Travel: North America - Gangland becomes quaint in the Bronx

New York's most notorious borough is now becoming a quiet haven of old-time America
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The Independent Culture
THE BRONX is the latest of the New York Council boroughs to begin the historic process of changing a 50-year way of life. One which has become accepted as if it were eternal. It was a Jewish area until the late Forties and early Fifties, when the richer residents moved out to smarter suburbs and were replaced by incomers made up of the poorest blacks and the new wave of poor Hispanics from Latin America - mainly Puerto Rico.

Anyone who is under 60 will remember it by repute as an armed gangland ridden by crime from petty muggings to organised arson, drug dealing and gang killings. No outsider would go there if they could avoid it, except on baseball days to visit Yankee Stadium along heavily policed streets. I remember some years ago, when the midtown tunnel was closed or the traffic was bad, taxis would go from JFK airport to Manhattan via the Bronx. The cabbie would apologise, close the windows and lock the doors.

Now the silent citizens are finding voices - which say what is always true, that the huge majority want to go to church, to college, to work and to play in peace. One of these voices is the Bronx Tourism Council which is articulating and promoting what has always been there: old time America, not just the Yankees, but the zoo, Fordham University, the NY Botanical Gardens, and a dozen parks, one bigger than Central Park. It has low-rise tenements with fire escapes at the front, and family-run restaurants serving old-style grits, pastrami on bagels, tuna melts on rye, and more recent arrivals like burritos with salsa.

I made a sortie from midtown Manhattan. "Take the D train" sounded more like a movie title but was actually the directions for taking the subway from 6th Avenue at 47th. The subway was silver coloured, clean, and quick and was no more threatening than the London Tube. It took about 30 minutes to get to 161st Street and Yankee Stadium, and a few more minutes to reach Fordham Road near Little Italy. A cab would have taken far longer - and cost a lot more.

The D train goes as far as the Botanical Gardens, the 2-train branches to the zoo and the 4-train goes to Woodlawn Cemetery - where you can see Duke Ellington's grave - and passes the area where Edgar Allen Poe's cottage is to be found.

The Fordham Road underground station set a dismal note but turned out to be unrepresentative of what was to follow. Two of the shortest, fattest, ugliest cops I ever saw, lounged against a wall with their hands in their pockets in a dark corner of the crumbling building. Outside it got better and was no wilder than a busy city high street in Britain.

Some of the features of the Bronx's previous life remain, such as the petrol station where you pay in advance in case you are a "runner", and where the attendant takes your money in a bullet-proof glass booth. They say that features such as these are redundant now to the point of being quaint. Maybe they will be preserved for posterity.

The shopping streets are bursting with life, teeming with people crowding the sidewalks. The shops are ablaze with blindingly bright lights. Gracious it is not. No smart shopping malls here; but old-style stores packed with homely people. There is a "we're all in this together" kind of warmth.

The side streets have one, two, or three-storey brown or red brick houses which, as they get cleaned and painted, look like those you see in American movies of the Fifties - and some have the style and charm of Edward Hopper paintings.

Eastwards lies Fordham University and south from this runs Arthur Avenue, the centre of Little Italy. It is quiet, low rise, charming, homely. There seem to be no national chains; everything is family run from the laundry to the deli and, especially, the restaurants. These are striving upwards towards a reputation for fine dining.

The Bronx Tourism Council speaks with a force which is presumably aimed at eradicating niggling fears when they feature their "Visitors Fun Guide" on the Internet, and promote the borough's opera company and symphony orchestra. They are reviving interest in the history of the district starting in the 1600s with the Swedish sea captain Jonas Bronck who owned it as farmland. But the biscuit is taken by its most famous son of all - Leon Trotsky, yes that Leon Trotsky. The local Bronx Home Times of 1917 proclaimed "Local man leads Russian revolution". Follow that.

There are plenty of cheap flights to New York at the moment; expect to pay about pounds 200 return through discount agents. From JFK Airport, take the free bus to the subway and the train from there. For more information call the New York Convention and Visitors' Bureau: 0171-437 8300