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Friday, September 2, 2016

Little Houses on Charlotte Street

Charlotte Street in The Bronx has a mythic place in the history of The Bronx, and it continues to grow as the borough recovers from its period of neglect and abandonment. As the mythology grows, Charlotte Street becomes increasingly symbolic. Yet it remains a place where real families live and build dreams for their future.

As with any other symbolic place, people impose their own agendas onto its history and argue about its meaning. Its history becomes contested through competing efforts to use its lessons to shape the future. Attention to Charlotte Street will only mount going into next year, the 40th Anniversary of the Blackout and The Bronx Is Burning. Quality discussions that hear and consider different perspectives will be invaluable.

Interest in Charlotte Street has already percolated for much of this year. It bubbled up when Bernie Sanders held his massive rally at St. Mary's Park in the South Bronx in April, and it has boiled over since Netflix released its new series The Get Down. As we approach the 40th anniversary of "The Bronx is Burning," attention is likely to grow.

The Sanders rally naturally led to a round of discussions about historic presidential visits to The Bronx. None are more mythologized than the pair of stops at Charlotte Street by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

President Carter visited the area in 1977. His suggestion was to "See which areas can still be salvaged." Mere weeks later, televisions viewers watching a Yankees game were told a massive fire was in the same area (it was actually a mile and a half away in Melrose). That moment, paraphrased as "The Bronx is burning," became permanently branded on the borough's image. While the specific fire seen on television that night was not actually on Charlotte Street, it was an apt enough depiction of the arson that left nothing but debris of former homes in its wake. In 1980, local activists staged a People's Convention on the site of Carter's visit during the Democratic Convention to draw attention to broken promises. Later that year, Reagan stole their idea and visited the site to try emphasizing his opponent's failures.

Ultimately, planners and developers led by Ed Logue finally rebuilt Charlotte Street and the surrounding blocks. What they created looked like the image of the prototypical American suburb had literally been xeroxed right into the middle of the least likely inner city neighborhood. A small handful of streets were lined with cheerful little ranch houses. They have hardly changed today. Each has its own little fenced yard. You can hear the birds singing when you stroll down the sidewalk.

The reactions have generally been positive since the beginning. Any politician involved took a share of credit. The real estate market responded favorably, and Charlotte Gardens periodically graces the real estate pages of newspapers and magazines (a few examples: The New York Times in 1997, CNN Money in 2009

Yet there have also been persistent questions about its low density from the beginning, too. Developers of Salter Square, the next set of houses in the area, built more single-family homes, but they were much denser rowhouses.

The low density also had plenty of urbanist critics. Roberta Gratz is typical of the detractors:
"One of the worst new projects perpetrated on a City is Charlotte Street. Ranch housing with picket fences in the South Bronx, give me a break. This is not what should have been. It is not argued about. It is not discussed. In fact, it’s pointed at, pointed to as a great success. Why? And this was the standard. It brought developers into that neighborhood, and that was the mark of success, not whether it was the right thing for the right place. It’s not enough I have to say to the advocates of affordable housing, to advocate for affordable housing, but to advocate for the right kind of affordable housing, which must include density and not single family housing with parking garages or car ports within blocks of mass transit on the inner city neighborhoods, of our city or any other " http://www.udchousing.org/images/pdfs/archive/OpenForum.pdf
Gratz is hardly alone in this view. I have heard the same complaints from many others in the planning community. After decades of struggling to overturn rampant suburban sprawl that drained away the vitality of urban neighborhoods, after working hard to restore public confidence in density and transit, they see the little houses on Charlotte Street as an example of everything they have sought to overcome.

I agree we should not look at Charlotte Street as a template for other development in The Bronx. Yet my perspective has been influenced by neighbors and a colleague who worked for Logue in The Bronx. The arguments against the redevelopment strike me as easy criticism that confuses today's problems with the critical issues that needed to be addressed at the time. Charlotte Street needed to prove The Bronx could be stabilized, not set an example for how it would eventually be rebuilt.

With an overall citywide exodus to the suburbs and the abandonment and arson in The Bronx, population was declining. According to the Census, New York City lost more than 823,000 residents between 1970 and 1980.  Over 300,000 of the decline came from The Bronx. The City had a fiscal crisis and was pursuing a policy of "planned shrinkage." Following in the immediate wake of televising that "The Bronx is burning," there was no confidence, and no real reason to even imagine, that The Bronx would need to make room for significant population growth.

