THE BLACK GRAND CONCOURSE

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The Grand Concourse, one of the Bronx’s most famous thoroughfares, has gone through a tremendous transformation in terms of class character and race in over a century. Conceived by French engineer Louis Aloys Risse in 1870, the Grand Concourse was built between the years of 1902 and 1909. It extended only as far as 161st Street until a widened portion of Mott Avenue was included. As the Grand Concourse became a prime location for government, entertainment and shopping centers, the main route for parades and a plethora of other events and commercial buildings, it attracted wealthy residents. The Interborough Rapid Transit, also known as the IRT, was the gateway that would allow people to move from Manhattan to the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. The IRT Jerome Avenue line opened in 1917 and allowed for a housing boom amongst wealthy Jews and Italians who fled the tenements of Manhattan. 

By the 1950s, the racial demographics of the Grand Concourse started to transform. Blacks and Puerto Ricans gradually began their migration from the hoods of Morrisania and South Bronx to the north and west, in search of better living conditions on the white, wealthy, maintained avenues parallel to the Concourse: “A recent study by a social service agency predicted that the area, 98 percent white in 1950, would be less than 50 percent white in 1975.” With this emergence of Black residents in the area, the white residents started to seek elsewhere as their presence on the Grand Concourse declined swifter than imagined:

The builders of Co-Op City, a 15,000-unit middle-income development planned for the Northeast Bronx, have reported that a ‘sizable’ number of their first 5,000 applications came from the Concourse area.

This report paired with the numbers of whites who fled the Concourse, city officials feared that the area was on a decline and wanted to save the Concourse, “not as a white preserve, but as a stable, integrated community.” Whether the city officials actually were for integration or not, they definitely sought to keep the neighborhood from deterioration due to white flight:

Thirty building inspectors are thoroughly examining an area four blocks on either side of the Concourse from 138th Street to Burnside Avenue. The area from Tremont Avenue just south of Burnside at 177th Street to Fordham Road will receive city and Federal aid for rehabilitation and new construction under the low-rent public housing programs. 

 

The white flight of the Grand Concourse began with white families who sought “better areas” to raise children in, elders who retired to Florida and adults raised in the area as children who sought to break from the area’s bourgeois character. With the loss of residents, vacancies occurred at a rapid rate. Rather than losing out on money from vacancies, the landlords decided to rent to Black people: “The landlords decided to accept Negroes rather than vacancies,” said a real estate man.” 

City officials claimed they did not believe that Black people’s move into the Grand Concourse area caused the area to deteriorate but that the reaction to the Black migration produced reactions that lead to decline: “People have become afraid simply because there is change,” said one official, “and it is intensified if the change is also racial.” Whether the officials believed that Black migration into predominantly white neighborhoods directly caused the areas to collapse, the officials openly admitted to the racist reactions from long-time white residents. The acceleration of Black migrants to the concourse area led to building managers’ careless approach to maintenance. Sanitation workers, police protection and recreational facilities grew unreliable to the community. 

The flight led the Grand Concourse to become susceptible to predators that suddenly appeared in the area to play on the fears of racist white residents to employ the use of blockbusting. These same predators exploited poor Black families :

“When someone dies they move in an undesirable family, one on welfare with three kids in a bedroom. They cut services to the bone. Less stable families come in, sometimes several in one apartment so they can pay the rent, which of course goes up 15 percent.” – Aide to Representative James H. Scheuer

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Racist white residents chose who were the “acceptable” and unacceptable Blacks in their eyes: the acceptable Blacks were “the new neighbors who can afford the rent in their buildings,” but the poor Blacks from the ghettos from the east and south were a problem: “There is no wall between us and the slums.” The residents could not separate the acceptable Blacks and the Blacks from the slums who they feared, especially at night as businesses employed the use of metal screens to guard their windows. The fear of integration with Blacks and Puerto Ricans, especially if poor, was the core of white residents’ white flight and pushback. A school teacher from the Concourse said: “for most of these parents, a good school is a white school.” Others in the neighborhood chimed in about the ongoing demographic changes to the concourse:

It’s too late to save the area. We’re not going to stop it. If Negroes and Puerto Ricans come in, there is no incentive to keep up the buildings. Maybe that’s prejudice, maybe that’s bigotry, but that’s what happens.

The quote was proven true by the city officials in the decades that came. By the 1970s, the Grand Concourse area eventually faced an era of decay due to neglect for its Black and Puerto Rican constituents, which was a trend in neighborhoods in New York City such as Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Blocks were abandoned with vacant buildings left unattended by landlords who fled the Bronx and the decay of the Grand Concourse. During the 1980s, landlords worked with private developers, tenants, and community organizations in hopes of neighborhood resurgence. On December 18, 1987, New York City officials transferred the last five vacant apartment buildings on the concourse to developers in hopes to aid a revitalization of housing needed in the area.

Present-day, the Bronx has become the subject of gentrification as politicians and developers have used its history as the birthplace of Hip Hop to market the borough as a new hot-spot. The gentrification comes with an ethnic change in the racial demographics of the Concourse that actively displaces Blacks and Puerto Ricans: “The elevated housing demand in the neighborhoods around the boulevard pushed the median home sale price to increase 68% in just 5 years—from 2014 to 2018.”

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