LETTER FROM THE BRONX: Authenticity and Arthur Avenue
“The neighborhood sells itself as Italian,” Linda says of the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up and once again calls home. Located south of Fordham University and east of the Bronx Zoo, it is an area that locals used to refer to as the Belmont community or the Mount Carmel parish—but nowadays most everyone refers to it by its main strip, Arthur Avenue. The neighborhood’s history is linked closely with an Italian presence and collective identity, shown daily in the commercial exchanges between merchants and customers, and annually in neighborhood cultural celebrations like Ferragosto and the feast days of St. Anthony and Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This identity is essential to Arthur Avenue’s commerce, and a daily walk through the neighborhood reveals the street “ballet” that Jane Jacobs famously celebrated as essential to a thriving neighborhood in New York City.
The ballet on Arthur Avenue is centered around shopping and food. The heart of the neighborhood, as well as the main business hub, is the intersection of 187th Street and Arthur Avenue itself. Most of the restaurants and businesses extend for about four blocks outward from the intersection in all four directions, terminating at Fordham Road to the northeast and 183rd street to the southwest. The Arthur Avenue indoor market spans the width of a block between Arthur and Hughes Avenues, and offers a microcosm of the neighborhood’s shopping experience, housing a butcher counter, bakery counter, a humidor, produce vendors, and merchants of imported goods from Italy. A walk around the neighborhood at different times of the day can be a multi-sensory experience. In the morning, bread is baking at Madonia Brothers Bakery or G. Addeo & Sons Bakery, and fish is being unloaded at Umberto’s Clam House and the market. Various fresh meats—including, around Easter, whole slaughtered lambs—hang on display in the butcher’s windows or the meat counter of the indoor market. All day, merchants and customers engage in a back-and-forth chatter over food prices and quality over the counters. And at night, locals and visitors dine at the restaurants that line the avenues.
Urban sociologist Sharon Zukin recently wrote about the search for “authentic” neighborhoods in her recent book Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (Oxford, 2009). She explores the motivations behind those who visit neighborhoods, those who put down roots, and those who leave. For Zukin, a major component of a neighborhood’s appeal lies in its perceived authenticity, an elusive quality that pulls in elements of grit, ethnicity, history, architecture, and opportunities for economic growth. The Arthur Avenue neighborhood makes for a compelling study of such authenticity, particularly Zukin’s rather fluid and at times fleeting definition of it. The “authentic experience” she describes as desirable in a neighborhood seems to have slightly different meanings for the different characters in the Arthur Avenue ballet, including elements of nostalgia and a balance between organic presence and purposeful crafting. Is the authenticity of an area a natural occurrence, or the result of deliberate collective activity? For both Zukin and Arthur Avenue, it seems to be a little of both.
I spoke with a few residents and business operators in the area, and they all took a different approach to the term “authenticity,” each person referring to his or her own particular relationship to the neighborhood. My friend Linda, a middle-aged Italian-American resident of the area who was born and raised there, moved away during the 90,s, and returned a few years ago, sees the authenticity of Arthur Avenue as mostly a thing of the past. She still loves the neighborhood, valuing it for its convenience in the areas of shopping, dining, and proximity to major hospitals, universities, and highways, but she has noticed a shift from the neighborhood’s historical make-up, and a disconnect between the image the neighborhood presents and its actual current demographics. Linda observes that when she was growing up, the neighborhood (by census numbers) was predominantly Italian, but did not strive to represent itself as such, whereas now that it’s an ethnically diverse neighborhood with a very small percentage of Italian residents, the neighborhood cultivates this Italian image and markets it. When we talk about the marketplace itself, Linda describes the banter between the vendors and the customers. “They’re out there, they’re reaching out to the customers. There is a whole friendly environment.” She pauses and begins to chuckle a little, adding, “How sincere it is, I don’t know.” Many of the businesses are still owned and run by Italians, proudly displaying the number of generations they have been on Arthur Avenue. But the owners no longer live in the area, a great number of them having moved up or out of state, or into other Bronx neighborhoods like Morris Park, according to Linda. “Right now I think it’s commercial. But for it to be authentic, you would need those (business owners) to live there.”
When I spoke with a local business owner who had moved out of the neighborhood, her take on authenticity was more flexible. In her mid-20s, and the daughter of Italian immigrants, Theresa grew up in the area, attended nearby Catholic grammar and high schools, and now runs a small stationery and gift shop. As a young woman, she moved to a different Bronx neighborhood, but continues to come back to Arthur Avenue every day to work, shop, and occasionally dine at the restaurants. Like Linda, she notes a shift in the makeup of the neighborhood in terms of demographics, but feels that since many of the business owners still actively work in their restaurants and shops and maintain continued presence in the neighborhood, it contributes to a feeling of authenticity. Many of the patrons of the indoor market come from outside neighborhoods as well, mentioning their own historic ties to the area and reasons for returning that include a fondness for a certain butcher or baker’s wares. Multiple generations who have moved away still maintain economic ties after forsaking the residential ones.
