The Bronx: Not Actually A Dumpster Fire
By: Jesse McGrath
I moved to New York from the Bay Area last year, and basically since I arrived people have not stopped reminding me how little I know about living here. Nearly every week I am given an unprompted lesson in how ignorant I am to the best bars or restaurants, or how to dress seasonally appropriate. And, in all honesty, I have learned a lot from the people that have been here longer than me.
But mostly, I’ve learned that they are all full of shit.
Here’s what I mean; this is a conversation that happened to me last week at a party, but it also happened twice in one night a few weeks before that, and happens essentially anytime I meet new people for the first time. It goes something like this:
Them: So what do you do for a living?
Me: I teach high school English at a public school in the Bronx.
Them: Holy shit.
Them: Wow. That’s rough.
I like making new friends, so I don’t act on my gut instinct to roll my eyes and shake my fist in a jerk-off motion at them when they say that, but If you just met someone for the first time, maybe telling them that the career they chose is “rough” isn’t a great call. And it’s clear what they are referring to when they say “rough”. Their eyes widen at the mention of New York’s North-most borough.
Sometimes these conversations lead to people asking me point-blank if I am afraid to go to work. This is a possibly (See: definitely) racist and/or a classist assumption about the BX, and it’s the reaction I get from almost everyone I talk to who doesn’t live there. No one can provide specific examples or instances when they were there and felt threatened or intimidated, but they are certain they would feel that way if they ever mustered up the courage to visit. For a lot of New Yorkers, the extent of their Bronx knowledge is: “Didn’t Anthony Bourdain visit there recently?”
None of this is particularly groundbreaking information. The narrative of folks being afraid of an area because it has a bad reputation or is inhabited by mostly minorities is more or less why modern suburbs exist.
It’s also not surprising that this unfortunate mindset is not evaded by the urban twenty-somethings that consider themselves progressive.
I am the first to admit that the “wokeness” I earn by teaching immigrants in the Bronx (did I mention they are immigrants? Wow, what a goddamn hero I am) is mostly undone by the fact that I am amongst the thousands of young white gentrifiers that live in Brooklyn. I have a beard and really genuinely enjoy craft beer. I know– horrible.
As quick as I am to brag about spending eight hours in the Bronx every day to anyone that will listen, I avoided telling my students where I live at all costs because I know that a guy that just moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn for “the experience” is as culturally relevant as a Dunken Doughnuts claiming to be fair trade and gluten-free.
But then something bizarre happened. My students finally asked me where I live, and I answered honestly. I expected their response to be something along the lines of “oh you’re one of them” or “I bet you love small batch whiskey”. Instead what I got was
“Damn Mister, why you live in Brooklyn? Ain’t you scared?”
“You should move to the Bronx, mister. It’s much safer and nicer.”
Much safer and nicer.
Twist ending: Everyone is ignorant! Even some of my coworkers, many of whom have spent their entire lives living New York, urge me to leave right after school so I can get to Brooklyn before the sun goes down.
All of a sudden I have more street cred than I know what to do with because, no one in New York, regardless of where they live, has any idea what the hell they are talking about.
I live in a hip neighborhood where everyone looks just like me and I work in a place that is mostly suburbs and families. But depending on who you ask, one of those places makes me a total badass, unless you are my Mom, in which case both of those places make you a nervous wreck. The same experts that give you eleven different subway routes when you ask for directions don’t know shit about neighborhoods that are 15 miles away.
As far as I can gather, people in Brooklyn (and everywhere else) have a picture of the Bronx that hasn’t changed since the 1970’s. They think poverty and violence. And people in the Bronx still associate Brooklyn with the streets that Biggie rapped about in the 90’s. Neighborhoods filled with gangsters and hustlers. Wrong and wrong. Beyond wrong. It’s like grandfathered wrongness that comes from decades of being wrong. Ideas based on opinions from twenty years ago, that are as wrong today as they were back then. Nobody actually knows anything, but everyone pretends to know everything. It’s sort of amazing.
At this point, the only thing we can all be sure of is that Manhattan is just a bunch of finance goons swimming around in a swimming pool filled with cocaine, and like four hundred ladies on the upper east side that look Cruella Deville. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.