New York 16th District
It may not quite be “the beautiful Bronx,” as borough historian Lloyd Utlan calls it, but The Bronx seems to have rebounded from rock bottom. The beautiful days were in the 1930s and 1940s, when Presidents Roosevelt and Truman rode down 138th Street, and when Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio knocked home runs out of Yankee Stadium. Art deco apartment buildings were built along the Grand Concourse, and shoppers thronged Tremont Avenue stores. Bronx County Democratic Chairman Ed Flynn chaired the Democratic National Committee in the early 1940s. In the 1880s, the Bronx (then known as the Northside and only recently annexed from Westchester County) had been linked to the level eastern half of Manhattan by elevated steam locomotives. The borough really took off in 1906 with the arrival of the first subway, which allowed the children of immigrants to move from grim Lower East Side tenements to spacious walk-up apartments flooded with light. The Bronx population grew from 200,000 in 1900 to 430,000 in 1910 to 1.2 million in 1930. Its population peaked at nearly 1.5 million in 1950. After a quarter-century of deterioration, the population had shrunk to 1.2 million by 1990. Now, it’s up again, to nearly 1.4 million, as new immigrants revive neighborhoods that had been given up for dead.
2008 Presidential Vote
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The fall began in the mid-1960s, when several factors led to the destruction of neighborhoods. Rent control, insisted upon by tenants, guaranteed that many owners of low-rent property wouldn’t maintain it. Once empty, buildings were torched for the insurance money, sometimes as many as four blocks of buildings a week. At the same time, a drop in low-income, low-skill jobs in Manhattan and the Bronx, abetted by high union wages, led to a rise in welfare dependency and crime, and empty building shells became the perfect venue for drug dealing. The 13-year, $250 million effort to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway—a brainchild of Robert Moses that crossed 113 streets and avenues, hundreds of utility mains and ten mass-transit lines—only made things worse. As workers plowed through acres of tough bedrock, the project shredded entire neighborhoods, forcing 40,000 people to move from their homes. In the upheaval, longtime residents fled in droves, and the rapid turnover strained civic institutions. A vicious cycle emerged: Crime drove away jobs, which drove away fathers, which produced more crime. When Tom Wolfe imagined the “wrong turn” that sank a high-flying Wall Street career in Bonfire of the Vanities, he set it in the South Bronx. The movie version filmed the scene under the Bruckner Expressway.
Presidents and presidential candidates came in—Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1977, Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980—promising help. The borough’s saviors were churches and creative community groups that built single-family, pastel bungalows and small-scale apartment projects for the elderly, for single-parent families and for the homeless. The South Bronx turned a corner. A building spree created the Bronx’s first new wave of housing starts since the 1950s, and the first new cluster of private residences since the 1930s. As immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Ecuador, and Central America settled in, the population began to increase. A few corners of the South Bronx, such as Mott Haven, have even seen yuppies and artists colonizing old industrial spaces where gang wars prevailed not long ago. Charlotte Street, which Carter and Reagan visited as the worst of the slums, is now Charlotte Gardens, with owner-occupied houses. After decades of decay, some businesses—warehouses, distribution centers, small industrial parks—have begun to move back in, leaving declining and more expensive space nearby. The new Yankee Stadium, at $1.5 billion the most expensive sports facility ever built in the United States, opened in April 2009 and focused attention on the area’s economic renewal. But this remains a low-income area, with many people on public assistance, and check-cashing outlets are still easier to find than banks.
The 16th Congressional District of New York includes most of the South Bronx. It is bounded by the Harlem River on the west, the East River on the south, the Bronx River and Bronx Park (home of the Bronx Zoo) on the east, and it goes just past Fordham Road on the north. It also includes Belmont, the industrial flatlands of Bruckner Boulevard and Hunts Point (though not the meat and produce markets). The district is 29% black, and it has the highest share of Hispanics—65%—of any New York district. This has long been New York’s largest concentration of Puerto Ricans, but about 60% of Hispanics here are now from other parts of Latin America. Measured by median income and percentage of families below poverty status, it ranks as the one of the most impoverished congressional districts in the nation. This was the most heavily Democratic district in the nation in 2000 (92% for Al Gore) and the second most heavily Democratic in 2004 (89% for John Kerry). In 2008, voter turnout increased 15% with the enthusiasm for Democrat Barack Obama’s candidacy, and he won nearly 95% of the vote, his best showing of any congressional district.