Neighborhood Building Lessons From the Depths of Despair

Hetty Fox, veteran neighborhood activist in the South Bronx, NY.

The following is an interview with Hetty Fox, a South Bronx neighborhood activist who has been instrumental in creating a very warm, tight-knit community on her block, a short one-way street called Lyman Place.

Here, she describes how she rescued Lyman Place back in the 1970s, when life in the South Bronx was terribly bleak. Vandalism and theft was rampant, and arsons were totally out of control. Over 40% of all housing there was burned down during that decade.

Fox and her neighbors were forced to take extraordinary measures to enable their neighborhood to survive, but in fact, even peaceful neighborhoods that are in no imminent danger would benefit greatly from applying Fox’s lessons.

Q: What was the environment of the street like when you returned in 1970?

It was very, very bleak, very depressing. To see buildings empty, I was in shock! I had no idea that this would ever be New York! It was outrageous! And there was no organized body that put everything in check immediately. There were blocks and blocks where the fires were beginning, and residents trying to fight to keep their houses in good repair and stop any vandalism. It seemed like destruction was making more money than construction. Things were just disappearing. In the building hallways the tables and a couple chairs and a mirror – all these things were suddenly disappearing – going by way of a fast sale someplace.

Q: How did you get started in advocating for Lyman Place residents to stay in their homes?

The City sent “dispossess notices” to residents of the building on the corner of Lyman and Freeman. They came to me for help. They were upset because they were paying rent, and yet the building manager wasn’t providing any services or doing any repairs. These were city owned buildings. I met with these tenants and told them they had to be very active in their opposition – not just meet once a week or month. They were being moved out due to a decision by the City to consolidate housing, and the people who were executing that decision were paid City employees who were working hard every day.

There was so much destruction and vandalism, and the City didn’t want to take the time to repair them and keep them up. I invited a City housing official to see the building and meet with residents there, and to see a Green Thumb Garden we had created at a vacant lot close to there with raised beds. He [Mr. Autorino] was impressed and promised some repairs, then he assigned someone to work on that particular building. That guy was very good – he got lots of repairs done like replacing lights in the hallways.

It seemed to me to be a shame to get rid of these longtime tenants who had a knowledge of the block and an interest in keeping it safe. They were the ones who looked out the window, and that is a plus! At a time when there was so much marauding and vandalism going on, we needed people who were interested enough to keep an eye open for the safety of the block. We had no real protection coming from anywhere. The vandalism was so rampant that you had to be very vigilant. So, I felt that it would have been a tremendous loss to have people who were experienced with Lyman to suddenly just be kicked out.

Q: What percentage of housing units were vacant?

One house next to me with the courtyard had just one tenant. The building diagonally across the street had no tenants. We had to fight to get that boarded up or cinder blocked – you know, closed – because it had become a potential hazard for people going in and maybe just starting fires.

Q: Usually, you’re trying to keep buildings from being condemned, but . . .

Exactly, that one, we just had to make it safe because it was too late. You see, once we met with Mr. Autorino, he then empowered us by recommending that we form a block association. We did this. It was called the Lyman Place Improvement Committee. We met weekly. We had officers. People made me the president. We worked diligently to try to present a constructive picture to the city authorities, and they eventually said, since you’ve formed a viable block association, now you can invite people who might want to get an apartment on your block because you’re trying to save it and we will process them through the housing office, and we will make them tenants.

Q: What were the benefits of having long-term residents around?

You don’t have to wonder what’s going on with any situation, you have the experience of being able to spot what a situation is immediately because you can see when there’s a stranger who may be wandering around with ill intent just by the way the may carry themselves. . . If you’re a longtime resident you know the difference immediately. A new resident may see things and not know how to interpret them. So, they shy away from saying anything, whereas an older resident might speak up right away, “What are you doing here? You know, you have no business here!” They take an initiative.

Q: What’s the value in children being here their whole lives, and their families being here a long time before?

The value is that they feel a comfort, they feel like this is home. They feel like, if they’re outside playing, they’re safer. They feel like there are people who are watching, and they’re aware, because they’re at their windows, . . . they feel protected because there are people who have already shown an interest in who these children are and will tell their mother if they’re doing the wrong thing. . . This way, they know they’re being corrected with love, not “I’ll call the cops on you.” But really, trying to keep them on the right path.

Hetty Fox and Lynnell Wiggins (13).

Q: Was Lyman Place becoming a more desirable block than other places in the South Bronx?

Yes, because there was too much despair . . . in many other areas, people were not being respected by the City. There was no overall policy that kept up with the amount of destruction. People were getting arrested who wanted to stop the vandalism.

It’s a pleasure to look at the grandchildren of some whose apartments we saved who are still here, like Lynnell’s great-grandmother who raised 13 children on this block [Lynnell is a bright, 13-year-old neighbor and protégé of Fox’s]. Four of those children came back.

I helped get many long-time residents and families back to Lyman Place during that period. It seemed to me that if we got people back, the people that we were inviting back or recruiting or who had inquired through others who were still there, if they could get an apartment, if we could get those kinds of people, that we would be that much further ahead because it meant that they already had an inkling to love Lyman because they could trace their history back to Lyman. To be able to come back to the same block was great, because some were children on Lyman, but suddenly, they were getting scattered. In the case of Lynnell’s great-grandmother, she was living in a room two or three blocks away and was begging to be able to come back to Lyman, so we managed to get her on the list of people we recommended to [City] Housing.

Lynnell had two uncles and two aunts who moved back into Lyman and they were very, very helpful because they were very authoritative and forceful in keeping the laws of Lyman.

We got the trees planted in 1983 – 21 ginkgoes – we started fighting for trees in 1978. Only six survive today. The vandals killed the others before they grew large. Myself and Patsy, one of Lynnell’s aunts, we would try to patrol that street until 2 and 3 in the morning at times and stop these vandals from coming and digging up the cobblestones that were planted in the trees. Patsy worked summer youth for me . . . Many of Lynnell’s older cousins grew up on the street. Lynnell’s father was one of the children raised on the street by the grandmother.

That was one of the key things, if I could attract some of the families, there would be many different people you wouldn’t have to train in how to defend the block. You see block defense I learned from some Italian girls who lived here back in the 40s. There’s a certain way you approach keeping your block together. So, if you already have people who know that, then that’s less you have to worry about trying to fill somebody in or, less error, especially since things were so horrible, you had to have people who knew what they were doing – who had a little more expertise at block defense and keeping the block safe. So those two uncles and aunts [of Lynnell’s] did a lot – the kids felt like they could just run all over the place! I felt that we had a lot going for us that was intangible.

It’s not just something that you can introduce by just throwing up a lot of new housing. There’s no guarantee that the people who are in those houses have a clue what it means to live in a neighborhood and what it means to have friendships and commitments. Those are things that just come along growing up as a child here.

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