Theresa’s past experiences were tied not just to living in the area, but to working there as well. “That was a common bond for us—all of us worked in the neighborhood and had local jobs. So you got to know the merchants, and you worked with your friends, and we all had that in common.” She also speaks strongly about the connections she has formed working there as a young woman. Even though Theresa lived there, she forged strong connections working in the neighborhood, and still maintains those. So for her, the neighborhood preserves its authenticity as long as those business ties are still there, even if the residential ties are cut.
Both Theresa and Linda speak with a similar tinge of nostalgia for what the neighborhood used to be in their childhood days, even though both refer to a different time period, about 30 years apart. This shared sensibility also fits Zukin’s concept of authenticity, in its connotation of a link to a shared past, identity, and experiences. In a way, Arthur Avenue capitalizes on this link to the past quite nicely, with many people returning regularly to a neighborhood they once called home to frequent the local businesses. Theresa and Linda’s different points of view show the degree to which authenticity is highly relative and subjective. Residents and business owners require different experiences from a neighborhood, and this shapes their view on the neighborhood’s appeal.
For some, authenticity is a moot point. I spoke with another local merchant, Bernie, in the corner hardware store that proudly advertises its one-hundred-year existence in the community. An older gentleman, Bernie describes the neighborhood as better than it used to be, not sharing in the nostalgia for days past that Theresa and Linda have. “Neighborhoods don’t change, people change,” he states while discussing the economic improvements in the area in the past twenty years. He points to the fluctuation of people coming in and out of the neighborhood, noting an improvement in the local poverty levels and better relationships between the different groups living in the Arthur Avenue community. Bernie’s point offers an important twist on the dynamics of urban areas—as this particular neighborhood has maintained a separate and distinct identity in spite of the changes in residents and the emigration of business owners. The area’s physical and ideological boundaries are still clearly defined, and many of the neighborhood’s institutions like the park, the Church, the hospital, and the market are still there, even if different groups frequent them. Bernie notes that this is all good for local businesses and the community, that new people coming and going can help drive the local economic engine.
Bernie’s perspective illustrates an important point about authenticity. Sometimes it is conspicuously crafted, which manifests here in the banter between Arthur Avenue merchants and vendors, the proud display of the Italian heritage, and the continued return of neighborhood expatriates to experience the traditions from their childhoods. Sometimes the authentic appeal is an area’s grit or its edge (or at least a history of them), so valued in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side. But for some who just want to work and pay the rent on their store, authenticity and edge are meaningless. Merchants like Bernie have no use for such terms. It’s better to have businesses doing well and race relations improved.
Economic diversity and mixed-use zones were two of Jane Jacobs’s favorite themes, and in The Death and Life of Great American Cities she noted the lack of such diversity in the Bronx of the late 1950,s. She made no specific mention of the Arthur Avenue of that era, although she did cite a guidebook writer who bemoaned the lack of any decent restaurants in the area, specifically referring to the neighborhoods around the nearby Bronx Zoo. Such an oversight is unthinkable to anyone who’s ever been to Arthur Avenue, but it does bring us back to Linda’s point about how the neighborhood didn’t market itself as much back then. Many of the restaurants did indeed exist at the time, but were frequented mostly by locals. Thus, when the area was more authentic for locals, it was unknown to much of the rest of the city. Nowadays, the neighborhood’s popularity is based on nostalgia for a past that is part real and part imagined, but a major force of commercial consumption.
Whether or not the current experience is sincere almost doesn’t matter, though. “An authentic experience of local character becomes a local brand,” writes Zukin (emphasis hers). The local brand of Arthur Avenue yields such an experience, as Theresa describes when she talks about the presence of the owners in their own businesses and their interactions with their customers. It also ties into larger business initiatives of the entire Bronx and the rest of New York City. The partnership between Arthur Avenue merchants and the organization “I Love the Bronx!” is intentionally similar to the “I LOVE NY” branding initiative of the Koch era. Both campaigns contribute to promoting an image—and how much of the image is reality-based really does not matter. The image sells, brings in business, and contributes to the development of an urban area.
This is not to sound cynical about the neighborhood—much of the business still seems to benefit the people of the area, and the diversity of the Belmont community really does ostensibly thrive in the face of such a commercialized image. It is a functioning, and dare I say soulful (to use another of Zukin’s terms) area—there are public spaces where all age groups and different ethnicities interact in the form of the market, the parks, the Church, and the sidewalk. There is a palpable sense of camaraderie among vendors, locals, and visitors, and though the area’s brand is tied to a past era, it still generates the kinds of micro-urban experiences that distinguish this neighborhood from the increasingly homogenized type we see springing up—or more accurately, blending in—all over Manhattan. There are opportunities for preserving the past and crafting new beginnings. And were a guidebook to be written about the Bronx now, there would be no lack of restaurants to recommend after a day trekking through the Botanical Gardens and the zoo. Just walk a little further west, and take your pick.
ROSEMARY SITLER is a writer based in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx