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Mott Haven In The Bronx Targeted For Remake


When big money arrives in a poor neighborhood, lots of things change. We're exploring that issue in a summer series from the NPR Cities Project.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was a part of the community.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You need to move out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Fix up these properties

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Revitalize the neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Support the community.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I may not afford the rent.

SHAPIRO: Today, part of the nation's biggest city has struggled to shake an image for a long time.


KEITH JACKSON: That is a live picture and obviously a major fire in a large building in the South Bronx region of New York City.


1977, game 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium - ABC sportscaster Keith Jackson was describing an abandoned building that was engulfed in flames. The phrase the Bronx is burning became a shorthand for urban decay. Right now, though, the South Bronx is gentrifying. Jessica Gould from member station WNYC reports on how developers are trying to market it to new residents.

JESSICA GOULD, BYLINE: Mott Haven is a neighborhood at the southern tip of the Bronx. It's right across the Harlem River from Manhattan. And walking around the industrial waterfront, there's this constant roar of garbage trucks headed to a nearby trash-transfer station. This area has some of the highest asthma, poverty and crime rates in the city.


GOULD: But after years of disinvestment, money is flowing in. Just stroll around the business district a couple of blocks from the river. There's this gourmet pizza place...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Organic, everything everything's fresh.

GOULD: ...A new boxing gym...


GOULD: ...And a fancy coffee shop.


GOULD: Three-fifty?

They all have something - actually, someone - in common.


GOULD: Hi. Nice to meet you.

Keith Rubenstein is a developer. He co-owns these businesses and plans seven new residential towers on the waterfront. We walk over to the site and peer through the fence.

RUBENSTEIN: It's a little rough - needles and other paraphernalia.

GOULD: A city plan for development calls for revitalizing this area with private investment. And Rubenstein says that's exactly what he's doing. There will be 1,400 luxury apartments with panoramic views of Manhattan, plus...

RUBENSTEIN: Swimming pools, gyms, dog spa...

GOULD: And a new waterfront park open to the public.

RUBENSTEIN: Great place for people to live and great place for people to come and use the retail and the waterfront esplanade.

GOULD: Rubenstein admits some of his marketing efforts have backfired. First he tried to brand his development the Piano District after old piano factories that used to be here. But residents accused him of trying to invent a new neighborhood. Later, as a promotion, he hosted a star-studded party with a Bronx is burning theme - flaming trash cans and a car with bullet holes as decor.

JOHN MATOS: You've got to be kidding.

GOULD: Up the street, I meet John Matos, who goes by the name Crash.

MATOS: I mean I lived through the buildings being burned down. I've been through the neighborhood being shot up. No one really wants to be reminded of that.

GOULD: Crash got famous for graffiti, tagging subway cars that traveled all over the city. From what some call vandalism, he's gone into legitimate business. He runs a gallery called WallWorks, showcasing Bronx artists.

MATOS: I've always said change is good. It will help revitalize the neighborhood. The bad part of it is, many people who can afford the rents that come with that change will have to move out. They should celebrate all these restaurants, and they'll be the ones that will feel change the worst.

GOULD: One survey found rents in the neighborhood spiked 16 percent last year. And Crash says he might get priced out of his gallery. Even some who could cash in on the real estate market are anxious. I walk down the block to Fordham Gospel Mission, a small storefront church.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: You're welcome to come on inside. You need to meet the pastor. Come on. Let's go.

GOULD: I'm ushered into the sanctuary - pews covered in purple velvet.


GOULD: Reverend Tinnie James owns the building, and she says she's constantly fielding calls from potential buyers.

TINNIE JAMES: Every day, every night, all through the night they're calling.

GOULD: She says they promise $1 million, $2 million. But she's turning them all down.

JAMES: I'm not looking for money. I'm 80 years old. What's money going to do for me?

GOULD: What she says she's praying for is for families to stick together as rents rise. Other activists are trying to buy some of the land to keep it open to the public. Back at his site, I ask Rubenstein about the concern that people will be displaced.

So what do you see your role as?

RUBENSTEIN: Well, listen; I see my role as being a developer and a developer that can act responsibly at the same time by helping to support locals in the community and giving opportunities for people that live in the community and for people that want to come to the community.

GOULD: He says he's listened to residents, and he has apologized to anyone offended by the Piano District branding and the party. People who live in the public housing down the street work at his new pizza place. The boxing gym will offer scholarships to local kids. And residents who've been clamoring for access to the waterfront will finally get it.

RUBENSTEIN: If anyone is benefiting from all of this stuff, it's the people that are here.

GOULD: The question for many people here is, when the new Bronx is built, will they be able to stay? On the Harlem River waterfront, I'm Jessica Gould for the NPR Cities Project.

SHAPIRO: Jessica's reporting is part of the Affordability Project from member station WNYC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 2, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of the headline of this story misspelled the name of the Mott Haven neighborhood.
Jessica Gould

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