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In the mid 1970s, the South Bronx reached its nadir of post-WW-II decline. Numerous buildings were intentionally burned by property owners who could no longer make a profit on their investments and wanted to collect insurance. At the start of the second game of the 1977 World Series at Yankee Stadium, an aerial shot of the stadium also caught a large fire in the neighborhood and sportscaster Howard Cosell famously remarked, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."
However, within this battle-scarred neighborhood, a number of grassroots organizations rose up to regain control of their community. One such group under the leadership of Harry DeRienzo, Leon Potts and Mildred Valez coalesced to renovate three buildings at 936, 940 and 944 Kelly Street ( Lat/Long 40.8205, -73.8957). The group formed the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, Inc., using the nickname for the crescent-shaped section of Kelly Street where their first renovation project was located. The group "liberated" these three abandoned buildings and returned them to habitability using funds from a Self Help Neighborhood Award Program grant and with "sweat equity" labor volunteered in return for co-op ownership of the renovated building (DeRienzo 2008, 16).
The gentleman seated on the sidewalk in front of 936 Kelly is Robert Foster, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood who was one of the original Banana Kelly homesteaders. Retired from Verizon, he was planning on selling his place and moving "down south." However, his plans were being delayed by the remarkable failure of the NYC Department of Buildings to issue a certificate of occupancy, 32 years after the building had been rescued.
Although there were Irish immigrants in this area in the early 20th century, Kelly Street is actually named after Samuel Kelly, who owned a farm in the area in the 19th century. Emporis is ambiguous on the age of the buildings on this block, giving them ages that range from 1907 to 1928 even though the common styling of the buildings implies that they were constructed simultaneously.
Leon Potts involvement with the group was spurred by his ownership of the six buildings immediately to the south of the Banana Kelly buildings. Potts relatives, many of whom lived these buildings, constituted the core of the Kelly Street volunteers (DeRienzo 2008, 34).
The success of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association resulted in its transformation from a volunteer effort into comparatively large funded organization controlling around 1,000 units by the mid 1990s. These changes resulted in the loss of many of the qualities (and personnel) that made the group unique and further problems with mismanagement and corruption nearly destroyed the organization in the final years of the 20th century. In 2002, the organization went through a major reorganization that returned it (and its 23 buildings) to solvency and viability by 2007 (DeRienzo 2008, 212).
Tiffany and Beck Streets run parallel to Banana Kelly just to the east. In contrast to the historically intact architecture of Kelly Street, Tiffany and Beck were largely rebuilt in the 1980s and 1990s with single-family row houses.
Rainey Park (to the south of Banana Kelly) used to be the 800 block of Kelly Street but by end of the 1970s it was a wasteland of vacant lots and derelict tenements. Community leader William F. Rainey (1920-1985) spearheaded an effort to convert the area into a large recreational park, which was posthumously renamed in his honor in 1991. (NYCDPR)
In the subsequent two decades after the formation of Banana Kelly, billions of public dollars were invested in the neighborhood, leveraging additional private investment and resulting in the construction or renovation of tens of thousands of residential units. The presence of Banana Kelly and other strong grassroots organizations gave the neighborhood an institutional advantage over other depressed parts of the city, resulting in a disproportionate share of investment and a remarkable restoration of a sense of community order.
The investment paid off financially for the city in the return of considerable amounts of property to the city's tax rolls. The strengthening of the community resulted in levels of crime reductions that significantly outpaced reductions in other depressed areas of the city, despite the high numbers of teenagers and young adults residing in the area. But unlike the urban renewal efforts in areas like Manhattan's Upper West Side or later gentrification trends in neighborhoods like Harlem, these gains came while the neighborhood remained something unique in the city: "...a place where lower-income people [could] live affordably, in tranquility and safety" (Grogan and Proscio 2000, 29).
Despite the level of devastation experienced in the South Bronx during the era of disinvestment and arson, there are quite a few lovely, turreted row houses that survived in the blocks south of Longwood - some in excellent condition. In contrast to the curved 900 block called "Banana Kelly", the more pastoral 700 block was called "Country Kelly."
There are a pair of clumps of pseudo-period row houses on Longwood Avenue that were constructed around 1993. Unlike some of the buildings from the 1980s, these have brick exteriors and appear to be fairly solid in construction. The only unfortunate marrings are the inferior replica cornices that lack the detailing of the original styles and that are not meaningfully integrated with the building structure.
The 41st Precinct was popularized in the 1981 Paul Newman film, Fort Apache, The Bronx, a work that was typical for its time in depicting New York as a corrupt, crime-ridden, post-apocalyptic wasteland. The original precinct house was at 1086 Simpson Street, but relocated to this new building on Intervale Avenue at Southern Boulevard in the 1980s.
Just to the west of the precinct is a building for the Police Athletic League, which was formed in 1914 to provide recreational activities for poor children (PAL 2009). Jacobs (1961, 143) points out the research of Karl Menninger that showed violent play (along with work and contact with other people) was a meaningful activity that could combat the "will to destruction" plaguing cities with few opportunities for positive outdoor recreation.
Prior to WW-II, Eastern Boulevard (later renamed Bruckner Boulevard after a former borough president) was a major thoroughfare through the South Bronx and was an approach to the Triboro Bridge (which opened in 1936). As early as 1936 the Regional Plan Association recommended construction of an expressway on this alignment. Robert Moses made his initial proposal for an elevated expressway in 1951 but political and community opposition delayed its approval until 1956. With its designation as an interstate highway (I-278), the project was eligible for 90% federal funding. Work on this six-lane, 2.3-mile connector between the Major Deegan and the Sheridan Expressway began in 1957 and was completed in 1962. (NYCRoads.com).
From an engineering and economic standpoint, fitting the elevated expressway in this narrow corridor between the neighborhood on the west and the NYNHH Railroad (later Amtrak) on the east made sense. However, the concerns of neighborhood business owners, residents and the Borough President about the "blighting" effect of elevated expressways proved prescient. Harry DeRienzo remarked that the Bruckner, "...seemed to have been expressly designed to both by-pass and bury this community." (DiRienzo 2008, 22).
The building of the IRT subway into the Bronx provided a fast and inexpensive way to commute into Manhattan and, thus, was pivotal to a massive influx of development in the South Bronx in the early 20th century. The three-track, three-mile elevated line between Brook Avenue and Bronx Park at 181st Street was section #10 of IRT contract #1 and work began on on August 19, 1901. The section was completed a few months before the rest of the IRT and opened in November of 1904 with a connection south of Jackson Avenue to the now-defunct Third Avenue El (NYCSubway.org)
DeRienzo, Harold. 2008. The Concept of Community: Lessons from the Bronx. Milan: IPOC di Pietro Condemi.
Grogan, Paul S. and Tony Proscio. 2000. Comeback Cities. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. http://books.google.com/bbooks/id=o5sbdWh_B8ICC
Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1993 Modern Library Edition.
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (NYCDPR). Rainey Park. http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/X255/highlights/8170 (last accessed 20 June 2009)
NYCRoads.com. Bruckner expressway: historic overview. http://www.nycroads.com/roads/bruckner. (last accessed 20 June 2009).
NYCSubway.org. The Bronx IRT, Lenox/White Plains Road/Dyre Avenue Line. http://www.nycsubway.org/lines/whiteplains.html (last accessed 20 June 2009).
Police Athletic League Website (PAL). 2009. History. http://www.palnyc.org/800-PAL-4KIDS/History.aspx.