Commentary

STILL ANOTHER BRONX TALE

by Manny Tobier

The Bronx is a famous place. Three out of the last four American Presidents - George Bush excepted - have deployed its streets and byways as settings for their diverse pronouncements on the state of and prospects for urban America. Since the 1970s, its image has gone from being the frequent example of inner city disaster scenes to a herald of inner city revival.

Bearing Good Tidings

Aside from its status as stage prop for seekers of office, what is actually going on in the Bronx? First, the good news. Housing abandonment by private owners, widespread from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, is now largely a thing of the past. Real estate values have stabilized and new construction activity, while still modest and heavily subsidized, has perked up as well. The place is buzzing with the business-like activities of a veritable Noah's Ark of community-based organizations. Confrontational street demonstrations have largely had their day. The Ten-Year Housing program launched by Mayor Ed Koch in the late 1980s with a good deal of local political and community support and completed by his successors, has restored a sense of physical order to the borough's poorest neighborhoods. In the once roiling South Bronx, newly built low density owner-occupied housing has taken the place of the once-teeming and subsequently abandoned blocks of five and six story apartment buildings.

After experiencing sizable losses during the 1970s, the Bronx's population has stabilized at around 1.2 million - that's the official Census count, certainly an underestimate. But while stable in the aggregate, the character of the Bronx's population continues to change dramatically. As elsewhere in the City, the borough's native stock, defined as adults born in the U.S. and their children, is declining, while its foreign stock population - foreign born parents and their typically US-born children - has been rising rapidly. If one includes the Bronx's large Puerto Rican-born and -descended population as foreign stock, the pace of change becomes even more striking. The borough's newcomers cut across the racial and ethnic spectrum, with Latinos followed by Afro-Caribbean blacks representing the largest groups by far. When the year 2000 Census results are tabulated these are likely to show that half of the borough's population is Latino, 30% (non-Latino) black and the remaining 20% either white or Asian.

As the City's economy soured in the early 1990s, borough-wide retail sales fell sharply, as did the number of jobs held in Manhattan by Bronxites. Since then, those figures have recaptured all lost ground - and then some. Inflation-adjusted per capita incomes of Bronx residents have begun to grow again in the wake of the City's post-1992 economic recovery. And, not least, despite the furor over the Diallo shooting, crime is down by a ton. Perhaps the revived optimism about the borough's prospects is best captured in the newly regained bustle of its older popularly priced main shopping districts on Fordham Road and East 149th Street. A possible sign of the times is the opening of a Starbucks last summer on Fordham Road and, more recently of a mega Barnes and Noble near Coop City.

Through a Glass Darkly

Now to the bad news. A disproportionate number of the residents of the Bronx face serious problems of no work and low incomes. True, the unemployment rate in the Bronx has fallen sharply from its peak of 14% in 1992 to around 8-9% by 1999. But it is sobering to think that this lower level was only reached after a long period of economic advance in the City's economy. And unemployment is still as high as it was back in 1977 after a similarly long period of economic contraction. Disturbingly, half of all working-age Bronxites are out of the labor market altogether, not just unemployed and looking for work. This is fifteen percentage points above the comparable national or regional figure. A large proportion of these adults is single women with children. As of mid-1999, fully one-third of the Bronx's population was on old-style public assistance, - welfare as we used to know it. Virtually all of them were native born and either black or Latino. Approximately 50% were over 21 years of age, a fifth or so were between 18 and 21, and the remaining 30% were children. The degree of success achieved in placing the Bronx's considerable number of out-of-work adults and near-adults into paid employment will provide a major test of the assumptions underlying the 1996 Welfare Reform Act as well as of the efficacy of the various programs which have been created to implement its provisions. And that testing time is now uncomfortably close at hand.

The Two Bronxes

From a number of points of view one can say that there are two Bronxes. There is of course the South Bronx (comprising Community Districts One through Six, home to two-fifths of the borough's overall population) with its massive concentration of high rise low rent public housing projects. Over half of the people living in the South Bronx are on the dole. Community districts seven and nine, just outside of the South Bronx, between them contain a quarter of the Bronx's population and have public assistance rates of between 30% and 40%.

It is only when you get to the borough's northernmost neighborhoods, where just over a third of its population resides, that public assistance rates fall to what might be regarded - at least by Bronx standards - as manageable levels. This might well be called the "Other Bronx." With the exception of Riverdale, a definitively upmarket residential community, the Other Bronx is made up of neighborhoods catering to working-class and middle class families for whom suburbanization would be difficult for social as well as economic reasons. A number of them have moved to this area from the South Bronx hoping to improve their housing and neighborhood circumstances. Still others are immigrant families who have just or recently come to the U.S. They are replacing the rapidly dwindling number of older white ethnic families who once dominated the social landscape of this part of the Bronx. Though the color of the people in these neighborhoods is certainly changing, their relative position in the income distribution is the same. (And it might be said that the difference between the families of the Other Bronx and the South Bronx are less a matter of their color or race as of their economic status). The tensions these concerns have created are described in a must read NYT article by Nina Siegel, "A district Divided" (1/9/00, Section 14, page 1).

But this shift from an older population to a younger group has had one predictable consequence: a bumper crop of school age children. A good guess would be that three-quarters of the net growth in the Bronx's public school enrollment in the 1990s has occurred in the schools of the Other Bronx. And for the newcomers to these neighborhoods, the state of the public schools that serve their communities is a matter of great concern. Because of the rapid growth in their schoolgoing populations the local public schools are among the most overcrowded in the city. But the primary concerns of the parents are with the quality of their child's education. They have ample grounds for concern. Overall the performance of Bronx schools can best be described as deplorable. Most of the bright spots are in individual schools located in School Districts 10 and 11 which between them cover most of the Other Bronx.

Who speaks for the Bronx?

The Bronx's private sector doesn't have enough clout to have much of a voice in the affairs of the borough. Ditto for the nonprofit sector, which in any case depends on the State and the City for much of its funding. That leaves the public sector and elected politicians, by process of elimination. When the Greater City was founded back at the turn of the last century, Borough Presidents and City Councilpeople were supposedly there to provide a local counterweight to the Mayor. Time and circumstance, have reduced these erstwhile tribunes of the people and their neighborhoods to mere, if well paid, ciphers. Power may corrupt. But the lack of a meaningful job to do is the root of the problem. The absence of accountability, combined with the recent imposition of term limits, doesn't give Councilmen or Borough Presidents much of an incentive to give their all for the dear old Bronx. The bottom line is that New York may be too big and complex to continue to run from the center. The Bronx certainly gives weight to that argument.

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Emanuel Tobier is a Professor of Economics at NYU and Senior Researcher at the Taub Center for Urban Research.

Also by Emanuel Tobier:
Gotham Gazette Topic: Demographics

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