History of and Questions about Mott Haven

Mott Haven is a little neighborhood in the South Bronx with an oversized reputation. One square mile at the southern tip of the Bronx, below 149th Street, it houses about 50,000 people. The industrial part of the neighborhood, south of the Bruckner Expressway, is called Port Morris, and sometimes the two places are considered a single neighborhood, although their histories and geographies are pretty different. Mott Haven has a big public story, and that story leaves out and covers up a lot. With oral history, we can fill some of that in.

Prior to colonization in the 1630s, the Lenape people controlled and used the land. After the Dutch West Indian Company “bought” Mott Haven and surrounding areas from the Native Americans, the Broncks were the first Europeans to make their homes there, followed by the Morris family (which included several prominent leaders during the colonial period and the American Revolution). Jordan Mott bought land there for his iron works in 1839 – it is his name the neighborhood now has.

In the 1880s, when commuter train service first extended into the Bronx, Mott Haven was home to the first stops after Manhattan on the Third Avenue El and the New York Central Railroad, and the area around 138th Street urbanized early and quickly, filling with a few streets of fancy brownstones for the managerial and professional classes and block after block of tenements for everyone else. Still, this means that this quintessentially urban place has only been urban for about 125 years. In the first half of the 20th century it was Irish, German and Italian, with a small black community on the west side of 3rd Avenue. Puerto Ricans started moving in in the 1940s, in large numbers by the 1960s, and many African Americans moved into the newly built Patterson public housing projects after 1948.[i] By 1970, almost all the white people were gone – pushed out by blockbusting, redlining, and racism, pulled to the suburbs by mortgage subsidies and highway construction.[ii] Until the last third of the 20th century, this dense, working-class housing was surrounded by and even interspersed with places to work: factories making clothes, stuffed animals, sausages, pianos. There was a canal (now Canal Street and Canal Place) and a railroad bringing things to and from Mott Haven.

Today the railroad carries mainly trash, collected from around the city at the waste transfer station along the waterfront. Heavy truck traffic has replaced barges. There are still some factories, but they are more automated, with fewer jobs. Many of the former small factory spaces are now artists’ studios. The piano factories are filled with offices or loft apartments. The stuffed animal factory is filled with storage units. The sausage factory was closed and bulldozed, replaced with luxury condos in 2018. Many of the tenements have been replaced with high-rise public housing or multilane highways. But this is a familiar story, even boring, a story that with slightly different details could be told about countless neighborhoods and cities. Why is Mott Haven famous? Why is it infamous?

Of course for people who have made their homes here, been displaced from here, lost good jobs or gotten brand new apartments in the projects or worried about their kids’ safety, this is not a boring story. However, other people know about and care about Mott Haven in a way they do not know or care about East New York or Flatbush. First of all, Mott Haven is part of the South Bronx, and the South Bronx has a global reputation as a site of decline and abandonment. This comes in part from media attention: the famous moment during the 1977 World Series, televised from Yankee Stadium, when the cameras showed America that the Bronx was burning. Politicians came to use the blocks of rubble and garbage as a backdrop to announce urban policy: Jimmy Carter, then Ronald Reagan. Artists came from outside and made images that circulated around the world. Perhaps most importantly, local young people created artistic genres that transformed popular culture: hip-hop, graffiti, breakdancing. In powerful songs and movies and music videos, images circulated of the South Bronx as wild, scary, exciting, violent, and as shockingly decayed and decrepit.[iii]

Among South Bronx neighborhoods, Mott Haven got its reputation because it was in some ways the worst. And the most creative. It lost the most housing and population. It was the poorest, with the worst health and education statistics. This attracted activists and advocates. The radical Puerto Rican Young Lords took on the issue of Lincoln Hospital, a notoriously dangerous and dysfunctional facility, and worked to build local grassroots health infrastructure: acupuncture for heroin addicts, for example.[iv] Scholar activist Jonathan Kozol wrote an award-winning and widely-read book about the struggles and suffering of the people, especially the children, of Mott Haven, and then two more.[v] And local people created opportunity among loss. They made community gardens in vacant lots. They homesteaded vacant, city-owned buildings and turned them into low-income co-ops. Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation sent a community organizer to work with churches to build owner-occupied subsidized rowhouses on vacant land.[vi] The city worked with other private partners to build even more of these, until there were almost no vacant lots left.[vii]

Because of its widespread representation in the media (partly due to the real drama of the story and partly due to happenstance) and the creativity of local people, Mott Haven and the South Bronx are world famous. This story of decline, suffering, and abandonment makes an irresistible backdrop for a story of rebirth.[viii] The first story of rebirth was relatively modest, and centered on the low- and moderate-income rowhouses filling formerly vacant lots. It did not circulate widely. Most people still think of the South Bronx in terms of the images from the 1970s and 80s. Now, after several failed attempts, it seems that Mott Haven is being gentrified. In the mass media, this is a bigger deal. The industrial spaces of Port Morris were first: the Clocktower Building was converted into lofts, and then the first round of artists who rented spaces there were displaced and replaced by more upwardly-mobile tenants. In 2018, developers who had bought a five-acre site on the waterfront in 2015 for $58 million re-sold the site to other developers for $165 million without ever even breaking ground. Real estate in Mott Haven has entered the realm of pure speculation.[ix] Since 2015, market rate development has rapidly increased, and luxury housing towers, fancy coffee shops, waterfront greenways are coming to this most stigmatized of neighborhoods, the South South Bronx.

