MELROSE — Gentrification has not yet overtaken the South Bronx — but local activists worry that it's only a matter of time.
After watching a wave of new construction and rising rents spread through the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Bushwick and East Harlem over the past couple of decades, community organizers in The Bronx convened what they called the borough's first annual gentrification conference on Saturday.
“A lot of people who live in this neighborhood are not that aware of [gentrification], because there aren’t a lot of signs, Starbucks, restaurants, things like this,” said Ed Morales, a Bronx-born author who helped organize the conference, which drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people at the Bronx Documentary Center.
"But it’s very perilous," Morales continued. "The real estate market is out of control in New York City, and once it’s determined that an area can be gentrified and people start speculating and buying up houses, it gets out of reach for the people who live there.”
In a neighborhood in which the median annual income is about $17,000 — below the federal poverty line — and many residents live in public housing or rent-stabilized apartments, more than half of people who live in The Bronx already spend at least half their income on rent, the panelists said.
That would only increase if The Bronx went the way of East Harlem, where rapid changes in the neighborhood in the documentary were documented in Morales' film, "Whose Barrio?"
“One of the reasons why we’re having this conference is that there has been rapid gentrification in many parts of the city,” Morales said, describing development as having a domino effect on the city's neighborhoods.
“You have Williamsburg and then suddenly it’s Bushwick too. A lot of people in this community are feeling threatened by what’s been happening in East Harlem,” he added.
The conference included a panel of affordable housing advocates and urban development experts, as well as a photo show and documentary screening.
A dozen new developments are already under construction in The Bronx, and the waterfront was recently rezoned from industrial to residential, conference organizers said.
Harry DeRienzo, founder of the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, a group that preserves and develops affordable housing, said the changes could make it difficult for cooperatives and nonprofits to take over buildings faster than private developers.
“This area is attractive," he said, "and the pressure is on."
But Ted Weinstein, director of Bronx planning for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said change can be good. Private development can help revitalize the South Bronx, bringing retail diversity and new health and educational options.
“Sometimes concerns about gentrification turn into an anti-development attitude," Weinstein said.
Most of the conference's attendees, though, said it's important to fight gentrification before it's too late.
“I’ve seen what you’re about to go through,” said Paul Davis, a Lower East Side resident for the past 31 years. “You’re maybe on year five — we’re on year 25. And it’s still going on."