September 20, 2016

Rebranding the Bronx: Why do electeds keep bringing up the bad old days?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces the opening of Silvercup Studios North last month in the Bronx

Photo Credit: Darren McGee/ Office of the Governer

Standing behind a podium with a sign proclaiming “The Bronx is Back,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked the crowd gathered in a new, 115,000-square-foot film studio last month to reflect decades into the borough’s past.

Back in 1977, President Jimmy Carter chose to travel to the Bronx to discuss desolation in urban America, Cuomo said. And now, four decades later and several blocks south of the Charlotte Street site immortalized by the spotlight that came with Carter, Silvercup Studios has opened a third studio in Port Morris. Cuomo, who was joined by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., suggested this debut was part of an arc that was so impressive, it was redefining the Bronx’s identity.

“That was a Bronx that no longer exists,” Cuomo said. “This is a different place. If I was Ruben, I would think of putting a new name on the end of the Bronx because it has nothing to do with the old Bronx. The Bronx is back.”

At ribbon-cuttings and initiative unveilings, elected officials have compared the current state of the entire borough to 1970s and ’80s-era conditions in the Bronx’s southern neighborhoods, where swaths of communities were burned, abandoned and left to struggle with curtailed government services and rising crime. Using this time frame unquestionably draws favorable comparisons, which have a broad appeal in a borough that prides itself on its resiliency. Still, some Bronxites see this as emphasizing electeds’ achievements at the expense of a more objective assessment of their work.

References to the rougher times have come up at everything from an annual bankers breakfast to an announcement about iHeartMedia showcasing its brands on a billboard overlooking the Triborough Bridge. Those making the comparisons muse about how things that seemed unattainable while growing up in the Bronx have became a reality. Others cite “the Bronx renaissance,” the borough’s “revitalization” or “the new Bronx.” Diaz has been particularly vocal. In a 2014 speech that coincided with the Bronx's centennial, he touched on efforts to broadcast changes and rebrand his home borough. Later that year, he bluntly said at an architecture conference, “The Bronx is not burning; It is not ‘Fort Apache.’”

Anytime someone is like, ‘It’s not this thing,’ that’s interesting because it still makes people think in that way. … Now we’re thinking about the Bronx burning, and we’re thinking about ‘Fort Apache.’ If I was advising these politicians, I would say stop framing it in this way. Think about new ways of framing and different ways of framing this instead of continually going back and perpetuating these stereotypes by saying it’s not these stereotypes.

– DON WAISANEN, associate professor of the public communication at Baruch College

Diaz told City & State that overcoming negative stereotypes has been one of the greatest challenges since his tenure at Borough Hall began in 2009. He said it was tricky to describe the progress being made and dismantle stereotypes while being careful not to repeat negative notions so much that he risks perpetuating them.

Yet Diaz says he has struck the right balance: He has seen the addition of 24,000 homes, 54 million square feet of economic development, a 14 percent increase in tourism, a decline in unemployment and a growing number of people who are proud of their Bronx roots. “When you say you’re from the Bronx, what you’re saying is, ‘I’m tough. I have a strong cultural and historical background. I’m resilient. I’ve persevered. I have a big heart,’” Diaz said. “When folks come here, when they see the changes, they realize that there has been a renaissance, and there continues to be one. But that still doesn’t compare to the amount of exposure or negative exposure that we have had.”

In a sense, this crush of unfavorable publicity came to the Bronx by chance. Carter could have come to any number of communities in America or even in New York City, where government policies and xenophobia prompted middle-class white families to leave for the suburbs, with manufacturing firms following suit, according to Angel Hernandez, the Bronx County Historical Society’s director of programs and external relations. Those who remained were disproportionately poor. And when the fiscal crisis hit New York City, the government closed firehouses and slashed services, exacerbating the damage of traditional fires and those started by landlords looking to collect insurance money and opportunists looking to strip and sell brass, iron and valuable materials.

