August 8, 2004
The Last Empty Lot
By SETH KUGEL
Frank Rodriguez with his father, Angel, and his son, François, overlooking the neighborhood's last big vacant lot.
IN the late 60's, as a serious-looking, dark-eyed child, Frank Rodriguez used to climb up to the roof of his family's three-story walk-up at 911 Bruckner Boulevard in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx and fly his kite. Alone at the top of his little world, away from his parents and two brothers, he watched as the kite soared over the rooftops of apartment buildings dense with Jewish, Irish and Puerto Rican families.
Within a decade, that view would be transformed. Virtually all of the surrounding apartment buildings burned down in the late 1970's, leaving a one-acre site, bounded by Southern Boulevard, the Bruckner Expressway and Tiffany and Barretto Streets, empty except for a few buildings and private houses like the Rodriguezes'. And what took place on the block was taking place throughout the neighborhood.
"It just emptied out overnight," said Mr. Rodriguez, a postal worker who lives with his 7-year-old son, his parents and a large extended family in the house where he grew up. "I guess we stayed because my dad bought this house for future generations. He saw a future. He wanted his kids and grandkids to have something to look back on."
The neighborhood has traveled far since those grim days when the population of the community district that embraces Hunts Point and neighboring Longwood plummeted to 35,378 in 1980 from 96,042 in 1970. Starting in the 1980's, the population began creeping back, and statistical measurements of everything from the number of high school graduates to the number of owner-occupied buildings reflect the area's more robust social and economic health.
Now, the largest empty lot remaining in Hunts Point, the one that Mr. Rodriguez can see from the roof of his family home, will soon be the site of what is billed as the neighborhood's last major rebuilding project. If it succeeds, it will be a striking capstone to the Hunts Point resurgence.
The project is known as Tiffany Gardens, and the Southeast Bronx Community Organization, which under its charismatic leader, the Rev. Louis R. Gigante, developed 3,000 units of housing since it started in 1968, is poised to break ground on the $14 million development as early as next month. The seven-story complex of red brick buildings, nearly the length of a football field, will contain 105 units of low- and middle-income housing, paid for by a combination of public and private money.
Some 18 years after Sebco gained control of the site, final approval for the project was granted in June by the state's Housing Finance Authority. The first residents could move in a year from this fall.
The prospect of imminent construction on this site is perhaps the most visible and dramatic sign that Hunts Point is turning the page on a tumultuous time in its history. But there are other fresh signs of rebirth. Last fall, the long-troubled Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association got a new executive director, restoring its role as a major player in the neighborhood's development. Concrete plans are also falling into place for the two other big remaining lots in this community district, both on Prospect Avenue in Longwood. The city has hired a construction company to build 193 mixed-income apartments on one site and is moving ahead with plans for another 100 apartments on the second.
Hunts Point has made gains on other fronts: with thriving institutions like The Point Community Development Corporation and the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, it has become a focal point for culture in the South Bronx. But it is housing - everything from old buildings rescued from the dead to single-family row houses to new apartment buildings for low-income families and the elderly - that has transformed the physical and demographic landscape.
The transformation has had its bumps and backsliding, and much work lies ahead. But for families like the Rodriguezes, who have lived amid blight for so long, nothing so powerfully encapsulates the changes as the view outside their window.
The World of the Lot
The vacant lot is not all you can see from the roof of the Rodriguezes' building. Beyond it, near St. Athanasius Roman Catholic Church, is a beautiful park, and a street blocked off for children to play. The Hunts Point branch library across the street, a red brick building modeled after a Florentine palace, had a face-lift three years ago. But the lot remains both an eyesore and a stirrer of memories.
Frank Rodriguez's father, Angel Rodriguez, now 74, recalls the candy store that used to stand on the site and the Jewish friends from down the block who patronized it. "Now people come and throw trash like it was a garbage can," he said. "They even bring their dogs to do their business."
The nearly two decades of false starts on the Tiffany Gardens site are illustrative of how things have gone for Hunts Point. Even Sebco had no master plan. Instead, developers built whatever housing government money would finance, which at first were the one- and two-family houses that became the hallmark of the South Bronx rebirth.
