In South Bronx, politics don't mean much

July 15, 1992|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau

NEW YORK -- Seven miles and millions of lives away from the political promises of midtown Manhattan are the streets of the South Bronx, boulevards of legendary destitution and more recently, of new hope.

Presidential candidates once journeyed to the South Bronx to be photographed amid the urban decay. But this year -- just as the most depressed area of the Bronx is experiencing something of a rebound with pockets of new housing free from graffiti, drugs and squalor -- the Democrats are ignoring the neighborhood. And its residents are returning the favor.

"Convention, what convention?" says Andre Harry Sr., as he stands beside his young children who sip from an open hydrant on Boston Road. "It ain't gonna make a difference, we won't see the money anyway."

In recent years, many of the area's districts in the state Assembly rank as the most politically indifferent in the city. Only 11 or 12 percent of the residents commonly make it to the polls for national elections. State Assemblywoman Gloria Davis said national politicians typically strike most in the neighborhood as irrelevant.

In the shadow of Morris High, the vast Gothic school where years ago Colin L. Powell, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was educated, small groups of men and women sit on folding chairs watching the day go by.

"I don't care who wins," says Bobby, a perspiring, intoxicated man with only one leg who hurries over on crutches to one of the groups to offer his opinion and then quickly hops away in a frantic search of trash cans for redeemable bottles and cans.

"I think the Democrats are a little better for the poor," said Helene Baxter, "but I don't think they are going to help."

Added a friend of Ms. Baxter's, Joyce Jones: "They should have the convention here, in the Bronx, they don't have nothing up here."

The two often spend the day together in a small, particularly shaded section of sidewalk they call "the beach." Two years ago Ms. Baxter lost her job as a clerk when the jewelry manufacturer she worked for closed down. Ms. Jones was last employed by the post office, for four months in 1969. They have both ceased looking for new positions. "I tried for a while," said Ms. Baxter,"but it seems every place you want to be working there's no jobs."

Efforts to bring new businesses into the area have met with only halting success. Assemblywoman Davis said many small operations have moved in from more expensive areas nearby. But others give a less optimistic picture. Carla Pennyman, director of development for the Mid-Bronx Development Corp., said her group has had a difficult time luring labor-intensive light industry and recently shifted its focus for one well-located parcel to getting a major supermarket.

Getting businesses to return will likely require reassuring them about safety, and that is difficult to do in this part of the Bronx. One of the local police precincts, the 42nd, whose image and travails were portrayed in the movie "Fort Apache: The Bronx," responded to three gruesome homicides during the past two weeks alone. In one, a man was handcuffed, shot in the head, and set on fire. In another, a man was bludgeoned to death. In a third, a mother fatally tossed her child off a building.

Across from the precinct, a once-beautiful Beaux Arts Bronx courthouse is largely gutted and decrepit. It was abandoned when lawyers and judges sought safer areas to pursue the law. Drug and family disputes can have a particular violent cast, say local police. Young men stride down the streets with beepers visible in their waistbands and the world "crack" is broadly graffitied on walls.

Yet despite the harsh, overt face of the south Bronx, it would be wrong to perceive the area as merely endless, terminal despair. Across from Morris High, Valex Elma cares for her three grandchildren while her daughter goes to college. She imagines one of the three children could one day be president.

"It's a long shot, but maybe," she says.

A mile away, one of the most extraordinary transformations in urban America has already taken place. The fires that consumed building after building in the Bronx during the 1970s have been quenched and in their place is arising -- amazingly -- suburbia, complete with vinyl-sided, single-family homes on quarter-acre plots.

The centerpiece of the transformation is a stretch known as Charlotte Street, where President Jimmy Carter paid a surprise visit in 1977 to what certainly qualified as among the most desolate, gutted strips in America. Wild dogs roamed amid garbage and smoke nearby. Arson was rife. The original restoration plans called for a large government housing project, but those were ultimately abandoned. Millions of dollars have been spent, but in non-traditional ways, and the federal government at best has been only a minor participant, with much of the money coming through grants from the city and the state.

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