Jimmy Smits in The Get Down on a rubble field representing Charlotte Street

In a climate of abandonment, what The Bronx needed was proof it could hold its ground. What the plans for Charlotte Street offered was a development pattern that could restore and maintain order to a large, problematic area while drawing only minimally on City services. Installing private yards was an effective and socially positive way to turn uncontrolled rubble fields into defensible space. More importantly, Charlotte Street offered dignity to the homeowners who occupied their own little piece of the American Dream and offered hope to others in The Bronx that their chances may not be permanently denied.

Could these effects have been achieved with a denser development pattern? Would "better planning" have yielded a different model that created a more complete community that would be more economically sustainable over the long term? Perhaps, but I have doubts it could have been implemented as quickly or injected morale as strongly as the image of everyday America.

In retrospect, one may wonder if greater density may have improved the finances and provided homes for more families. Yet looking at the Salter Square homes, it is clear they would never have had the same lift in morale when The Bronx was at its lowest. Investing in larger condos would have been too risky to secure financing. Rental apartments would likewise have been risky, and would have failed to anchor any of the quickly disappearing middle class, further concentrating low-income residents in The Bronx.

When I occasionally go for runs around Charlotte Street these days, decades later, I note there are still a few remaining vacant lots in the surrounding area that provide infill opportunities. That indicates that there still has not been any true loss of density. This issue needs to be clarified: the construction of little houses on Charlotte Street was an absolute increase in density. For over a decade before the redevelopment, the actual density of those blocks was zero. Without a successful project, the site would have remained vacant and the surrounding blocks may have continued to lose housing units through ongoing neglect. As a proof of viability, Charlotte Street stabilized its neighborhood and laid the foundation for rebuilding abandoned sites throughout the borough. Throughout the time rebuilding gradually progressed site by site across The Bronx over decades, the homeowners in this community have lived out their own aspirations.

This summer, Netflix released its expensive new series The Get Down. One of the most salient recurring subplots in this show set in The Bronx is the effort by Papa Fuerte (played by Jimmy Smits) to build homes on Charlotte Street. The rubble fields are a recurring location that almost become a character in their own right.

Papa Fuerte is a complex character. He clearly has his own hustle; he's ambitious and there is no doubt he stands to gain personal financial reward from the construction he is trying to bring to Charlotte Street. He's a "poverty pimp," and we should always be cautious about leaders who build their power by speaking for others, rather than empowering them to speak for themselves. At the same time, he articulates an impassioned vision for a better neighborhood where people can own their own homes. The strength of that dream, when landlords are burning their tenants out of their homes, is palpable. Obviously, Papa Fuerta is a fictional character, representing a self-serving project, yet the portrayal of this perspective stands as an effective counterargument to criticisms like those of Gratz.

Today, the question of density at Charlotte Street may be a point for real consideration, without discounting the value it brought to The Bronx at a critical juncture. Rather than being an abstract argument about general models of development, it is really a question about the future to consider in our time. New York City as a whole, including The Bronx, has sustained strong population growth, and the lack of affordable housing continues to be a citywide crisis. As other sites have filled in, thanks in part to the stabilizing effect of Charlotte Street, it may be time to start engaging the community in a discussion about what kind of urban neighborhood it should be in the future.

Declarations attached to the properties limit them to single family homes in perpetuity. However, those declarations allow the City Planning Commission to amend the requirements. That is to say, the City could undertake a planning effort to increase densities. The idea of crowding in on these homeowners' yards my be unwelcome, especially at first. On the other hand, some owners may be interested in enlarging their homes or adding a second unit, either for extended family or rental income. Obsolescence may be setting in as these inexpensive houses put on age, and the prospect of increased property values with more development potential may be attractive to some owners. Depending on the actual condition of the homes and the sentiments of the various owners, it is conceivable that a new vision for a denser community built around homeownership and sustainable design could build on the legacy of individual homes with their little yards.

The pressing need to increase the supply of housing brings the risk of a seemingly top-down approach. A mayoral agenda, no matter how well intended, can feel threatening if it comes across as a predetermined outcome imposed from outside the community. Other current efforts, like the zoning study for Jerome Avenue, have had difficulty forging a collaborative working relationship between the community and the City planners trying to work with them. Conversely, those who came up in The Bronx during this difficult time have an interest in promoting its mythology, which can drive its own outside agenda on a place like Charlotte Street. Any eventual efforts to develop a new plan for this neighborhood would require careful consideration of its unique qualities and empowering its residents to continue building on their dreams while helping provide opportunities for others to succeed too.

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