An Urban Revival

It used to be that Nicolas Bielma could hardly give away a tortilla. When he opened his store in Hunts Point in the early 1990s, the South Bronx was a burned-out wasteland. What use could the locals--mainly African-Americans and Puerto Ricans--possibly have for a bodega where festive, 1950s Mexican music blared from speakers and the shelves were piled high with chili peppers? It turns out Bielma was on to something: today, his storefront anchors a bustling commercial strip that includes a Mexican music dealer and restaurant. The aisles of his store are mobbed with customers from neighboring Mott Haven and beyond. And the tortillas? "We are selling 70 to 80 cases a week," Bielma says. "Sunday I cannot talk to you, I am so busy."

For years, it seemed the Bronx would never recover from the devastation of the 1960s and 1970s, when entire blocks burned to the ground and longtime residents fled in droves. The population in the local district that includes Bielma's shop fell 44 percent between 1970 and 1980. But the Bronx is on the rebound. And immigrants are the driving force. According to the latest Census data, the population of the Bronx now stands at 1.3 million, up 11 percent from 1990--a stunning turnaround that few expected. The vast majority of recent arrivals are of Hispanic origin, many from Mexico. Together with smaller numbers of immigrants from the West Indies, Asia and elsewhere, they are rebuilding the borough as they rebuild their lives. "The Bronx has come back from the dead," says Emmanual Tobier, a professor of economics and planning at New York University.

From his community-development office in a converted warehouse a couple of miles away from Bielma's shop, Paul Lipson has watched the miraculous urban resurrection begin to spread to his decimated neighborhood in Hunts Point. In the 1980s Hunts Point's modest commercial district had a 60 percent vacancy rate. No longer. On a recent day, Lipson maneuvered his pickup truck through streets packed with new immigrant-owned stores and marveled at the changes. "It's hard to know who lives in the neighborhood," he says. "But it becomes visible if you look at the businesses." Warehouses long abandoned by the upwardly mobile children of Italian, Irish and Puerto Rican immigrants have new signs adver-tising Dominican, Mexican and Jamaican wholesalers. A local park once littered with crack vials is now the site of soccer games. And the neighborhood, once the only one in the city without its own post office, now has a sparkling new one.

But it is the Mexican shops that really stand out. Hunts Point's burgeoning Mexican enclave has an unmistakable feeling of momentum to it. Each new Mexican business owner is making it easier for the next, offering access to essentials (like tortillas) and a bare-bones infrastructure that facilitates Americanization. A few blocks north of Lipson's office, a once abandoned warehouse advertises ropa usada oscar (Oscar's used clothing). Inside, Mexican women with little children browse dimly lit racks of clothes, paying by the pound. For many arrivals, Oscar's is the first stop. Next is often Mexico City Restaurant, which opened last spring. In addition to offering nachos and burritos, it provides opportunity for new, jobless Mexicans to work, selling churros, or fried dough, on the streets. "When an immigrant community takes hold, it requires some vestiges of home," says Lipson. "And [now we] have a restaurant and a community center where people can gather and buy churros and sell retail and get a job."

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Of course, it is not only the South Bronx that is changing. New immigrant groups have lately gained footholds across the borough. Peter Derrick, a borough historian, estimates that outside the South Bronx the proportion of white, European descend-ants has dwindled to between 15 and 20 percent. An additional 50 to 60 percent are African-Americans and Latinos who have moved up a notch and left the lower-income South Bronx behind. The remainder are immigrants from around the globe, living middle-class existences. North of Hunts Point, Pelham Parkway is typical of this second-rung neighborhood, where average rents range from $600 to $750 a month--twice those in the South Bronx. Russians, Pakistanis and an exploding Albanian population are moving in. "We come because of freedom," says Narina Fico, who arrived from Albania five years ago. "It is a dream to be here. But it can be very difficult." It's a refrain that echoes back generations. Starting over is never easy. But for now, it seems, the cycle of sacrifice, education and upward mobility that has defined America is alive and well again in the Bronx. Just like people, sometimes neighborhoods, too, get a second chance.

An Urban Revival | News