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Paper Streets: The Unbuilt Streets of the Bronx

 

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At least 40 streets around the Bronx have never been built.

On a typical Saturday morning in September, Denise Martin stepped out on the front steps of her Baychester home in the Bronx with a rake and gray gardening gloves. Shards of glass from a broken TV, an empty wine box and liquor bottles lined her front fence. To her right, the trail of garbage intensified alongside the shoulder-high tangle of weeds separating her house from a storage facility roughly 200 feet away.

Martin, a retired Verizon call center operator, said that all this was despite her efforts to clean the debris three to four times a week. “I know it’s a secluded block,” she said. “But people should understand—somebody lives here. If you see it’s clean, why would you eat your lunch and just dump it out? There are condoms over there. People poop over there. Anything you name is over there. Liquor, panties—oh, God.”

Martin believes the vacant lot next door to her house attracts all this trash. Despite her efforts over the last three years to get the city or the borough to tend to the overgrown lot, she has continually run into a brick wall. Or, rather, she’s run into a paper wall. It turns out that part of the patch of neglected wilderness next to her house isn’t technically a lot at all. It’s a street, at least on paper.

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This stretch of land where Arnow Avenue should connect with Edson Avenue near Interstate 95 is one of at least 40 derelict lots that show up on city tax maps as streets. Community District 12 Manager George Torres called these unimproved stretches of land paper streets. “They show up on the tax map, but not in reality,” he said. “So if you didn’t know any better, you would think there was three acres of private forest in this area, nature reserve.”

To understand why that street was never built, you need to step back to when the surrounding land was first developed. When a new structure is built, the developers are responsible for building the bordering street and sidewalk. And according to a city Department of Transportation spokesperson, buildings that have not done so will not receive a Certificate of Occupancy, which allows that building to be used. The loophole is that buildings built before 1938 do not need a Certificate of Occupancy. And Torres said some developers were also able to waive their portions of the streets.

This has resulted in streets in varying states of limbo. On one portion of Ely Avenue, neat brick townhomes face an overgrown vacant lot; from the sidewalk bordering the homes, the pavement stretches halfway across the street before dissolving into the gravel that makes up the unbuilt half. A paper street adjacent to Seton Falls Park transitions seamlessly into the preserved natural land; two others in Throgs Neck have been manicured as part of Trump’s golf course overlooking Manhattan.

And on the other side of the Bronx, a paper street in Riverdale that nearby residents attempted to transform into an organic community farm is also in limbo. Michael Forman, a Bronx native who stumbled across the unused land in his neighborhood, had the vision of turning it into an organic flower garden. Like the paper street near Martin’s home, this section of 240th Street had also been used as an illegal dumping ground. He and his friends first had to clear the lot, carting off roughly 700 pounds of garbage by Forman’s estimation, and the items they unearthed gave testament for how long the land hand been forgotten. “We’ve found glass bottles of companies that don’t exist anymore,” said Forman. “We even found a rotary telephone.”

Forman applied for permission to use the land through GreenThumb part of the Parks Department which turns city-owned vacant lots into community gardens. But he said he worked with GreenThumb for a year and a half to no avail. “Since we’re a mapped street, GreenThumb cannot identify what city organization owns the land,” explained Forman. Since they could not find who owned the land, they could not request permission. Today, though Google Maps recognizes the swath of land as Pure Love Organic Farms and Forman has now been growing tulips, hyacinths, crocuses, and irises there for four years, the community garden does not officially exist.

In the meantime, no city agency seems to be willing to take responsibility for the growing garbage crisis. Last year, Martin said she caught three raccoons in her attic and paid nearly two thousand dollars to have the hole they tore in the roofing repaired. She’s upgraded to a sturdier trash can and sprays her yard weekly with Critter Ridder to ward off further invasions.  

Denise Martin looked out through her fence toward the paper street.

Denise Martin looked out through her fence toward the paper street.

Torres said that his office has heard complaints about paper streets nurturing much smaller critters as well. “With this whole Zika scare,” he said, “you have a lot of people saying these are breeding grounds for mosquitos.”

Another resident who lives next to an unconstructed part of Harper Avenue cited safety as a concern. “There should be a law against it, especially as it’s near the school,” said Rachel Hinton. She worries about walking past the forested street at night because it’s difficult to see the people who walk through it. According proposals for the Bronx Community Board budget, the street has been a budget priority since 1987. Another paper street between Boston Road and the New England Thruway has been a priority since 1994. However, neither request made it into the final budget.

