What Is the Bronx, Anyway?

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27 Mar 2004, New York State, USA --- The New York City skyline is viewed through the haze from the Bronx. --- Image by ? Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis
The New York City skyline is viewed through the haze from the Bronx.Photo: Andrew Holbrooke/Corbis

The Bronx, Anthony Bourdain said this fall on an episode of Parts Unknown devoted to the borough, “is a big blank space in a lot of people’s minds. Including me and I live, what, ten minutes away.” Bourdain was on to something. An abiding elusiveness has seemed to grip the borough ever since the great crime reductions made the place safe: What is the Bronx, anyway? Everyone can agree that the general situation north of the Harlem River has improved since the Dinkins administration, that the Bronx is no longer simply a hellhole, but the hellhole has been replaced by a semiotic emptiness. The cradle of hip-hop, yes, but that was an awfully long time ago; an immigrant place, sure, but much less so than Queens. I’m from the place, and so I have a churlish, tribal defensiveness about it, but I’ve also come to suspect that one reason the Bronx lags so far behind in the identity sweepstakes is that the borough still hasn’t really figured out what it is.

Even so, interest in the place has been escalating, just a bit. Earlier this year, Netflix announced that Baz Luhrmann will direct a forthcoming drama series about New York in the 1970s whose central story line will involve the early days of hip-hop in the Bronx. This is both a ludicrous project to give to Luhrmann and an ingenious one, early hip-hop being party music and there being no director so vigorous in his staging of parties than Baz Luhrmann. The break dancing is going to look great, and the graffiti too. But the project’s bound to spark some interest in the Bronx’s curious trajectory, and on that count I’m hopeful, because I do think that there is something that separates the Bronx out from the rest of the city’s Chuck Ramkissoon belt, the great immigrant menagerie. It has to do with the Bronx’s comfort in its dependent status, its namelessness, and with its stubborn culture of aspiration.

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Big Daddy Kane Performing in the Bronx, 1989Photo: Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis

Of all the places in Manhattan’s general orbit, the Bronx is (and this is its enduring strangeness) both the poorest and the least alienated. That every other place is more distinguishable is true in part because every other place has taken greater pains to contrast itself with Manhattan. Brooklyn, after the accelerating differences of the past decade, now stands in contrast to Manhattan in virtually every way: As a more Bohemian place, a poorer place, a more communal place, and a more ideological place. Queens, with its density of upwardly mobile newcomers and its agglomeration of little lawns, casts a longing eye eastward, toward the Island. Oppositional, conservative Staten Island is atavistic — an idea of what the outer boroughs might have been if the last two decades had never happened. New Jersey and Connecticut and Long Island have whole literatures built around explaining their difference from the city. The Bronx alone is both elusive and placid. The vastness of the borough’s poverty makes you expect that a radical politics will take root there, but it has not really happened. A more transactional spirit — Eliot Engel, Jose Serrano — always seems to triumph instead. The de Blasio election is sometimes said to have altered the basic view of the city, so that the political concerns of the outer boroughs have assumed a more central place, but really, culturally speaking, the triumph has been Brooklyn’s alone.

Just about every story told about the Bronx (the last borough to be cleaved off from the 212 area code) revolves around its dependent relationship with Manhattan. The essential Bronx experience is the brush with fame. This contrast runs, for instance, through the great Bronx novel, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, beginning with the scene in which his narrator, soon to be an apprentice hoodlum, meets the great gangster Dutch Schultz:

The quality of my longing was no more specific than anyone else’s, it was a neighborhood thing, if i had lived down near Yankee Stadium I would have known where the players went in through the side door, or if I lived in Riverdale maybe the mayor would have passed by and waved from his police car on the way home from work, it was the culture of where you lived, and for any of us it was never more than that, and very often less, as, for instance, if one Saturday night years before we were born, Gene Autry came to the Fox Theatre on Tremont Avenue to sing with his Western band between showings of his picture–well that was ours and we had it, and it didn’t matter what it was as long as it was ours, so that it satisfied your idea of fame, which was simple registry in the world, that you were known, or that your vistas were the same that had been seen by the great and near-great…”

This instinct, that fame, passing through an unexceptional place, has a transfiguring effect, is alive in virtually every story told about the borough since it became safe. This fall, it has been poignantly present in that fantastic Gatorade commercial celebrating Derek Jeter’s retirement, but it has long been the theme of the Bronx’s relationship with the entitled Yankees generally. In his Parts Unknown episode, Bourdain meets DJ Kool Herc and extracts from him a great story of listening to “Rapper’s Delight” played on every story of the walkup across the street and realizing that hip-hop is about to become something vast. This conviction — that the blessing of proximity to Manhattan is that things conceived in the Bronx can quickly take off — in some ways is the core of the career of Jennifer Lopez, perhaps the most Bronx-like of all the Bronx celebrities. Lopez’s great achievement, in a way, was to take the myth of New York at its word, to believe that the world had been lain at the feet not just of wealthy Manhattanites but anyone who lived within the five boroughs, any New Yorker, so long as she had the ambition to take advantage of it. There is cognitive dissonance in this, and political placidity, but there is also an incredible warmth in the depth of the Bronx’s hope, and of its awe.

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Children from the Bronx, 1978Photo: Alain Le Garsmeur/Corbis

The Bronx episode of Parts Unknown wasn’t Bourdain’s best. At moments it succumbed, as his documentaries do now and then, to a Chowhound orientalism, in which all ethnic culture is sensuous and true and real. He spends entirely too much time in the company of the borough’s silly, self-appointed culinary promoter Baron Ambrosia. But late in the episode, Bourdain gets close to something very moving about the place, in a lovely rooftop interview with the charismatic early graffiti artist Futura 2000, who explains how he and his fellow artists used to gather up here in the late ‘70s, high above the elevated subway tracks, waiting for a train to come through, covered, inevitably, with one another’s tags. “Well, the whole point of being here was to me what the Bronx was about,” Futura 2000 tells the chef — to grab a little piece of something greater as it moves through, to put your permanent mark on it. Watching your work slide away from you, Bourdain says. Futura 2000 says, “Absolutely.”

When Netflix announced its series, called The Get Down, Luhrmann said this about the project’s inception: “I’ve been obsessed with the idea of how a city in its lowest moment, forgotten and half destroyed, could give birth to such creativity and originality in music, art and culture.” It’s a rich idea to be obsessed with; you can see the arc of the drama. But I suspect one key to understanding New York in that moment is that the Bronx was never more central to the city. The trick isn’t that the city’s streets felt themselves to be “forgotten and half destroyed,” impossibly far from influence. It is in how close to power and influence, even in that moment, they felt themselves to be.