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South Bronx rises out of the ashes

The South Bronx had become synonymous with urban decay. But of  late, that reputation has been replaced by one of urban renewal. NBC News' Terry Wynn reports on how government funds and grass-roots efforts combined to revitalize the community.
The revitalization of the South Bronx is graphically shown in this photo of a lot in the Melrose area in 1994 (below) and again in 2002.
The revitalization of the South Bronx is graphically shown in this photo of a lot in the Melrose area in 1994 (below) and again in 2002. Larry Racioppo / NYC Housing Preservation and Development
/ Source: NBC News

Orlando Marin remembers watching his playground burn down when he was 11 years old.

He remembers that day in 1974 much like he remembers the others. Each day, a new piece of the South Bronx went up in flames, leaving him nowhere to play baseball, nowhere to study and few places he could feel safe.

He saw his neighborhood, once a tree-lined community with recreational parks and friendly grocery stores, deteriorate before his eyes. As a victim of concentrated poverty, dilapidated apartment buildings and the middle class’s mass migration to the East Bronx, the South Bronx collapsed into despair.

"You didn't even want to be here in the daytime, much less in the dark," said Jessie McDonald, a retired hospital worker who has lived in the South Bronx for 40 years. "There was total destruction. It was like Lebanon."

Now 30 years later, the South Bronx is again on fire. But it is a blaze residents don't want to put out.

The New York neighborhood has attracted new high-end retail chains and branches for several national banks, drawn by the revived community living in affordable housing coveted by both renters and homeowners, many of them first-time buyers.

And unlike urban renewal in other major cities, the regeneration has not happened at the expense of its low-income residents.

Carol Abrams, spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Preservation Development, credits the South Bronx's commitment to the working class as the dominant factor in its ability to revitalize the community — without displacing poorer residents, while creating a mixed-income community.

The great migration
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan visited the South Bronx while on the campaign trail. What both men saw were remnants of buildings burned to the ground and abandoned lots. As both men pledged to send aid to the area if elected, the underlying reasons for the burning and destruction confounded local groups.

There was, however, agreement that two events hurt the area: the opening of the massive Co-Op City complex in the East Bronx and the passing of rent-control laws in the city.

The opening of Co-Op City, 35 large high-rise buildings priced for middle-income families, provided an attractive alternative to the failing conditions of the South Bronx. With the middle-class flight to the east, landlords in the South Bronx were left with a large number of vacancies they could not completely fill.

In addition, New York City’s rent-control laws prevented landlords from raising rents in any substantial way to maintain the buildings and offset their losses.

But as the vacancy rates rose and buildings deteriorated, landlords saw a new way to compensate for their monetary loses in the early 1970s: arson.

Community involvement: torchers
Landlords may not have been residents of the community, but that did not stop them from organizing the torchings.

Anthony Ortillo, a resident of the South Bronx for more than 62 years, remembers when it all began. "I was offered money to burn buildings," Ortillo said. And the going rate of $200 to burn down a few buildings was a very attractive proposition in an area rife with unemployment and poverty.

Ortillo said the landlords made it easy. "They would leave the basement open and give you the keys. The gasoline would be waiting for you in the basement, and you would set the building on fire, and everybody would profit."

Though Ortillo maintains he never took part in this process, he said "burning for profits" was common throughout the community, and "everyone used to make money."

The landlord was not the only person to profit as the fire starter collected $200 and some residents on welfare were able to claim property reimbursement checks ranging from $1,500 to $3,000.

Surprisingly, there were no deaths associated with the torching, as they were well organized and always announced. "You would be walking down the street, and people would say don't come home tonight cause we gonna set the building on fire,” explained Ortillo.

Evi Mundy, a 42-year-old resident of the South Bronx for 30 years, remembers a cold night in 1975 when she and her mother received word their building would be set on fire.

Mundy had to help her mother with her four younger siblings as they packed their belongings and dashed out the door. Being on public assistance and lacking money to quickly uproot, Mundy remembers the burning building as one of the lowest points in her childhood. "It was horrible," she said.

During that time, the South Bronx lost over 40 percent of its housing stock while the Bronx lost more than 300,000 residents, about half of the total.

Walter Blenman, Bronx resident and Director of the Beulah Housing Development Corp., said what he remembers most about his childhood is that "you could drive through any night and see the Bronx smoking."

But similar to how information about burning buildings was passed by word of mouth, Ortillo said the community passed the word that anyone caught burning buildings would have to face the wrath of the community. "People told everyone, we are not going to have any more burning buildings. And just like that, it stopped."

The rebuilding of a community
The new challenge was reviving the community.

After budgeting $1.5 billion to the South Bronx's restoration, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a series of federal and local land subsidies for non-profit groups and Community Development Corporations (CDCs) dedicated to reviving the community.

By selling land to the non-profits and CDCs for as little as $1, it freed these groups to use their own funds, combined with local and federal grant money, to invest in the renovation of abandoned lots, dilapidated buildings and unused open spaces.

With most CDCs and non-profits financing their renovations through private loans and funding, their commercial risk has been cited as an example of the community's dedication to its own rejuvenation and survival.

Residents say the revitalization officially began in 1987 with the symbolic opening of the Charlotte Gardens. Once one of the most notorious slums in the South Bronx, it was rebuilt and renovated into single-family homes. It was the first of many buildings to come through partnerships from banks, private investments, government subsidies and CDCs.

Since 1985, South Bronx has created more than 70,000 units of housing comprised of affordable rentals, single- and multiple-family unit homes for working-class families, and affordable homes for senior citizens. Bill Frey, senior vice president of the Enterprise Foundations, said the city's realization that the Bronx could be "brought back" through creating affordable housing has been the backbone of this process.

Rebirth and the next generation
After spending two hard years in a homeless shelter, Mundy moved into a newly renovated building with her four children in 1997.

"The shelter was the most traumatic experience for my kids. I could handle it cause I had no choice, but it was hard for them."

Mundy landed a job with the same non-profit organization that helped her find her current home. As a recipient of public assistance most of her life, Mundy got her first job and her first home both at the age of 35. She says the affordable housing options helped change her and her children's lives.

Mundy was recently looking forward to her oldest daughter's graduation from the police academy. "Everyday, I feel like ... thank God. For all the things I been through, like being on the street, I keep thanking God. I am so glad they opened up this building. It's my home." She credits having a home as a positive force in each of their lives.

Marin, now 41 and the CEO of Banana Kelly, a non-profit in the South Bronx, said the mixture of affordable housing and community pride helps people feel more invested in their homes. They are more concerned about schools, crime, beautification and what businesses come into their area.

The importance of community also comes through when Jessie McDonald talks about why she won't leave the Bronx.

"I am very active in the community. And it's the little things. Like when I pass the school and I see the speed bump. I remember fighting for that speed bump. I can't ever leave this place. I am indebted to it."