The Bronx is burning and it is becoming quite hot.
But this fire is has not remained abandoned, out of control, like the schoolhouse fire did when the phrase was coined during a World Series game in 1977 — instead it is being fanned.
Circled around the metaphorical flames are young, social media mavens. You may even call them influencers, some of which weren’t even alive when rogue blazes took out large percentages of the borough, incinerating it to mere rubble. Yet, they are here now, relishing in the Bronx’s gritty rich history hoping to overturn the many labels and stereotypes it has been plagued with throughout the last three decades into a place where you may even grab brunch with your girlfriends.
The push out of Manhattan, with it’s myriad of restrictions, made Brooklyn hip and Queens a place where middle-class millennials can afford more than a studio apartment… maybe. The Bronx is still being side-eyed, still being looked upon with the same lenses since 1970. A place known for it’s crime and grime more than the birthplace of hip-hop culture.
Yet, investors and developers are looking for the next big thing, starting with the South Bronx. With planned high rises, new restaurants and a population that grew nearly one percent, the highest rate of growth in the state, the borough is becoming someplace worthy of more than just a glance.
Armed with Instagram, these young, social media presences in the Bronx are spearheading the charge. They understand the notion that the Bronx is becoming hot, because they see it in their backyard. For them, it is time to reclaim and change the Bronx label, and all the former adjectives once used to scare people away, to what they have always known it as: their home and part, if not all, of their identity. Just don’t call it a rebrand.
The Bronx Native (@TheBronxNative)
Buzzing into the Boogie Down Grind Cafe in Hunt’s Point, Amaurys Grullon placed his tripod and DSLR camera on a wooden bench across from a round table where I was seated.
“Is it okay if I record this for the vlog?” he asked. The cafe is a small space, enough for maybe five people, with a communal library box, a single espresso machine and community fliers riddled near the doorway.
His sister, Roselyn, 22, and co-founder of their shared brand Bronx Native, laughed. This scene is all too normal to her.
“He’s the social media guru,” she said.
Both born and bred in the borough, The Bronx Native grew out of a love for the Bronx and the lack of apparel on the market showcasing that feeling.
“We wanted to wear stuff that looked good and had substance to it, and we didn’t find any,” said Roselyn, who currently attends Parson’s School of Design. “So we took it upon ourselves. And we just don’t do apparel, we do media, as well.”
In 2014, Grullon, 24, began a company providing multimedia services to clientele. While he still does that, his energy may seem like it is focused on growing the Bronx Native’s following on social media.
With three posts a day and constant updates on Instagram’s story feature, Grullon is not only trying to reach out to Bronxites, but the world.
“We are trying to put the Bronx on the map,” he said. “I love that we are growing up in a time where there is kind of a boom here in the Bronx at the moment, a cultural and artistic boom, and I am happy to be part of that.”
The brother-sister pair were featured in a New York Times article titled “Rebranding the Bronx” — a noun they take issue with.
“We are not rebranding the Bronx. We are reclaiming it,” Grullon said. “We are authentic and we are going to show things how they are. I can take a picture of a garbage can, post it and be like ‘Yo, this is the Bronx,’” Grullon laughed.
Dandy in the Bronx (@DandyInTheBronx)
Diego León took the 6 train from Hunt’s Point, where he was born and raised, to New York Fashion Week this past month — full-suit and loafer-clad on the subway. He may frequent Manhattan, but he is always coming, and going back, to the Bronx.
With over 40,000 followers on Instagram, León, founder of Dandy in the Bronx, attributes his success, and other Bronx-centric accounts, to technology.
“Because of social media, creators in the Bronx now have a platform that is unfiltered, being able to tell people what is happening over here and the cool stuff we are doing,” he said.
An interest in the Bronx from outsiders may be good for his follower count, but not necessarily for his community. Gentrification and displacement of family-owned businesses is a looming concern for him.
“That’s the scary part,” he said. “We just don’t want what happened to Brooklyn to happen in the Bronx. All the people that were there don’t live there anymore.”
It is said the “hipster” figure, a caricature born out of the rapid change and emergence of trendy spots for younger New Yorkers to frequent, was born from the gentrification of Brooklyn. In the frenzy of development, families and landmark businesses were driven out. With history repeating itself, this time farther north, preparing for the behemoth of gentrification is a daunting task for influencers like León, who use the Bronx as part of their online identity, to take on.
