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Bronx Residents Disrupt Tour of Proposed 'New Neighborhood'

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The city's plan to create a new neighborhood in the South Bronx was shown to be a tough sell to locals over the weekend when residents disrupted a walking tour led by the Department of City Planning. The department wants to rebrand a 57-block corridor that is currently dotted with auto shops as "Cromwell Jerome." New housing, both affordable and market-rate, would pop up along with new retail stores after a rezoning of the area. Seeking input on the existing swath for a new study, the DCP held its second walking tour Saturday, which focused on traffic and park conditions. But half of the dozen or so locals who showed up were more interested in discussing what they saw as a major move to gentrify the area—and they were dubious.

"Who's going to be coming in when the project is done? That's the question we have to ask," said Jay Espy, an organizer with activist group People Power Movement. This calm reflection at Mullaly Park preceded a collective confrontation that would prematurely end the tour.

Talks between city agencies and Bronx community boards 4 and 5 about the plan began last month, DCP officials said, adding the boards had identified the stretch of land as an "area of need" four years ago.

The officials didn't clarify exactly when the plan arose or the initial purpose, but talks over Cromwell-Jerome preceded the mayor's housing plan to create 200,000 affordable units citywide.

"I actually think this is an opportune time to look at this area," because of the mayor's plan, said Carol Samol, Bronx director of the DCP. Creating affordable housing in the area is "the impetus but not the entire story," she said. The rest of the picture involves revitalizing the whole strip and making it safer. But that's a goal disgruntled inquirers see as a rent-raising makeover for the benefit of market-rate tenants, while small businesses and current residents run a high risk of displacement.

With only one more stop to go on the tour, a heated discussion flared up at Jennie Jerome Playground. "This study should have been done 10 years ago," one man said. An effort by Samol to respond blew up in her face when she said "SoBRO," referring to a local non-profit organization with which the CDP had spoken. But it wasn't taken as such: "SoBro," by contrast, is a much-reviled and failed acronym for the South Bronx, evoking trendier areas such as Soho.

When someone asked what she meant, she said, "Google it." The scene got pretty ugly from there. "We don't even have enough to afford this affordable housing plan that Mayor de Blasio is proposing," Espy said. Whatever sense of harmony began to arise between the different parties was disrupted though when another tour participant (who didn't give his name or affiliation to Curbed) said to one of the aggrieved: "Check your ego at the door." At some point, one of the DCP officials said the tour was over. But officials did hang out and talk politics with the activist crowd for awhile in front of the playground.

It's too early to say how widespread distrust over the Cromwell-Jerome plan is or will be in the South Bronx, but the episode may signal that the DCP and other involved agencies may have face more than a little friction going forward.

· Cromwell-Jerome coverage [Curbed]