Some people argue that such housing creates a false suburban feel and prevented the neighborhood's population from expanding to the levels it reached in 1970. Others disagree.
"In the mid-1980's under Mayor Koch, the city embarked on a very aggressive, and seminal, housing plan to reconstruct communities that a lot of people wrote off," said Jerilyn Perine, until recently the city's commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. "There was all this vacant land, and there was real concern: could you build a multiple dwelling and would anyone move in?"
So houses were built, and for the most part the approach worked. The ultimate test may have come in 2002, when the batch of Sebco homes next to St. Athanasius that were built in 1987 became eligible to be resold for the first time. The agency, concerned about who might move in, carefully monitored the prices.
"Then we found out how much people were getting," said Phil Foglia, Sebco's executive vice president. With houses going for around $250,000 apiece, the agency stopped worrying about the caliber of buyers. People willing to pay a quarter of a million dollars to live in the South Bronx were hardly a problem.
Who's Crazy Now?
A few blocks from the big vacant lot sits an even older set of well-kept red brick row houses, the sort you might see in Queens. In the third house from the end live Francisco and Mitzia Mendez, part of what might be called the "Are you crazy?" generation.
In the early 1980's, the Mendezes were living in Soundview, just north of Hunts Point. Raising a son and a daughter in a neighborhood where shootouts were common, they were eager to leave, but Mr. Mendez, who drove a cab, and his wife, who managed a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, were caught in a financial Catch-22: too rich to qualify for rent subsidies in Manhattan and too poor to make a market-rate down payment on a house in the tranquil north Bronx.
One day in 1982, they noticed construction on a long-devastated block of Tiffany Street, and asked a workman what was going on. After a $500 application to Sebco and a $3,000 down payment on a $51,000 row house, they were South Bronx homeowners, much to the dismay of people like Ms. Mendez's late father. "When I told my father I bought a house here," Ms. Mendez said, "he said: 'Are you crazy? That's the worst of the Bronx.' ''
He changed his mind when he saw the couple's spacious three-bedroom house with a basement and a backyard, perfect for barbecuing. Then living in Florida, he began to spend every vacation in the Bronx, and after a year, he announced to his daughter, "I feel like I'm in Long Island."
Residents coped with problems by being organized. When backyards flooded, they banded together and got the builders to address the matter. Because a lot across the street attracted drug dealers and prostitutes who plied their trade in the overgrowth, they got the grass cut and formed a block watch.
This was no utopia. Some residents could not keep up with the payments and lost their homes. But the Mendezes, who eventually hope to sell their house and retire to Florida, are content. "We're sitting on gold," Ms. Mendez said, "our little gold pot."
Not every family is happy. Around 1990, the Tiffany Co-ops went up in the lot across from the Mendezes', and Robert Morales, who has lived there with his mother since the buildings were completed, is miserable.
Mr. Morales, a 49-year-old supervisor at an independent living facility for the elderly, purchased the apartment for $90,000, and in his opinion the money bought many problems - with the roof, the plumbing, the sewers - that he and other residents say took years to get fixed. "I used to live in Manhattan," he said. "I love Manhattan. I regret coming here."
Mr. Morales was a recruit from outside the neighborhood. But Hunts Point is also populated by residents who made national headlines a couple of decades back for refusing to leave the neighborhood and successfully pressuring the city to let them take over the buildings that remained.
José Madrigal, a 58-year-old who raised five children in the area, four of whom still live in the Bronx, was one of the original homesteaders of Kelly Street, a few blocks west of the vacant lot where Tiffany Gardens will rise. In 1978 he was part of a group that bought three four-story buildings for a total of $21,000. They did so with the help of the Banana Kelly Housing Development Fund Corporation, which would beget the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, a group that would eventually rehab more than 1,200 apartments in the South Bronx.
