Melrose Commons stretches across 35 square blocks in the South Bronx and includes some of the blocks that many New Yorkers associate with the very worst of the old, nightmarishly bleak South Bronx on display in Mel Rosenthal’s famous “In the South Bronx of America” photos. It’s its own neighborhood, and has been sincearound 1850, but Melrose Commons’ location makes it easy to lump it in with all that, even today, is associated with the South Bronx. Namely gap-toothed streets and empty lots and a multifaceted and manifestly creepy desolation. The South Bronx has picked itself up pretty impressively since its post-apocalyptic low ebb in the 1970s and ’80s, and Melrose Commons — the subject of a long-running Urban Renewal Area that kicked off back in 1994 — has been an integral part of that rejuvenation. Today, Melrose Commons became the first neighborhood in New York City to earn LEED for Neighborhood Development honors. Which of course is awesome. It’s rare that we get to ask this question in a happy tone of voice, but how did this happen?
The short answer is through an ambitious and impressively wide-reaching redevelopment plan formulated and implemented by MAP Green (and thus, by association, by Magnusson Architecture and Planning), about which I’ll write more in just a minute. But the longer answer is through a truly heroic bit of community organizing. The NYC Department of City Planning had an initial plan for redeveloping Melrose Commons that centered around… well, this is the Bronx and it was 1990, so not luxury condos but middle-income housing and mixed-use developments. Not the worst idea on its face, but even middle-income housing was more than Melrose Commons’ 6,000 residents — and their median annual incomes of $12,000 — could afford. This sort of thing happens all the time — the Domino Sugar redevelopment comes to mind again, here. But the response of Melrose Commons’ residents was notably less business-as-usual — they formed a community organization called Nos Quedamos (“We Stay” en espanol) and just straight-up badgered the hell out of city officials through a truly extraordinary number of public meetings, until finally the old plans were scrapped and the more ambitious MAP Green plan was adopted in 1994. This case history of Nos Quedamos and Melrose Commons lays the story out pretty well.
For the purposes of Liberal Emotional Uplift, Melrose Commons’ story could end there. But what sets Melrose Commons apart, again, was that the story continued. This 2005 story in the New York Times details the continuing progress at Melrose Commons, which, this time, was aided by the city through such programs as the affordable housing incentive New Foundations. Nos Quedamos raised concerns about building more efficiently, which led in part to Danois Architects’ Sunflower Way I, New York State’s first green affordable housing development. “Long before Green Design was a hot topic in the industry, we recognized its importance to the life of our community. My mother, Yolanda Garcia, founder of Nos Quedamos, fought tirelessly to see sustainable design incorporated into the Urban Renewal Plan as well as the development of each new project in the neighborhood,” says Yolanda Gonzalez, Executive Director of Nos Quedamos. Crime dropped, homeownership rose. This, clearly, is a much more potent and complicated species of liberal uplift, here.
And aren’t we liberals ridiculous for getting all dewy over stuff like this, et cetera. But while this sort of people-working-together stuff is basically pornography for some of us, it’s also true, and inspiring in the best ways. Given that the city’s real estate — and increasingly the city itself — sometimes seems to be controlled entirely by three or four mega-developers, it’s nice to see a small group of seemingly not-very-influential people not only making themselves influential, but making their neighborhood a better and more sustainable place to live. So is Robert Redford making a movie about this yet? And if not, why not?