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By Lourdes Zapata
New York City and Manhattan are not synonymous. While many parts of the city have received increased attention and investment as we recover from a year of economic devastation and personal tragedy, too many neighborhoods in the outer boroughs remain an afterthought.
Case in point: The Bronx has experienced the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, unemployment, and spikes in crime during the past year. In 2020, the Bronx again ranked last out of New York State’s 62 counties in an annual survey of key health indicators and the household and poverty rate remains the highest in the City.
However, we now have a real opportunity for a new narrative. This year we will elect a new mayor who can help determine the fates of local communities as we all work to rebuild. As we approach June’s primary, each mayoral candidate needs to outline their plans to help all neighborhoods recover in every corner of our city — not just those of the city’s famous skyline.
Our borough deserves a meaningful seat at the table with our city-wide elected officials to ensure that it receives its fair share of quality housing, educational investments, safer streets and economic value. More importantly, we need a mayor who will be committed to making long-overdue investments in Bronx communities.
The Bronx has come a long way in the last few decades. I was born and raised in the Bronx during a time when it was the place of tabloid headlines and the go-to example of blight and disinvestment. I became an adult during a time when its neighborhoods were either too dangerous or too expensive; there was no in-between and very few places for young professionals like myself to settle down and thrive, causing many of us to move elsewhere and leave the borough we loved.
Since then, the borough has made remarkable strides thanks to its residents and local leaders.
In the Bronx, community organizations like the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBro), the Diego Beekman Mutual Housing Association (MHA) and others have laid the groundwork for rebuilding. Since 1972 SoBro has combated disinvestment in the South Bronx and stimulated economic and community development at every level. The Diego Beekman MHA has introduced a comprehensive neighborhood plan that outlines how community-led organizing can uplift neighborhoods and inform public policy.
Today’s Bronx is not the Bronx of my youth – we’re seeing a burgeoning resurgence. Our homegrown talent have more incentives to stay than ever before, and we are seeing an influx of young people looking to call themselves Bronxites too. But we can’t be the only ones invested in the Bronx’s future. We need allies in government who are willing to do the work to make this recovery one that lasts beyond this moment.
The Bronx has often felt like a forgotten borough in City Hall. We have experienced administrations that ignored the needs and realities of Bronxites while employing a one-size fits all approach to community and economic development.
As our city works towards recovery, the next mayor must ensure that the borough’s resurgence is responsive to the needs of lifelong Bronxites, while also moving us forward to make it an attractive place where people want to live, work and play.
Politicians cannot take the Bronx for granted. With shifting demographics resulting in vastly different voting habits and a drastic change in the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the borough, the Bronx is ripe for political engagement at a deeper, more meaningful level. We need to see candidates on our streets seeing the trailblazing work we are accomplishing and learning from our struggles and successes.
We need partners in government who are willing to commit to threading the needle of doing the tough but necessary work – thinking critically about neighborhood needs and ensuring full community engagement. Partners who are committed to making this borough, and city, a home for everyone. These are tough times but the opportunity is boundless and that opportunity is not solely limited to the borough of Manhattan.
The 2021 mayoral candidates have a choice: they can follow the lead of their predecessors who have failed to fully and proactively engage our communities or they can break tradition, engage with us and learn from local community leaders like SoBro and Diego Beekman who have sourced ideas for recovery that are in the interest of the entire city.
Every New Yorker will be better for it.
Lourdes Zapata is the President and CEO of SoBro