He has reaped the benefits. Because the buildings were then gutted, original residents like Mr. Madrigal had a lot of say in the design of their apartments. As his family grew, he worked on a sweat-equity project on nearby Fox Street, and ended up with a six-bedroom apartment there, making him one of the exotic species of middle-class New Yorkers who have a separate bedroom for each of their five children. The construction company he owns recently moved into office space in one of the Kelly Street buildings, and one of Mr. Madrigal's sons, Daniel, is president of its co-op board, and lives in a three-bedroom duplex with an office and a gym.
The Shift to Private Hands
Throughout the first 15 years of the Hunts Point revival, the city depended mostly on nonprofit groups, determined residents and itself to improve the local housing stock. But in 1994, with the city in charge of more than 44,000 apartments citywide, a disproportionate number of them in Hunts Point, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani established the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program, which offered low-interest financing to encourage private developers to take over and improve clusters of buildings.
The program eased the city out of the landlord business and introduced a new, for-profit element into the mix of developers. Krislen Management, once solely a management company, had tried to buy buildings in Hunts Point before, but only under the new program could it get the necessary financing.
The first cluster the company acquired were four apartment buildings on Longfellow and Lafayette Avenues, toward the more industrial side of Hunts Point. The buildings were in terrible shape, so much of a magnet for crack users and dealers that some residents defended themselves from desperate addicts by chasing them off the premises with baseball bats. Residents also tried to keep the prostitutes from soliciting nearby, sometimes by standing on roofs and throwing bricks at them.
Over two years, Krislen worked aggressively to remove tenants who were disorderly or failed to pay rent. After many evictions, including those of about 20 tenants in a 77-unit building, it began to gut its holdings, creating new floor plans according to the needs of residents who were staying: large families got big apartments, small families got smaller ones.
These days, tenants talk about prompt response by maintenance workers, clean hallways and the annual Christmas party. The buildings got a boost when an industrial building arose on a vacant lot across the street, and when a half-block of brick row houses were built on Longfellow Avenue. Just last month, after years of community pressure, new truck routes were established that local residents say will reduce the nuisance and danger of truck traffic to the Hunts Point Terminal.
Patches of the Old
Hunts Point is still not a beautiful neighborhood; its industrial feel, and smells, endure. Crime and poverty remain gnawing problems, as do prostitution and drug use, although residents generally agree that both used to be worse. And many people believe that living so close to an industrial area causes health problems, especially asthma.
Typical of the troubled buildings that remain is 833 Longfellow Avenue. The landlord never agreed to sell the building to the city, leaving it as the only unrenovated building on the block, surrounded now by new brick townhouses and the pleasantly painted Krislen buildings.
While the Krislen buildings have no outstanding building violations, 833 Longfellow has 10, dating to 1993. Unlike the Krislen buildings, the five-story structure has an outside door that rarely locks, and there is no working intercom. Three current and former residents say the power goes out a few times a year.
Although some residents had no complaints, others did. When Jose Santa Rosa has to locate his building to visitors, he simply says, "Just look for the building that's the trashiest," he tells people.
The landlord, Mildred Tirado, acknowledged that her building is old, but said all 25 units were "livable" and repairs are being done little by little. She blames neighborhood youths and drug dealers for breaking the locks, which she said she has fixed repeatedly. As for cockroaches, she said she came herself with the exterminator each month. "I'm here all the time," she said. "I try to meet the needs of all my tenants." Much more remains to be done in Hunts Point, especially as additional land becomes available. Sebco would like to get its hands on a building, on the edge of the big lot, that is now occupied by a Dominican social club that owes considerable back taxes. Some people would like to see the city reclaim the environmentally questionable plots of land known as brownfields that are abundant in the area. Six buildings owned by Banana Kelly are still being rehabilitated.
But the "farms," as some used to call the neighborhood's overgrown vacant lots, are gone, and with them most of the rats. There is something almost quaint about new arrivals complaining about cockroaches on the same streets where boys threw bricks at street walkers 20 years earlier.
In the eyes of many, the new and diverse housing stock is sending a ringing message, that people raised in the community are willing and even eager to stay. The Mendezes, for example, have only one complaint. "The only terrible thing is, your children never leave," Ms. Mendez said. The couple's two grown children, 29 and 26, still live with them. They have tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade their parents to take early retirement to Florida and leave them the house.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company