The Bronx is booming

Workers wonder where they'll go when property values are shooting up in New York neighbourhood.


    New York, US - The Parrilla Latina restaurant is just a block away from the Bronx Documentary Center, but getting there with Michael Kamber took a while. He kept running into people.

    "Classes start up again in a week," he shouted to a girl in a gaggle in front of the Immaculate Conception School.

    Then he had to stop and ask Kelli Scarr, the centre's director of grants and community relations, if she could help organise a dinner for an artist staying "in residence".

    And then there was the young man on the corner, outside the In and Out Market, who just wanted to say hello and introduce Kamber to his mother.

    "One of the friendliest places I've ever lived," is how Kamber describes his Bronx neighbourhood.

    That's saying something considering he's lived all over the word as a news photographer.

    Kamber learned to shoot on these streets and so, after he got tired of working in dangerous places like Iraq and Togo, he decided to start the Documentary Center here.

    The stated mission of the centre is to share photography, film and new media with underserved Bronx communities and the cultural community at large.

    The idea is to use these mediums to get people talking about important issues, globally and locally, according to the website.

    Thousands could be displaced as buildings are torn down to make room for a thoroughfare [Al Jazeera]

    Locally, a city plan to bring more affordable housing to the neighbourhood by redeveloping a major thoroughfare known as Jerome Avenue has become a hot topic.

    So Kamber encouraged some of his photography students to go out and take pictures of the people who currently make a living there.

    The result was the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, a series of portraits that were first exhibited in a Muffler Shop. One features Jose Cruz, standing with his arm resting on a car lift, in front of stacks of tires.

    "I think our kids are capturing a lot of dignity," says Kamber, describing the working class people who make up his neighbourhood. "A proud culture that's already here."

    Jerome Avenue is full of little automotive shops, as well as bodegas, barber shops and hardware stores.

    Cruz, it says under his portrait, has been working on the strip for 25 years, ever since fleeing war in El Salvador.

    Another shot shows Jeff Friedman, whose family has run the Drinks Galore beverage warehouse for 40 years. 

    Residents have protested against projects that will bring property prices up in The Bronx [Al Jazeera]

    The project also captured the worry people are feeling about where these people will go if these buildings are torn down.

    "Thousands of workers will be displaced," Kamber said. "It’s already having an effect."

    Indeed, shuttered storefronts dot the street, which runs under a subway line. Kamber says developers are snatching up property because of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s proposal to rezone the area to allow new residential construction.

    It's part of an effort to create tens of thousands of new affordable apartments in New York, which is facing a severe housing shortage. But suddenly property values are shooting up, and many of the mom and pop stores here can no longer afford the rent.

    Edwin Torres, a young Bronx resident who worked on the exhibit, can't escape the feeling that this is all about to change, and not necessarily for the better.

    "When I'm about to hit the shutter button I feel like I'm in a way saying goodbye," he said.

    But some, like developer Keith Rubenstein of Somerset Partners, describe the Bronx as the next Brooklyn: a once working class neighbourhood now known for hip bars and cafes, not to mention rising rents.

    There are signs that it's already happening, like a new cafe and art gallery in the South Bronx.

    Murals, painted by artists who moved here for the open spaces and low rents, dot the old piano factories and underused warehouses.

    New cafes and art galleries are popping up in The Bronx [Al Jazeera]

    Rubenstein wants to build two towers of luxury apartments here.

    He thinks the views of the Bronx River and proximity to Manhattan will attract young professionals and hipsters getting priced out of other neighbourhoods. He even took out a billboard attempting to rebrand the neighbourhood the Piano District.

    He has taken flak, however, for hosting a party recalling a more unseemly image of the borough, with bullet-ridden cars as centrepieces and celebrities posing next to flaming barrels more commonly associated with homeless people trying to keep warm.

    There was a backlash from longtime residents on twitter: #WhatPianoDistrict?

    Rubenstein stresses that his development, which is not part of the Jerome Avenue rezoning and therefore not required to include affordable housing, will include new parks and esplanades that will be open to all local residents.

    He says his experience hosting the party has taught him the importance of communicating with local residents, who have been turning up at local community board meetings to make their voices heard on rezoning plans.

    Torres believes the community is ready to fight to stop chain stores and Big Box retailers from displacing local businesses.

    "The best way we can handle gentrification is to create a dialogue where we have a voice," he said.

    Kamber agrees. "I think it's good to have growth but it can't be growth that is only for the wealthy. It has to be growth that incorporates and empowers people that are already here. We need these places as working places for the people, not as a way for millionaires to make more money."

    The Mayor’s plan for Jerome Avenue has yet to be finalised. A public hearing is planned for Sunday, January 10.

    Many small businesses can no longer afford the rent as property prices shoot up [Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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