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When Citizens Rescue Neighborhoods

Eileen Markey

June 26, 2024

How residents forced government to save parts of the Bronx that everyone else wrote off

How residents forced government to save parts of the Bronx that everyone else wrote off

Nothing demonstrates the magnetic pull of a doom loop — or the power to reverse it — like the Bronx in the 1970s. By the end of that decade, the borough had become a byword for disaster. The Bronx’s decline had taken a few steps: redlining and deindustrialization, highway building and white flight, dramatic cutbacks to fire service even as incidents and intensity of fires climbed, a sclerotic political machine. 

If faith in the idea of the city faltered in the postwar years, and just about died during the fiscal crisis, the Bronx was the case in point for those who argued the urban project was in terminal decline. By the time President Jimmy Carter’s motorcade took a detour into the South Bronx on his way to address the General Assembly of the United Nations in October 1977 and the president was photographed in the desolate rubble of Charlotte Street, money and people had been fleeing the borough for more than 15 years. 

President Jimmy Carter stands in front of a row of burned out apartment buildings in the South Bronx, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Development Patricia Harris and New York City Mayor Abe Beame.
President Jimmy Carter stands in front of a row of burned out apartment buildings in the South Bronx, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Development Patricia Harris and New York City Mayor Abe Beame. | Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images. President Jimmy Carter stands in front of a row of burned out apartment buildings in the South Bronx, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Development Patricia Harris and New York City Mayor Abe Beame. October 5, 1977.

By 1977, the Bronx had starkly fewer manufacturing jobs and fewer people than it did in 1960. Crime was up, school attendance was down and looting during the blackout the summer before had destroyed businesses struggling to hang on in neighborhoods as far north as University Heights in the 180s (where NYU had recently fled its pastoral campus). A year earlier the head of the city’s housing department suggested the Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood be abandoned through a policy of “planned shrinkage.”

But even as Carter walked aghast through burned-out blocks that were frequently compared to Dresden, groups of people who believed in the city were working furiously to resurrect their neighborhoods. They had been all along

Mili Bonilla, whose childhood home was among those abandoned by landlords and then razed by the City, wasn’t interested in charity. “We had to build power,” she said. As a young woman, Bonilla became a community organizer with South Bronx People for Change, arguing buildings should be rehabilitated not demolished, fighting for City services and training neighbors from Highbridge to Hunts Point to work together.

“Everyone thought it was inevitable that the destruction would just go up the Concourse,” said Felice Michetti, who in the mid-1970s was a junior staffer in the Department of City Planning’s South Bronx office.

The Bronx was the case in point for those who argued the urban project was in terminal decline.

From people’s mouths to power’s ears

Not everyone accepted the destruction as inevitable. In 1974, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition was formed, initially a coalition of 10 Catholic parishes from the Cross Bronx to Van Cortlandt Park whose pastors had been watching anxiously as their parishioners faced worsening conditions. Structured around neighborhood groups built from tenant and block associations, the Coalition quickly expanded beyond sectarian borders. It was animated by a belief that the borough’s best hope lay in activating the nascent power of the people still there. Solutions would come from the people themselves.

Jim Buckley had watched the fires climb north week by week, the acrid smell of smoke and wet ash seeping in the windows as he rode the Third Avenue elevated train to Fordham University. When he and others in the first classes of organizers at the Coalition started working to preserve neighborhoods, they were fighting an amorphous thing called blight.

They started with tenant associations — organizing hundreds in the Coalition’s first year, running dozens of meetings a night — and housing court cases, rallies against landlords who failed to provide heat in winter and who let roofs leak and plumbing collapse. But with the passage of the federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975, a precursor to the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, tenants and post-college organizers began to understand the landlords were only the front end of the problem. Sitting in bank offices turning ledgers page by page, they realized banks were taking in deposits from Bronxites, but not lending in neighborhoods that had become racially integrated — in other words, redlining.

Not everyone accepted the destruction as inevitable.

Northside Savings Bank was among the worst. It held $15 million in deposits from just two Bronx neighborhoods — and much larger sums across the borough — but had lent not a dollar in the Bronx. Eastern Savings was nearly as bad. In 1976 it had made $1.5 million worth of mortgages in Tampa, Florida, and Alexandria, Virginia, but only $25,000 in the Bronx. Within months, Coalition members were picketing Eastern’s Pelham Parkway branch beneath the rumbling 2 train, then crowding into the lobby to demand a meeting with the bank president.

