Dismayed by the rubble-filled lots and abandoned housing he saw around him, the new President jumped enthusiastically into the goal of redeveloping the South Bronx.
Soon after this visit devastated Charlotte Street, where Mr. Carter declared his commitment, is still to be shaken at the rubble and decay all around. Some 30 years ago, this was the heart of a solid midd-class commumitment, is still to be shaken at the rubble and decay all around. Some 30 years ago, this was the heart of a solid middle-class commumity of first and second-generation immigrants.
Despite this gloomy picture, signs of new life are appearing throughout the 20-square-mile South Bronx, mostly because of the concerted efforts of grass-roots community organizations and concerned residents.
Contrary to popular belief, White House officials told the Monitor, the Carter administration has funneled approximately $175 million in grants and another $25 million in loan guarantees to the South Bronx over the past three years -- in excess of what the area would have received had not Carter targeted it for special aid.
But federal aid for new and rehabilitated housing, job training, and -- to date -- 13 shrub- and flower-sprinkled miniparks does not mean that criticism of the Carter administration for not living up to its promises to revitalize the South Bronx has stopped. In terms of partisan politics, the critism is stronger than ever, with Republican Ronald Reagan coming down the hardest.
But what this federal aid, coupled with community and city efforts, has meant is a new confidence in the public and private sector that the area can be rebuilt, though definitely at a much slower rate than nearby everyone initially expected, judging from interviews wth a wide range of residents, community leaders, and government officials.
One gauge of this new sense of optimism and progress -- although much has to yet to surface in actual construction or active programs -- is the Ford Foundation's recent series of grants in the South Bronx amounting to almost $150 ,000.
"For many years, we stayed away from the South Bronx because we thought it was hopeless," says Richard Magat, a spokesman for the foundation in New York.
Now, however, the latest Ford Foundation grants as of Oct. include a modest $ 18,000 for the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association (so named because of the shape of Kelly Street) for auditing and legal services, $50,000 for a summer sports program for 25 neighborhood-based youth organizations, and $25,000 for administrative suport for the Bronx Frontier Development Corporation (BFDC). This private nonprofit organization, committed solely to the revitalization of the South Bronx, has also got almost $2 million in federal aid over the past two years -- much of it used to transform 13 vacant lots into small parks.
"A lot more has to be done in the South Bronx, but we can already see an improvement in our environment," says Irma Fleck, a spokesman for the BFDC. "This is due not to our organization but to many others."
And, in fact, there are scores of organizations working in this direction, often aided in varying degrees by government grants and loans. Among them:
* The Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association. The association is helping 20 urban homesteaders rehabilitate three apartment houses. Faceless, abandoned buildings and vacant lots still lie to the south of the street, but to the north is a series of newly rehabilitated dwellings.
* Wildcat Inc., another grass-roots group. Two months ago it was awarded a $ 7 million federal grant to help train and provide jobs for about 1,000 welfare recipients over the next two years.
* The South Bronx Development Office (SBDO). Set up just 18 months ago, it is coordinating a joint federal-state-city development effort and has just received its second $1.5 million grant.
Edward J. Logue, SBDO director, says althogh we [the South Bronx] could use a lot more" money, "I don't think I've got a right to complain until we've emptied the pipeline of the [federal] money we have now."
Only about half of the $200 million the Carter administration has "committed" to the South Bronx in special aid has been spent, according to Virginia Strauss, a White House domestic policy expert.
Mr. Logue attibutes the slowness with which much of the federal money is being spent to two factors -- one favorable, the other unfavorable.
First, "We are rebuilding with people," he says with considerable satisfaction, referring to the fact that residents and community organizations in the blighted area are playing a direct role in SBDO's planning procesS, which was not the case three years ago when the city unsuccessfully tried to build a housing project in the South Bronx without the support of local residents. That project quickly failed.
Second, there sometimes seems to be a mire of time-consuming red tape to go through before projects can be launched. Logue is hoping, however, that within the next year the organization will have new legal authority to cut some of the tape -- such as the power that many government development agencies have to condemn parcels of real state.
But in the final analysis, he believes, no matter how much money is available , nor what government agencies do, it is the local residents who play the biggest part in revitalizing the South Bronx.