This article explores the rebuilding of the South Bronx from 1977 to 2013. This rebuilding represents an important public policy accomplishment, since the South Bronx was one of the most physically devastated areas in the United States. In terms of economic policy, the rebuilding of the South Bronx defies linear narratives. On the one hand, public-private partnerships, which represent some of the most important features of urban neoliberalism were used heavily in the revitalization of the South Bronx. Community organizations that had been rebuilding areas in the South Bronx in the 1970s and the 1980s were required to conform to the requirements of the market, if they were to continue participating in urban development. On the other hand, the building of housing for low- and moderate-income people is not exactly a neoliberal economic policy, since these housing units were built with public subsidies and regulated by government agencies. In its insistence to rebuild the South Bronx as well as other physically devastated areas, the city government of New York became involved in creative financing by incorporating non-government organizations that were ran by accomplished businesspeople but remained non-profit. And whatever the original intentions of city administrations in building and preserving affordable housing in the South Bronx may have been, the accommodation of so many low income people performing low-paying but essential jobs, has contributed to the making of a more vibrant urban economy, even if these same people are not necessarily the ones benefitting from New York’s economic dynamism.
A version of this article was presented at the American History Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, U.K.
Excerpt from the Conclusion
The population of the South Bronx increased from 463,118 in 1980 to 591,661 in 2010 with a great percentage of these newcomers being immigrants. In 1980, only 14.2% of people living in the South Bronx were foreign-born; by 2013, this figure had more than doubled to 35.5%. To be sure this figure is lower than the city average, and smaller compared to Queens, the borough with the largest proportion of immigrants in New York City. However, the number of immigrants has been growing faster in the South Bronx than in most other places. In the 1970s, many immigrants moving to New York avoided the South Bronx, which was losing housing and was experiencing severe socioeconomic problems. This began to change in the 1980s and continued unabated in the decades that followed. Lower rental prices have made the South Bronx increasingly attractive to newcomers and to working class immigrants living in other boroughs. In 2010, the number of foreign-born people living in the South Bronx was 203,887. Unlike other distressed urban areas in the United States, the South Bronx was able to reinvent itself because of a large influx of immigrants in the post-fiscal crisis era; still, if not for the new housing, the great majority of these people would not have moved to the South Bronx and in this sense the city government deserves credit for the area’s revitalization.
As I have argued elsewhere, urban areas in the United States are becoming increasingly diverse, though this diversity in the South Bronx involves mostly Latinos and blacks. In 1980, Puerto Ricans and African Americans dominated the social makeup of the area. In the decades that followed the population diversified. In terms of Latinos, Dominicans became the largest group numerically in the 2000s overtaking Puerto Ricans. The number of Mexicans has been increasing geometrically since 1980, though the group remains a distant third. Other Latino groups with smaller but sizable numbers include Hondurans, Ecuadorians, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Colombians, Peruvians, Nicaraguans, and Panamanians. According to the 2010 census, 66.1% of South Bronx residents were Latino. In terms of groups of African descent excluding Latinos, African Americans still constitute an overwhelming majority. However, the numbers of people from Subsaharan Africa have been increasing with approximately 35,000 people living in the South Bronx by 2010. Ghanaians comprise the largest group of Subsaharan Africans with Nigerians being a distant second and Senegalese third. There are also about 18,000 West Indians, though their numbers have not grown since 1990 and slightly declined in the 2000s. Jamaicans are the majority of West Indians in the South Bronx while many other countries from the region are also represented. At the same time, the racial and ethnic makeup of the South Bronx shows the extent to which racial segregation is persisting in the United States. A contiguous urban area with approximately 600,000 people has almost no whites or Asians.
And while these trends are complex and may have to do with housing policy, immigrant networks, and social geography, the population of the South Bronx is also segregated by class. The population of the South Bronx is near the bottom of New York’s income hierarchy. Adjusted for inflation, the annual median household income on the South Bronx has remained almost stable since 1980, reaching the $25,789 figure in 2000, before declining to $24,401 in 2013 (all of these figures in 2013 dollars). The median household income of the South Bronx is significantly lower from that of the Bronx in its entirety. It is also less than half of the median household income of the entire city . In terms of occupation, the percentage of individuals involved in service employment has been rapidly increasing since 1970, reaching the figure of 39.4% in 2013. These jobs are among the lowest paying. Only 15.8% of working adults had managerial or professional occupations in 2013, which were usually the best paying. Given the occupation indicators, it is not surprising that there are many more families living in poverty in the South Bronx than in the Bronx and New York City. Despite the low incomes and high poverty rates, the South Bronx remains a stable area and inexpensive housing contributes significantly toward that goal. To be sure, since 2000, incomes have been slowly declining while rents, despite regulations and subsidies, have been increasing. In 2000, the median gross rent in the South Bronx was $737. By 2013, it had increased by 23.9%, reaching the figure of $937 (all figures in 2013 dollars). During the same period, median households incomes declined by 7%. Still, these rents remain inexpensive enough to allow low income people to live there, it is just that the trend at the moment appears to be troublesome.