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Bronx

Two hours later, revivified by a pair of conga players’ exuberant performance on the 2 train, I hustle out at the corner of Third Avenue and East 149th in the South Bronx, once an international symbol of urban blight. A man hands me a postage-stamp-size pamphlet titled “Messiah Is the Prince of Peace”; another, buying a bag of roasted nuts, offers directions to the Brook in a gregarious voice, looking pleased.

Rooftop garden park in Bronx New York
The Brook occupies what had, for years, been a vacant lot. “Before we built on it, there were remnants of dead chickens from who knows what sort of illicit activities,” says project architect Coren Bomback.

“Alex wanted to design a beacon for the neighborhood,” says Coren Bomback, an associate at Alexander Gorlin Architects, as we look up at the Brook’s distinctively pierced red-and-aluminum corner. Its tenants, surely, see it as such: a six-story, 198-unit building, it was developed by Common Ground, an organization that constructs supportive housing for formerly homeless, special-needs, and low-income individuals; the structure, new and immaculate, stands in sharp contrast to the mélange of vacant lots and rundown buildings surrounding it.

Inside, we are met by Paul Pavon and David Headley, Common Ground’s somewhat formal on-site managers. “Do you need us to tag along?” Pavon asks, and when Bomback politely declines, they nevertheless show us the entire building, missing nothing—it is an hour before I visit one of the small but serviceable single-occupancy apartments. Still, the program is impressive: a multipurpose room, an exercise facility, a computer lab with 14 work stations, a nurse’s office, and a landscaped rear courtyard, as well as suites for both Common Ground and BronxWorks, the Brook’s onsite social services provider—well-maintained, cheerful spaces.

Housing development in South Bronx, New York
“Do you really like your building?” the Brook’s director, Paul Pavon, was asked by an acquaintance, who compared the appearance of the 90,000- square-foot supportive housing development in New York’s famously blighted South Bronx to that of the Tetris video game. Indeed he does: “If you walk around this neighborhood, not too many buildings look like this. So there’s some kind of pride when the tenants come home.”

Yet there’s an edge beneath the Brook’s welcoming nature: The neighborhood suffers from crime and drug infestations, so the building has multiple monitoring strategies. The most intriguing is a card key–operated turnstile at the entrance to the building that—in addition to turning off nonessential power in individual units when tenants leave, a big energy-saver—enables staff to keep track of people’s comings-and-goings.

A sentimental tableau greets us on the green roof: a middle-aged woman in church clothes, seated on a bench with a bouquet of roses, listening to a gent in a Yankees cap pitch woo. I ask my hosts about the design’s impact. “Some tenants are coming straight off the street,” Pavon replies. “The architecture, the cosmetics, play a huge role in the start-up process, whether they accept their new situation.” He apologies for the late-season lack of color in the plants. Then, for a moment, Pavon’s seriousness lifts. “The Bronx borough president was here, and he saw bees,” he says. “And he thanked me for bringing bumblebees back to the Bronx.”

Entering the subway, receiving another tiny pamphlet (“Somebody Loves You! Jesus!”), I board the 2 train for the voyage home. Looking around the hot, crowded car, shallowly inhaling its ripe air, I am seeing things with fresh eyes. What drew me to New York in the 1970s—the dystopia Gerald Ford famously told to drop dead—were the vivid jolie laide scenes at every turn, a noirish hyperrealism that derived, to no small degree, from ruin. Today I complain endlessly that what I used to love about that dry-land Atlantis—the forgotten, decades-old signage; the splendid underused buildings no one could afford to rip down; the oddball establishments and their oddball patrons—has given way to developer architecture, chain stores, a lack of detail and intimacy. But my travels have revealed a city as textured, complex, and narrative-rich as the one I carry in memory. “No human heart/Changes half so fast as a city’s face,” wrote Baudelaire, and that’s true. But within the features of the new-century metropolis that has bloomed around me—waiting, it would seem, to be noticed—I recognize New York.

 

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