In the 1920s and 30s Art Deco facades came to define the face of the west Bronx but, for decades, it was the unadorned rear courtyards and fire escapes of the very same buildings embodied the raw life of the neighborhood. Fire escapes served as balconies, summer sleeping quarters, laundry racks, improvised gardens, and winter-time ice boxes. Socially, they were settings for family dramas and neighborly dialogues from the mundane to a theatricality worthy of Ben Hecht or Clifford Odets.
A half century ago, the construction of Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway cut a ghettoizing east-west slash across the Bronx, isolating the southern half of the borough. This and New York’s tough, dangerous, drug years of the 1970s turned Bronx courtyards from domains of life to domains of danger. Will the present decade see the removal of razor wire or its reinforcement and expansion? Will it bring the integration of this magnificent neighborhood into citywide trends or its continued marginalization? Will it fall victim to gentrification or the “cool” settlements of “hipsters” that have “ethnically-cleansed” darker skinned, lower income, and gray haired folks from large swaths of Brooklyn? Comments are welcome.