Inspired by the essay “Life and Death in West Virginia“ by Christa Parravani for my class English 404 Creative Nonfiction.
In the Spring of 1971, I walked through abandoned streets of the South Bronx with a friend, each of us with a folding knife in our pockets. I’m not sure why the knives. A folding knife wouldn’t protect us if a monster junkie suddenly jumped out of one of those lost empty tenements and attacked us with a gun, desperate for a fix and willing to do whatever was necessary to fend off the shakes. In my junkie days, I never thought of using a gun or a knife. I was more like the silent thief kind of junkie. Steal from family or aid and abet the strong-arm purse snatch or someone else breaking into an apartment to steal a cigar box of pennies. But this was the early seventies in the South Bronx, and anyone who bothered to look could see that something was happening. The earth was shaking, buildings were being abandoned, and the slow-burning fires would eventually turn into a torrent of arson-fueled hysteria and urban removal. All we would remember today was the broken glass of crushed dreams and the hopes left behind.
Before white flight and landlords took a torch to their tenants’ homes, the South Bronx that I remember in the fifties and sixties was a working-class refuge of Italian, Irish, Jewish, Black, and predominately Puerto Rican families. Dilapidated tenement buildings were torn down and replaced with modern public housing. Six, twelve-story, and eventually twenty-one-story buildings where lower-middle and low-income families were given a chance to build new lives after their trek north from the south or Caribbean countries. Like every group that came before them, they wanted what everyone wanted, a good home and job, a safe place to bring up their families, and an education to give their children a chance to succeed in the quickly changing world of the latter half of the twentieth century. For my mother and father, it was that simple. New York, specifically the South Bronx, was the birthing place of that vision. Work and learn hard; the whole world could be at your fingertips.
I was born in 1948 in the old Lincoln Hospital that would later be called unaffectionately The Butchershop. Through the fifties and sixties, the neighborhoods we called home were first Mott Haven, in the southernmost section of the Bronx, a collection of industrial warehouses, older tenement buildings, newer public housing like the Patterson Houses where we lived, and the bustling hub of 149th Street and Third and Westchester Avenue. Inside that oyster of our neighborhood, our entire world existed. Catholic school, stickball in the streets, and shopping at A&P, Hearns, and Alexander’s department stores.
We would move in 1964 to the John Adam Houses further north and east of the Patterson Houses but still in the South Bronx. This time, we were in a twenty-one-story building. A high rise in the sky across from the Catholic Church where my father was the usher for the Spanish mass on Sundays. Everything seemed right in the world until it was shattered by the reality of poverty, drugs, rebellion in the streets of New York, and sons being sent off to war.
I just went about my business of being a teenager, going to school out of my district in the northern section of the Bronx with the world outside beginning to impinge our daily reality. Civil Rights marches, anti-Vietnam war protests, the Black Panther and Young Lords Parties, and the creeping smell of deaths from the panic caused by Heroin.
From 1967-1971, my world of the South Bronx and the New York around it went from the idealistic illusion that it was all going to be all right to a nightmare of crumbing lives and buildings and crime and despair and wondering how we retrieve what we thought we once had. When I permanently left the Bronx and New York in September 1971, I saw only the broken promises and the broken glass (often literally) that had begun to accumulate in the streets and the lives of those I left behind. Then, the South Bronx quickly became a symbol of urban decay, and the crushed hopes of people’s futures.
Over the subsequent years, the fires burned, Hip-hop was birthed, and many people refused to give up on themselves and their neighbors. In recent years, I’ve been, I admit, startled by rumblings of gentrification around the southernmost tip of the Bronx. Luxury buildings, high-rise affordable housing units, cafes, and appeals for a better life. Those appeals still clash with the reality of poverty and the fears that more gentrification will bring.
It is an old story: the desire for change and a chance for people to live in dignity clashing with the nightmare of being pushed out of the neighborhood where families have lived for decades in poverty and hopelessness. The path forward is littered with the broken glass of nightmarish visions with no hope to a dream where idealism and empowerment are the drivers of progress. In the end, as always, it will come down to the vision of urban planners, the political decisions of elected officials, and the treasury holders that fund that vision. You can only wish that those who live in the South Bronx will have a voice in that vision, but experience tells us it will not happen. That is unless the people of the South Bronx make it happen.