Since paper streets, unlike lots, do not have owners, responsibility for these problems is unclear. The city Department of Buildings is responsible for ensuring that sidewalks and pavement are built with new developments; the Department of Transportation is responsible for maintaining streets, but neither oversees the building of streets for already existing buildings. Torres said the Department of Transportation had taken the stance that homeowners bordering a paper street should pave their own sidewalk plus half of the street, meeting one another halfway. But their spokesperson did not confirm such views. And Martin was unaware that the land bordering her house was a street in the first place.

Martin stood outside her home, which she has been trying to keep clear of garbage and wildlife.

Martin stood outside her home, which she has been trying to keep clear of garbage and wildlife.

“Well, for whatever reason, it wasn’t done,” said Torres. “These homes have been there for twenty-plus years. Who’s going to do it now?”

In the meantime, Martin took out her rake to begin tidying up her front yard. A garbage truck drove down her street, and she waved and yelled, “Good morning!” to no response. A sanitation worker loaded her tidily packaged garbage bag into the back, and the truck pulled off, leaving the wine box and glass bottles abutting the unbuilt street to someone else.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Featured0 Comments

Bronx Men, an Endangered Species

At the corner of 229th and Laconia Streets in the Bronx, the police precinct office faces a cluster of buildings mostly three-stories tall known as the Edenwald Houses. The Edenwald Houses, along with the nearby Eastchester Gardens, were the target this past April of what the U.S. Attorney trumpeted as the “largest gang takedown in New York City history.” One hundred and thirteen people were indicted, mostly young men in their twenties.

Which is a worrying figure, given that the number of young men living in the area was already disproportionately low. According to Census data, for every two male teenagers in the area, there is only one man in his late thirties. The problem is a stark example of a trend taking place throughout the Bronx, where for every three male teenagers, there are two men in their late thirties.

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Census data shows that between 2005 and 2010, there was a 20 percent drop in the age bracket for men living in the neighborhood.

Census data shows that between 2005 and 2010, there was a 20 percent drop in the age bracket for men living in the neighborhood.

Michael Mincey, who first moved to the Edenwald Houses when he was 4, believed that men caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of gang activity and aggressive policing are facing particular pressures to move out of the area. “Honestly, if I were to have a kid with somebody, would I want to raise him here? No,” said Mincey, 36, an administrator at the East Bronx Academy for the Future. “I don’t want to worry about getting shot. And I don’t want to worry that, because I’m hanging outside with a friend that I know, I might get caught in a big sweep because the cops think we’re selling drugs.”

As a result, Mincey has been looking at apartments in the nearby Westchester town of New Rochelle. Many of his friends have moved out of the city and out of the state.

Michael Mincey and James Wallace both grew up in the Edenwald Houses.

Michael Mincey and James Wallace both grew up in the Edenwald Houses.

“I look at males across the board as an endangered species,” said Brett Scudder, founder of a mental health intervention foundation in the neighborhood. “If they are in trouble, there are no safety nets. There are no safe environments.”

“They’re incarcerated,” said Jim Orekoya, a community center director in the Williamsbridge. In 2015, over 2,900 felonies and 5,900 misdemeanors took place in the precinct, according to police data. But he pointed out other contributing factors, such as immigration patterns and the job market.

“To have made it out of here is a great thing,” said James Wallace, a school paraprofessional who left the Edenwald Houses for Co-op City when he was 33. “You lose friends at an early age: death, drugs, prison. So it’s time for us to go.”

He had fond memories of growing up in at Edenwald. “We had fun,” he reminisced. The children in the building would play whatever sport was in season—basketball in the summer, football in the fall, and a bottle-top game called skelly in between. “We were all playing in the street. That’s how it was. Compared to now, when you hardly see anybody, but you hear about it in the news,” he said, alluding to violence he attributed to both gangs and police.

But violence wasn’t the only reason Wallace moved. He also felt the need to get away to have room to grow. When he first got a job, he remembered a change in his friends attitudes toward him. “When you come back around, everybody’s face is different,” he said, blowing out a stream of breath. “Little side comments and gestures. It’s like crabs in a barrel. Just because a man has a job, he’s not part of your clique anymore. You have to watch your back and be careful because you don’t know if they’re trying to do something to you. That’s the way of life around here.”

