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Bronx bursting with pride over Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor

Local officials say the judge gives the New York City borough a new ambassador to improve its image problems.

May 28, 2009|Tina Susman

NEW YORK — Calvin Klein slept here. So did Colin L. Powell, Regis Philbin, Jennifer Lopez and the new Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor.

"Here" is the Bronx. And at a gathering to celebrate the area's latest famous name, local leaders Wednesday wanted to make something clear: The Bronx is not burning.

There's even a Starbucks in the neighborhood where Sotomayor grew up, City Councilwoman Annabel Palma said cheerfully. Granted, it's a mile from the judge's childhood apartment, but residents see it as evidence that the drug-addled den of despair portrayed in films and books -- think "Fort Apache, the Bronx" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities" -- is part of the borough's distant past.

Palma joined the Rev. Al Sharpton, borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and a host of others to celebrate Sotomayor and the Bronx at a community center adjoining the brick housing project where the judge spent her formative years. "Welcome to God's country," the dapper Diaz said as he strode into the glassy community center, past a fish-filled aquarium and into the gymnasium.

Sharpton vowed to lead a bipartisan delegation to Washington to lobby for Sotomayor's quick confirmation, which he said should be a shoo-in given her credentials. "The most unfortunate thing that could happen is if this becomes a political football in the Senate," Sharpton said, "not an affirmation of the American dream."

Outside, the lawns and small playgrounds sprinkled throughout the complex were a far cry from the squalor that enveloped this area in the 1970s -- when landlords were torching their buildings to collect on the insurance. Housing projects like Bronxdale, where both Sotomayor and Diaz grew up, now sit along avenues lined with neatly kept homes, not abandoned drug dens.

"We're not addicted to cement," joked Sharon Sako as she tended a large, colorful flower and herb garden outside her house a few blocks from Sotomayor's old home.

It wasn't always like this.

Francisco Gonzalez, a prominent Puerto Rican community leader, grew up in the 41st Police Precinct, a violent South Bronx outpost once dubbed Fort Apache. "It was a rough neighborhood. A lot of crime," said Gonzalez, standing in a drizzle near a highway overpass. "I believe we fight every single day to educate the rest of the United States that we've turned Bronx around."

Having someone with Sotomayor's reputation emerge from what used to be one of New York's most notorious neighborhoods should help, said residents, some of whom clearly harbor resentment of the Bronx's persisting image.

Ian Johnson, for example, rattled off the books and films that have cast the borough in a poor light. Among them are Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," in which a white Manhattanite takes a wrong turn and ends up on a Bronx street after dark, terrified of the black youths he encounters, and "Fort Apache, the Bronx," which follows cops facing crime and corruption.

"Most people strive for stereotypes," said Johnson, who is black. "It's easier to look at the Bronx through a movie." However, he noted, the borough is ethnically and racially diverse -- with mainly white, up-market Riverdale to the west, the largely Latino area where Sotomayor grew up, and black-dominated neighborhoods.

Dennis Wales, who is white, nodded in agreement. He said he still seethes at the memory of hearing sportscaster Howard Cosell quip that "the Bronx is burning" during the 1977 World Series, when cameras showed a building on fire near Yankee Stadium. "People said, 'Oh, my God, the Bronx is burning,' " said Wales, who moved here 25 years ago from Harlem, another once-blighted area.

Other parts of New York -- such as Harlem, Hell's Kitchen, Alphabet City and large swaths of Brooklyn -- have shed their grim reputations in the last 20 years as citywide crime has dropped and families moved in where drug dealers once reigned. But in a city where neighborhood loyalty runs deep and many people don't feel the need to leave their familiar enclaves to eat, drink, or shop, changing the image of the Bronx, New York's northern-most borough, might be harder.

Just getting to Sotomayor's old home from her current one, on a quaint street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, requires more than an hour on the subway, three transfers and at least 20 minutes of walking.

Whereas her old neighborhood's strip malls are filled with check-cashing shops, delis and fast-food outlets, her current one features artsy cinemas and candlelit bistros. On Wednesday, as a camera crew lurked outside Sotomayor's Manhattan residence, a French restaurant a few doors down was advertising Les Sandwiches, Les Crepes and L'escargot on its lunch menu. Another business promised $58 foot and back rubs.

Palma said Sotomayor gives the Bronx a new ambassador to help spiff up its image, and the councilwoman predicted that its reputation as New York's most beleaguered borough soon will be forgotten.

But the question is how to transform the borough's image and usher in popular businesses without caving into the gentrification woes plaguing much of New York, where longtime residents are being priced out of their homes.

Wales acknowledged it would be a challenge.

"We need to realize these are the people who made this community," he said, looking at the porridge of humanity on the busy corner around him. "Don't chase them away."

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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