The Bronx, New York is known as the birthplace of hip-hop music and the home of the New York Yankees. It is also a melting pot and home to immigrants from all parts of the world. And the history of the Bronx is as storied as the people who call him home. During the 1970s, New York City had ventured into its darkest days with the threat of bankruptcy and crime rate nothing short of astronomical. In the Bronx, an epidemic of fires emerged but not solely due to arson. In fact, arson played a minor role in the plague of fires that struck the Bronx. Regardless of how and why the fires started, the tragedies altered the Bronx landscape and left its people wondering where things went wrong. However, life in the Bronx was not always as perilous. Authors Mark Naison and Bob Gumbs conducted interviews with former residents of the Bronx to learn what life was like before the fires and drugs devastated communities.
Most of the people interviewed are Black Americans but there is one interview with a former resident who was white. The participants range in age and occupation, but all called the Bronx home, with a heavy focus on the Morrisania section. Among the speakers are a relative of jazz legend Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) and the sister of NBA legend Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald. Their stories are interesting but there are numerous interviews in the book which are highly informative. What struck me as I read is the diversity that existed in the Bronx at a time when racial segregation in America was legal and enforced. In fact, the Bronx during the 1930s to the 1960s could serve as the blueprint for the United Nations. Speaker after speaker comment on the diversity they saw in a neighborhood home to Jews, Irish, Italian, Blacks, and anyone else who needed a place to live. Of course, there were racial issues on occasion and the presence of gangs cannot be overlooked. Names such as the Slicksters, Savage Nomads and Fordham Baldies are cemented in New York City gang lore. The dark elements of life in the Bronx are discussed but the speakers are unanimous in the position that the racial violence found in American South was unknown to the Bronx. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. In fact, during those times Crotona Park and Arthur Avenue were off limits to blacks as is discussed by more than one speaker. And though white flight did occur, the speakers also fondly remember their white neighbors with whom they created memories to last a lifetime.
There is a dark side to the interviews and that takes the form of heroin which floods New York City and turns the Bronx into a nightmare. The rise in drug addiction is the most difficult of the stories in which it is mentioned. Thankfully, none of the speakers suffered from addiction but they recall how they saw their neighborhoods change as drugs flooded the streets. The stories are heartbreaking and an eerie premonition of the current opioid crisis in America. Fentanyl has the possibility to repeat the events in the Bronx a thousand times over across America, and in some places it has already started. The influx of heroin resulted in the exodus of long-term residents resulting in a change in demographics, income level and quality of life. However, today the vacant lots are gone, and the fires in the 1970s ancient history to the younger crowd. But there was a time when the Bronx hit rock bottom and was one of the worst parts of New York City. My borough of Brooklyn had its own issues and in East New York, we were able to relate to the Bronx as we too saw the influx of drugs and escalation of violence that turned the streets into war zones.
Another thing I noticed as I read the stories was the sense of community that once existed. The Morrisania section was its own world with close bonds and unlocked front doors. The image that I formed in my head is far removed from the reality of life in the Bronx today where doors must be locked. The carefree environment discussed by the speakers sounds too good to be true, but it was a different time with different mindsets. The loss of community and the indifference on the streets today is puzzling to the older residents as can be seen in the interviews. The Bronx they knew is long gone, having been replaced by new tenants whose experiences and lives have taken different paths to the city that never sleeps. However, New York and America by large was built by immigrants and that is also evident in the interviews. The men and women interviewed in the book had been away from the Bronx for extensive periods of time, but they are all clear about their love for the borough known informally on the streets by its nickname “the Boogie Down Bronx”. If you like New York City history, this will pleasantly surprise you.