“It is a hard balance,” he said of the effort to combat the stigma of the Bronx and it’s comparison to Brooklyn. “Social media wasn’t as strong back then in Brooklyn. People couldn’t tell their stories. But now, we can take to social media and let people know that this is happening so that their stories can’t be quelled as easy.”
Despite change on the forefront, León’s homebase is the Bronx, but his brand is global. And that, for him, is the future of the borough.
“I want to show people that a kid from the Bronx doesn’t have to be limited to the Bronx, he can go anywhere he wants to go,” Leon said.
Does he see himself ever leaving?
“I don’t want to change my Instagram handle right now,” he said, with a laugh.
The Hungry Dominican (@TheHungryDominican)
The most common complaint about Instagram is that it is filled with photos of other people’s meals — something Emmanuel Pineda, founder and content creator for The Hungry Dominican, doesn’t shy away from. His feed is entirely made up of his meals, and 17,000 people seem to enjoy it.
Pineda, a Dominican who grew up in Washington Heights moved to northern Bronx when he was 22. He was at first taken aback with how large it was. That, he said, may play a part in the many misconceptions of the borough.
“People tend to focus more on specific neighborhoods, and they focus on it in more of a negative aspect so it is easy to lose the nicer spots, the more hidden spots,” he said.
Those hidden spots is where The Hungry Dominican comes in. It was never Pineda’s intention to highlight the restaurants in the Bronx, and it still isn’t, but he found Instagram’s visual element to be a helpful tool, or better yet passport, to get people who have never been to the borough out there, saying, “the best way to do it is with food.”
In 2014, he began going into mom-and-pop restaurants around his neighborhood and taking pictures of his meals in a way to give a “shout out” to businesses only seeing the same clientele. Now, more of his influencer friends are venturing to the Bronx for a bite, something he would like to see more of and hopes his Instagram page will encourage others in the future.
“I think it is time for the Bronx to have a spotlight shined on it. There is so much potential here that is never really reached or touched because everyone is afraid of it,” Pineda said. “That whole mentality of what outside people think of the Bronx can exist in the community.”
It’s a complex issue to tackle — the culmination of stereotypes that leak down into the mindset of the people who live in the Bronx. Though, this issue, along with new outside interest, can begin to be solved with integration, according to Pineda.
“I don’t want to have Arthur Avenue feel like a different world, I want it to exist on the same plane that exists to what’s next to it, like Port Morris, Mott Haven,” he said. “I don’t want it to only be hot around certain restaurants, I want it to start spreading out.”
Born Juice (@BornJuice)
At an early age, you could find Henry Obispo crawling around his backyard garden in the Dominican Republic, gorging himself on limes. Yes, limes. His grandmother would even set up a small kitchen for him to cook scraps and make juices.
So it may have just been destiny when Obispo, founder and CEO of Born Juice, later in his life, came up with the idea for a cold press juicery in the South Bronx that would also include a space for yoga and a hydroponic garden on the roof.
Obispo immigrated to the Bronx with his family after a short stint in Washington Heights when he was 7 years old. And though, throughout his life, many things have taken him away from the Bronx, he holds it close to his heart.
After graduating with a master’s degree from New York University, Obispo was on the path to getting his Ph.D and JD in the next semester when he questioned himself, and instead ended up moving to Brazil for three years to study entrepreneurship.
“After having been in Rio, coming back to the Bronx, I saw the Bronx with a very different focus. I saw a place that was very much in need,” he said.
He then immersed himself in community work, attempting to really understand the intricacies of gentrification and outside motivators, like stereotypes, impacting the borough’s growth.
“We are deserving of having quality here,” Obispo said. “And one thing i say often is that health should be democratized. And healthy eating is a birthright.”
Obispo’s following on social media may be small, but he is a well-known figure in the South Bronx. He was the head of a business initiative awarded a $100,000 grant from NYCEDC to implement healthy alternatives in restaurants in the South Bronx. He also calls himself a “Bronx Ambassador” on his Instagram page.
“Whenever I spoke of the Bronx, there would be cringe-effect. That has led me to analyze a lot. There are 1.5 million people living here, you can associate that to 1.5 million people,” Obispo said. “So I would just play it up.”
Being an advocate for a borough haunted with descriptors like “ghetto” is a chance for Obispo, and others, to change the narrative of the Bronx, one they see more fitting for the community they’ve found here.
“I feel like we have been branded,” he said. “We have never been able to do it ourselves. People are looking at us a little more, so now we can reclaim it.”