The Flavor of the Bronx:
Reflections From a SBEF Volunteer
by Noah Penny
I am a Texan. In Texas, the Bronx is something you see in movies or read in newspapers. I met the real Bronx in the summer of 2016 through the South Bronx Educational Foundation, where I volunteered as a senior counselor at the Crotona Achievement Program and was responsible for teaching, coaching, and mentoring a group of 7th and 8th grade boys.
To most people, the Bronx is the epitome of poverty and crime in the United States. This stigma creates a false perception of the Bronx. When I first applied to be a counselor, I had the impression that I would be helping malevolent, rude, and unmotivated children. But when I got to know the children and their families I saw the Bronx in a different light. Yes, poverty is rampant and a few of the boys were rude here and there; but, in truth, these kids reminded me of my own childhood and the outlooks I held on life. The faces of the Bronx provided a human dimension to my idea of poverty.
In the mid-20th century, The South Bronx began a slide into poverty, slums, gangs, drugs, and arson. This led to Howard Cosell’s famous remark, “The Bronx is burning,” and movies like “Fort Apache.” In the 1970s alone, 40% of the Bronx was burned or abandoned. Over the last 25 years or so, however, the area has rebounded.
But the rebound is relative. The South Bronx continuously ranks as one of the poorest communities in the United States. The cyclical poverty that overtakes many families is contributing to harmful effects for generations to come. According to Bloomberg.com, in 2015 “30% of the Bronx’ 1.4 million residents live at or below the poverty line.” Among the 5 boroughs, the Bronx has always been the most impoverished, and since 1990, it ranks lowest in job growth. According to the Daily News New York, “more than a quarter million people are living in poverty, making the congressional district the poorest in the nation.” An estimated 49% of the children born in the Bronx will grow up in impoverished conditions. City Data.com, NYC.gov, and Census.gov all send the same message: the Bronx is in deep poverty and there is little to no sign of a change in this data.
The “flavor of the Bronx” is what so many people forget about in their generalization of the area. Some of the flavor comes from the pure diversity in the borough. Ever since the 1930s, the Bronx has been a melting pot for immigrants. In 1930, nearly 40% of the population was foreign-born, most from Europe. While today they come from Latin American and Spanish speaking places, the same 40% of the population is still born abroad. It is this fusion of cultures that produces the original and creative thinking from which the Bronx flavor emerges. In the heart of the poverty and violence that ravaged the 1970’s South Bronx, a musical movement would be born: hip hop. John Mariani who grew up in a more Italian Bronx, says he still calls the Bronx home and that “the Italian food only gets better.”
As I said, I met the Bronx in the summer of 2016 when I served as a senior counselor at the Crotona Achievement Program. I was responsible for teaching, coaching, and mentoring a group of 7th and 8th grade boys. Throughout the camp, our group had one goal in mind: to become the best expression of ourselves by improving in virtue as much as possible. Over the course of the program I grew close to the kids, and got to know their families. It was through these relationships that I began to understand the Bronx in a more complex light.
One story that impacted me is related to the founding of the Crotona Achievement Center next to Crotona Park. One day in the summer of 1988, the director of the program began unloading his supplies and placing them into the newly purchased row house at 843 Crotona Park North. Onlookers caught eye of this man moving in, and began shouting things here and there, like: ‘this ain’t your part,’ ‘whachyou doin’ in this neighb’ood,’ ‘you just gon’ ignore us old man.’ This is when David, the director, decided to approach the onlookers and introduce himself and his mission in the Bronx. After hearing his personable introduction, and explanation of the program’s purpose, one man broke down. Through the tears he said, ‘Wish you would’ve come earlier. My lil cousin was shot ‘round here las’ week.’
Behind the image of threat and poverty there were intimate, complex lives like my own at stake. After pulling back the veil of generalizations I had placed over the Bronx, I was able to gain a real impression of the place, through the faces of Crotona. The most noticeable differences in each child came from their circumstances at home. One boy might come from a larger family with both parents who seem to instill more discipline in their child, while another will live only with his mother and behave very impulsively. While the program required more effort than some of the boys were used to, they all loved the mission, and that’s why they stayed. I can remember several heroic moments when the boys sacrificed some part of themselves to help teach a struggling friend, or push an exhausted teammate past the finish line. The desire to improve themselves for the better of their group was inspiring. The boys were truly eager to become their best selves.
By the end of the summer I also grew in responsibility and saw my everyday actions in a different light. Working day in and day out with the kids, I became their friend and learned their difficulties. I felt responsible for helping them to grow and succeed. At first I asked myself, “How could I help them to live a virtuous and upright life when I, myself, was having so much trouble with the same issues?” The truth was that I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it without accepting that I, just like the boys, am growing and struggling to become a better man.
As a group, and as a team, we trudged through the summer confronting all our vices. I didn’t have the answer to all their questions, and I learned I shouldn’t pretend like I did. Whether we were defusing a tense situation, questioning our own capacities, or judging our recent conduct, we would always aim for a logical and intelligent discussion. We learned to question generalizations and the importance of finding truth for ourselves. It was no different for me. All my actions, no matter how minute, carried more weight because they were observed and often replicated by the boys I was helping to form. I learned that each one of my actions is the outward expression of my inmost ideals. And that if I wanted to help anyone, I would have to face my own ideals and morality. At Crotona, I took on the challenge to be my best self, and challenged other to do the same.
One of the staff members was a Fordham College student who had attended the Crotona program when he was younger. He relayed the message that the growth that the kids experience at Crotona sets them on a different course than their peers. By teaching the children about the success that arises from persevering to better themselves, the kids gain the confidence to be independent people. They realize that their habits and actions do make a difference in their lives. This is a truth that J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, argues could change the course of many impoverished lives. Vance came from a family and culture of poverty in Appalachia. His “Crotona” was his training in the Marines, It taught him to, “live like an adult.” Vance brings up the fact that for so many poor people, the climb out of poverty seems very distant, and there is no one there to tell them how it is possible. This creates a society that doesn’t believe in the American Dream. This is the kind of culture that arises from cyclical poverty. This culture of poverty is being transformed at places like the Crotona Achievement Program, and in many families of the Bronx.
While the Bronx still faces severe poverty, there seems to be several sources of hope. I see a Bronx which is still deep in crime and poverty, but striving towards a better future. In upcoming years, it will be interesting to see what will be the new “Bronx flavor” elevated by the “new Bronx.” And I’m sure Crotona will be one of the energizers of the new flavor.