A small neighborhood smack dab in the middle of the Bronx has become the epicenter of the pandemic’s economic toll in New York City.
Nestled between the Bronx Zoo, Southern Boulevard, the Bronx River, and the ubiquitous Cross-Bronx Expressway, West Farms is a residential community of about 19,000. It’s about 74 percent Latino and 23 percent Black, with a median income slightly above $23,000/year, compared with $38,000 borough-wide and $61,000 citywide, according to Census analysis.
In many ways, West Farms is a microcosm of a city bearing the brunt of an economic crisis unlike any other in recent history. At its peak last June, the citywide unemployment rate climbed just above 20 percent, and the NY Times reported that the unemployment rate in West Farms had reached a staggering 36 percent in that same period, before creeping down. To quote that old saying, “When NYC gets a cold, the Bronx gets the flu."
In November, New York will elect a new mayor, but the first election in West Farms this year will be a special election to fill the City Council seat in District 15, made vacant by Ritchie Torres’s election to congress. In the throes of an election year where the stakes for the city are so consequential, the issues in this neighborhood should be at the fore.
West Farms makes clear the history of disparity in this city. Decades of neglect and disinvestment have intensified the strain of the pandemic here and in other mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods. There are direct links connecting this history to the worrisome community health profile of the neighborhood even before the pandemic. There are higher rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma brought on by hazardous air pollution, and other conditions associated with more severe coronavirus infection. Nearly a third of all residents in the NYC Community District that includes West Farms live in poverty. And while the rates of confirmed coronavirus infections and deaths in the neighborhood are on par with high citywide rates, a lack of access to medical care in the community means that the true health toll of the pandemic in West Farms may yet be unknown.
In the 1940s, when Robert Moses decided to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway — a key contributor to higher rates of air pollution in the area — he knew that he was going to dismantle community structures in East Tremont and adjacent areas, including West Farms. He had little regard for the mostly Jewish working-class New Yorkers who enjoyed the space and the sense of cohesion in their neighborhood. Moses was cold enough to be apathetic, and smart enough to envision the blight that would ensue. “When you put something in that's going to contribute to the erasure of so many important elements to a neighborhood, to tear up the social fabric of a neighborhood,” says Gregory Jost, adjunct professor of Sociology at Fordham with expertise on the history of redlining and the Bronx, “Those who can afford to leave will mostly leave.”
And leave they did — in the case of East Tremont residents, often into uncertainty. Soon afterwards, two concurrent Great Migrations would see Black Americans and Puerto Ricans arrive here and elsewhere across New York City, shaping the future of these communities. Government appraisers and the private sector would take note, and the process known as redlining would hasten the cycle of disinvestment. At this point in time in our city’s history, the Home Owners' Loan Corporation warned lenders of “the steady infiltration of negro, Spanish and Puerto Rican into the area.” An "infiltration" — their exact words.
Jost adds, “And it is often in communities like this where urban renewal projects happen disproportionately,” contributing to the destruction of low-income housing, burdening communities like West Farms with further insecurity, and fattening the pockets of predatory real estate speculators. There was much to gain by leaving the Bronx to burn.
My own family history in West Farms begins in the spring of 1977 – five months before Howard Cossell’s memorable call – when my grandmother, a migrant from the Jim Crow South who arrived in New York in the ‘40s, settled in the neighborhood after years in Harlem and elsewhere in the Bronx. As a cook at a local Head Start program, she fed hundreds if not thousands of children in and around the neighborhood over the years. In the last few decades, the area has welcomed immigrants from the Dominican Republic and from various parts of Central and South America. These are the people that are building the place back up despite persistent challenges and apathy from government officials. They own small businesses, advocate for measurable improvements like streetlights and playgrounds, and organize worker-cooperatives.
In a year when conversations about advancing racial equity are happening far and wide, neighborhoods like West Farms deserve to be in the spotlight, not just for their persistent poverty but also for their resilience, and for the people working in service of the community. People like Wanda Salaman, a longtime activist and the Executive Director of Mothers on the Move, a member-led community organization that advocates for the well-being of low-income people of color in the South Bronx. Her Puerto Rican family arrived in West Farms in the early 1980s.
“We didn’t have the option to run to Co-Op City when the Bronx was burning. We didn’t have the luxury. The only option we had was to fight for our homes.” Salaman told Gothamist. She continued, “Give us credit for sticking around.”
The West Farms section of the Bronx is located in one of the poorest congressional districts in the country. Because of the disproportionate toll of the pandemic in the neighborhood, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show is running a series called “West Farms 10460,” featuring conversations with people who live and work in the community. You can listen to The Brian Lehrer Show and join the conversation weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon on 93.9FM, AM820, or on wnyc.org. Catch up on the episodes below.