IT'S Sunday afternoon in the Bronx, and a United States Postal Service truck rolls by. ``We're glad the Post Office could be with us!'' says an announcer, and the crowd cheers. Next, a United Parcel Service truck, then a float recreating a park and playground scene decorated with fake flowers, a lifeguard's chair, and a swing set. By Manhattan standards, it's not much of a parade. Here, the Unity Day parade this spring was enough - a celebration of small, good things, appreciated by people living with some of America's most depressing statistics: near-epidemic disease, rampant drug abuse, a 60 percent school dropout rate, and, in 1989, 50,000 arrests and 500 homicides.
But there are signs that, after a 30-year slide, the 44-square-mile borough is on a slow rebound. Though largely the product of a natural cycle of urban decline and rebirth, the current uptick is receiving a major boost from a rising political star: Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, the first Latino to reach such a high post in New York.
Richard Wade, a noted urban historian and City University professor, credits Mr. Ferrer with being an essential force for positive change. His predecessors left the Bronx's fortunes to market forces, he says, ``and what the market didn't do, they let City Hall do,'' Mr. Wade says.
Today, with the city and state paying to build or rehabilitate more than 20,000 apartment units, the major problem of housing abandonment may be a thing of the past. Ferrer credits ex-mayor Ed Koch for presiding over the program - ``not that he wasn't brought in kicking and screaming,'' he quickly adds. That sums up Ferrer's current role - pushing, pushing, pushing for programs to rescue the Bronx.
Results are mostly small-scale
Ferrer is the first to aggressively push borough-wide planning. He insists that any new housing for the 1.2 million residents here be matched by new schools and transit routes. He is also wooing private investment. The results are mostly small-scale: a bingo hall beneath an elevated subway track converted into a mini-shopping mall, for example. A $110 million, privately developed shopping plaza near Yankee Stadium may be a sign of bigger things to come.
``The Bronx has the raw ingredients for a long-term economic revival,'' notes Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center. It's the only city borough not on an island; it has lots of inexpensive industrial space and good access to Manhattan.
Recently, Ferrer's daunting task has been made more difficult by a new city charter that weakened borough presidents' roles. ``We are now `influential' people. Before, we were `powerful' people,'' he says in an interview. But what the 40-year-old Ferrer, in office now three years, lost in formal power he makes up for by articulating the need for simple, effective solutions.
Ferrer, who grew up in a poor, single-parent Bronx household, knows how seemingly mundane things like better insulation in an apartment can help turn a life around. ``It will probably help kids sleep a little better, get to school,'' he says.
Ferrer is certainly the most gung-ho cheerleader the maligned borough has had in recent memory. ``He's constantly boosting the Bronx,'' almost to excess, says Angelo Falcon, head of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, an issues research center.
Residents see the area getting better and worse at the same time, enjoying a structural face lift while witnessing a rapidly unraveling social fabric due to the growth of drug abuse.
Ferrer agrees. ``It might sound like a cop-out,'' he says, ``but No. 1, we don't grow cocaine here, and No. 2, I just can't stem the tide.
``But,'' he says, ``we're doing what we can.'' The real challenge, however, is to provide a largely dysfunctional and dispirited populace with education, jobs, and alternatives to drug abuse, including alcohol.
Ferrer made a start by turning the tables on business leaders who said not enough qualified, entry-level job applicants could be found in the borough. He called on the Chamber of Commerce to get involved in the schools, help build a curriculum, and join in team teaching to help educate students to become the sort of employees businesses need. Companies in his Bronx Educational Task Force serve as mentors to students and give them dress and demeanor guidelines. The youths get both on-the-job and in-class training; if they pass, they have a guaranteed job upon graduation.
For Ferrer, establishing his credentials has meant rising above a wasteland of corruption. For decades, the Bronx Democratic organization has been notorious for its strength and patronage. Ferrer's predecessor, Stanley Simon, was sentenced in January to five years in jail and a $70,000 fine for racketeering and conspiracy. Although Ferrer grew up within the Democratic organization and was even a Simon staff member, he is widely considered independent of it.
Ferrer may be the Gorbachev of the Bronx machine. ``Most of the people who came out of that system were 100 percent brain-dead,'' Mr. Falcon says. ``But Freddy came out smart and thoughtful.'' The worst that people say is that Ferrer hasn't much in the way of concrete results.
``He always tries for the Bronx,'' says Jose Gonzalez, a hotel bellman who watched Ferrer march past during the Unity Day parade. This year's spectators cheered Ferrer; at the parade a decade ago, residents greeted predecessor Simon by lobbing bottles from upstairs windows.
Ferrer has played well with a diverse population: Three-quarters of Bronx residents are poor minorities, mostly black and Latino, but the northern Bronx has middle-class neighborhoods with Italians, Irish, and Jews.
City's `lunatic discourse'
The borough president blames the current citywide racial tensions largely on a small number of grandstanders, who he says exacerbate things by engaging in ``a lunatic discourse.''
``You have some exceptionally bad people who also double as clowns in this city,'' he says. ``Also, an exceptionally cynical media.''
Ferrer could be making his pronouncements to a larger audience within the decade: ``You can bet your boots in 10 years you'll have a Hispanic mayor,'' says Wade. Latinos are the fastest-growing group in New York
But, for the moment, Ferrer is feeling good about how far he has already come. ``I never thought I'd achieve this in my life,'' he says.
He knows, too, that the work has just begun. Still, he gets excited about the seemingly impossible task of restoring the Bronx to a time when moving there was a dream, not a nightmare. Ferrer plans to return the Grand Concourse, the borough's broad, once-stately thoroughfare, to dignity. ``We want to open the center mall to bicyclists and runners,'' he says. ``Make it user-friendly.''
The Bronx Unity Day parade seemed to mirror Ferrer's optimism, as threatening weather gave way to sun. When the Stevenson High School band passes by, Ferrer gives a play-by-play narrative: ``Look at their faces - they're all kids of color,'' he exclaims. ``If they didn't have this, they'd be out of school.
``This is more than image-building,'' he says. ``There is nothing that separates them from everyone else, except their reluctance, or willingness, to reach the finish line.''