Blogger Ed García Conde is the founder and force behind Welcome2TheBronx, one of the most popular blogs about the borough—specifically the South Bronx, where Conde was born and raised. Here, he sounds off about the future of the borough, and why development isn't necessarily a bad thing—if done correctly.
How long have you lived in the Bronx?
All my life, with the exception of three years where I lived in Manhattan. But otherwise lifelong resident, born and raised here—Mott Haven for the first seven years and the rest over in Melrose just a few blocks over.
As someone who's lived in the Bronx their whole life, what are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the borough in recent years?
The biggest change has been the resurgence of the population. We're less than 17,000 people shy of our historic high population in 1970, right before the great decline where we lost almost 400,000 people. That's the biggest, most visible thing. You see everyone everywhere. The trains are crowded in ways that they never were when we were younger. And you don't see empty lots—everything has been built up again, whether it's single family home or condominiums, or multi-family residences, and towers.
The Bronx has never been as diverse as it is now. In my neighborhood growing up, what I was used to was generally Puerto Rican, African American, or Italian. And now it's pretty much everything under the sun, from all parts of Latin America, Mexico, Puerto Rican, Dominican, the Caribbean, I mean everywhere. You just run into someone from everywhere, and that's pretty much the general feel in a lot of neighborhoods in the Bronx.
What do you think is spurring that population growth?
Well, a lot of it has to do with the fact that the Bronx still is affordable. I hate to use the phrase "last frontier," because that's what developers are saying, but in many ways it just is. It's also the last frontier of affordability that's reasonable as far as commuting goes. Because you can't really call Staten Island as a reasonable commute.
Do you think that developers' interest in the Bronx now is a good or a bad thing?
I don't think development is necessarily a bad thing. My problem with development is when it turns into displacement, and what we're seeing now is interest that will displace the current population. I have gone head to head with the Borough President, where he has said gentrification wasn't happening, but I guess he doesn't understand the concept, because it's clearly happening. You know, Rubenstein purchasing and bringing in coffee shops from Harlem—that's not development, that's gentrification. In that essence, it's not a good thing, because a lot of these developers don't really care about the residence and they're looking to turn profit.
People are being pressured to move out of their rent stabilized apartment so they can jack up the rent. That's happening in our neighborhoods down here. And a lot of the questions about developments that are happening is, "Is it for us? Is it for the majority of the people?" And it clearly isn't. In the past, the development we had was for us because no one wanted to come here. And a lot of community groups who fought for the Bronx tooth and nail were like, "No one's gonna push us out. We're gonna rebuild ourselves." And that's what happened.
This is a new wave of development that we haven't seen before, where no longer is the focus on keeping existing residents and growing families in the Bronx. [Instead] it's starting to bring a whole different demographic from the outside, which is really just the people who can no longer afford Manhattan or Brooklyn, and parts of Queens.
I don't think development is necessarily a bad thing. My problem with development is when it turns into displacement.
What do you think kind of the biggest issues facing Bronx residents right now?
We can still do better with education in our schools. We could definitely use more resources. Crime has gone down considerably. Right now, the New York Times, for whatever reason, is doing a piece for the entire year—they're following the 40th precinct, and that happens to cover my neighborhood, Melrose and Mott Haven. And they're calling it the precinct where crime is being stubborn and refuses to go down, but we're all looking at ourselves, we're like, "That's not true."
The other thing is employment. We have a really...I get into with the borough president all the time. He talked about how unemployment is low since he entered office. What he neglects to tell people is that the job that we're getting are retail jobs. They're jobs that people can't live a normal life on. They still have to get some type of public assistance. You can't raise a family on retail jobs in the Bronx. That's something in the equation that's not being talked about. Like, yeah we're getting jobs, but what kind of jobs? We can do a lot better, whether it's helping our residents with job training or actually bringing in real jobs.
Do you think people still have a negative perception of the Bronx as a place that's blighted, or damaged by urban decay and not worth visiting?
The reputation definitely has changed for the better. But it still has that negative perception that won't go away. And there's only so much that you can do with that. You can do your best, and we have definitely done our best here in the Bronx to change that perception. And who knows, maybe that's why more people are paying attention to us now. They realize that, Hey, it's not that bad up there. Let's go.
But people are still using that reputation to bring attention to the Bronx, like that infamous party that a bunch of developers attended a while back with a "Bronx is burning" theme. How does that make you feel?
That just really turns my stomach. It just reminded them. I know Rubenstein hated when I said it in the New York Times, but I'll say it again. For us, that was our Holocaust. This is where our population was decimated, where people fled or died. Thousands of people lost their lives as a result of what happened in the Bronx, so it's not something to have a party about. I mean, we still have the highest HIV rates in the South Bronx. And a lot of this is a direct result with a lot of the policies that went in and just infested our communities. So it's nothing to laugh at. For them is was probably like their image of rebirth. So that was an insult to all the people that actually did the work for the rebirth in the Bronx, and also on the backs of all the people who died on the backs of people who lived that reality of gunshots in their neighborhood.
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Do you see Bronx-born businesses flourishing moreso now than in the past?
It's sort of mixed. You have a lot of Bronx-raised and -born entrepreneurs that are trying to open up businesses. The problem is that we have no protections for small businesses like we do with rent-stabilized units for residential. There's nothing we can do. We've been trying to get the City Council to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would give commercial tenants and retail tenants the right of first refusal and to be able to negotiate their lease to better terms, but that's been stalled.We have businesses that try to survive, but then they collapse and someone else comes in and takes the spoils, so to speak.
Switching gears a bit, what's your favorite thing about living in the Bronx?
Access to parks and all the cultural activities that we have. We're the greenest borough—we have three of the largest parks out of the top ten parks in New York City. The diversity of this landscape and the diversity of its people, and the restaurants. And there's just so much history in the Bronx. There's a lot in this tiny borough of 1.4 million people.
In terms of developments or initiatives that are happening in the borough, are there any that you're particularly excited about?
I'm more excited about the Post Office. [YoungWoo & Associates] seem to really be dedicated to incorporating Bronx businesses into their project. We'll see once they announce who the leases are, but the fact we were able to save the Post Office and able to get the lobby landmarked, that was really nice. So definitely looking forward to that. Hopefully we can see them on the right track and people can steer the conversation of what they want in their neighborhood, and maybe be a little more successful than Brooklyn was. I think we have a chance with that, and I may sound like too much of an optimist, but I really do think we have a good chance at being able to steer the ship better than Brooklyn did.
How do you feel about the future of the Bronx? What would you ultimately like to see happen in the borough, development-wise?
I am somewhat optimistic, but at the same time I'm grounded in the current reality. I'm going to err on the side of caution and hope for the best, and also fight so that we can continue to be the beautiful and diverse borough that we are right now. It's that beautiful tapestry that we have, and that makes us so unique. To be called by the census the most diverse in the country, and to actually see that when you're walking around and you live in the borough and you go from corner to corner whether you're traveling to the northeast or the northwest of the Bronx, you see that beautiful diversity of everyone living together with no problems, essentially.
Interview has been condensed and edited.