Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fordham Road Trip

David Gonzales did an absolutely brilliant evocative story in the City Room blog yesterday on the Fordham Road shopping strip; and contained within is a subtle appreciation of the importance of neighborhood commerce-and the concomitant threat to this vital communal resource posed by the building of chain store malls: "That winding, sloping commercial strip is actually closer to Yonkers than it is to Mott Haven. Yet in the minds of some bureaucrats, reporters and bankers, it became the upper limit of the Lower Bronx as abandonment and arson crept ever northward during the 1970s. The dubious designation probably said more about the prejudice of outsiders than the lives of locals, since the strip bustled with life even when the South Bronx had been written off."

Fordham Road, then, functioned as a kind of Maginot Line against the urban decay that almost destroyed the Bronx in the 1970s-a tribute to the robust qualities and resiliency that neighborhood businesses can provide to urban communities-unlike the sterility that characterizes so many malls: "These days, life and progress in the Bronx are often measured by the arrival of suburban-style big box stores. Witness this summer’s opening of the Gateway Mall near Yankee Stadium, built partly on what had been the Bronx House of Detention. In the shadow of this retail behemoth a few days ago, customers lugged home bags bulging with necessities and luxuries alike, with plenty of room to maneuver through the wide outdoor walkways. It was quiet. It was antiseptic. It felt like Mars."

And, as Gonzales points out, the people on the streets quality of neighborhood shopping can be a priceless community resource-not to mention the bigger economic boost that comes from local entrepreneurship: "Looking at some of the photographs I took of Fordham Road when I returned there after college in 1979, I am struck by something I have yet to witness at the new Bronx malls: people just hanging out. From the benches that lined Poe Park to the tiny triangular oases along Fordham Road, old men and women sat and chatted. Kids played in the dirt and scraggly grass. Conversations and chance encounters were the norm, not the coldly efficient consumer rituals of suburbanized city spaces. Who needed a mall when you had Fordham Road?"

Which underscores the real failure of the Bloomberg approach to economic development-one that combines high tax and onerous regulatory policies with a permissive malling. And while the local retailers get nothing but tsuris from the city. there are generous subsidies for the mall developers. This, as Gonzales reports, continues with the effort up at Kingsbridge: "Fordham Road was never the South Bronx, except in the sense that it was the line where activists vowed the blight would stop. They succeeded. Apartment buildings were saved and renovated, and the street still buzzes with vitality and commerce. Their reward? One subway stop north of Fordham Road, the city and developers are pushing to turn the cavernous Kingsbridge Armory into — what else? — a mall. Like the one in the South Bronx. Some fortunes are forever linked."

Mike Bloomberg is absolutely tone deaf when it comes to neighborhood quality of life-given his background and great wealth this is not surprising. He also posses none of the common man charm that Nelson Rockerfeller seemed to naturally exude. As a result, neighborhood life and commerce is eroding, almost in concert with the cacophonous and misleading messaging of the Bloomberg campaign's promotion of a fraudulent five borough economic development plan.