Press | December 5, 1993

Slouching Toward Utopia in the South Bronx

By Herbert Muschamp

The New York Times


From the classical colonades of the Greek Revival to the heavy metal wrappers of Frank Gehry, American architects have found many ways to tell the story of modern democracy. But if architecture’s version of that story is to be more than a fairy tale, architects must learn to do more than tell it. They must also try to live it. Louis Sullivan once said that for him architecture was not an art but a religion – “part of the greater religion of democracy.” He had a good sense of priorities. It is fine for architects to focus on symbolic forms and images. But if their symbols are disconnected from social reality, their buildings may end up mocking the values they represent.


For the past year, residents of the South Bronx have been working to create a solidly democratic content for architectural form. Rather than sit back and wait for architects and planners to tell them how to improve the prospects for their legendarily troubled borough, they have joined with architects and planners to renegotiate the social contract between citizens and builders. Bronx Center, as the heartening project for this area is called, is becoming a national model for community-based planning, though that dull term scarcely conveys the excitement of  an undertaking that promises to change the way people think about urban design.


The project began a year and a half ago with the recognition that the South Bronx has suffered not only from neglect but from the wrong kind of attention, and not just from those in the media who routinely depict the place as a hell on earth. In fact, many people like living there. And in recent years, about $2 billion worth of public and private projects have been planned for the area, including the new Police Academy, a court center and a housing complex. But the borough’s president, Fernando Ferrer, had the presence of mind to look this gift horse in the mouth.


Obviously, Mr. Ferrer welcomed investment in his borough. But he was painfully familiar with the kind of project that, while physically located in a community, contributes little of value to it. Streets and parks planned by professionals who may have good abstract ideas about places but little knowledge of what it’s like to live in this one. Housing projects that displace people from existing buildings and shred the urban fabric. Office buildings that generate jobs for which local residents lack adequate skills. Architecturally impressive buildings that provide temporary construction jobs but offer residents no long-range economic stability.


In 1992, Mr. Ferrer asked Richard A. Kahan, a former president of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, to help him develop a strategy to revitalize a 300-block area east of Yankee Stadium in the heart of the South Bronx. Mr. Kahan, who volunteered his services, enlisted other volunteers to form a steering committee  and hired organizers who corralled several hundred Bronx residents into a series of public forums. Working groups were set up to focus on specific issues like health care, job training, housing and transportation. Volunteer architects, meeting in a private home, set up design studios where residents learned how to translate their ideas into urban forms.


Those ideas range widely from traditional urban design concepts (renovated subway stations, community gardens in vacant lots) to more ambitious proposals (alternative high schools at Yankee Stadium and the Police Academy; “greenway” streets leading to small, “defensible” parks). Mr. Kahan has kept the groups coordinated, while Harold DeRienzo, a political activist, steered the meetings along a firmly democratic course.


The group scored a major success last year when it halted the city’s plan for Melrose Commons, a 2,600-unit housing complex near 16Ist Street and Third Avenue that would have displaced about 800 people from their homes. With the support of the Dinkins administration, residents worked with the architects Petr Stand and Lee Weintraub to overhaul the plan, formulating their own recommendations for housing, stores, routes for pedestrians and cars, and the design of a new park. Their revised plan was approved by the City Planning Commission last month.


At the edge of the planned Melrose Commons complex stands a fine architectural landmark, the old Bronx Borough Courthouse, a granite Beaux-Arts monument built in 1915. Empty Since 1978, it looms as a symbol of lapsed civic pride. Mr. Kahan, Mr. DeRienzo and their colleagues want to restore the building and its spirit by turning part of it into a planning center. Renovating the building will cost $800,000. The spirit, which is priceless, was already vibrant evidence at a meeting I attended a few weeks ago at Lincoln Hospital. The cooperative approach was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the imperial planning practiced by Robert Moses. And it contrasted sharply with the typical community board hearing, where politicians, developers and architects line up against neighborhood activists and watch their energy disperse in rancor.


The image that surfaced in my mind was Ellis Island: this meeting was a port of entry into a city that is made not just of steel and concrete but of information. These people are heirs to the construction workers Lewis Hines photographed in the 1920’s, bolting girders into the skyline. Instead of using riveting guns, they are wielding their experience. It turns out to be powerful stuff. They tell each other stories, and a language of urbanism begins to take shape as their stories intersect.


At one working-group session, someone announces that there is $400,000 available in city and state Percent for Art programs. A man talks about his vision of how local artists should be trained. A woman tells the group about a new “electronic atelier” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, where students will be able to master the tools of multimedia. Click. Art and media – realms frequently perceived as privileged — have collided and comedown to earth, demystified and accessible. In another group, someone is arguing that the Bronx Center should exclude planners, because they make everything sterile. Someone else says that won’t happen in Melrose Commons; the will of residents to remain in their buildings will insure a visually varied streetscape. Click. A connection has been made between political action and esthetic effect.


People argued with passion, but this was not a contest. It was an entrance into their own city. Many people at this meeting had been trapped within the armor of their grievances. Their Golden Door opened with the recognition that they stood to gain by setting grievance aside. They passed through that door by joining others who have felt similarly displaced.


Experts and politicians have had useful experiences, too. Bronx Center has benefited from their analytic skills, technical information and knowledge of the historical forces behind the borough’s decline. But perhaps the most useful asset displayed by Bronx Center’s volunteer professionals is their grasp of hierarchy. Though their expertise places them at the apex of the organizational pyramid, they’ve turned the pyramid upside down. They stand at the bottom, supporting those above.


Morale at the Bronx Center meeting was so intense I was tempted to resist it. Another inner voice wanted to be heard – a voice of caution. Mustn’t get carried away, mustn’t get sentimental about poor people, maybe nothing will come of this, it is cruel to raise false hopes. And didn’t architecture already go through this in the 1960’s, with advocacy planning? Aren’t we well rid of the utopian baggage the modern movement came freighted with? Didn’t we learn that making forms is the most valuable social service architects can perform?


But it is missing the point of Bronx Center to think that architects must choose between community service and design. Bronx Center is design. It extends the field in which designers operate. It shows that design is not only a matter of form but a matter of content, and that the designer’s area of responsibility embraces both.


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