The Bronx in retrospect

For my mandatory reporting and writing class at Columbia, we were assigned the Bronx as our storytelling beat. As a foreigner in the United States, I brought with me a suitcase full of preconceived notions about the Bronx. It was carefully put together from my exposure to American pop culture and stereotypes.

Among them was the idea of the Bronx being an unruly, dangerous borough, which I promised myself never to set foot in. It didn’t help when, after arriving in New York, Manhattan natives confirmed my suspicions regarding the safety of the Bronx. You can understand my initial apprehension when I received the email from the professor informing us of our beats.

Banknote Building

The historic Banknote building houses many interesting startups in South Bronx

A month later, after exploring my neighborhood – Hunts Point –  on foot and by bus, I have found most of my impressions of the Bronx have changed. I’ve become strangely attached to Hunts Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of New York State, and its people. Based on my experiences in meeting some of these Hunts Point natives, talking to them, and learning about their stories, this is what I think of the Bronx, and my neighborhood, in retrospect:

1) The Bronx is outrageously misrepresented
Don’t get me wrong, the Bronx has plenty of socio-economic issues it needs to work out. There are streets that are still evidently unsafe to wander into. Poverty, lack of access to education and healthcare, high unemployment rate – the whole gamut of issues – are all very real problems that Bronx residents tackle daily. In the middle of this gloomy economic forecast, there is a wave of change taking place at the grassroots level that almost no one is reporting on. Young leaders, entrepreneurs, and agents of change are working towards building a new kind of Bronx in Hunts Point and the neighborhood is teeming with so many wonderful stories that are waiting to be told. I should note that the lack of coverage of the Bronx in national news is one of the reasons why our professor chose this borough to brush up our reporting experience.

2) An emphasis on entrepreneurship
There is an emphasis in Hunts Point on promoting entrepreneurship and new startups. The historic Banknote building in the neighborhood, which once printed currencies of over a 100 countries, houses a sizable number of small startups that are doing some pretty awesome things – many of them also dabbling technology. Once again this is something the old stereotypes about the Bronx leave out. Of course, I cannot reveal who they are and what they do as they’re my sources and I’m working on some stories that involve these entrepreneurs.

Trailer trucks

There’s a nice juxtaposition of small startups and big manufacturing companies like the Hunts Point Food Market; huge trailer trucks are a common sight along the Bruckner boulevard in Hunts Point

3) Strangers are easily approachable
I found people in Hunts Point to be far more approachable than in Manhattan. Here, people are reserved and are wary of talking to reporters. In the Bronx, most of them welcome reporters into their lives and end up pouring their hearts out to them. This is probably because most locals want to see the media tell stories about the new, positive developments in the Bronx instead of repeating the old rhetoric of drug-related crimes, murders, and prostitution. Many of the people I’ve met at Hunts Point have repeatedly emphasized on this unfair media bias that exists in portraying the Bronx. At the same time, as a reporter, you have to question yourself to what extent do you go on to report their stories without inadvertently exploiting them? The Bronx is rich in stories but where does one draw the line? I’ve found myself questioning my objectivity over several of the stories I’m working on – on a personal level I want to tell these stories because they speak about individual triumphs through hard work and perseverance. In other words, they represent some of what the American dream is about. So I ask myself, am I being blind in my desire to tell their success stories? Am I holding them accountable to what they tell me?

4) Safety and security
There are still many parts of the Bronx that are unsafe. For the most part, however, strolling down streets in Hunts Point in the afternoon is as safe as it is in Manhattan. One has to still exercise some caution and have a basic level of awareness but that’s expected in any of the boroughs in New York City. Though I’ve never stayed at Hunts Point beyond six in the evening, my colleagues who have stayed past 10 at night say it is generally safe. There’s always the probability of a situation going awry, but that can happen anywhere in the world. Except maybe in Singapore, because I feel it’s the safest country in the world.

5) The Hunts Point Food Market
All I can say is that it is cool. Locals claim the Hunts Point Food Market is one of the biggest in the world, generating over a billion dollars in yearly revenue. It’s located in the middle of nowhere with long stretches of empty roads and scores of trailer trucks rolling into and out of the enclosure. The food market supplies wholesale fresh foods to all of New York City I believe and has become a landmark for Hunts Point.

Hunts Point Food Market

Once the reporting class ends in October, I’ll definitely miss the vibrancy I saw in the neighborhood. The residents may not be as well off as those in Manhattans; many of them probably do not have full-time jobs, while others are trying to make ends meet and not get evicted, but they have a deep sense of belonging in the community that I admire. I’m happy to see my preconceived notions about the Bronx being dispelled gradually, and I’ll spend the next month eagerly covering news coming out of Hunts Point.

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