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NYT: In the Bronx, Blight Gave Way to Renewal

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/05/nyregion/05charlotte.html October 5, 2007 In the Bronx, Blight Gave Way to Renewal By MANNY FERNANDEZ The cream-colored
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 5, 2007
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/05/nyregion/05charlotte.html
      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
      Service agents.

      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
      little else.

      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
      abandon."

      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."
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