It was just another sunny day in the southeast Bronx when I got hungry between taking a long walks and working at various places with my laptop. I hit up one of my favorite diners on the Bruckner Expressway for their lunch special and when I went to pay my tab, I spied a bunch of tablets connected to various food delivery apps. That’s not shocking these days as even this diner that recently celebrated its 80th birthday has kept up with the times. Crosstown Diner ads are practically an institution at bus shelters dotting Schuylerville and Pelham Bay and the bastion of over-the-top sandwiches, salads, and waffles maintains an impressive digital presence as well. Rather, what caught my eye was that one of the tablets had a bike messenger with stars shooting out of its messenger bag.
Well, it was bound to happen one day: Postmates had finally arrived in The Bronx.
Having worked for them as a courier at a time of my life when I was between careers (heads up, Diaries of a Former Postmate is a dedicated chapter in my memoir I’m still working on!) I remember when the staff was very insistent there was no possible way they could expand the delivery zone outside Manhattan and Brooklyn. They thought it wasn’t rich, white, or tech-savvy enough to be worth expanding service to, even though a lot of couriers themselves were housed there plus the same things were said about Inwood and the Heights until the former basically turned into Dubai on the Hudson.
Reminds me of that time I went apartment-hunting back in 2004 and was about to check out an apartment off of Dyckman Street. I got off the subway and half the block was boarded up. The rain pounded the pavement and fewer people walked down Broadway than I’d seen strolling home in the inner sanctum of Co-Op City which only heightened the feeling the northernmost point of Manhattan was a ghost town. Then I heard a gunshot, made like a tree and got the fuck out of there, vamoosing back over the University Heights Bridge to this rat-infested dump off of 180th Street until the guy who lived downstairs started threatening me over things he thought he saw. This led to the rent-stabilized studio near school that I’d call home for a decade.
Nowadays? That rent-stabilized dump goes for the same amount I used to see 2-bedroom apartments go for. Inwood is trying to be an older and less in-your-face Park Slope with a median home price exceeding half a million bucks at the time of writing. I never thought I’d see the day.
But back over the river and onto the mainland, there’s a different story.
The Bronx has always been an oddity in studies on gentrification and urban decay. We’ve largely been gentrification-proof. This is not so much because of the massive stigma that still persists decades after Robert Moses and avaricious property owners doomed the borough to cinders, but because even after a phoenix rose from the ashes our land is mostly owned by the public. It’s not just public housing, The Bronx also has vast amounts of park land (including the largest park in the whole city). Numerous federal, state, and city facilities are quartered here, including a massive MTA yard where all the subways go to die or get repaired alongside Education Row where I got that first accounting degree.
Everyone loves shitting on my home of 120+ years but screw Central Park, we have actual mountains and forests with real live toads up here. Our friendly trash pandas stray from the Botanical Gardens and roam Fordham Road at night in search of treasure before the rats show up for a turf war. I didn’t think I’d see the day that gentrification would become a serious issue north of Port Morris, where this gala proved satire was dead even before Donald Trump became president. Given how many people refused to come visit me up here before Cuomo’s MTA became a real literal hazard to ride, the first harbingers of gentrification didn’t seem to want to venture further north. Better keep those colonization efforts close to the ramparts of El Barrio in the process of edging out the original residents.
But while our buildings are stuck in the 30s and 40s, diner food in the 50s and 60s, school equipment in the 70s and 80s, and MTA assets that were probably last updated in the 90s: housing prices are unfortunately starting to reflect the 2020s.
The bus along Tremont miraculously came without a long wait and I started walking to the Foodtown a few blocks away to stock up for a long work week. I noticed the countless flyers on the lamp posts advertising local real estate investors specializing in Parkchester properties. They’ll buy your apartment right this second then practically deliver your check and closing statement to your face just like the best taco joint on Grubhub. Nothing but music from the 80s and 90s ever plays in this place and I dig it as I look for fruit, yogurt, and vegetarian-friendly frozen dinners, though I wonder if the children growing up here will come to loathe music from this time like I did with 60s music. But between my neighbor who wears a literal Walkman and Umbros with her ostentatious costume jewelry every day and the ceaseless piping in of songs that once played at Limelight, there’s this warmth in the cockles of my heart that I’m living my 1990s dream: I came home, I have my own place, and somehow it’s still 1994.
But when I spy the 12,000 kinds of almond butter adjacent to the bread aisle, and see the community bulletin board near the exit is plastered with those same real estate flyers to the point they dominate the other posters offering cleaning and babysitting services, I know it’s the beginning of the end. Even though it still feels like time never stopped in so many other parts of my home.
But while beloved institutions in Manhattan fell and turned into banks, drugstores, Forever 21, Target, and the same three office slop franchises, all that seems to get built in The Bronx are the same four stores. One strip mall with the requisite Target, Applebee’s, and Dunkin Donuts after another, devoid of any sense that the place is gentrifying yet they still have the same shiny facades as the luxury towers now dotting the East River waterfront.
Suddenly, I spy something odd about the hulking building near Aileen Ryan Oval. It looks totally dead then upon closer inspection, reveals that it’s missing the telltale Applebee’s lettering that otherwise rabidly spread across the rest of the borough. Part of me gets excited that the company losing their lease here could mean that we might get a real independent restaurant, coffee shop, or some type of community space. But given that another chain restaurant is about to open on Tremont where the new Metro North station is supposed to go, I feel I’m being naively hopeful there.
We can’t go back yet we can’t stay here.
I’ve spent a lot of the past year thinking about how too much nostalgia is deadly, and making sense of temporal mindfucks. Not just the one I personally lived, but in how our collective conscience processes the way things were.
Cultural change isn’t always permanent, for better or worse. Public policy though? Well, the wholesale destruction of Mitchell-Lama housing and a refusal to invest in public housing has had deleterious impacts spanning across generations. People far more versed in this policy than I have written about how both sales and rentals alike are increasingly out of reach for anyone under 40 and make it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to save any money or have a better quality of life.
And while it’s better to have a bunch of chain stores than unsafe abandoned buildings, it makes me long for the New York I knew in the 90s. While we shouldn’t go back to the orgy of violent crime we once had, turning everything into this desolate strip mall everyone pays dearly to live near doesn’t seem any better. I’ve seen this place go through a lot of change, and we need more structural improvements instead of just shiny things called improvement.
The land that time forgot is in this weird flux state right now. It would be great if we had less fractured subway and bus service, restaurants that weren’t chains, and maybe a blend of new music venues and clubs in addition to spaces for families. But as the vestiges of the old Bronx clash with this new one sponsored by the same real estate developers who turned Manhattan into Cirque du Bland, I realize I tell jokes about places like Chad’s Gourmet Mayo Hut to mask the heartbreak I feel at my home feeling as if it was never the same after a serious operation.