Robin Le Baron in New York
August 3, 1996
I took the #2 subway from my home in Brooklyn on my first visit to Banana Kelly. The train rumbled underground through the dark, up Manhattan, under the Harlem River, and a mile or so into the Bronx. Then, right after the Third Avenue station, it rose out of the tunnel onto elevated tracks high above the ground. Under the clear blue sky of a July morning I looked out at the Bronx unfolding beneath me, a patchwork of sharply contrasting buildings and spaces.
On the skyline to the south, the serried ranks of tall brick housing projects marched away towards the Harlem River. Nearer to the tracks stood old brick warehouses and tenements, once bustling with life and activity, but now abandoned, their windows bricked shut and grafitti scrawled across their sides. Here and there I glimpsed vacant lots, tall with weeds or strewn with rubble.
Amidst the urban decay, however, were signs that something very different was taking place. Below and to the left I saw a street lined with newly built three-story houses, adorned with Tudor-style trim, small yards and neat iron fences. Near them stood other five and six-story tenement buildings, as old as the abandoned ones, but recently cleaned, with new windows and freshly painted fire escapes.
The bricked-up tenements and vacant lots are testament to the time, during the seventies and early eighties, when the South Bronx was ravaged by fire and neglect. Buildings were abandoned by their owners, to fall into disrepair and collapse, or were burnt to the ground, on such a scale that entire blocks were destroyed, and neighborhoods became gutted shells of their former selves. After viewing the destruction, shocked visitors often compared what they had seen to the streetscapes of London after the blitz or Dresden after the fire-bombings. As buildings burned, people left and communities were torn asunder. In 1970 the neighborhood where Banana Kelly was founded was home to 94,000 people - ten years later only 34,000 remained.
The newly renovated tenements and the suburban style houses are physical evidence of local residents¹ determination to rebuild their neighborhoods and communities. Community groups, of which Banana Kelly is one of the best known, have raised money and put long hours of their own labor into rehabilitating old buildings and constructing new ones. They have also undertaken the less tangible but equally vital task of reviving local communities. Their labors have created what people are beginning to call "the new South Bronx": still a difficult place to live, but very different than it was twenty years ago.
I first visited the South Bronx over two years ago, still a relative newcomer to New York City, and was captivated on sight. As a native of the brash and newly minted West Coast I have a passion for old architecture, and I was at a loss to understand how the Bronx¹s elegant old brick buildings had been so gratuitously destroyed. I was even more interested by local community goups' efforts to rebuild their neighborhoods. I spent hours tramping around the South Bronx, and wrote my MA thesis about its recent history. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
These questions put me on the #2 train that bright July day. It rolled along the rails, past the St. Mary¹s Houses to the Prospect Avenue stop. There I got off, and went to find Banana Kelly.