A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Exploring Violence In New York's South Bronx: Criminals or Victims?
By Keisha Saul

This is a quantitative/qualitative social research in which I will discuss the impact of poverty, a vast crack epidemic, crime, and institutionalized discrimination on the residents of the South Bronx. The New York City neighborhood has suffered decline after decline, with the first in 1960 after a loss of housing and jobs, which were replaced by drugs and crime. Even so, some of the most influential figures in music and politics hail from the neighborhood, but do little to improve the quality of life for its remaining residents. The neighborhood now has more homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers, and fast food chains than any other City in New York, and the residents of the South Bronx seem to have become immune to their own suffering. Their residents seem to venture out only to retreat back to their inner-city, protecting themselves from confronting dimensions of class and racial humiliation. This is part of a report that was compiled for presentation to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services (Jan/08) as part of an ethnographic research into the crime and community of the South Bronx. The information given are from interviews complied are with real people who reside in the South Bronx, and all experiences are factual as I understand them to be.

Bronx, New York
Total population: 1,332,650
Square miles (land): 42.03
Population per square mile: 31,709.34

The weakness of research done in the South Bronx is that it is just that, research. These methods blame the victim and rarely get to the root of the problem. These reductionist approaches exclude the historical and structural context of these inner-city neighborhoods; a wholesome understanding of the history of this community is needed to have a better grasp on violence in street culture, and why it is accepted by most of the younger residents.  Violence is prevalent not only in the physical forms of gangs, crime, and drug use, but also is institutionalized in ways that blame the residents of the South Bronx for their own social misfortunes. Decades of poverty enable them to ignore the injustices they face in their community; instead most accept it as a trend of the "ghetto". I will discuss more the forms of violence prevalent in the South Bronx, analyze the trend of physical and social violence, state how and in what ways violence is institutionalized, and finally discuss community reaction to the Bronx street culture.

In an effort to thwart former social studies on the South Bronx, which aided the construction of its residents as the social "other" often by dehumanizing them politically and culturally, I will discuss the history of migration to the South Bronx. The Bronx is one of few cities that are rich in culture and diversity. Its neighborhoods, while mostly impoverished, include some upscale communities. To the majority of the residents of the South Bronx, these communities, some of them gated, promote the discourse of urban fear and lead in stereotypes of immediate danger in urban communities. The gates act as a measure to keep the unwanted on their side of town, and to keep those enclosed in these gates quiet and safe. But, the residents of the Southern Bronx rarely venture out of their own neighborhoods. The residents of the South Bronx, majority Puerto Rican, have established against them a history of social violence. Puerto Rico, used as a device to control the influence of Cuba on its neighbors, was established as a United States Commonwealth in 2000. This caused an influx in migration of Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico to New York. However, this migration began in 1940, when a half of the Island's population was forced to leave their homeland to seek work abroad. Today, more Puerto Ricans live outside of the Island than on the Island. Although Puerto Rico was made a Commonwealth of the U.S, Puerto Ricans were not given the federal right to vote in National elections. This was albeit the fact that they were, however, required to register with selective services.  Puerto Ricans, similar to all new immigrants migrating to New York City, were confronted by racism and cultural humiliation. Most formed their own communities, and the formation of the Puerto Rican South Bronx began.

Spaces, and the community's appropriation of it, are important factors to consider. The Bronx is a densely populated city; the population per every square mile is 31,709.34 people. It is more populated than any other city in New York. The neighborhood is full of apartment buildings, most of them projects and other low-income housing. Many of these homes are occupied with generations of family; almost everyone I spoke to had a grandparent, usually a grandmother, residing with them. In many cases the grandmother was an immigrant from Puerto Rico, and was the primary lease holder for the apartment her family now occupies. This trend led to the residents of the neighborhood fighting for rent-stabilized housing and the right to keep their rent at a minimum when there are family members of a deceased lease holder still occupying the apartment. Puerto Ricans have been shifted out of their land for decades; in 1898, United States Marines invaded the Island, making the Island now home to US export corporations. This caused the most dislocating land transformation that any Third World island has ever experienced in history.

Puerto Ricans have long been victims of dislocation, and it is no doubt now understood why there is a certain pride for them when it concerns issues of space, and more so, land they occupy. Many Puerto Rican neighborhoods provide vast evidence of their ethnicity without much effort by the onlooker. Walking into a majority Puerto Rican neighborhood, you witness an innumerate amount of flags, while your ears are suddenly filled with cultural music. This is especially true for the South Bronx. Its residents have an exemplary pride in their space; this leads me to an ongoing issue in New York City, gentrification.

Exiting the subway, my vision greeted me with 14 apartment buildings, all former projects. They each have about 12 floors, and were recently purchased by developers three months ago who are now evicting the building's low-income residents to provide new, renovated, and in extremely decent condition apartments for middle-class couples and small families. Gentrification has long been an issue for low income and even some middle class neighborhoods - in an effort to raise property value, restaurant owners open cafe's, sport lounges, sushi restaurants and other places of business to replace "bodega's", Chinese restaurants, and Laundromats. With these inviting new prospects, residents of a higher social class are invited to preview the neighborhood. Developers then buy apartment buildings in the neighborhood; they then offer a price for the residents to vacate, or simply raise the rent to enormous amounts, forcing the residents of these apartments to leave to look for more affordable housing. The process is justified by many to be an effort to reduce crime and drugs prevalent in low income communities; however, it is a process of extreme racial and class discrimination. The former residents are usually Black or Hispanic lower class, and the residents who are the "gentrifiers" are almost always White middle class.

