House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods

By Alexander Von Hoffman | Go to book overview

2
MIRACLE ON
174TH STREET

In seven days during early October 1977, the South Bronx became the most notorious inner-city neighborhood in the United States. It had fallen into the abyss long before and languished—except for occasional hell-on-earth exposés—in disreputable semi-obscurity.

The fateful week began when President Jimmy Carter, in search of an urban slum, came to the South Bronx and stood among the rubble and ruins of Charlotte Street, shocked by the devastation that surrounded him. That night an announcer on the CBS network news declared the South Bronx the worst slum in America.

A few days later, network television delivered the message to those who preferred sports to news. During baseball's World Series at Yankee Stadium, ABC filled the slow moments in the game with views from a blimp above the stadium. The shots of scenery below displayed flames rising from various buildings and licking the night sky. As the camera returned over the course of the game to follow the progress of the raging fires, Howard Cosell, the renowned sportscaster, intoned in his trademark nasal voice, “The Bronx is burning!”

The South Bronx went on to become first the national, then an international icon of America's worst slum. Memoirs, novels, and movies used the South Bronx as the setting for depraved underclass violence and struggle for survival. A major film, Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981), turned the New York Police Department's besieged 41st Precinct headquarters into a melodrama, and Tom Wolfe in his 1987 novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, indelibly stamped the South Bronx as the underbelly of the materialistic excesses of the 1980s. In British and European cities as far away as Prague, neighborhoods beset by crime and drugs came to be called “the Bronx.” 1

While the image of the South Bronx spread around the world as an ultimate symbol of the urban hellhole, the neighborhood was coming back to life. Starting in the early 1980s and accelerating after 1986 when the city of New York undertook an unprecedented ten-year endeavor to rebuild its housing, deteriorated and abandoned apartment buildings were fixed up and rubblestrewn vacant lots were filled with new row houses. In the 1990s, the population

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