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Monday, June 19, 2006
New Hope in the Bronx

The building pictured above, a block south of Crotona Park in the Bronx, is one of those rarest of buildings that has the same address on two streets: It is located at 1500 Boston Road and 1500 Louis Nine Boulevard. Neat as that may be, though, this building is more remarkable for a reason that becomes apparent when you notice that the modest cornice and detailing end abruptly at two unfinished facades. It is as if the building was once just a piece of a greater whole.

Indeed, it was.

No. 1500, known as New Hope Plaza, survived the 1970s in the very epicenter of Bronx disinvestment. By the end of the decade, arson and abandonment had taken every one of its neighbors, and No. 1500 was the only building standing on its block.

From the mid-1910s through the mid-1960s, the eleven-block area you see in the map at right was a bustling neighborhood of businesses and five-story walkup apartment houses southeast of Crotona Park. "With a density of well over 500 units per acre, it was a vibrant neighborhood, consisting primarily of New Law tenements built after 1901," wrote Richard Plunz in A History of Housing in New York City (Columbia University Press, 1990, and the source of this map and the next). Three thousand people lived in 51 apartment buildings on the two blocks at the center of the neighborhood. Today, only one of those buildings remains standing, No. 1500, built in 1915, at the corner of Boston Road and what was then Wilkins Avenue.

Then came the destruction wrought by the arson and abandonment of the 1970s that came not long after Interstate highways began offering their promise of the benefits of the city and the country at the same time. This left a lot of rubble-strewn empty lots in the neighborhood. Not content simply to bring people to suburbia, planners also set about to bring suburbia to the people. Charlotte Street, where President Carter and Candidate Reagan famously stopped to promise to rebuild, was rebuilt by Ed Logue as a subdivision of detached single-family dwellings that offered housing for a relative handful of people at an enormous cost of valuable urban land.

No. 1500 once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with its neighbors, but now it looms over them as a lonely reminder of the once busy city neighborhood.

An aerial photo from local.live.com reproduced below shows the block where No. 1500 stands.

I'm not sure there is an image that better explains the spatial inefficiency of suburban development. New Hope Plaza at the corner has homes for some 100 people in 38 households (and three stores too), while the entire rest of the block has just 18 housing units, fewer than half the number in New Hope Plaza.

Despite the 1980s efforts that produced Charlotte Gardens (or perhaps because of them), the need to produce affordable housing remains a major goal of the city and state governments. Their agencies, along with banks, developers, nonprofit community-based development organizations and the "intermediary organizations" that fund them are all under enormous pressure to satisfy a demand for affordable housing that never seems to slacken. Thankfully, in the decades since Charlotte Gardens was built, the prevailing wisdom of this group of organizations has come to acknowledge that the only way to solve the housing crunch is to build at a greater density.

As a result, high-density apartment buildings are returning to the periphery of the Charlotte Gardens area, restoring a bit of that neighborhood that existed before. I've already written about a building called Urban Horizons II to be located just off the map above. Even closer, a big mixed-use building is nearing completion at 1490 Boston Road, just across the street from New Hope Plaza.

Designed by Hugo S. Subotovsky Architects, this red and tan brick building embodies a back-to-the-future understanding that the best and most useful built environment for the Bronx was the one that was being neglected and actively obliterated for much of the second half of the 20th century. No. 1490 shares many of the same characteristics as 90-year-old No. 1500: Six stories, a solid streetwall, ground floor retail. Even the rounded facade serves to compliment its neighbor.

1490 Boston Road will contain more than 9,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and 95 apartments (most of them two-bedroom units), all restricted to households earning no more than 60% of the New York City median income. It was financed in December 2004 with $9.5 million raised by the sale of tax-exempt bonds issued by the New York City Housing Development Corporation, underwritten by Bear Stearns and secured by KeyBank. The Housing Development Corp. lent an additional $4.18 million from its own budget to finance this building's construction, which is being developed by the Atlantic Development Group.

There are still vacant lots in the Bronx that can be built upon, but if present trends continue or accelerate, there will come a time when the land underneath Charlotte Gardens is more valuable for what could be there than what is. Now that lots near Charlotte Street are being put to use for apartment buildings, what will become of Charlotte Gardens? Will it be a permanent reminder of shortsighted planning policies and low urban land values, or will it give way to a restored dense urban fabric?

The zoning for the area, shown in the map below, makes these single-family detached houses a permanent fixture. In fact, if New Hope Plaza fell down in an earthquake, rebuilding it would be illegal.