Posted in East Bronx0 Comments

Two Westchester Square Libraries Slated for Upgrades

Planned additions to the library at 9 Westchester Square. Photo courtesy of the Huntington Free Library.

Planned additions to the Huntington Free Library. Rendering by SLO Architecture.

Westchester Square in the East Bronx is slated to get a gleaming, glass-walled 12,000 square-foot library and an outdoor performance shell for plays and concerts. If all goes as planned, a deal between the New York Public Library and the private Huntington Free Library is allowing both to expand their services in the area.

The 125-year-old Huntington at 9 Westchester Square has agreed on selling half of its lot to the city for the construction of a new public library branch that will replace the current branch on Glebe Avenue. If approved, the library’s addition, which once housed the Museum of the American Indian, will be torn down to make way for the new branch. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and open two to three years after.

The front door to the Huntington Free Library.

The front door to the Huntington Free Library. Photo by Rebecca Schuetz.

Supporting the land sale, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr also placed emphasis on the programming the libraries offered. “The measure of a great city is its public library system,” he stated in his Land Use Review recommendation. “Together, these two library systems offer exceptional access to knowledge and programming for all out East Bronx citizens.”

The half of the Huntington Free Library that is planned to be torn down to make way for a New York Public Library branch.

Diaz’s office is allocating $1.8 million for the new public library, which will also draw $4.4 million from the mayor’s office and $12.3 million from City Council funds. The New York Public Library says it is too early to understand the number of jobs the project will create, and the city has not yet announced what will become of the current Westchester Square branch that the new building will replace.

The land is going for less than a million dollars, said the Huntington President Thomas Casey, though the New York Public Library said the deal was still being discussed. And there are already plans for that money. Plans have been drawn for a wheelchair ramp that would make the 125-year-old-building accessible. An art installation made of colored stainless steel cables suspending 3D-printed models of historical Bronx buildings would separate the ramp from the neighboring building. Behind the library, a small stage would transform the backyard into a performance space, Casey said.

Artwork lines a new wheelchair ramp in Huntington Free Library’s plan to make the facility accessible. Photo courtesy of the Huntington Free Library.

Artwork lines a new wheelchair ramp in Huntington Free Library’s plan to make the facility accessible. Rendering by SLO Architecture.

These changes reflect the evolving role of libraries in the community. According to the Huntington, when it opened in 1891, it was the only library available for public use in the Bronx. But that didn’t mean it functioned like the libraries we consider public today. “When we opened up, books were so valuable, you wouldn’t check out a book and bring it home,” said Casey. In fact, its collections, which specialize in Bronx and Native American history, were so valuable that the Smithsonian attempted to take over part of its inventory in a 1989 lawsuit.

Huntington won the lawsuit, but spent a large portion of its endowment doing so, according to Casey and Cornell University. As funds subsequently ran low and the public interest in a non-circulating inventory waned, the library had to shift focus away from the collection it fought so hard to protect. The library gave stewardship of its Native American collection to Cornell University, became open only by appointment (it is now operated by volunteers), and started looking for new ways to make money and bring in people.

The portion of the Huntington Free Library that is planned to be torn down to make way for the New York Public Library. Photo by Rebecca Schuetz.

The library began pivoting its services from providing books to providing a space. It has begun showing art exhibits and opening its space to performers. Two recent productions have included a play about African American pilots and a hip hop night. And its historic facade has been an asset.  Fans of the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire may recognize it—an episode from season three of the show was shot there, though HBO did not confirm the how much they paid for the location.

And Casey said the library began looking into selling the land to someone who could aid in the Huntington’s vision of becoming a community hub where people would spend their leisure hours reading, learning, and having fun. “People came out, wanted a school for teaching cooking, a charter school, a nursing home. We didn’t want any of those things,” he said. “When the public library approached us, we said, ‘What a perfect partnership.’”

Posted in Community Resources, East Bronx1 Comment

Court Order Allows Building with Absentee Landlord to Receive Emergency Repairs

After 24 years of inhumane conditions caused by landlord neglect, a court order will allow repairs to begin on 888 Grand Concourse, according to DNAinfo.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments

Jerome Rezoning Moves Forward to Environmental Review

A rezoning proposal allowing more housing along Jerome Avenue between McClellan and 184th streets is moving forward, according to News 12. The next step is an environmental review meeting on September 29.

Posted in Newswire0 Comments