DATELINE: NEW YORK

Life after 'Fort Apache, the Bronx’

Rita Christopher June 15 1981
DATELINE: NEW YORK

Life after 'Fort Apache, the Bronx’

Rita Christopher June 15 1981

Life after 'Fort Apache, the Bronx’

DATELINE: NEW YORK

Rita Christopher

German visitors now take guided bus tours of the area, smugly selfsatisfied that the destruction the United States has wrought on one of its own cities in peacetime equals the wartime bombings of Dresden. And last summer, delegates to the Democratic National Convention toured the burned-out blocks so they could return to the small towns of the South and the Midwest with the macho boast that they had seen the violent streets, if only behind the domes of a sightseeing coach.

Ever since former president Jimmy Carter stood in the rubble of Charlotte Street four years ago, the South Bronx has become a pre-eminent international symbol of urban devastation. Moreover, what incessant media hype rendered a household word, Hollywood has now immortalized in Fort Apache, the Bronx, a violent testimonial to life in New York City’s 41st police precinct.

The only trouble is that Fort Apache is at least five years out of date, as are most of the preconceptions of the decline and fall of civilization in the Bronx, one of the five boroughs that make up New York City. Things are so quiet at Fort Apache these days that the officers of the 41st have taken to calling their station house “the little house on the Prairie,” a tacit acknowledgment not only of a 65-per-cent drop in the crime rate, but also of the acres of deserted, brick-strewn lots that ring the station house, making it appear like an outpost on a deserted plain.

^ I ^ /lings are so quiet A at Fort Apache these days that the officers of the 41st call their station house uthe little house on the Prairie999

“The kind of image of a fire-ravaged South Bronx that you get in Fort Apache really belongs to the late ’60s and early ’70s, during a period of great general social upheaval in civil rights demonstrations and Vietnam War protests,” says Bob Williams, an aide to Bronx Borough President Stanley Simon. “It simply doesn’t reflect the scene in the South Bronx today.” Adds an irate Simon, whose roots in the Bronx go back to the small candy store his father owned: “What a cheap shot that movie was. Chicago and Detroit have much worse sections than the South Bronx, but you don’t see anyone making movies about them, do you?”

Even if ceaseless arson is no longer a critical problem for the South Bronx, the powerful negative image those days created most certainly is. “When I say I live in the Bronx, the first thing people do is gasp and ask me whether my street is burned out,” says Linda LoSchiavo who, with her husband, Joe, bought a house in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx 4'/2 years ago.

“People come up here expecting to see the entire borough in ruins, as though the South Bronx were the whole Bronx,” complains Irmgard Lukmann of the Bronx County Historical Society. “We are trying to turn that image around.” The group’s efforts include beating the drum for such well-known attractions as the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, as well as organizing walking tours of lesserknown landmarks such as the Van Cortlandt Mansion, where both British and American forces made headquarters at different times during the Revolutionary War of 1776.

Still, beyond its historical monuments and its parks (which cover a full 23 per cent of its area) the Bronx is a borough of neighborhoods, where loyalty to “the block” and to ethnic identity have stubbornly resisted the centripetal forces of amalgamation. From the towers of Co-Op City, a middleincome housing development rising almost surrealistically on the landfill at the edge of Pelham Bay, and the tightly knit Italian community that surrounds Arthur Avenue, to determinedly suburban Riverdale, Bronxites habitually answer questions about where they live with the name of their particular enclave rather than the borough.

Affluent Riverdale, to be sure, retains a decidedly standoffish attitude toward the rest of the Bronx. Commuters in proper Madison Avenue mufti teschew graffiti-covered subways to ride to Manhattan on the Conrail commuter line along with their spiritual peers from Scarsdale and Greenwich. “I always tell people I live in Riverdale,” says lawyer-turned-writer John J. Osborn, the author of Paper Chase. “I never even knew it was part of the Bronx until I took my bar exam.” Osborn’s confusion is understandable. He lives in the gatehouse of a 50-acre estate that looks like suburban Connecticut, a reminder of the time at the turn of the century when affluent city dwellers bought country houses in remote, woodsy sections of the Bronx.

