During the recent Islamic holiday Eid al-Adha, 62-year-old Mohammed Hussein sat in a loud, crowded Norwood apartment surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and several members of his extended family.
They spoke in rapid Bengali to each other, cleaning up remnants of an early day feast, and made plans to visit the homes of several other Bangladeshi families around Bainbridge Avenue and 205th Street, which sits at the end of the D-train in the northern Bronx.
“In three or four blocks, 72 of the houses are Bangladesh people,” said Hussein, who owns a bodega on nearby Perry Avenue.
Hussein, who first moved to New York City from Bangladesh in 1981, has seen firsthand the rapid growth of Bangladeshi immigrants to the Norwood neighborhood of the Bronx, particularly in the last few years. Walk along Bainbridge Avenue, which cuts right at the heart of this north Bronx neighborhood, and you can spot several Bangladeshi-owned bodegas that proudly tout signs in their native language, selling mustard oils and pastes, bags of lentils, halal meats and other typical staples of Bengali cuisine. Hussein himself estimated that he helped to bring about 34 members of his own extended family from Bangladesh to the Bronx, many of who now live within a few short blocks of his home in Norwood.
“There is close communication in the community,” Hussein said. “When I brought all those relatives, we want to live close to each other.”
Hussein’s story is typical among Bangladeshi and other South Asian immigrants in New York City. But while Parkchester in the Bronx and Astoria and Jackson Heights in Queens have long been known for being home to the Bangladesh diaspora, Norwood is also quietly becoming an attractive destination for these recent immigrants into the city. This growth has been spurred on by cheaper rents in the north Bronx, the prospect of a new four-story mosque in the neighborhood, and a tight-knit community that works to bring relatives from Bangladesh into the neighborhood.
According to data from the U.S. Census, the Bangladesh population in the Bronx has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2009, from about 3,900 residents, to 7,500 residents. The area around the Williamsbridge Oval Park near Mosholu Parkway in particular has seen a sharp rise in the number of Bangladesh-born residents, growing nearly 500 percent in the last 10 years, while the overall population in the area has remained steady.
“In the last few years, they are growing pretty quickly around the Mosholu Parkway,” said Mohammed Islam, President of the Bronx Bangladesh Society.
“The rent is expensive elsewhere, so people are coming from Parkchester and Queens over there, because of relatives and family members.”
Many of the local Bangladeshis in the neighborhood have similar stories.
Inteshar Choudhury, a 48-year-old bodega owner on 206th Street, one of about a dozen Bangladeshi-owned bodegas crowded within the same block, came to Norwood from Bangladesh a few years ago through a family connection. He said he plans to bring many more relatives to the neighborhood as soon as he can.
“After five years, when I become a citizen, I’ll apply for my relatives,” said Choudhury, adding that more than 70 percent of the Bangladeshis in the neighborhood came from a single regional district in the country, Sylhet, because of this chain of family immigration sponsorships.
“That’s the way everyone comes,” Choudhury said.
The growth has been so rapid among the predominantly Islamic Bangladeshis that construction began a few weeks ago to build a new four-story mosque to handle the neighborhood demand. The new mosque, which is being built on an empty lot on the corner of 206th Street and Rochambeau Avenue, is estimated to cost more than $2 million and is expected to be open for worship in two years. Until then, the Williamsbridge Oval Park often attracts hundreds of Muslims for outdoor prayer services on special holidays, like Eid.
“There is a big population here now, and a personal need. Where are all the Muslim people supposed to go?” said Hussein, who serves as secretary for the expanding North Bronx Islamic Center, which now occupies a small first floor apartment building on Perry Avenue. “It’s going to attract more Bangladeshi people here. People will want to be near the mosque.”
Although there were tensions in the form of racial epithets yelled by strangers on the street immediately after 9/11, many of the practicing Muslims in the Bangladeshi community said the community has for the large part been accepting of their plans for the mosque, and their growth in the community.
“It’s actually a very nice neighborhood,” explained Syed Jamin Ali, president of the North Bronx Islamic Center. “Right now we have no discrimination on our mosque. We feel free.”
For long-time residents of Norwood, the growth of Bangladeshis in what used to be a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhood doesn’t faze them – it’s simply just the latest ethnic group to call this small pocket of the Bronx home.
“There have always been a lot of immigrants here. It’s nothing new,” said Ralph Martell, a resident of the neighborhood for nearly 40 years. “The Bangladeshis are very nice people.”