South Bronx: home of hip-hop fights to keep its soul as gentrification creeps in

As Netflixs new show The Get Down charts the boroughs musical past, the area is becoming a hipster hotspot

In New York right now the talk is all about The Get Down. Baz Luhrmanns Netflix visual extravaganza charting the birth of hip-hop was the most eagerly awaited new show of the summer, a hugely expensive (its reported to have cost $120m) and vividly conceived take on a time when a few blocks in the South Bronx were at the centre of a musical revolution.

Yet while the rest of the city gives in to nostalgia for New Yorks heyday as the dirty, dangerous creative capital of the world, in the South Bronx itself a less welcome revolution is under way. The area that was once shorthand for urban decline, a no-go zone of burned-out buildings, addiction and despair, is in the developers crosshairs.

Theres talk of gentrification, of rebranding the area as the Piano District, of big-budget projects and of how the South Bronx could become the new Williamsburg, a hotspot for bars, restaurants and hipsters, if those involved just play it the right way. Silvercup Studios, the production facility behind TV shows such as Girls and Elementary, plans to open a new site in Port Morris, while real-estate firms Somerset Partners and the Chetrit Group hope to develop a luxury apartment complex, complete with boutique hotels, nightclubs and a waterfront esplanade set to open in 2020.

Meanwhile, Robert De Niro is reported to be bringing the latest version of acclaimed Italian chef Massimo Botturas Refettorio Ambrosiano project to the area. The initiative tackles food waste while feeding the homeless.

Not everyone is convinced by these grand plans. Were fighting hyper-speculation where we see all this mass development coming into our community because the land is cheaper, says Mychal Johnson, who works for community group South Bronx Unite. People are coming in and trying to build so many different types of buildings almost 46% of all development in the Bronx is happening here in the South Bronx which has the potential to displace those who have been here struggling through the hard times. If you cant live in the South Bronx, then where can you live?

The Hub, heart of the South Bronx. Photograph: Barry Winiker/Getty Images
Walking around the crowded streets of Mott Haven, Melrose and Hunts Point with their car parts shops, small grocers and boarded-up buildings, talk of gentrification seems premature. This is an area with huge traffic congestion and air pollution dominated by the controversial Cross Bronx and Bruckner Expressways created by
Robert Moses, Americas greatest town planner, which continue to cause problems more than 40 years after they were completed.

Many living here struggle financially, and the schools are notoriously bad a 2015 report in the New York Daily News branded them the citys worst, stating that 93% of South Bronx students were economically disadvantaged one in 10 students is homeless and the average attendance rate among the citys lowest. Asthma rates are among the highest in the US and life expectancy is in the mid-70s, the lowest of any neighbourhood in the city.

Theres been a lot of advancement in our community but the question remains for whom and at what cost? says Johnson. Are our schools better? Are we still unemployed? Are we better off environmentally than we were? Are any of the decisions being made going to change these scenarios?

Its true that much of the gentrification talk in the area appears to be so much surface glitter. This weekend will see the South Bronx host the No Commission Art Fair, an invite-only art and music fair curated by hip-hop producer and South Bronx native Swizz Beatz. The event is sponsored by Bacardi, and has drawn criticism throughout the neighbourhood. Local blog Welcome 2 The Bronx has been particularly vociferous, although a recent post by writer Ed Garca Conte stated that he had met Beatz and we agreed to collaborate on a future event that will be curated to include Bronx artists as the highlight.

The spectre of Brooklyn hangs heavy. Incomers to the city continue to flock to that boroughs hip enclaves such as Greenpoint, Fort Greene and Red Hook, forcing prices up and long-term residents out. When we were filming The Get Down we had a meeting with the Bronx borough president Reuben Diaz, says cultural critic and author Nelson George, who writes for the show. He said to us everybody in the Bronx wants some of what Brooklyns got but without that sort of social displacement. The question is how to bring in development without making the same sort of mistakes.

For Johnson the issue is that people look at the South Bronx and see not the people who live here but the potential for speculation. Theres no more land left in Manhattan and Harlem so suddenly this area is desirable, he says. And thats all good and fine but when developers come in, real-estate taxes and rental values go up and owners think, Well, I can get $2,400 for a studio so why not? What happens then to people of moderate, lower level and low income where do they live?


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The Get Down, left to right: Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr, Shameik Moore, Justice Smith and Jaden Smith. Photograph: Netflix

<a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>A recent report in the New York Times suggested that rents have risen sharply in the South Bronx over the past year, climbing by 28% in Mott Haven and Hunts Point and by 23.5% in Morrisania and Belmont. The paper suggested the rise was driven by the arrival of young, white, college-educated residents and its true that New York estate agents are making much of the fact that you can make it from Grand Central Station to the sweeping hilltop views of Grand Concourse in 20 minutes.

In rapidly developing Hunts Point, Majora Carter suggests there is a third way. The 49-year-old South Bronx native made her name with a series of regeneration projects most notably the Hunts Point Riverside Park, which transformed an abandoned lot into a lush, tree-lined space and has become something of a poster girl for the concept of self-gentrification.

People who live in low-status communities like nice things too, says Carter, who now runs a consultancy firm, the Majora Carter Group. I dont see anything romantic about poverty and I think trying to make people feel comfortable in that is a shameful thing to do. So our goal is always to figure ways and opportunities to make people think that there are other possibilities.

Carters recent projects include a trendy, brick-walled coffee shop and Start Up Box: South Bronx, a not-for-profit tech incubator that aims to employ young people from the area. Next up, she says, is a restaurant. Its all about giving people something beautiful to be in, she adds. When I grew up in the South Bronx it was the area that politicians came to as a stop on their political campaign to make all these promises which they never delivered on and I wanted to make sure that anything I did wasnt like that.

Carter is regularly attacked on social media by those who believe she cares only about one part of the community the young and upwardly mobile and has been accused of selling out by working with outside investors and development firms.

I think Majora looks at whats happening differently, says Johnson. Shes looking at how gentrification can help a community but I think thats dangerous because of how it displaces the community. If you create a business local residents cant afford, then your clientele comes from outside the community, so how does it help those who live here?

Carter remains bullish. If you call this gentrification, then it sounds like a really terrible thing where youre pushing people out deliberately and thats awful. But the thing is, gentrification happens the day you start telling the brightest kids in your community that to make something of yourself you have to leave or when you tell people the property they own isnt worth anything so they should just sell it on the cheap, she says. The issue here is about money, the lack of it, the lack of being able to make it, keep it and circulate it throughout our community. Were going to take the model of gentrification and make it work for us because if we keep giving people reasons to leave then they will.

The Get Down is on Netflix from this weekend

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