Local pride persists as stubbornly as neighborhood identity, albeit a bit on the defensive after the tidal waves of negative publicity. “I’ve been living in the Bronx for 30 years, raised five children here near Mosholu Parkway, and nobody can tell me this wasn’t a good place to bring them up,” says Irmgard Lukmann.

Still, for all the brave words, no one would confuse the Bronx’s main shopping area along Fordham Road, with its cut-rate shops and discount banners in English and Spanish, with Beverly Hills’s Rodeo Drive. And the borough’s ancient housing stock is now both decrepit and depressing. Recently released U.S. census statistics show the Bronx lost more housing units in the past decade than any other comparable section of the country. With a minority population estimated at between 60 and 70 per cent, many of whom lack basic education and technical skills, the Bronx suffers chronic problems of high unemployment along with the demoralization, family disruption and delinquency that joblessness engenders. A palpable air of hopelessness hangs over many of the borough’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods, where life very often seems reduced to a grim struggle just to survive.

The social decline mirrors the Bronx’s political decline. Once Bronx politicians were powerful figures on the national political scene, when county leader Ed Flynn was a Roosevelt crony and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Today, local politicos have to fight even to get their voices heard at city hall. “We aren’t given half a chance in this city,” complains Jean Pops, secretary to former Bronx Borough president Herman Badillo. Congressman Robert Garcia, who represents the South Bronx, laments, “The Bronx doesn’t have anything like the national clout it had in Ed Flynn’s days.”

Despite its obvious problems, Garcia, along with many other Bronx residents, sees better times coming. Although Jimmy Carter’s grandiose plans to build a large subsidized housing complex on Charlotte Street were ultimately vetoed as unrealistic by New York City officials, Borough President Simon points with pride to the 10,000 new housing units constructed in the past two years. Real estate developers have begun renovation of once-proud areas such as the Grand Concourse, a wide boulevard bordered by apartments noted for their elaborate art deco facades. “I know a lot of people who grew up in the Bronx who swear that if the area is rebuilt they want to come back,” says lawyer Marlene Cintron, a South Bronx native who chose to remain in the borough.

In fact, with skyrocketing interest rates and even higher energy costs, a renovated brownstone in the Bronx may well become a more realistic dream for some couples than the traditional suburban split-level. “One of the advantages of living in an older neighborhood like the Bronx is the services you have,” says urban homesteader Joe LoSchiavo. “We have great transportation—both buses and subways—and all the other little things you need: delicatessens, laundromats, shoe repair shops. In some of these newer areas you can find cute little shops that sell quiche and salad, but if you want to have your shoes fixed, forget it—you have to go to New Jersey.”

At least Bronx dwellers won’t have to go far for a taste of highbrow entertainment. While the cultural apogee of the streets is disco blaring 24 hours a day from a shoulder-strap radio, residents will be able to find less noisy fare at the new $5-million art complex at Lehman College, a unit of the City University of New York. The centre promises performances of Broadway shows and appearances by major symphony orchestras and ballet companies.

Even more than a memorable pas de deux, however, the Bronx needs enough jobs to break the cycle of poverty that has trapped many of its subsistencelevel residents. Congressman Garcia, a liberal Democrat, has teamed with upstate Buffalo Congressman Jack Kemp, a conservative Republican with his eyes on New York’s gubernatorial election next year, to propose “enterprise zones” for the South Bronx. The two congressmen, usually on opposite sides of the political fence, are united in the belief that their plan, offering tax breaks and federal incentives for private businesses that would locate in the specially designated areas, holds the promise of desperately needed jobs for the South Bronx. However, the Reagan administration budget cuts endanger not only tax incentives but much federal aid for the South Bronx.

Nonetheless, as much as tax breaks and federal programs, Congressman Garcia places his hopes for the future in the drive and ambition of his constituents. “You always hear about the bad,” he says, “but do you hear about Mr. Torres, a bartender who has put one son through law school and has another who wants to go to medical school? Or the South Bronx woman whose daughter is No. 1 in her class at nursing school? We can build the Bronx up again,” he adds, his voice reflecting both his determination and the weariness of constantly battling the odds. “It’s all achievable—or else why am I spending my days working my tail off?”