Gentrifying Highbridge Faces a Rocky Future

Rezoning, redevelopment, and an increasingly unaffordable Manhattan have the once-isolated neighborhood facing some of the city’s highest rent hikes

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In recent years, the Bronx neighborhood of Highbridge — perched on a steep ridge between the Harlem River on one side, and the valley that holds the 4 train and Yankee Stadium on the other — has become pockmarked with rectangular holes, whose precipitous sides display a cross section of whorls of Fordham gneiss that were once the core of an ancient mountain range. But if you want to see the innards of the Bronx, look soon, because these windows into the ancient past won’t be there long. Soon they will be the foundations of apartment buildings, which are sprouting in Highbridge at an accelerating rate.

For most of the neighborhood’s century-plus history, say locals, it’s been too costly for anyone to bother with removing Highbridge’s rocks, an accident of geology that’s left the neighborhood with a scattering of mid-rise apartment buildings where the ground was penetrable, and parking lots and ad hoc gardens and single-family homes (sometimes perched atop outcroppings, reachable only by long staircases) where it wasn’t. But all that has changed of late, as the city’s gentrification wave has struck Highbridge with force, creating incentives for developers to squeeze in new homes wherever possible. And for the largely low-income Dominicans, African Americans, and Puerto Ricans who make up nearly 90 percent of Highbridge’s population — the Irish residents who congregated there in the early twentieth century mostly followed the newly constructed Major Deegan and Cross Bronx expressways to the suburbs after World War II — it’s brought with it the fear common to gentrifying neighborhoods the city over: When the construction cranes come, what will that mean for us?

“Now there’s organic food and craft beer in the Fine Fare,” says Elliott Lassi, a Highbridge resident who since 2001 has lived in one of the neighborhood’s few genuine high-rises, a 25-story pale green monolith on Ogden Avenue, striped with building-wide balconies, that was built by the city in the late 1960s.

For the most part, even amid the new construction, Highbridge is still a neighborhood of corner bodegas and mid-rise Art Deco apartment buildings — as of now, it’s unsullied even by a bank branch. (Locals have to walk down the hill past Yankee Stadium to do their banking.) But while the promise of new residents is as yet mostly hypothetical — the number of white Highbridge residents rose between 2010 and 2016 only from 288 to 664 — it also comes with a threat: Both those who live in Highbridge and the stores they’ve come to rely on could be priced out by a flood of new residents with the money to rapidly change the streetscape.

“We know what happened to Loisaida, to Williamsburg and its Latino community,” says Lassi. “Here it’s been taking its sweet time, but now it’s happening very quickly.”

Highbridge drew attention earlier this year when the realty website Zumper ranked it as the New York City neighborhood with the fastest-rising rents, its median price leaping 22 percent just in 2017. And while figures like these need to be taken with a grain of salt — they can be skewed if they’re based mostly on listings for new high-priced developments, and Zumper didn’t respond to Voice queries about its methodology — residents say they’ve already seen prices start to creep up to levels unaffordable to many who live there.

“There are a lot of new buildings that came up, and those new buildings are not under rent stabilization,” says Bakary Camara, a Highbridge resident and local real estate agent. The most recent census data compiled by the city on a neighborhood level is from the 2012–2016 American Community Survey: It shows 39,144 people living in Highbridge, up from 37,727 people in 2010, and from 33,844 ten years before that. And as most of the new construction is either recently completed or still in the works, Highbridge could have an even bigger flood of new neighbors yet to come.

And for existing buildings, Camara notes, “rent stabilization is out of the window as soon as somebody moves from the apartment” — thanks to the vacancy decontrol laws passed in the 1990s. As the current population ages out, he says, “you have elders moving out of these apartments, and the owners are renovating and putting them up for market rent.”

The theories as to how Highbridge ended up in the crosshairs for upscaling, and why now, are as numerous as there are compass directions. To the south, the lower reaches of the Grand Concourse began drawing deeper-pocketed residents seeking respite from sky-high Manhattan rents a decade ago, a trend that’s only accelerated with the burgeoning rebranding of nearby Mott Haven. To the east, the new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, obliterating a beloved neighborhood park but helping realtors sell the South Bronx to newcomers as an area on the cusp of renewal. To the west across the river, Washington Heights has been among the city’s fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods, with the 2015 reopening of the pedestrian-only High Bridge — so named because it soars 140 feet above the river between rocky bluffs — after a nearly 45-year closure, making the Bronx feel just a few steps away. To the northeast, the recently approved city rezoning of Jerome Avenue in the valley below promises to land a sea of new mid-rise buildings on the neighborhood’s doorstep, bringing new attention to the previously isolated hilltop community.