I walked across the street to the Leasing Office, which was nicely decorated to resemble an upscale living room. I walked up to a sleek, mahogany colored wooden desk and greeted the person sitting behind it, who was a girl about 20 years old and appeared to be a college student. On the wall behind her was a map of the neighborhood, and a number pasted on top of each building that the developers had recently purchased. To my right was another map, this one of new restaurants and other eateries in the neighborhood that would welcome its new residents. I asked to see one of the two bedroom apartments available for rent. I was then handed a "pre-selection' application, which outlined carefully in bold on the top that for a two bedroom, my income had to be at least $75,000 annually. I filled in the appropriate information, and overheard a woman, with no discretion for privacy, telling another applicant that she was not eligible to see a two bedroom because her annual income was "only" $40,000." I decided this would be an adventure.

Walking across the street, and up the block, to the building that only had two (2) bedroom apartments left that were renovated (the other apartments had living in them residents who were on government assistance, and of course were not renovated) seemed like a walk across the continent. The stares from onlookers in the neighborhood were immense; they knew we were the "gentrifiers" and our presence was not welcome. The residents seemed to be one step away from throwing the garbage put out in the street for collection. The residents did not welcome people who aided in pushing them out of their space.

Undoubtedly this process was less than a pleasure for me. However, in hunting for an apartment, it is experienced with almost every place I visit. The crime in the South Bronx makes it less desiring for people to move there; the poverty level is at an all time low and the crack epidemic is raising its ugly head once again. Most of the crimes reported are committed by teenagers and young adults - the life expectancy of a Bronx resident is now 33 years old. The borough suffers from organized crime, with the famous Lucchese crime family at the head. At many of the local bodegas, it is near to impossible to find an item that has not yet expired. A resident there informed me that that is a signal of mob involvement - in exchange for protection from burglars and gang robbers, the bodega owners offer their place of business as a local crack dealership. 93% of all crimes reported in the Bronx are at the hands of young boys and men; a staggering amount, but surely with the social and gender pressures placed on young boys it is no surprise. As far as homicide rates in New York City, Brooklyn leads the city with the most homicides committed. Brooklyn is also much larger than the Bronx, about twice its size to be exact. These crimes are concentrated in the Northern section of Brooklyn, leaving the Southern section of Brooklyn's neighborhoods, Canarsie a given example, with only four homicides in 2005. However, the Bronx leads the city in drug related crime, and still holds the highest number of unsolved crimes in New York.

With a staggering 391 homicides from 2003-2005, the homicide rate is a lot for such a small borough. For the South Bronx, drug dealers there admit that they are often involved in homicides, and that many of them go unsolved. They celebrate this crime, and say it raises their "street cred". This is a term common in the neighborhood, describing the respect they receive for the crimes that they commit. Education in the South Bronx is not highly admired by these youngsters; the reason for this is that they have no great neighborhood example. Many of the high school students in the South Bronx who eventually go on to college rarely return to the neighborhood to mentor younger children. They take on a different attitude and think of themselves as better than the friends they left behind. Because of this, the men I spoke to have no ambition for success because they see this as betraying their friends. They assume that with education brings an attitude of being better, so they prefer to stay where they are. It is also society's role that keeps these young men on the street. In the South Bronx, they are accepted unlike anywhere else in the city. Few admit that they were curious about "Wall Street" jobs, and when they attained one in the mail room, they were often the victims of racism and humiliation. Their culture and careers in the company were frowned upon, therefore leading to them quitting and returning to a community where they are not judged. They are obedient to the norms of the street culture they follow, which unfortunately involves selling crack to the people they swear to love. In these cases, there is neither a victim nor powerful; the roles interchange frequently. Their street culture allows for a free, comfortable way of dress, and a certain respect that is given to everyone.
However, the culture of the office professional is far from free and comfortable. The pressures of the business world are not something that these young men are accustomed; what makes it worse is that they are not used to being subordinates. It is easy to return to a neighborhood where you are respected than to be a subordinate working legally. There are many factors which make selling crack more appealing for the boys of this neighborhood than working a blue collar job.Ã' However, a large percentage of these men still hold legal positions. With the dilemmas they face in the workplace, I'm surprised many of them are legally employed.

The dilemmas faced in the South Bronx are looked down by elder generations. They do not understand why their young children and grandchildren are behaving in such ways that "cause disgrace to themselves". However, it is a comfortable environment for these residents. They respect their space in their own ways, and it is important when studying them to not judge them, but understand their history and why their street culture is so important to them today. They face various social discrimination - their neighborhood of the South Bronx has more shelters than anywhere in New York. They also are home to more rehabilitation centers, which are built there because of the "war on drugs". These buildings, though, are suffering from bad location. Many are near schools, both elementary and high schools, and are not a great place or good exposure for these young children. Their plight goes on, and all they hope is to keep their neighborhood, and affordable housing.