Too often, when people think of the Bronx, they think of abandoned houses, empty lots, gangs, drugs and fires. While that description certainly applied to a large portion of the borough for many years, today you’ll find vibrant communities in previously devastated areas, as well as neighborhoods that are rebuilding themselves. Developers are now actively pursuing projects in locations they wouldn’t have dared walk through 20 years ago.
But before the Bronx burned, it was a largely middle-class, prosperous place, even in areas that were later ravished by drugs and abandonment, such as Morrisania, which is profiled in a new book, Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s . I recently attended a talk by the book’s authors, Mark Naison, a professor at Fordham University and Bob Gumbs, a graphic designer, artist and author. Having grown up in the Bronx, in Hunts Point and later in the Castle Hill projects, to me this book is a much needed corrective to the popular image of the borough. As a Fordham alum, I’m proud that they’ve created the project that inspired this book, and published it. Through the voices of seventeen people, who grew up in one neighborhood, Morrisania, the story of the Bronx comes alive, and provides a vantage point from which to consider the effects of private market practices (especially in real estate) but also public policy.
The book had its genesis in an oral history program, the Bronx African American History (BAAH) project, that Fordham University started 14 years ago, with an interview with Victoria Archibald-Good, the sister of the basketball great, Tiny Archibald, who recounted her happy recollections of growing up in the Patterson Houses, which, at that time, was a multi-racial, middle class neighborhood with great schools. Then Bob Gumbs got involved with the BAAH and over time more community members told their stories.
Between the 1930s and 1960s, blacks from Harlem, the South and the Caribbean settled in the Morrisania section of the Bronx – in contrast to other neighborhoods, they were welcomed there, by landlords trying to fill apartments that had been vacated by tenants who had been evicted or had moved to the suburbs. Through the recollections of individuals who grew up there, the book provides a snapshot of a stable community – which also had its problems – that provided the foundation for the success achieved by many of its residents. The neighborhood’s history is told by residents who went on to become teachers, musicians, public servants, a theologian, an architect and sports journalist. A strong work ethic was central: many of the families had fathers who had steady employment as Pullman porters, mail carriers, tailors, and some who had second jobs. Neighbors watched out for each other’s children, and didn’t hesitate to tell them when they were misbehaving. The churches were also integral to peoples lives, providing not only spiritual nourishment, but also community, youth activities, and a link to larger forces, such as the civil rights movement. The book’s participants speak about attending schools that were racially integrated; caring teachers; after school programs that went on until 9:00 pm; and community centers that provided activities which kept them away from gangs. The Police Athletic League offered community programs led by police officers, allowing for friendly contacts between NYPD and local youth. But it’s music that permeates this chronicle: public school music programs that let students take instruments home for practice, providing training for a future musical career (Jimmie Owens, Joe Orange, Arthur Crier), and mentorship and camaraderie for the kids. There were also plenty of opportunities to mingle with neighbors from the area’s diverse populations and musical traditions: salsa, soul, doo-wop, jazz, rock…. In the local clubs you could listen to Herbie Hancock, Edddie Palmieri, Valerie Simpson, the Chantals, some of whom grew up in the area.
Before the Fires also raises the question of how Morrisania, and so many other stable neighborhoods fell apart. Through the individual stories, it becomes clear that drugs, especially heroin, were a major culprit, as were the loss of decent paying jobs, especially in manufacturing, the disinvestment in cities by the Federal government, and worst of all, in my estimation, the disinterest and neglect by the City of it’s public housing stock, and its public schools, especially the defunding of music and arts programs, as well as after school activities.
The voices and stories in Before the Fires are not only authentic, but engaging – if you’re interested in urban history, this book is a must read.
The Bronx African American oral history project continues at Fordham: to find out more, or to listen to some of the stories, click here