National News

West Farms, the Bronx: Flora, Fauna and Renewal

Posted June 13, 2018 5:46 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — In a city where a common boast can run along the lines of “I can see such-and-such from my apartment,” West Farms, in the central Bronx, would seem to have a lot to crow about.

On some blocks, the view is not of skyscrapers, suspension bridges or harbor-side statues, but something much more surprising: an ark’s worth of wildlife, spotted, striped and furry, frolicking in meadows and forests.

The animals come courtesy of the Bronx Zoo, a swath of simulated Himalayan highlands and African plains that meets West Farms along the street Bronx Park South. For those on high enough floors in the six-story buildings that line the street, the sights, sounds and smells can belie the buildings’ location in a dense and developed metropolis.

“There are zebras outside my window,” said Leila Brito, 20, who lives with her mother and sister in a four-bedroom, two-bathroom rental in a prewar building, where apartments like hers generally cost $2,500 a month.

“And I can clearly hear lions in the morning, feeding time for them,” said Brito, who is studying nursing at Lehman College.

While the zoo may not belong to any particular neighborhood, its 265 acres influence routines in West Farms, say brokers, developers and residents.

When Brito was younger, her mother, Jessica Mercado, would wheel her in a stroller down the zoo’s tree-shaded paths nearly every Wednesday for years, Brito said. Admission is free on Wednesdays, a perk that neighbors often avail themselves of, residents said.

For Nessie Panton, 81, a flamingo aficionado, a trip to the zoo in the early 1970s resulted in a place to live. At the time, Phipps Houses, a nonprofit developer, was building the Lambert Houses, a pumpkin-toned, 16-building mixed-use affordable-housing complex.

A billboard at the zoo encouraged people to apply for the apartments. And Panton, a nurse’s aide in Harlem who was renting a cramped one-bedroom with her two sons in the Morrisania neighborhood, decided to give it a go, winding up in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom duplex that is “like a little house,” she said. Although Panton declined to share her rent, three-bedrooms there can go for $1,500 a month, a Phipps spokesman said.

If the exotic species are incongruous, so too is what is visible from Panton’s living room: a waterfall, foaming and hissing like over-shaken Champagne, where the Bronx River tumbles over the Colonial era 182nd Street Dam.

The river hasn’t always flowed smoothly, on account of dumped garbage, like tires, baby carriages and even a goat’s head, said Panton, one of the residents who have volunteered for years to clean it.

Today, it is not unusual to spot fish there, and canoes. “We’re growing and changing for the better,” she said.

Similarly, the neighborhood, which in the late 20th century seemed to suffer from every urban ill — crime, poverty, abandonment, arson — appears to be charting a different course, local officials say.

Safer streets, and a surge in home construction, plus new stores and parks, have made some there hopeful that one day West Farms, like the adjacent zoo, could become a destination in its own right.

“I think we are at the beginning of a renaissance,” said Ritchie J. Torres, the city councilman who represents the neighborhood and who has pushed affordable housing and streetscape improvements. “The trends are going in the right direction, which mirrors the trajectory of the Bronx at large.”

What You’ll Find

Besides the zoo and the river, West Farms is bordered by Southern Boulevard and the Cross Bronx Expressway, the busy highway also called I-95.

At the northern end, housing tends be older and taller, with prewar origins and red brick facades, like 900 Bronx Park South, whose name, Botanical Garden Court, nods to another nearby draw.

Toward the south are newer buildings, many of which bloomed from lots so decrepit, residents say, that they were sometimes compared to postwar Berlin. Among them are clusters of gray two-level, two-family co-ops that date to the early 1990s, despite their 1800s Italianate look. Developed through the city’s Housing Development Corp., the apartments can be bought only by those at certain income levels.

Much of the stock is offered at below market-rate prices; in addition to public housing on East 178th Street, several complexes offer relief to those for whom housing costs are a struggle.

