The People's Guide is a new series examining New York City's many, many neighborhoods, led by our most loyal readers, favorite bloggers, and other luminaries of our choosing. This time around, we welcome Shannon Lee Gilstad, a non-profit professional, community activist , and founder of BronxCentric! Bronx Mover and Shakers.
What neighborhood do you live in, and how long have you lived there?: I live in Bedford Park in the Northwest Bronx. I've been here on and off for the past 15 years. No matter where life takes me, somehow I always end up back here.
Are you a Bronx native?: No, though I grew up about 45 minutes from here and have been here since my late teens. Prior to that I spent a lot of time around here during high school and I always felt drawn to it , so I always knew I'd probably end up here. I did a stint near Yankee Stadium for a few years some time ago. I'm a Lehman College graduate, which is also in the neighborhood.
What do you like best about the neighborhood?: It's a microcosm of New York City and still very diverse, so you'll meet all types of people here. In my building, for example, we used to have a couple who were both Holocaust survivors (who unfortunately have since passed), a Serbian super and his family, a bunch of NYC school teachers, a guy who moved here from the city years ago, and a music producer. In the neighborhood you also have sizable Albanian, Korean, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Dominican communities. There's also a decent amount of seniors here, older Irish, Italians, and Jews. There's a little bit of everyone here. You still feel like you're in New York, not like some Sex and the City or Girls episode, which is refreshing.
What do you like least about the neighborhood?: In recent years, real estate developers have bought up many of the older homes, demolishing them to build larger "Fedder houses" and buildings that don't at all fit in with the architectural fabric of the neighborhood. We were also hit a bit harder than some of the other neighborhoods in the city during the recession, so there are a few abandoned and poorly maintained homes that are in foreclosure. It seems every time I walk around another old house is being torn down. It's worrisome because those old homes are what give this neighborhood character. I've seen what has happened to other neighborhoods, like Astoria and Long island City, and though that level of development is still unprecedented here, I'm hoping it doesn't unfold in the same way.
How has it changed since you moved there?: I think it hasn't changed as much as a lot of other places, but the rents here have really gone up. I remember renting a huge studio apartment in an Art Deco building with a sunken room for $515 in 2001. You will pay more than double that to start around here for a small studio. Gentrification has slowly but surely begun to rear its ugly head. The neighborhood seems to be changing more quickly in the past two or three years than it has in 20 years. Whether things improve for people who live here now, that remains to be seen.
What's the neighborhood housing stock like?: Like the people, the housing stock here is diverse. On 201st Street you'll get a lot of older wooden houses. Over on Perry Avenue, which is now a historic district, there is a row of Queen Anne row houses, which are really nice. You'll find older tenements on Villa Avenue and Art Deco buildings on Grand Concourse and adjacent blocks.
Better for buyers or renters?: Renters. There are a few co-op buildings here and private houses, but the selection isn't huge. Most of the buildings are rentals, including many of the private houses. Most of the houses are multi-family, so when they go on the market, they tend to be out of reach for the average home buyer who's looking to live in the house.
Tell us something we don't know about your neighborhood: I think Bedford Park is not as well known as many other nearby neighborhoods, but that it's important in Bronx history. People still speak of "the bad old days" of the 1970s and ’80s. But Bedford Park is very much a success story in that when a lot of other neighborhoods were burning and going through really rough periods, people here saw what was potentially on the horizon and put their collective foot down and said, "Enough is enough."
Community members formed organizations and neighborhood groups, demanding services, which at the time had been cut in many other areas of the city, and fought hard for a better quality of life. Some of the devastation did reach as far as Fordham Road, but walking north you can actually see that most of the buildings are still intact and were able to be spared a similar fate. They were able to pretty successfully bring things to a head and steer things in the opposite direction. People here are really feisty and involved, which is very much a positive Bronx trait that came out of those years. That's really what has inspired me to keep coming back.
Bonus: Also, for those wondering, though called Bedford Park, there is no actual park here by that name.
Hidden gems in Bedford Park: My building. I'm not going to give the address, but it's on top of a hill and on the upper floors you can see the Palisades and the Whitestone Bridge. It's a curved, yellow brick Art Deco building built in 1938, and though there's definitely been some wear and tear, you can tell how elegant it must have been in its heyday. It has one of those old mailboxes in the lobby, the kind that you see in older office buildings in the city, and ours is still functional. There was an elderly couple who used to live here and moved here during the 1940s who told my friend there were doormen, porters. and there used to be rooftop access in those days. Can you imagine that?
I always say that a child could potentially go from Kindergarten to a Master's degree without ever having to leave the neighborhood.
Is it good for kids?: I always say that a child could potentially go from Kindergarten to a Master's degree without ever having to leave the neighborhood. There is also a lot of green space and parkland around here, so even if you live in an apartment, you're never too far from open spaces. That being said, some schools here are pretty overcrowded and underperform, so if they can afford to, many parents send their kids to Catholic schools, of which we have a few.
What's a beloved neighborhood joint?: To be completely honest, this is more of a bedroom community than a place for foodies or nightlife. That being said, there are a few diners and you can get a good slice here too. Bedford Café on Bedford Park Blvd. and Jerome Avenue is a 24/7 diner that never disappoints. It's really a cozy spot, where you'll see neighbors, but also college kids between classes, as well as Liberty Lines and MTA bus drivers and motormen on lunch. As far as slices, Jerome Pizza is my preferred spot. For a drink, Jolly Tinker at the other end of Bedford Park Blvd. is one of the Bronx's oldest bars. It's very no-nonsense and almost like walking back into another era. The same family has owned it for 47 years. A total Bronx relic.
Where are the best places to chill and/or experience the outdoors?: Residents love to hang out along Mosholu Parkway. You'll always see kids there playing ball or riding their bikes. If you go in either direction, you can walk—or bike—to Van Cortlandt Park on one end and Bronx Park on the other. There are a bunch of interconnecting trails where you can walk into Westchester Country from. New York Botanical Garden is actually at the end of Mosholu Parkway. I'm a member there and will go for a little jaunt there on the weekends or a day off.
Who wouldn't be happy here?: If you need to be in the thick of it all with lots of restaurants, bars, and crazy nightlife, Bedford Park is just not going to do it for you. This is a very working class, quiet, peaceful neighborhood—and that's just how we like it. On the other hand, if you want to live in a real New York neighborhood that hasn't been devoured by gentrification and overdevelopment, and actually get to know your neighbors, this just might be the place. If you're looking to come here and change things up, you might be faced with some opposition. People here are very proud of their neighborhood and our history.
What's the final word on Bedford Park?: Bedford Park is a community where the more things change, the more they stay the same—and that's okay! At a time when the city is seeing an influx of newcomers and massive levels of development, for those of us who grew up around here, it's getting harder and harder to stay and enjoy what's left of our New York. Most of my family and the people I grew up with have left New York because it's not affordable and most of what was familiar is long gone. I feel like something has got to give. I would love for the Bronx, especially Bedford Park, to improve but not at the expense of the people who've made it what it is and the places that have given it its flavor. I want to stay for the long haul. Where else would I really go?