Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Back Story / The Cross-Bronx Expressway
The South Bronx showed signs of distress from the thirties onwards: disinvestment, the loss of industry, ethnic tensions, and an absence of owner-occupied housing each exerted an adverse influence. With the forties and fifties came the clustering of low-income, racially segregated housing in already fading neighborhoods; the precipitous influx of poor Southern blacks and Puerto Ricans, a heroin epidemic, an increase in gang violence, and the proliferation of cheap suburban houses to speed the departure of the white middle class. And as Marshall Berman argues, the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway from 1948 to 1963 turned problems into pathologies, to all but seal the fate of the area.
What became the South Bronx after the war was a series of boom neighborhoods before it: Mott Haven, Melrose, Morrisania, and Hunts Point-Crotona Park East had all been swallowed by the grid by the 1920s, and welcomed upwardly mobile Jews escaping the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  But as fast as the district swelled, its middle class residents found incentives to move on, including new transit lines that tied the city to areas farther north in the 1920s, and the simultaneous shift of Bronx civic and cultural life westward to the lower Grand Concourse.
Those of means began to move, while working-class families stayed behind, to be joined by a culturally distinct and generally poorer wave of Puerto Ricans and African Americans whose numbers steadily rose throughout the forties. 
Buildings languished as capital shifted to the suburbs. The few new structures built in the 1930s, including a community health center and a sewage treatment plant, did little to enhance neighborhood prestige. And by 1940, local banks and federal lenders alike had redlined the entire South Bronx, which came to be known as the poorest, oldest, and least fashionable section of the borough. Sixty-six percent of relief cases were concentrated there, and the Bronx Board of Trade recommended the area for three of four proposed low-rent public housing projects, thus cementing its reputation as a new slum. 
“By the 1940’s,” Evelyn Gonzalez concludes, “the South Bronx no longer met middle class expectations.” People aspired to own their homes, but in the South Bronx, rental apartments comprised ninety percent of all dwellings, and wartime rent controls (which remained in place for decades after) dissuaded tenants from becoming landlords. Instead of anchoring families, therefore, the neighborhoods seemed designed to promote transiency. 
Directly north of Morrisania, the East Tremont neighborhood marked the informal boundary line between slums and not-slums. With corroding pipes and few elevators, its housing was not the best in the city, but for the quality of its schools, parks, and recreation centers; the neighborhood “had held” in the forties against the forces at work to its west and south, and this in spite of having rents as low as the Lower East Side or Harlem. While the southern neighborhoods experienced a steady population transfer in the 1940s, trading Jews for African Americans and Puerto Ricans, East Tremont diversified, retaining much of its existing population while absorbing newcomers slowly and, as some argue, successfully. In Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974), Cele Cohen, a former resident of East Tremont recalls, “We used to have negro children over for dinner, and they used to have my daughter over. To tell the truth, we didn’t think that way—you know, the way it is now—then.” 
Whether all white residents were as gracious is doubtful, but through interviews with former residents, Robert Caro makes a strong case that “the neighborhood was holding just fine,” and in fact provided a crucial service to the city as an “urban staging area,” where migrants new to city life could transition within the framework of a stable, ethnically diverse community.  Contrast this to the high-rise public housing built after the war, which served to informally segregate the poorest New Yorkers from the city’s civic and cultural life. “If the city was going to endure,” Caro argues, neighborhoods like East Tremont were going to have to endure. And if left alone, this neighborhood would.” 
Sadly, we will never know, for a destructive force not rivaled by any to come before it was due to arrive, or rather fall on top of, East Tremont in 1948: the Cross-Bronx Expressway. And whereas the neighborhood’s pre-exisitng troubles were the fault of no one and everyone at once—brought on by cultural and racial attitudes, disinvestment, and age—the proposal to dig a six-lane wide, seven-mile long ditch through the heart of the borough was a deliberate plan “made finally on all levels of government, to sacrifice the poor and middle class, the communities in change as well as the stable communities of the mid-Bronx, to the arrogant dreams of engineers, politicians, and real estate developers.” 
The mastermind behind the Cross-Bronx was City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses, who conceived of it as a way to remove through traffic from the city's narrow and congested streets by connecting the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge in the east with the George Washington Bridge over the Harlem River in the west. To do so, the expressway would need to burrow through miles of high-density streets, sewers, water and utility mains “numbering in the hundreds,” a subway line, three railroads, and five elevated transit lines.  But as ambitious, as Faustian, as the expressway plan may have been, it was only one of several cross-city super-roads on Moses' drafting table in the mid-forties which, all told, would graft “more than a hundred miles” of asphalt onto the urban grid. Moses biographer Robert Caro helps to put the scope of the thing in perspective: “...lump together all the superhighways in existence in the all the cities on earth in 1945, and their mileage would not add up to as many miles as Robert Moses was planning to build in one city.” 
Moses first publicized the plan in the February-March 1944 edition of Bronxboro, the magazine of the Bronx Board of Trade. A year later, in the same paper, he proclaimed that “its effects on the borough will be enormous, and few people outside the public officials involved can visualize the future which these and other postwar improvements will usher in.” 
