The Bronx is Burning (Under the Microscope)

The borough I call home, the Bronx: How my mention of its name used to strike a mysterious sort of terror in the heart of the white man. A recent New York Times article suggests that the sense of terror at the dread phrase "The Bronx" has subsided. Only now I am the one having the sense of terror.

The borough I call home, the Bronx: How my mention of its name used to strike a mysterious sort of terror in the heart of the white man. A recent New York Times article suggests that the sense of terror at the dread phrase "The Bronx" has subsided. Only now I am the one having the sense of terror.

There is something that many non-New Yorkers (or new New Yorkers) can never seem to understand. In most areas of the country, even urban areas, there is a sense of civic pride at having your neighborhood haunts profiled by the biggest regional paper. Hey, there's the old pub! Look, they covered the barber shop! Oh boy, they got Mama's restaurant!

For native New Yorkers (by which I mean born and raised here), there is always an unease at having the neighborhood getting scoped by some intrepid Village Voice or New York Times reporter, a sense of invasion. Especially in people-of-color areas in the Outer Boroughs (Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx of my current home), there is a feeling that the reporter is about to seriously fuck things up for the area, one way or another, regardless of whether he writes well or ill of the neighborhood.

In "Uneasy Street," the Times writer Mark Caldwell profiles the Fordham Road shopping district, an area not too far from me -- it's either a short bus ride, or a long walk away. To give you my own take on Fordham Road: it's just your run-of-the-mill shopping area that happens to be dominated by a few stores that tend to cater to people of color -- hip-hop clothing at Dr. Jay's; sneakers at Foot Locker; lots of stores that sell jewelry. And that happens to have a pretty lively peddler culture, of all number of brownfolk selling specialty items -- West Indians with their incense, and Africans selling knockoff clothing with the odd Afrocentric doodad.

The first thing that caught my eye about Caldwell's article is how, right away, there is a colonist's gaze applied to the area right away. The following passage is a dead giveaway: "In high summer, a row of vegetable men sets up south of Fordham Road, selling Scotch Bonnet peppers more incendiary than anything Whole Foods has to offer."

"High summer?" Didn't I have one of those a couple years ago when I momentarily dropped out of college? I can't remember (that may be the point).

But on the serious tip: "high summer" instantly evokes the white man's vision of rural black life as expressed in Gershwin's "Summertime" -- when the cotton is high It is as if right away Caldwell wants Fordham Road -- the average run-of-the-mill post-War shopping district -- to just evaporate into a plantation. (From Caldwell's description, it would also seem that yesterday's cotton pickin' slaves of leisure are today's perfect "vegetable men.")

Then we have the whole fact that this rural idyll in the Bronx is compared to Whole Foods -- something I take to be a dead giveaway as to the true intended audience of this article, the Whole Foods consumer who loves their whole "we're ecological, but don't fucking think of working here if you want union wages," attitude.

It may just be the recent death of Gillo Pontecorvo, the director whose canon may be said to be the most influenced by Frantz Fanon -- I'm instantly reminded of what Fanon wrote on the colonial "world of compartments," in Wretched of the Earth. Fanon teaches that the Casbah and European Quarter were not just divided by the French policy of quadrilage, but also by a process by which connotations are assigned to each. Hence, the necessity of drawing lines between the "clean" European Quarter and the "dirty" Arabs, and the necessity of creating a system by which the Arab servants clean the European Quarter only to return to a Casbah left in squalor.

The article Caldwell writes is littered with such passages, whether it is contrasting the street vendors of Manhattan with those on Fordham Road (Manhattan vendors? Clean! Bronx vendors? Dirty!), or by highlighting the exotic sound of hip-hop or salsa at Fordham Road's stores. That Times Square is as littered as Fordham Road every night, and that the only difference is that the Times Square BID foots the bill to have it cleaned up every night is lost on Caldwell. As for the "exotic" sound of salsa and hip-hop -- dollars to donuts, it's playing right now in any number of businesses in Manhattan.

What is Caldwell's agenda? I honestly cannot determine it fully, but it is clear that he (and his editors at the Times) know exactly who pays their bills, and that it's no one who actually lives near Fordham Road.

Caldwell speaks with business owners, but not customers, and it is a good bet that none of the people he spoke with live in the area. Yes, Caldwell notes that the business owners lament the rising rents and encroachment of the Gap stores. He omits that they were only kept so low for so long because the same class that owns the businesses of the Bronx were once the slumlords of the Bronx -- and that after mortgage money dried up in the late-60s/early-70s (because the Bronx was Rustbelt and not Sunbelt) the slumlords torched the damn borough for insurance money.

Yes, for Caldwell that there are peddlers on the streets of the Bronx is an exotic oddity, a bit of the Old World in the New. There is nothing about two African peddlers shot by the NYPD -- Amadou Diallo and Ousmane Zongo -- because their dark skin doesn't translate as "exotic" but as "menace" to the police.

Yes, for Caldwell it is a laugh to note the shiny baubles trotted out for black and Latino youth to buy, and the youth who come in to try them on. There is, however, no laughter in the Fordham Road Armed Forces Recruiting Station, situated not too far from the jewelry stores he mentions -- the place where those amibitious kids who bought the shiny baubles turn to when their credit's exhausted and they can't get a student loan.

There is a vertigo in reading about the neighborhood in the New York Times. And a real terror as well. Unlike most of the Times, I'm not scared of anything I've actually read in it. I'm just scared shitless of whoever else may be reading it.


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