Bronx: First Impressions

Bronx, New York, USA

This morning I went to two interviews in the South and East Bronx, both of which involved long bus rides through the borough, and I had a lot of time to think about the area.

We’re all familiar with the Bronx’s reputation from the 1990s. That’s probably why one recruiter at a recent DOE Job Fair said, “You’re willing to teach in the Bronx? We will definitely be getting in touch with you!” I must have looked surprised, because she said, “I’m serious! We have such a hard time finding teachers who are willing to work in the Bronx!” I know my father likes to tell about a story he’d heard on NPR about an experiment leaving cars broken down on the Cross-Bronx Expressway (I95), and finding them stripped of everything but the frame within 2 hours. That’s not even to mention the reputation for gangs, violence and crushing poverty.

It’s not like that anymore. Crime rates are way, way down all across New York City since the bad ole days of the 90s, and that goes for the Bronx, as well. In fact, there’s some serious gentrification going on around here. It makes sense. No one can afford to live in Manhattan anymore, and even Harlem, Washington Heights, and Brooklyn are getting too expensive for the middle class. So people are starting to move into the Bronx.

All along the 6 line uptown to my neighborhood, for example, are these huge brick buildings that I want to know a lot more about. I think they must have been built in the early 1900s as tenements or workers’ housing, because they have these really interesting sculptures on their corners, almost Socialist-Realist in style. Now, though, they’re condominiums with solidly middle class restaurants and stores like UNOs and Macy’s in their lowest levels.

From the bus today, I saw a wide range of homes: rowhomes, duplexes, apartment complexes, and even one small neighborhood that was all one-story ranch houses with half- or quarter-acre grassy lawns. Surreal, really.

The Bronx is also much more multi-cultural than I had expected. The small businesses in my neighborhood – restaurants, halal groceries, 99 cent stores, hair and nail salons – tend to market to a Latino, African-American or Bengali customer base. I think almost a quarter of the people in my building complex are Muslim by the women’s headscarves, mostly Arabic-speaking as far as I can tell, though I’ve heard Turkish, lots of Spanish, and some languages I can’t identify.

Actually, as I walk down the street, I’m often reminded of when I taught that course on Islam at “nerd camp.” We read an essay from Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out about Hispanic women in the United States converting to Islam in significant numbers, putting on the hijab and all. When their families protested, these women said that the “uniform” that Hispanic girls have to wear to be respected – short skirts, tight shirts, teased hair, lots of make-up – was just as restrictive but far less respectful than the hijab. It was an interesting academic inquiry for me, but I didn’t know how true it was. Now, though, I’ve noticed quite a few young Muslim women, wearing hijab and speaking fluent Spanish.

I think I’ll be glad to live here!

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