Still, the neighborhood has remained stubbornly poor, and segregated, even as the vacant lots were filled in with low-rise owner-occupied housing or community gardens and the crack and crime epidemics that had devastated the neighborhood in the 1980s abated. The statistics provide a powerful but partial picture of life in Mott Haven: It is part of the poorest congressional district in the nation, and more than 40% of residents live below the poverty line. It has one of the highest concentrations of public housing, and the highest murder rate, in the city. Fourth highest rates of teen pregnancy and incarceration. Also the highest rate of childhood asthma hospitalizations and second highest rate of alcohol-related hospitalizations. The second worst housing quality and second highest rate of violent assaults. The median income is $23,000. Only 14% of residents have a college degree; 2.5% have a graduate degree. About 2% are white (although in the post-industrial Port Morris section of the neighborhood, 13% are white).[x]

So we see that the story of change through gentrification that is in all the headlines hides two things:

  1. In many ways, Mott Haven has not changed much.
  2. Also, Mott Haven was not in stasis before luxury developers came; it changed a lot.

However, we have narratives to explain abandonment and arson, and to explain gentrification. The other ways that neighborhoods change, especially when they change while remaining poor and segregated, are almost invisible because we do not have an explanatory framework to make sense of them, when our theories about cities focus on racial population shifts, particularly the movements of white people. We often hear gentrification, and urban change generally, described using metaphors from ecology. Neighborhoods mature, decay, and regrow, like forests. These stories elide human agency from the equation. And they make it seem like a certain kind of neighborhood change – what we call gentrification – is inevitable.

This oral history project is recording the stories of Mott Haven residents, especially people who have lived here for a long time, and seen many of these changes, in order to tell the story of how one neighborhood, about one square mile, about 50,000 people, has changed over time, often in uneven, contingent, contested and unpredictable ways. Our aim is to challenge the simplistic stories told in public about Mott Haven and the deterministic narratives about urban change, and especially gentrification, that obscure so much, and disempower so many.

We are asking a number of questions, which are interconnected:

  • How did people survive and make their lives in Mott Haven during the challenging periods of arson, abandonment and crime?
  • How did Mott Haven develop and change between 1990 and 2015 without becoming significantly whiter or richer?
  • What kinds of resources, networks, and property relations allow a neighborhood to grow without creating displacement? And how do those things fare when capital does flood the area?
  • How do long-time residents explain and understand neighborhood change?
  • What role can history-making through recording, analyzing, and sharing oral histories play in building neighborhood networks and conversations that can support residents’ ability to engage productively in public life to shape the future of their neighborhoods?

And we invite you to join us!



[i] Mark D. Naison and Bob Gumbs, Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).

[ii] Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1987).

[iii] Lydia Yee, Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented Since the 1960s (New York: Hazan Editeur, 1999).

[iv] Johanna L. del C. Fernandez, “Radicals in the Late 1960s: A History of the Young Lords Party in New York City, 1969-1974” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 2004); Young Lords Party, Palante: Young Lords Party (Chicago, Ill: Haymarket Books, 2011); Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2015).

[v] Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: Crown Pub, 1991); Jonathan Kozol, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (New York: HarperPerennial, 1996); Jonathan Kozol, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope (New York: Crown Publishers, 2000).

[vi] Jim Rooney, Organizing the South Bronx (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

[vii] Charles J. Orlebeke, New Life at Ground Zero: New York, Home Ownership, and the Future of American Cities (Albany: The Rockefeller Institute Press, 1997).

[viii] Jill Jonnes, South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of an American City, 2 edition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002).

[ix] Zoe Rosenberg, “Massive South Bronx Waterfront Development Site Sells to Brookfield,” Curbed NY, April 4, 2018, https://ny.curbed.com/2018/4/4/17197246/south-bronx-rental-condo-somerset-chetrit-brookfield; Tanay Warerkar, “South Bronx’s Massive Waterfront-Altering Rental Will Look like This,” Curbed NY, March 9, 2017, https://ny.curbed.com/2017/3/9/14871004/south-bronx-rental-mott-haven-chetrit-somerset-rendering.

[x] “Community Health Profiles: Bronx Community District 1: Mott Haven and Melrose” (NYC Health, 2015); “NYC Planning | Community Profiles,” accessed August 16, 2018, https://communityprofiles.planning.nyc.gov/bronx/1; “Race and Ethnicity in Mott Haven, New York, New York (Neighborhood) – Statistical Atlas,” accessed August 16, 2018, https://statisticalatlas.com/neighborhood/New-York/New-York/Mott-Haven/Race-and-Ethnicity. Some statistics are by community district, and include neighboring Melrose. Many are based on 2010 census data.