Image of President Jimmy Carter in Bronx, NY

Hud Secretary Patricia Harris, Jimmy Carter and New York Mayor Abraham Beame tour the south Bronx in October 1977

Newspapers put Carter’s visit on their covers. Soon Charlotte Street became a campaign destination for many candidates. And the borough’s association with urban decay was perpetuated by movies like “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” which centered around a police precinct that was so inundated with crime, it was named after a historical military post. At the time, residents spoke out against the film’s depiction of blacks and Latinos, according to Hernandez. Today, many said these stereotypes persist, clinging to a county made up mostly of people of color, but not to other boroughs, where more whites have moved in.

Several longtime residents said historical comparisons come naturally to Bronxites. New York City Councilman Rafael Salamanca said that as new developments rise, he has mused about how the sites used to be eyesores. Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin said the period produced many aspects of today’s culture – hip-hop, graffiti and fashion – and that it’s proper to pay homage to such a formative era, while ensuring younger generations have the historical knowledge to prevent another incident of mass-neglect. “We need to remember where we came from and how bad it was, so that we don’t repeat the past and keep moving forward,” Benjamin said.

That’s almost as insulting as telling a Jewish person, let’s not talk about the Holocaust – it was 50, 60, 70 years ago. No, it’s still relevant today. You don’t want to forget the past. … You need to remember so that you continue to move forward and don’t make the same mistakes.

– former Assemblyman MICHAEL BENJAMIN

But coming from the mouths of electeds, sweeping comparisons to the past can overshadow the details of what’s being announced today, according to Mychal Johnson, a member of the South Bronx Unite coalition. Johnson said it seems like luring large projects to the borough is more about burnishing politicians’ resumes than about what the investments do for local residents. “Saying Silvercup studios and others are in our community – that doesn’t make our lives better,” Johnson said. “They are job creators – but is it living wage jobs? They’re bringing Silvercup and others, but is it going to increase the knowledge and the access of people in the community to studios?”

Framing contemporary projects against the backdrop of the 1970s can create a flattering juxtaposition for a number of reasons, according to those who study persuasive language. Derek Mueller, an associate writing professor at Eastern Michigan University and a board member of the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, said taking the long view tends to reflect well on Bronxites and their current leaders. “It’s not as striking to say, ‘Remember how terrible things were yesterday?’” he said. “The important issue here is time scale. … It’s an exercise in contrast, and contrast underscored with political credit to current leaders and their deeds.”

Don Waisanen, an associate professor of communication at Baruch College, said metaphors relying on nature or natural disasters – fires leveling parts of the Bronx, gentrification burning through boroughs and building frontiers – suggest that negative or controversial experiences were too powerful for people to control, but by comparison Bronx leaders now have a handle on these issues: “Partly what they’re doing is, ‘We’re in control. This was a place that was out of control. … It wasn’t anything we were a part of. It was just happening. It was chaos. And certain people came along. We were a part of this movement. And now we have things in control. So put your trust into us.’”

Despite Cuomo’s suggestion, efforts to rebrand the Bronx have evoked distrust. Real estate developers with towers planned along the Mott Haven and Port Morris waterfront were skewered for fixating on a brief moment in the area’s manufacturing history and referring to it as “the Piano District,” rather than the names long used by the community. Tensions rose when some of these executives threw a party in Port Morris featuring trash-can fires and shot-up cars and suggested that attendees add the hashtag #bronxisburning to social media posts. Diaz, who attended the party, has said he didn’t like elements of the event, but saw it overall as a celebration of the borough’s progress.

The borough president himself has taken to using the phrase “the new Bronx.” It has miffed some, who believe it implicitly puts down “the old Bronx.” Johnson, for example, said the slogan gave him the unflattering impression that, previously, the South Bronx or the Bronx as a whole had nothing but negative connotations.

However, the governor’s suggestion that the Bronx update its name fell flat with Diaz. “We appreciate when someone who has such a huge bully pulpit has time and time again been helpful to us, has time and time again visited us, has highlighted our successes,” Diaz said. “He was excited. But we are the Bronx, and always will be just the Bronx. I say that we’re the new Bronx, but that’s just, again, in my excitement, that we’re just not the Bronx that they’re accustomed to reading about or seeing in the papers or from when they used to live here 20, 30 years ago.”