This is part of a series about New Yorkers who have recently relocated to the Bronx. It’s called The New Bronx.
It starts with a nickname. Before SoHo was synonymous with chic boutiques, it was just known as south of Houston Street. In the days when there were more emerging artists than cash-rich startups, Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) was just a tangle of warehouses in Brooklyn. And now, as the nickname “SoBro” suggests, the Bronx might be the next reinvented New York City neighborhood.
SoBro stands for South Bronx, said Mia Stephens, a 33-year-old Bronx resident who moved to Morrisania in January 2015. “It’s supposed to be a whole new area with restaurants and artists,” said the single mother of a one-year-old. But Stephens said the SoBro label and the trendiness it connotes probably doesn’t extend to most of the South Bronx.
She has another nickname for her neighborhood: “I call this place Baghdad,” said Stephens. “This is the most impoverished neighborhood I’ve ever seen,” she said. The rent may be cheap, “but you get what you pay for.”
Stephens, who makes a modest income as a waitress in Yonkers, moved to an apartment on Boston Road and 169th Street in Morrisania from a one-bedroom on 116th Street in Harlem, where she paid $1,600 in rent – a little less than the median rent of $1,810 in that neighborhood. Before that, she lived in Florida for about a decade, where the average rent for a two-bedroom was around $850 when she left.
Stephens doesn’t hide the fact that she wants to leave. She grew up in the Bronx – on Intervale and 169th Street, which she insists is far safer than where she lives now.
“I refuse for him to grow up in this neighborhood,” she said, gesturing to her son, a giggling, vocal one-year-old, squealing for attention. A book in her lap, Stephens looked around Crotona Park on a quiet Sunday morning. “This area is heroin infested,” she said, pointing to a man in a zombie-like stupor across the park. “If he was three or four I’d have to explain to him what’s wrong with that guy.”
The difference in rent is the one thing that keeps her there, for now. Even with her child’s father’s income from his job as a driver, $1,600 for a one-bedroom made things tight – both financially and space-wise. So they moved uptown, where they found a two-bedroom for $500 less. That number is actually significantly less than the average rental price of $1,593 for a two-bedroom in the Bronx.
But the lower price-per-square-foot comes at a cost, said Stephens. In Harlem, it was easy for her to walk to restaurants, shops and transportation. In the Bronx, her list of complaints includes lack of enrichment opportunities for her child. “I have a friend in Harlem with a son the same age, and she takes him to swimming lessons, music classes. There’s nothing like that around here.”
Once Stephens starts talking about the reasons she wants to leave the Bronx, it’s hard for her to stop. A few weeks ago, she looked out from her apartment window and saw people running. A man cried for help, she heard shots, and then the police came. “Who wants to hear that from their window?” she asked.
The food options are another issue. Stephens says that organic food is hard to come by, and most of the food sold in stores isn’t healthy. “I bought a bag of rice and it had weevils in it,” she said.
As the sun and temperature rose, Stephens packed up her things. “When more people come out, I go inside,” she said.
“I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. If I saw some fliers for a meeting, I would go. I could be that person to put them up,” she said, momentarily brightening.
But then she shrugged, shaking her head. “People would have to care,” said Stephens. “It’s hard to invest when you feel like leaving.”
As she took off for the privacy of the four walls of her apartment, stroller in tow, she left with a warning in her wake: “If you walk around here,” she said, “please, just don’t.”
–By Emily Woodruff