Negotiations with Eastern, Northside, Dollar and other local savings and loan banks moved slowly at first: tenant association members detailing decrepit conditions to the banks that held their building’s mortgage, organizers arranging tours of properties for bankers and pushing them to exercise a standard clause in mortgages that said the banks could recall a loan if the landlord did not maintain the property in “good repair.” Meetings regularly drew hundreds of fed-up Bronxites, and when they needed to make a point, they sat in at City offices downtown, testified before the council or — a favorite tactic — hauled elected officials and commissioners up to raucous meetings in church halls in the Bronx.

Getting the banks to lend took time. But by the early ’80s, a committee of the Coalition Buckley was part of had not only convinced several banks to lend, but gotten them to take out an ad in the Daily News, touting their faith in the Bronx’s future.

“Perception was key,” said Michetti. “The Clergy Coalition was very important in organizing to get the banks to lend.”

A crucial breakthrough came in 1978 when the Coalition secured a plan with Aetna Insurance to invest millions in Bronx buildings.

Grassroots in the concrete

Meanwhile, in the South Bronx neighborhoods most burdened by fires and walk-away landlords, tenants were taking matters into their own hands. Groups like the People’s Development Corporation and Banana Kelly took over abandoned buildings and began making repairs, training local kids in construction skills as they went.

The anarchic and fringe takeovers became pilot programs with slivers of City money. All across the borough, ad hoc groups of neighbors worked together to take care of buildings landlords had abandoned, pooling funds to buy heating oil and appointing their own security to keep drug users out of vacant apartments.

Just south of Fordham Road, Eugenio Rivera and his daughters were the last tenants in a five-story building. At night they scavenged furniture from the garbage to feed the boiler. Rivera repaired vacant apartments one by one, recruiting tenants and collecting rent until the building could be transferred into nonprofit management.

There were big projects too. Southeast Bronx Community Organization, SEBCO, headed by Fr. Louis Gigante (brother of the Genovese family boss Chin) had been remaking buildings with small amounts of federal money since the Model Cities era.

City initiatives tried to improvise fixes during the late ’70s, from widespread use of court-appointed 7A administrators — empowered to manage blighted buildings — to an alphabet soup of loan and financing programs. Due to swifter enforcement of foreclosure for delinquent taxes, City government became New York’s largest property owner, with thousands of buildings on its ledgers. It was a lousy landlord.

Life is still tough in plenty of ways in the Bronx. But the commercial strips throughout the Bronx are bustling and housing can’t keep up with demand.

By the early ’80s, with increasing numbers of homeless people, the City wanted to house people and simultaneously get buildings off their rolls. They began ambitious initiatives to transfer ownership to community groups that had been agitating to preserve and rebuild their neighborhoods.

Michetti had moved to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development in 1979, heading the West Bronx Neighborhood Office, where she took heat from community groups and carried it downtown, getting Mayor Ed Koch to pay attention to housing.

“There is no gainsaying underestimating the importance of Koch’s housing policy,” said Fernando Ferrer, Bronx Borough President from 1987-2001, who pushed hard for the plan. “Did he have to be dragged to it? Did he need a municipal scandal to make him want to do it? Yes. But he did it.” The Koch housing plan, a 10-year initiative first announced in 1986, pumped money into housing rehabilitation and construction. Crucially, Mayor David Dinkins kept at it, funding the balance of six years. The dramatic investment in housing cut short the doom loop, rebuilding the Bronx. A city’s future is never a given. Forces of entropy and rebirth, hope and despair, are always in battle.

Life is still tough in plenty of ways in the Bronx. But people and private money followed public investment such that commercial strips are bustling and housing can’t keep up with demand. The Bronx of today is unrecognizable from those desperate images of the 1970s. The people most affected forced a recovery.

“Who kept the faith here? Not the city leaders. Not the banks. Not the federal government. The people who were fighting for their neighborhood actually believed the city would rise again,” said Julie Sandorf, who worked with another community housing group, Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, in the toughest years. “And these people were the ones who bore the brunt but believed.”

In 1977, the prognosis was failure. But hardheaded people insisted the city wasn’t dead. It was their home.