If fancy apartments and stores move in, will they be pushed out?
By Caroline Linton
Lamont Barkley, 42, has lived in Mott Haven his whole life and has witnessed the devastation that overtook the neighborhood, and its rebuilding.
But that does not mean he’s ready for the latest change: the city’s plan to replace gritty industrial buildings with high-rise waterfront apartments and retail businesses.
“Development is always a good idea, as long as you don’t try to move people out of the projects,” he said.
Barkley lives in the Patterson Houses, the 15-building Housing Authority complex that occupies the land between Morris and Third Avenues from E. 139th to E. 145th Streets. The city’s plan calls for creating “a lively mixed use, mixed income neighborhood” along Morris Avenue, across the street from the housing project.
While by some estimates it could take as long as a decade for the Lower Concourse rezoning to accomplish its goals, many residents are leery of the changes.
“They’ve been trying to push people who have been here for years out,” said a local resident who would only give his first name, Poochie. “I’m 54 years old, I grew up here and most of the people who are still here, they wouldn’t be able to afford it now.”
But Thomas Carswell, who said he has been a resident for 52 of his 57 years, said he would welcome the changes.
“This particular area—Mott Haven—these projects, they’re a breeding ground for drugs, violence, STDs,” he said. “Anything that’s coming to this area to improve it, I’m all for it.”
Even though construction worker Billy Meister, 47, makes his living from development, he said he worried that Mott Haven would lose some of his favorite qualities if developers moved forward in the way the city hopes they will.
“There’s a lot of construction going on, but nothing is favorable to the people,” said Meister, who lives in Orange County but works on construction projects in the Bronx. “You can’t build a high-priced neighborhood and keep us here.”
For Charlie Brice, 35, a waitress at the Sweetwaters Café at Third Avenue and 138th Street, the idea of encouraging new businesses to locate in the area is a welcome one. Since she lives near Yankee Stadium and does not own a car, she said she would appreciate it if more grocery stores were added in the area.
But she, too, expressed concern about the impact of the changes. Growing up in Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood that has attracted higher income residents in recent years, she said she has seen the good and bad sides of gentrification. She especially lamented the loss of small “mom and pop” stores.
But while Brice, who is African-American, said she liked the diversity of Mott Haven, she worries about just who will be moving into those new apartment buildings. “It’s fine to be multicultural and all; just don’t kick us out, ”she said.
While many of the residents interviewed were at best ambivalent about the plan, the area’s elected officials have fewer qualms.
Assemblyman Ruben Diaz, Jr., the frontrunner to become Bronx Borough President, said he wanted to make sure residents would not feel they are being pushed out of the area. “Obviously, we’re going to continue to push business, but we want to keep the character of the neighborhood,” Diaz said.
Similarly, State Senator José M. Serrano said in an email response to questions that he supports the Lower Concourse rezoning, as long as city officials work with community members.
“The key here is not about when it will be completed, but whether it will be achieved with the proper community input so that the citizens of the South Bronx and its adjacent areas may benefit from the changes,” he wrote.
Barkley, the Patterson House resident, said he remained skeptical, especially after going to a ballgame at the new Yankee Stadium with his son. The stadium turns its back on the residents who live near it, he said, and he worried that a similar thing would happen if the Lower Concourse plan succeeds.
“You’ve got to remember people live here,” Barkley said. “They’ve been living here their whole lives.”
A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of the Mott Haven Herald.