Cant’ Stop Won’t Stop- The Bronx in the Making

“Here was the new math: the South Bronx had lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs: 40 percent of the sector disappeared. By the mid-seventies, average per capita income dropped to $2,430, just half of the New York City average and 40 percent of the nationwide average.” – Chang, pg. 13

This was the beginning of a new slum in the making in the Bronx. The Bronx was going into a “Depression” if you will during the 1950s-70s. It all started with a man named Robert Moses, one of the wealthiest urban developers of all time. His plan was to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway which would allow people to travel from the Bronx to New Jersey, upper Manhattan and the Queens in a matter of 15 minutes, but this came with a great cost. These were formerly pre-dominant Jewish and Italian communities, but because of Moses’ vision they were kicked out and would relocate to other parts of the city. The result was new housing in the Bronx, especially the southern part. The 50s and 60s were marked by a loss in jobs and sky high unemployment. Latino Americans and African Americans would move into these locations. Schooling was lost, drugs such as heroin were introduced to the neighborhoods of South Bronx and insurance frauds were at the high point in Bronx’s history. Developers were unable to find suitable renters, so buildings were burned down. The Bronx was a nightmare, which would lead to more problems.

With an influx of housing projects and violence in South Bronx, came neighborhood youth gangs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Being part of a gang was a sign of power for many teen youth rebels and for many it was merely protection. That is what Chang describes on page 43, ” If you were looking for protection or trouble, you quit your clique and joined the Skulls.” Although the Skulls were not the only youth gang association in the Bronx, there were many others as well, but this one seemed to be one of the most feared and respected in the Bronx. In a sense gangs provided comfort, shelter and protection for many of their members. Many of these members were formally part of foster care, abusive homes and simply did not have their own identity until they had joined a gang, similar to Tata, a Savage Skull Girl who described the fact that if she was on her own she would not be able to survive. The formation of gangs was truly a historical development in the Bronx. They fought for what they had believed in, whether it was right or wrong. This would continue till today, however not as rampant as a few decades before.

David Shmidt

Housing and Gangs Make for a Volatile Environment

Development in the Bronx during the nineteen sixties and early seventies is a bit of an oxymoron. There was plenty of the contrast in part due to lack of government funding leading to crumbling urban areas, lack of employment and imminent domain relocation as a result of projects like the Cross Bronx Expressway. Gang activity was rampant. Growing up in these dilapidated communities, many youth felt that joining a gang was a way to make up for what they lacked. They joined to surround themselves with people who cared and as well as for protection. The community members were mostly poor Hispanics, African American and Jews. They felt mistreated by the government and police and their needs continued to go unfulfilled. Rebuilding was not a government priority. All of these issues combined to form a very volatile and unpleasant environment in the Bronx.

The imminent domain relocating due to the Cross Bronx Expressway uprooted over 60,000 families who for the most part were not wealthy and had difficulty finding housing. The Housing project that began to spring up were to provide haven for these families but in reality perpetuated the housing segregation of social classes by grouping low income Blacks and Hispanics together.

Because of no real government assistance or talk of rebuilding, the gangs took it upon themselves to organize, help the community and voice their opinions for their many causes. They organized things such as clothes drives and soup kitchens. They also policed their own neighborhoods, chasing out the ever-growing number of drug addicts who were the main source of crime. The gangs were the lifeline that kept the communities afloat through these tough times.

The Cross-Bronx Expressway

“Once an unbroken continuum of cohesive, diverse communities, the trench was now the clearing for the Cross-Bronx Expressway, a modernist catastrophe of massive proportions. (p.10)”


Jeffrey Cheng describes the history and conditions of the place where hip-hop was born. The Bronx, once a decent area to live in, started changing with Moses’ project to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The path that would allow to travel from the suburbs of New Jersey to suburbs of Queens through the upper Manhattan in fifteen minutes. The residents were displaced and the residential apartments and developing businesses were destroyed. By the end of the project whites moved out to Westchester county or elsewhere and the South Bronx became the place for African-Americans and Puerto Ricans.

