Edit desk: Understanding a complex home


Though few of us like to dwell on the loss of last November’s Lehigh-Lafayette game, I imagine there was at least one redeeming feature for most of you: you finally got to see “THE BRONX” geotag on Snapchat. The vast majority of tourists and Lehigh students visiting the Bronx will only ever see the inside of Yankee Stadium. The rest of the borough exists in a hazy unreality, reduced to a one-dimensional state — a glossy baseball team, a most rare geotag, a bad reputation. That’s all the Bronx is for most people. For me, the Bronx is home.

Emily Ward

Emily Ward

On that chilly November afternoon, while many boarded a bus back to Bethlehem, I hopped in a gypsy cab and headed north to my home in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. My home is a detached Georgian revival, built in the 1920s, with large front lawn. Not quite what you picture when you picture the Bronx, right? Why is that?

Throughout the early history of New York City, the Bronx primarily served as farmland, used for growing food for the dense population of downtown Manhattan. In the period following World War I, when the outer boroughs became more accessible through the subway, much of the Bronx was developed to create housing for middle-class workers. The borough underwent rapid urban growth and welcomed thousands of immigrants, mainly Irish, Italian and Jewish, throughout the 1920s. These ethnic groups formed close-knit neighborhoods, many of which still exist.

However, in the late 1960s and ’70s, the children of these immigrants began to leave the Bronx in droves. This ‘White Flight’ occurred all over the city, but it was felt most acutely in the Bronx, particularly the South Bronx. Between 1970 and 1980, the South Bronx lost 60 percent of its population. Landlords began to set their buildings on fire in order to collect insurance money. Poor African American and Hispanic residents moved into formerly white neighborhoods, and they were left without the infrastructure and services offered to the borough’s previous residents. The Bronx began to be associated with poverty, unemployment and crime. The Bronx developed a reputation it has yet to fully shake.

And into this reputed squalor, a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby was born. When people hear I’m from the Bronx, their reactions can be divided into two general categories. The first reaction is a variation of, “Have you ever been shot?” or, perhaps, “Have you ever shot someone?” For the record, the answer is no — to both questions. As misguided as this first reaction is, the second is even more infuriating. It involves a follow-up question, “Which part?” and when I respond, “Riverdale,” they’ll often say to me, “Well that’s not really the Bronx.” Oh, it isn’t? Thank you for telling me. I’ve been writing my address incorrectly all this time.

It took me a long time to pinpoint why exactly the second reaction made me so angry. It operates on the same ugly stereotypes as the first reaction, but it seems to be a more active dismissal of my borough’s complexity. Would you ever tell someone from Harlem that Harlem isn’t really Manhattan? Or for that matter, would you ever tell someone from the Upper East Side that the Upper East Side isn’t really Manhattan? Why does the real Bronx have be the urban war zone of your nightmares? Why does the borough have to live up to its undeserved reputation? In 2013, there were 147 murders in Brooklyn, compared to 83 in the Bronx. Yet Brooklyn is able to be both a ghetto and a hipster wonderland. In the public imagination, the other boroughs are allowed to have many identities and contain many contradictions. The Bronx is forced into a tiny, roughly packaged box.

I don’t fit into this box. I never have. My neighborhood doesn’t either. And so I’ve had to widen my conception of what the Bronx means. This widening happened by force. I had to insert myself into the narrative of my borough, a narrative that is so much more than a baseball team or cool geotag. But if you don’t see my home as anything more, then Manhattan is happy to have you. The Bronx has mostly escaped the gentrification that has plagued the rest of New York City, and although change is natural and inevitable, I’m enjoying the momentary respite.

I don’t need the Bronx to be transformed for the rest of the world to see what I already know: it’s so much more than you ever imagined.

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