And then there’s the zoning of Highbridge proper. The vast majority of the neighborhood has always been zoned R7-1, which allows for medium-sized apartment buildings. That makes the neighborhood’s collection of nineteenth-century single-family homes look like an underutilized resource to developers. And the steep slopes at the neighborhood’s edge mean that a building with a relatively low frontage on one side can be several stories taller on the other, all while remaining within the law.

Camara says in his realty work, he’s seen outside interest in people moving to Highbridge intensify in the last three to four years, especially among teachers and healthcare workers seeking to escape pricey Manhattan rents for an accessible alternative just across the river.

“Once Brooklyn and Manhattan become a little too expensive for people, investors turn their attention to the Bronx now,” he says. “And if they can’t get open land to buy, whatever property came on the market for sale and it’s got a good zoning, they will go and buy that and demolish and build.”

Off 163rd Street on Woodycrest Avenue — named for the thick woods that once ran along the ridge line — a strip of single-family houses is now interrupted by a modern gray apartment building speckled with asymmetric windows. Across the street, the eighteenth-century Anderson Homestead sits half-renovated, its fate dependent on whether its owner continues to hold out against interested buyers; none of the buildings on the block have been landmarked.

It’s an impossible position for homeowners to be put in, says Chauncy Young — a Highbridge resident and community organizer who is director of the parent action committee at New Settlement Apartments — and some may find it hard to hold out much longer. “Because Highbridge is such a small neighborhood and so unique and isolated, it’s more of a target for gentrification,” he says. “It also is a community with small private houses that have been maintained by family members, and they have a large amount of land.”

Much of Highbridge’s story will be familiar to anyone who’s watched how gentrification has played out in other city neighborhoods like Bushwick or Mott Haven: Residents largely pull themselves up from the fires and abandonment of the 1970s through community organizing and nonprofit housing development to make a more livable, if still largely low-income, neighborhood — which at that point starts attracting interest from newcomers

“When everything was burning down in Highbridge, you still had a solid middle class,” says Mary Blassingame, who for 21 years chaired Community Board 4’s housing and land use committee. “A lot of things deteriorated in the Eighties, but there were highly active tenants, a mix of middle and working class, who stayed. They went on rent strike, went to court, got in the Interim Lease Program. Their co-ops’ stability lends the community stability today.”

Aside from the single-family homes and the co-ops, which starting in the 1980s took advantage of the city’s Tenant Interim Lease Program to take control of buildings whose landlords had all but abandoned them, Highbridge is overwhelmingly a community of renters: The homeownership rate for the area and its neighbor to the east, Concourse, is just 7.8 percent. That makes it highly vulnerable to rent increases, especially for the 25 percent of neighborhood apartments where landlords have imposed preferential rents, a means of getting around state caps on annual increases for rent-stabilized apartments by setting legal rents higher than what tenants actually pay so that rates can be abruptly jerked upward once there’s interest from high-paying prospective residents.

Claribel Sanchez grew up on University Avenue, in an apartment where her mother still lives. Until this month, Sanchez rented a two-bedroom apartment in a house half a block from the entrance to the High Bridge. But with her rent having jumped from $1,600 to $2,000 over the last two years, she’s now been forced to move back in with her mother while she and her fiancé look for a permanent home.

Sanchez says her brother, a sophomore at Duke University, has written a paper about the gentrifying effects of the High Bridge. “Once it opened, to put it bluntly, you saw different people, white people,” Sanchez says with a laugh. “At least seven of these buildings were magically renovated before the bridge reopened.” After Highbridge Park was closed for three years during the reconstruction, she says, “With the reopening, they brought in a Wafels & Dinges truck. I mean, I love waffles, but I didn’t appreciate the message.”

As in other city neighborhoods faced with the promise and threat of gentrification, the options for residents once the construction crews have been set in motion are limited. “I would doubt that anyone could do anything about this now,” says Camara. “Organizing tenants is the only factor that can, if not bring the price down, stabilize the prices where they are. Other than that, it’s just going to be a train going forward. The only way everybody can hold their own ground is to organize, organize, and organize.”