The apartment buildings in the South Bronx were managed by the “slumlords”, who made money on cutting off the heat and electricity and then later setting the whole buildings on fire in order to get the insurance money. This is how the Bronx became a slum-hood for the second-class citizens. The abandoned hood where the young generation tried to survive without access to education and without any possibility to get out of the way they lived. As Cheng puts it “The Black and brown youths formed gangs, first in self-defense, then sometimes for power, sometimes for kicks. (p. 12)” A lot of those gangs were formed from the local bands that played in clubhouses. Here the connection of gangs and music takes place.

Robert Moses and the Cross-Bronx Expressway

home_southbronx Aerial_view_of_the_Bronx,_Harlem_River,_Harlem,_Hudson_River,_George_Washington_Bridge,_2008-05-10

Robert Moses was considered the most “powerful modern builder of all time”. He was know especially for the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. This highway connected New Jersey, North Manhattan, South Bronx and ended up in in Long Island through wither either the Throgs-Neck Bridge or the Whitestone Bridge. The building of this new highway system meant that over 60,000 residents would have to be uprooted and relocated to new areas. Most of these people lived in South Bronx. Moses led the white exodus out of the Bronx. Most of the white residents moved to either Westchester or Northern Bronx areas and other moved to small suburban houses being built around the Cross Bronx Expressway in New Jersey. The poorer residents who where given a meager $200 per room compensation were forced to move out and settle in new high-rise apartment buildings that were being built. These new behemoths had could include up to 1700 apartments per building.

As a result of this mass relocation the economy of the Bronx suffered immensely. The South Bronx area lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs. Youth unemployment rose to 40 percent and in some areas as high as 80 percent. The most devastating affect of the Cross Bronx Expressway took place when the newly built apartment buildings passed into the hands of slumlords. These people used many different tactics such as demanding more money when they shut off heat and water supply to the tenants. Another tactic that the slumlords used proved to be the most effective and profitable for them. They would find junkies and rent-a-thugs to set fire to abandoned apartments and then they would collect the insurance polices from the city. The slumlords profited greatly from this enterprise as they collected as much as 150,000 dollars per fire. The insurance companies didn’t really mind in the begging as they were leasing out many new insurance policies, but after a time even they realized that their costs were beginning to get to high. In the end as insurance companies refused to provide insurance policies to cover certain buildings in South Bronx and the fires continued to spread, whole city blocks became completely abandoned and opened up a place for crime and gangs to fill the void.

The Unknown Side of Bronx Gangs

Between 1968 and 1973, numerous gangs emerged that altered life drastically in the Bronx. To be caught in the wrong part of town without backup was a high-risk, it was a rule of thumb that you stayed within the boundaries of your own neighborhood. Education was insignificant to existence in the Bronx, and more time was spent trying to complete gang initiations than completing high school. Distanced from the ideologies of the late 50’s and 60’s these young folks did not care about desegregation and politics. Being in a gang meant brotherhood and protection of their own turf from other gangs, which was more directly beneficial to their lives. It can be argued that the development of gangs in the Bronx prolonged it’s lack of progress.

Chang brings to light actions taken by the gangs of this period that contributed to the borough in several ways. Young people living in unstable homes, as well as immigrant and foster children who did not have the guidance of an adult in their lives, sought refuge from the harsh conditions of the streets with help from gangs. Gangs provided these minors with a sympathy, security, and a place to sleep. This population of lost children was in the thousands, and with the help of gangs they were able to unite and fight against common enemies. Eventually these gangs were considered the overseers of everything that happened in the community. According to Danny Dejesus, a Savage Skull gang member-“before they would go to the local police, the people would come to us to solve their problems.” (pg. 49) Gangs also participated in an operation to promote health care, stealing and making use of an x-ray truck for free services. They took it a step further by completely taking over a hospital in their neighborhood, and effort which rival gangs linked together as defense against the police. Gangs also declared war on drug addicts and dealers as they attempted to reduce burglaries (crimes addicts are most prone to) by purging the streets of junkies and their suppliers. In this way, gangs did the “dirty work” of the police who failed to take action. They did this at first by giving twenty-four hour warnings to leave; things then became violent when a junkie stabbed a fellow gang member, causing the “Junkie Massacre.” Gang activity during this era may have been fueled by their revenge against society for leaving them in the dark. However, it can be argued that some of their endeavors were consequentially helpful to their city.

New York City street gang Savage Skulls