October 5, 2007
In the Bronx, Blight Gave Way to Renewal
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
The cream-colored limousine pulled to a stop on Charlotte Street. It
was not so much a street but a remnant of one, lined with barren lots,
abandoned buildings and eight-foot-high piles of bulldozed bricks.
President Jimmy Carter stepped from the limousine and walked around,
his hands in his pockets, trailed by reporters, officials and Secret
One day after discussing nuclear disarmament at the United Nations,
Mr. Carter had decided to take a sudden trip to the urban slums of the
South Bronx. A stretch of Charlotte Street near Boston Road was the
motorcade's second stop of the day.
"See which areas can still be salvaged," President Carter told
Patricia Roberts Harris, the secretary of the federal Department of
Housing and Urban Development, as The New York Times reported. "Maybe
we can create a recreation area and turn it around."
The president's visit to the South Bronx on Oct. 5, 1977, was 30 years
ago today. No formal ceremonies will mark the anniversary. On
Charlotte Street these days, the tranquil rhythm of neighborhood life
is its own quiet tribute.
Walk on Charlotte Street now and you will find suburban-style ranch
houses with small yet pampered front lawns. One resident keeps a
hammock in the backyard; another dotes over his apple, pear, peach,
plum and cherry trees. Robert Mitchell, 69, a retired bus driver,
spends his days relaxing with his wife, Artie Mae Mitchell, also 69.
The framed photos on the wall over the dining table tell the story of
their lives; a plate over the kitchen sink tells the motto: "Worry is
like a rocking chair. Keeps you busy, but never gets you anywhere."
Change is the everlasting story of New York City, but few streets have
illustrated the city's capacity for destruction and rejuvenation like
Charlotte Street. On the desolate land that Mr. Carter walked 30 years
ago are houses like the Mitchells', now worth $500,000. Early one
recent evening, you could hear the sounds of a water sprinkler, birds
chirping, the low rattle of the elevated train in the distance and
Mr. Carter's visit did not revive the area by itself, but people in
the South Bronx say it created a much-needed spark and drew the
world's attention to a borough that was not only burning, as Howard
Cosell famously informed viewers during a World Series game that
October, but seemed to be dying, too.
"What I recall more than anything else was the uncertainty," said José
E. Serrano, the Bronx congressman whose district includes Charlotte
Street and who was a state assemblyman in 1977. "Of not knowing when
the building was going to burn, when the landlord was going to cut
back services, when you find yourself in a building that the landlord
totally walks away from. The housing stock was going to waste and
Charlotte Street had been a working-class Jewish enclave in the years
before World War II. By the 1970s, it was the victim of arson fires,
rampant crime, a lack of city services and abandonment and neglect by
landlords. It had almost become invisible: Part of the street was
taken off the city map in 1974 and did not reappear until a decade
later, according to the Bronx borough president's office.
It took years for an informal coalition of neighborhood activists and
clergy, community development groups and local, state and federal
officials to rebuild Charlotte Street and other areas of the South
Bronx. Thousands of residences were developed using public subsidies,
city-donated land and tax abatements.
After his trip, Mr. Carter was criticized for the slow pace of
renewal. In 1980, during his presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan
stood on Charlotte Street and said Mr. Carter had not fulfilled his
promises. Mr. Reagan was one of several political figures to use the
street as a backdrop over the years. President Clinton went there
twice: in 1997 and again in 2005.
Tour groups still visit the street. Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough
historian, often takes people there, but he has had trouble locating
the exact area on Charlotte Street near Boston Road where Mr. Carter
walked in some of the iconic photographs. There was too much rubble
and emptiness back then. "It's difficult to pinpoint a spot in the
desert," Mr. Ultan explained.
Residents on Charlotte Street have become used to living on what
amounts to one of the most popular tourist attractions in the South
Bronx. David Ramos, 20, and his brother Joshua, 16, live on Charlotte
Street with their grandparents, and in a hallway of their house they
keep a framed picture of them shaking President Clinton's hand in
1997. When Mr. Clinton returned in 2005, he wrote a message to Joshua
in a corner of the photo: "Good to see you again."
"It's hard to visualize this with no houses," David Ramos said.
"That's hard to believe."
Today, Charlotte Street feels not so much like the southern Bronx but
Long Island. Now primarily a mix of Asian, African-American and Latino
families, it is a sleepy three-blocks lined with clean sidewalks and
white-painted wrought iron fences. There are worn welcome mats at the
front doors and pink flamingo and chipmunk ornaments in the yards.
The Mitchells moved into their prefabricated house in 1985. The
single-family homes were part of the Charlotte Gardens development,
the construction of which was overseen by the South Bronx Development
Organization, an agency created by the city. The Mitchells bought
their house for $52,600 and paid off their mortgage in 11 years. They
live there with two of their four children, content and proud of their
space on historic Bronx land.
"We have the suburb in the city," Mr. Mitchell said. "And it's been
that way from day one."