As shown by the map, the area is zoned R1-2, which is almost the lowest density residential zone that exists in New York City. As described by the city's 1990 Zoning Handbook:
R1 districts permit only single-family detached houses on lots at least 100 feet wide (in R1-1 zones) or 60 feet wide (in R1-2 zones). These zones limit population density by allowing only four to seven families per acre. Usually, the houses are on large landscaped lots. Many of these areas are far from public transportation. Most families in these districts own at least one car. One parking space is required for each dwelling unit.
The R1-2 zone corresponds almost exactly to the area occupied by Charlotte Gardens, which is near the Freeman Street and 174th Street stops on the elevated subway line served by the 2 and 5 trains. The area all around it, including the site of 1490 Boston Road, is part of a much higher-density R7-1 zone, which corresponds with the density of the Charlotte Street area before its apartment buildings were razed.

A 1980 article about New Hope Plaza describes it as having at one time been "an elegant building," and quotes a resident, Helen Steiner, as saying, "It used to have stained-glass windows, overstuffed furniture in the lobby and a chandelier." What good luck that it has survived into the 21st century. It's survival has provided 38 homes, 37 of which could not legally be replaced. How did the people responsible for this building manage to keep it up?

The residents of 1500 Boston Road stayed in their building as many others were fleeing the neighborhood, and one big reason may be the tenacity of the building's superintendent, George Lascu, who in 1977 was 82 and toothless, and had lived in the building since 1937. "All the people here are just like a family," he told the Times in 1977, "my family."

Because it still stood while other buildings were empty shells or reduced to rubble, this No. 1500 began attracting new residents. As the Times described it:
There is little turnover in the multiracial apartment house. Those who have been there stay because the building is like an anchor in a sea of desolation; those who have come recently are also there because of the stability.
Around 1980 even No. 1500 was abandoned by its owner, and it fell into city ownership. Tenants remained but lacked heat and hot water. Led by a 73-year-old grandmother named Alice Myers as well as Helen Steiner and Mary Jones, and with assistance from the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, the tenants organized and formed a cooperative to buy the building and get their utilities restored. In 1983, they rehabilitated the building with $25,000 from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and another $25,000 from the J.M. Kaplan Fund. That led to a grand reopening, which the Times covered this way:
For four years it was Last Hope, the only building still standing, and still occupied, in a block of urban rubble in the South Bronx. With speeches, balloons and a marching band, Last Hope yesterday formally became New Hope Plaza and was welcomed as another sign of revitalization in a once-proud neighborhood.
Twenty-three years later, one looks forward to the grand opening of New Hope Plaza's big new neighbor at 1490 Boston Road.

- For New Hope Plaza, a New Look [NYT 5/29/1983]
- 3 Women Who Led Rescue of Building in South Bronx See Hopes Fulfilled [NYT 9/14/1983]
- The Bronx's Green Housing Boom [S&F]
- Posted at 10:41 PM | Permalink | Comments: 4 | Post a Comment |

Where do you find the Sanborn figure ground maps? I have been looking for some of my area of Manhattan online, but I'm not sure where to locate them.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/03/2006 11:23 PM  

Those aren't actually Sanborns. They're scanned images from a book called A History of Housing in New York City by Richard Plunz. The book has a lot of great figure ground maps, but nothing comprehensive -- Just interesting spots around the city.

By Blogger AD, at 7/14/2006 11:39 PM  

I lived at 1500 Boston Road from 1947 to 1952 in a fifth floor apartment. Obviously a walk-up. Elevators? Who knew? I was a child and lived with my parents.

Before I was born they doubled up with my aunt and uncle. I attended PS 59 which is the building located cady corner from the 1500 block and bordering Crotona Park.

I remember that part of 1490 Boston Rd was either a parking lot or a vacant lot in the early 1950's. There was a fence around this lot which was blown down in a hurricane. As a child, that really impressed me.

There was a deli and I think a pizzaria with hand tossed pizza across Boston Road from our building. One of the retail shops, at 1500, was Shamuses Grocery, a true, over the counter, old fashioned grocery. Another shop was a true NYC candy store, which in the summer sold nickle bottles of coke from a special coke freezer. The owner also provided a paper cup and crushed ice. Even almost 60 years later this memory stands out. I also remember a large neon sign which flashed right into my bedroom at night. I was a true city boy. Dark? What's dark?

Many memories of immigrant families are preserved in that building.

By Anonymous jc, at 10/19/2007 9:19 AM  

jc, thanks for your memories, and for reading.

By Blogger AD, at 2/17/2008 4:23 PM  

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