But in Bronx neighborhoods where few families owned cars, where subways, buses, and leg muscles “defined the flow of [people's] lives,” the future must have felt like a steamroller crushing heads. Gotham's Dr. Faust understood as much, and even delighted in the dramatic spectacle of worlds collapsing. “When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis,” he would later say, “you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” 
When a route was chosen in 1944, a route through blocks of solid apartment buildings, the expressway plan was met with vocal resistance in the neighborhoods that lined its future path. Over thirty civic, religious, and veterans' organizations united to form the “Cross-Bronx Citizens' Protective Association” in early 1946, and rallied around the issue of New York's housing shortage, which land clearance for the road would only exacerbate.  “Instead of homes,” the group argued, “our public officials are cramming highways down the throats of our veterans.” 
In East Tremont, the first eviction notices arrived in December, 1952. With “no funding in sight,” and no legal powers of enforcement, Moses ordered tenants to vacate within ninety days, “to shake'em up a little and get'em moving,” as one staffer recalls. And with county, city, state, and federal officials all in bed with Moses, most residents felt that they had no recourse. Most began to move. A steady stream of eviction notices masquerading as court orders helped to expedite the process, so that by 1955, all the buildings to which the city had taken title stood empty. 
Staffed by friends of Moses, the city's Real Estate Bureau was appointed to relocate tenants “in an orderly manner,”but did virtually nothing save to scare its charges away with the issue of imperious letters and the withdrawal of services. When 159 East Tremont buildings were transferred to the city in January 1954, heat and hot water were “almost simultaneously” cut off. Trash accumulated, “halls got dirty,”and empty units were left unguarded. By night, vandals, vagrants, and addicts took over, leaving scratch marks on the doors of remaining tenants. By day, demolition crews performed rough surgery on half-empty buildings. In Caro's The Power Broker, resident Lillian Edelstein remembers that “as soon as the top floor of a building was empty, they'd start tearing the roof and the top stories, even. While people were still living in it, they were tearing it down around their heads!.” 
Since the war, many Bronx families had been kept in place by the city's rent-stabilization law, and the only apartments at costs comparable to their own were to be found in the crumbling streets of poverty-stricken Harlem. Unwilling to “move down,” but priced out of the suburbs, the least affluent simply moved “from one condemned building to another” along the route of the coming expressway, enduring a chronic and deliberate lack of services, and getting slapped with rent hikes from landlords trying to recoup their losses. 
Five years lapsed between the last evictions and the completion of the East Tremont section of the Cross-Bronx (896), five years during which the neighborhood was rocked by dynamite blasting and shrouded in rock dust. On Southern Boulevard and Marmion, stores were cordoned off and deprived of customers. As Marshall Berman recalls, the Bathgate Avenue open market, “still flourishing in the late 1950s, was decimated; a year after the road came through, what was left went up in smoke.” Walls and ceilings cracked in buildings full of people, while “unsealed vacant stores and disemboweled buildings adrift in rubbish and broken glass became play spots for local children.” 
When a road is cut through the Amazon, the sudden infusion of harsh, unmitigated sunlight begins to kill the surrounding vegetation, and the devastation spreads deep into the ecosystem. A comparable thing happened in the Bronx when the blight of buildings abandoned along the Cross-Bronx invited crime, vagrancy, ruination, and then further abandonment in the streets beyond. In East Tremont, the 3,000 people living right up against the road moved first, to be followed by the other 7,000 who were their neighbors, and so on. A border vacuum if ever there was one, the highway “turned potential long-range entropy into a sudden inexorable catastrophe.” 
Catastrophe—”It was a catastrophe for the people up here,” recalled Bronxite historian John McNamara. Indeed, though many of the South Bronx's longtime residents defied postwar trends and stayed put, the incidental effect of the Cross-Bronx Expressway was to send the holdouts running for the hills, and only the oldest and poorest resigned to being “engulfed by the pursuing slum.” 
1. Evelyn Gonzalez, The Bronx (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2004), 94; Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York, Vintage Books, 1975), 851.
2. The city’s African American population was 450,000 before the war, 800,000 after. Sixty percent joined the relief rolls during the Great Depression. See Jill Jones, South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2002), 98; Gonzalez, 97.
3. Gonzalez, Bronx, 106, 149, 102; The spots the Board of Trade recommended were “ between the factory district and 138th Street in Mott Haven; from 165th Street to Tremont Avenue in Morrisania and Claremont; and nearby the Longwood Avenue, Kelly, and Fox streets juncture in Hunts Pont.” See Gonzalez, 107.
4. Ibid., 109, 97, 109; Jonnes, 103.
5. Caro, Power Broker, 851, 857, 856, 857.
6. Ibid., 857.
7. Ibid., 859.
8. Grace Paley, introduction to In the South Bronx of America, Mel Rosenthal (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), 11. Paley, born in 1922, grew up in the South Bronx.
9. Jonnes, Bronx Rising, 120-121.
10. Caro, 839.
11. Bronxboro, 2-3, 1945. Found in Jonnes, 119-120.
12. Caro, 849.
13. According to Caro, the city's postwar vacancy rate was “a habitual 1 percent.” P. 855.
14. Jonnes, 121.
15. Caro, 862, 882; Jonnes, 122.
16. Caro, 880-81; Jones 122; Caro, 860-61; Gonzalez, 116; Caro, 882.
17. Ibid., 861.
18. Ibid., 896, 877,887; Jonnes, 123; Berman, 293; Jonnes, 123.
19. Berman, All That is Solid.
20. Matt Sedensky, “Bronx Up Close: Decades Later, Doing the Cross-Bronx Expressway Right,” New York Times, 7 October, 2001, p.728; Gonzalez, 147.
Image credit: I took that picture in Fall 2009. You can do what you want with it.