Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Spectacle of the Ruins

DJ Spooky was asked if he thinks young artists should study history. His reply: “As someone who’s very into history, I would say yes. Then again, many of the more interesting developments happen when people don’t pay any attention to history.” [a]

As a casualty of the postwar urban crisis, the South Bronx was exceptional only for the scale of its ruins. By the end of the 1970s, neighborhoods from Mott Haven up to Fordham Road had reached a state of near-total loss.  Officials, landlords, and torches-for-hire abandoned, leveled and burned both derelict buildings and sound ones.

Marshall Berman wrote noted sardonically that “urban fires make great visuals.”  Indeed, for the millions watching from afar, the crumbling, emptying, burning South Bronx was a remote spectacle--fascinating, and sad perhaps, but not directly concerning. [1] For the absent middle class who toured the urban maelstrom through newspapers, magazines, and movies, the disintegration of the South Bronx confirmed that big-city culture had no place in the future America. The city, or so many believed, had only ever been a place to leave.

“The South Bronx is a remnant, a left-behind, for which there is no economic base and no economic need. It is a place that people avert their eyes from and use as a dump heap for our society." [3]
George Sternleib, 1973

“…the postwar highway era is here…” [4]
Robert Moses, 1945

In the urban north, the civil rights movement crossed invisible lines—it waged its battles in the theater of white-controlled public space, where the very presence of African Americans in numbers constituted a form of protest. But by the late 70's, in the wake of white flight to the suburbs, those public spaces had given way to private ones such as shopping malls in distant suburbs, and no-less-exclusionary virtual spaces such as the local nighttime news. Add to this the internal dislocations of the black community caused by “slum clearance,” the ethnic diversification of poverty after the Puerto Rican migration, and the estrangement of the black middle class from inner-city culture, and it is easy to see why in the 1970s, the civil rights movement lost much of the cohesion that accounted for its historic gains.

New York's mid-century migrants arrived to a city in the spasms of deep structural change. The enormity of this migration was rivaled only by the rapidity of low-skilled labor outsourcing.  From an industrial port city, New York was fast becoming a corporate capital with little to offer working-class people. From 1947 to 1976, the city lost a half million jobs to the enticement of cheaper labor in the South, in Mexico, and overseas. But in the optimism of the postwar years, few could see where this moving ground would take them, least of all perhaps the thousands of Puerto Ricans and Southern African-Americans who flooded the city in the forties and fifties, eager to escape their respective experiences of rural poverty and oppression. [5]

Citywide, New York's black population rose from 450,000 before the war to 750,000 after, while the Puerto Rican population increased from 61,000 to 246,000. The Bronx, meanwhile, was home to 160,000 Puerto Ricans and African Americans in 1950, with ninety-one percent in the South Bronx, clustered around Prospect and Westchester Avenues. By 1960, the Bronx housed 350,000 African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, 267,000 of whom were crammed into the southernmost neighborhoods. [6]

Among the 60,000 Puerto Ricans in the Bronx in 1950, only one in ten had finished high school, seventy percent had not finished the ninth grade, and hardly any arrived speaking English; Southern African-Americans were hardly better off. Hoping to find a land of opportunity, the majority only escaped their rural hells to end in more alien, more labyrinthine urban ones. As a welfare official of the time observed, “It is a great migration of people on the march towards dreams that have no foundation.” [7]

Absent jobs for which they were qualified, and in the face of poverty reinforcing prejudice, the only means of support for most was “welfare and, from 1964 on, the little that would trickle down from the federal government's 'Great Society' programs.” [8]

The South Bronx of the sixties was a place in rapid decline, but not a place without hope. In the heady days of grassroots activism and ethnocentric militancy, people from within and without fought doggedly for small gains, and a sense of community held in defiance of great adversities. But by the end of the decade, a sense of exhaustion had set in among residents, and a more overt display of cynicism prevailed among policy makers. The latter widely relinquished the South Bronx as a place “not worth saving.” [9]

Crime rates in the borough had quadrupled by the end of the sixties, owing in large part to an outbreak of heroin addiction among the city’s poor. In the Hunts Point section, as a New York Times study showed, only one in twenty residents could expect to die a natural death—“Most were dying in homicides or from drugs.” [10]

Job loss accelerated. Between 1970 and 1977, three-hundred companies had either folded or moved to the suburbs, and taken ten-thousand jobs with them. Already by 1973, unemployment in the South Bronx had reached thirty percent, and forty percent of residents were on relief. [11]

As if to fill the employment gap, a new generation of youth gangs proliferated. The Savage Skulls, the Cypress Bachelors, the Black Spades, the Spanish Mafia, the Reapers, and others collectively boasted about 9,500 members in 1973, who roamed the streets attacking addicts and pushers, and hiring themselves out to torch buildings for landlords.

