A CONTESTED SPACE
The Melrose District
Step off the train at the 3rd Avenue and 149 Street subway station, walk towards the sound of stereos blasting, and step into The Hub. Attracting more than 200,000 people daily, The Hub is the busiest part of Bronx and the second busiest in NYC, following Times Square. The Hub is located one of the oldest, most densely populated, and poorest neighborhoods in the South Bronx: The Melrose District.
In the 1930s, The Hub was called the Broadway of the Bronx for its Opera House and theaters; but in 2017, the Hub is sonically a completely different world — the beats of popular rap and Puerto Rican music spill into the streets. It’s like a kaleidoscope of sound. Throughout all of the neighborhood’s changes, music has continued to play — especially in times of hardship, such as during the 1970s, when The Hub became a symbol of crime, addiction, and urban decay. The associated stigma came to define the neighborhood, exacerbating the City’s neglect, but to the people who call it home, it is greatly underappreciated. If anything, the problems they have faced have led to greater innovation. Today, investment from the Third Avenue Business Improvement campaign is beginning to transform The Hub into a place that resonates more with the community.
Several central institutions, each with rich histories, anchor the Melrose district: the Firehouse for Engine 41, the Immaculate Conception church and school, the community garden, and more recently, the Bronx Documentary Center. These institutions have served the local community as it has struggled to survive the consequences of the city’s disinvestment. Spaces for neighbors to gather have to be protected, created, and maintained, as space becomes increasingly contested and policy more divisive — belonging more uncertain. Despite the Melrose District having the largest concentration of public housing (NYCHA housing projects) in the Bronx and limited green spaces, it is still a target for gentrification due to rising property values in nearby Harlem and other parts of New York City.
No matter what happens, one person who has stayed and will stay in the Melrose District is Marty Rogers — who, born in 1955, has lived his entire life on the same block: 151st and Courtlandt Avenue. Located just a few blocks outside of the Hub’s main intersection, the street Marty lives on has been integral to the community’s survival, especially in times when major budget cuts have directly threatened the neighborhood’s safety.
Almost any day, Marty can be found on the block — from teaching students in the community garden to enjoying a cup of coffee with the firemen at Firehouse Engine 41 before they are called out to the next fire. Marty’s activism is well documented in the neighborhood, perhaps most notably through the present-day existence of the Firehouse 41, which by organizing community based protests and prayer vigils, he helped save from permanent closure in 1989.
Today, the firehouse continues to be a source of pride and hope among neighborhood residents. Firemen from Engine 41 often take an active role in supporting kids and elderly on the block who have access to limited social services. Such engagement is necessary for the community’s moral, for the city’s decision to close the firehouse in a neighborhood that was already threatened by arson implicitly suggested that to outsiders, nothing there was worth protecting. The developments that the city has supported, such as a juvenile detention center, additional public housing complexes (without the needs of existing projects), and industrial activity, do not benefit existing residents. In response to the City’s lack of accountability and transparency, people from the neighborhood have created community based advocacy organizations, such as South Bronx Rising Together, to voice their concerns. For instance, as housing developments continue to be built, the City has started testing the soil for toxins after protest movements led the City to be publicly sued for building a Bronx school complex on contaminated land in 2012.
Yet, as new housing projects are slated for development, housing vacancy continues to deter potential investors and compromise the block’s walkability. Fear of crime, the presence of drug activity, and infrastructural neglect is felt: police cars frequent the corner, shoes dangle from telephone wire, and abandoned furniture lines broken sidewalks. Yet, facing these challenges for decades, Marty’s block has been a testament to the block’s strength.
While entire square blocks in other neighborhoods were reduced to rubble in the 1970s, only one building on Marty’s block burnt down. During this period, landlord instigated arson and rising heroin use prompted residents who had invested their lives in the community to leave. Consequently, property values decreased and deserted buildings became shooting galleries that attracted squatters. Furthermore, a sense of insecurity became almost inescapable after stores were looted during the 1977 blackout. That night, Marty watched what was the unimaginable from his bedroom window.
To Marty, it was as if the City had given up on them. The City’s failure to guarantee residents sanitation, police, fire, and access to safe, green spaces, could not be ignored, especially following the blackout. The shock of seeing stores broken into and looted in The Hub was so disturbing to Marty that it actually catalyzed him to be an advocate for public services and to address the neighborhood’s problems from the ground up.
Marty saw the building that had burned down and become an overgrown empty lot, as a wilderness — not a wasteland. With the help of the community, Marty appealed to the City for the right to transform what had become this symbolic wound into a community garden space for the neighborhood. And, after years of tedious paperwork, they won.
Today the block stands out as a place where members of the community can gather: to garden, to exercise, to worship, to see and study documentary photography. Since Marty first cultivated the space, he has brought hundreds of schoolchildren, as well as people who are physically and developmentally disabled, into the garden. Fostering a respect for the connection between one’s physical and mental well-being with the health of the neighborhood and environment, Marty has also found his own healing in the garden, when ultimately, he cannot control what happens in the neighborhood.
The garden is one way Marty can connect to what has been lost in the neighborhood, for when he was growing up, the South Bronx was still a thriving community. In fact, Marty recalls how his mother’s family actually moved to the South Bronx from the Upper East Side, because the South Bronx was then seen as a spacious step-up from Manhattan. It is hard to reconcile that fact with the reality that today, 65 percent of children from the neighborhood are born into poverty.
Although crime rates have fallen to historic lows throughout the city, the block continues to experience crime. In 2017, crime rose the sharpest in the Melrose District (the 40th Precinct) of any other precinct throughout the city, for the second year in a row. In 2016, Courtlandt Avenue was a particularly dangerous area — about 10 shootings took place there. In response, Marty has partnered with local organizations and befriended the local commanding officer, Deputy Brian Hennessy, with the hope to build trust and to improve safety by engaging more with the community . Yet, preventing future crime is difficult, especially because many of the neighborhood’s residents fear reporting it, due to fears of retaliation or deportation.
As one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in New York City, the only certainty is that The Melrose District will become increasingly contested as its promise becomes more visible and the voices and stories of its residents, known. As for Marty, he continues to plant seeds in the garden — regardless of what the harvest will bring.