(October 19, 2014) On 149th street in the Bronx, students wearing Beats headphones wait for the bus, mothers trickle out of fast food restaurants; food in one hand, strollers in the other, and at the T-Mobile store on the corner customers flock to buy the latest smartphone. But across the street, the historic Bronx General Post Office building stands as a towering, austere, and increasingly outdated tribute to a very different time in the area’s history.
Built in 1935 and designated as a city landmark in 1976, the vast four-story mail center stands as the largest of 29 Depression-era post offices in the city, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and occupies an entire block on the Bronx’ main thoroughfare, the Grand Concourse. But a cloud hangs over the structure’s future.
The building was sold in early September to developers, Youngwoo & Associates, who are interested in turning the site into a food market akin to midtown’s Eataly, according to multiple reports. It is a move that has split opinion in the local community and marks a very modern case of a timeless conflict: a community’s desire to pursue a better future and its need to maintain a sense of its past.
“The USPS has disregarded the voices of the Bronx community, elected officials, historic preservationists, and their own employees — all of whom opposed this process and this sale,” said Congressman Jose Serrano, who represents the district.
South Bronx residents have, it seems, been left feeling like mere bystanders in the process and it is this lack of involvement, and the sense of powerlessness that goes along with it, which seem to have driven local apprehension. But the project has its share of supporters too. Local activist John Howard-Algarin has urged policymakers and locals to embrace what he sees as an opportunity to provide “a gathering place for all New Yorkers at the Gateway of the Borough’s Capital District.”
The building’s interior is home to 13 depression-era murals from renowned American artist Ben Shahn, depicting variations on the theme of Americans at work.
The area may have changed dramatically since the 1920s, but the post office has remained close to the hearts of the community. So when the United States Postal Service first announced last year it planned to sell the building, a local campaign to save the murals was launched. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the murals as landmarks last December, joining the rest of the building in that status and ensuring they would remain in place no matter the future of the site.
While the post office says it will maintain some retail presence on the Grand Concourse site, many residents worry about the reduction in mail service for this community. This is an issue being felt across the country, with mismanagement and the increasing shift to online communication leaving a gaping budget deficit and repeated cuts in mail service.
Retired bookkeeper Emerita Quiles takes the bus to 149th Street even though there are smaller post offices nearer her home. “This is the only service I can rely on,” she said. “It really fulfills a need for the community. I only just found out [about the sale of the building] when I read it in the paper and I’m sure if more people knew about it there would be uproar.”
Local community board member Marie McCullough also said she was “very distressed” at the sale. “It’s a tremendous loss and inconvenience,” she said, “It’s a shame the community has to suffer in this way without any real voice in the matter.”
Some residents, however, like Louvenia Scott, are satisfied the building, its interior, and the USPS presence are all to be maintained. “As long as the post office is still there and they don’t disrupt the building, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Scott.
The issues relating to the postal service are undoubtedly pertinent and the cause of much dismay, but the larger theme of gentrification never seems far from the agenda of many local residents. Many point to the sale as the latest development in an emerging trend for an area that has often been marked as gentrification’s ‘final frontier.’
Indeed, Adam Zucker, director of business development for Youngwoo & Associates, told the Commercial Observer, a real estate industry paper, in early October that “private investment has for too long overlooked the Bronx, and the collective populations who call the Bronx home—including Latinos, African-Americans and Asians—in our opinion have long been underserved by developers.” Youngwoo & Associates have so far been unavailable for further comment.
This reluctance to invest can perhaps be attributed to the borough’s status as the most impoverished of the five, but as incomes have begun to rise—by 15 percent from 2005 to 2010 according to the latest census data—so has development. The new Yankee Stadium brought with it Terminal Market, one of a number of malls that now populate the area.
Some residents like Naomi Jenkins, 65, see the appeal of what gentrification brings to the neighborhood. “I would really like to see progress and improvement for this area. The people of the Bronx are being wasted,” she said as she walked to the post office recently.
But echoing the community’s tug of war over the fate of the building, Jenkins said she was “very upset” that it had been sold and would possibly be turned into a marketplace.
“It’s a beautiful post office and I’ve been coming here for as long as I can remember,” she said. “This is the worst thing that could happen to it. This is terrible.”
With the exact future of the landmark uncertain, the challenge for Bronx policymakers is to ensure the sale marks a new era for the Bronx that stays true to the borough’s past.