All this while the social collapse of the South Bronx found graphic expression in a skyline writhing with a nightly average of thirty-three fires between 1970 and 1975. [12] By 1977, thirty-thousand buildings had been abandoned or burnt down, while garbage-strewn rubble heaps stretched all the way up to Fordham Road. [13] The fires claimed not only derelict buildings, but structurally sound and rehabilitated ones as well. On Charlotte Street in East Tremont, the housing was “far from substandard” only a decade earlier, but here as elsewhere, deliberate destruction led to a near-total loss of the built environment. [14]

Through these apocalyptic ruins, the South Bronx suddenly became “an international metaphor for human misery and collapse.” [15]  Incredibly, though, both the press and government officials blamed residents for the fires. Officials pressed to speak on the destruction sang a standard refrain: “the victims of the fires were 'fouling their own nests.'” Or as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan phrased it bluntly: “People don’t want housing in the South Bronx, or they wouldn’t burn it down.” [16]

Media echoed officials in shrugging off Bronx residents as crazed nihilists, but people were not burning their houses down, or at least not many.  As every tenement dweller knew, it was in fact their absentee landlords and the torches that the latter hired who set the great majority of fires.  As Evelyn Gonzalez explains, “When low-premium fire insurance became available in the 1970s, many investors bought Bronx apartment buildings with the express intent of burning them, while an untold number of Bronx property owners bought policies that made their buildings worth more dead than alive.” [17]

“For a generation,” writes Marhsall Berman, New York's ruins were its greatest spectacles.” So it was that in the seventies, all eyes were on the city once again. But the measure of fame was inverted, and a pageant of failures stole the show. In this post-industrial dis-order, the South Bronx became the new downtown, and Charlotte Street the new Great White Way. The ruins fascinated no less than the luminescent boulevards of years past, but what the spectators didn't perceive in this case were the hidden wires of causation that made them silent actors in the show.

a. Carol Becker; Romi Crawford, Paul D. Miller. “An Interview with Paul D. Miller a.k.a. Dj Spooky—That Subliminal Kid.” Art Journal, Vol. 61, no. 1. (Spring 2002), p. 85.

1. Marshall Berman, All That is Solid, Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 72.

2. Martha Rosler in Mel Rosenthal's In the South Bronx of America, (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2000), 112.

3. George Sternleib, Director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University. Quoted in Martin Tolchin, “Future Looks Bleak for the South Bronx, ”New York Times 18 January, 1973, p. 85.

4. Quoted in “285,000,000 Roads Planned for City: The Folks Back in the Old Country Are Proud of New York City's Mayor-Elect,” New York Times, 26 November, 1945, p. 23.

5. Evelyn Gonzalez, The Bronx, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004),118. Jill Jonnes, South Bronx Rising: the Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 91-93; For a thumbnail sketch of the changing city, and the place of new migrants within it, see “Episode 7: The City and the World (1945-present),” of Ric Burns' New York: A Documentary Film (PBS, 1999).

6. Gonzalez, 110-111. Though statistically lumped together, blacks and Puerto Ricans often occupied separate streets. Evelyn Gonzalez writes : “Between 1950 and 1960, blacks filled in Central Morrisania, from Webster to Prospect avenues and from 163rd Street to just beyond Crotona Park South, an area that would remain predominantly black for the rest of the century. Puerto Ricans...fanned out from 138th Street, Southern Boulevard, Westchester Avenue, and Claremont Parkway, following the subway and elevated train routes into central Mott Haven, lower Morrisania, Claremont, and Hunts Point-Crotona Park East. The rest of the borough was still overwhelmingly white in 1960, still mostly of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and German ancestry.” p. 110.

7. Jonnes 102, 111.

8. Gozalez, 118.

9. Gonz., 126.

10. Rosenthal, South Bronx, 109. In 1960, there were 998 reported assaults in the borough; in 1969, there were 4256. In 1960 there were 1765 reported burglaries; by 1969, there were 29,976. Most of the crime occurred in the South Bronx. See Gonzalez, 120.

11. Martin Tolchin, “Future Looks Bleak for the South Bronx,” New York Times, 18 January, 1973.

12. Rosenthal, 18; Richard Plunz, A History of Housing in New York City, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990),

13. John J. O'Connor, “TV: 'Fire Next Door' Studies South Bronx Arson,” New York Times, 22 February, 1977.

14. “With a density of well over 500 units per acre, it was a vibrant neighborhood, consisting primarily of New Law tenements built after 1901.” Pluntz, 335-36.

15. Rosenthal, 18.

16. See Marshall Berman, “New York Calling,” Dissent, Fall 2007, 71-77; 72. The Senator is quoted from Judith Cummings, “Moynihan, at Badillo's Bid, Will Tour South Bronx,” New York Times, 21 December, 1978, p. B9.

17. Gonz., 120.

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