And more affordable housing is arriving, including the Compass Residences, a nine-building mega-development straddling West Farms and next-door Crotona Park East, developed by a team that includes Signature Urban Properties. Targeting once-industrial blocks that the city rezoned in 2011, Compass will cut the ribbon on a 218-unit tower on a once-polluted site at 1903 West Farms Road in September.

Studios at the building, reserved for those making 60 percent of the area’s median income, will rent for $865 a month, and half of the units will be set aside for Bronx Community Board 6, which covers West Farms. Next year, a similar Compass tower, with 251 units, will break ground at 1937 West Farms, where a marble business stood.

By adding lighting, stores, courtyards and residents to once-desolate blocks, Compass is helping West Farms turn a corner, said Robert D. Frost, a Signature co-managing member. “Let’s just say it has removed some bad street behavior,” he added.

Another large-scale effort is Phipps’ redevelopment of Lambert, a $600 million multiyear project that will raze apartment buildings considered crime-prone and dated, replacing them with towers roughly twice as tall.

The project, which will involve relocating residents during construction and allowing them to lease new apartments at the same rent, will more than double Lambert’s size, to 1,665, from 731. The first tower, at 988 E. 180th St., opens next year.

And new facades along on the freshly rezoned Boston Road, which is now residential, will bring shops to the neighborhood, said Adam Weinstein, Phipps’ president and chief executive, adding that “Lambert” will be retired. “We think a new name will mark a revival,” he said.

West Farms appears to be moving beyond a violent past. In 1990, there were 137 killings in the 48th Precinct, and in 2017, eight. Yet there have been five homicides this year through May, so 2018 could surpass 2017’s total.

Still, the difference “is astronomical,” said Fabian Budd, who was a police officer in West Farms in the 1990s. A salesman for Exit Realty Search, Budd now sells homes there.

What You’ll Pay

For-sale inventory — mostly one- and two-family houses — is limited. And values seem flat.

In 2017, 16 houses and apartments sold, at an average of $355,000, according to data from StreetEasy, while in 2016, nine homes sold, at an average of $351,000. In 2015, 12 changed hands, the data showed, at an average of $355,000.

Rentals, however, are inching up. In 2017, the average asking rent for a one-bedroom was $1,400 a month, according to StreetEasy, while two-bedrooms averaged $1,700 a month. In 2016, asking rents were similar, the data showed, though in 2015, asking rents for one-bedrooms averaged $1,300 and those for two-bedrooms averaged $1,600.

“A lot of people are becoming more receptive to the Bronx,” said Sam Drizin, a salesman at BruMa Realty, founded four years ago with a focus on the borough. “They are like, ‘Wow, this is a hidden gem.'”

The Vibe

Low-key and largely Latino, West Farms is also quiet. Among the loudest sounds on a recent afternoon on East 180th Street, a modest retail strip, was the song “Pop Goes the Weasel” tinkling from an ice-cream truck. Dotting East Tremont Avenue, another shopping area, are doctors’ and dentists’ offices. Sit-down restaurants are rare.

Although the Bronx River is largely hidden, the verdant shore can be seen at 2-acre Drew Gardens, which is planted with magnolias, dogwood and Japanese maples.

The Schools

Some students are zoned for Public School 67, the Mohegan School, which in the 2016-17 school year enrolled 605. On state exams, 31 percent of students there met standards in English, versus 40 percent citywide; in math, 28 percent met standards, versus 42 percent.

Middle School 129, the Academy for Independent Learning and Leadership, last year enrolled 534 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

For high school, a local option is the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, a quasi-public school serving sixth to 12th grades. (After a bullying incident, a student there stabbed another to death last fall.)

New schools have been proposed in and around the neighborhood. A 450-seat elementary school is planned for one of the Compass sites, on the other side of I-95 in Crotona Park East, according to Signature. The city’s School Construction Authority also has dibs on a parcel that is part of the Lambert redevelopment in West Farms proper, Phipps officials said.

The Commute

Two subway lines, the 2 and 5, stop at the lone subway station, West Farms Square/East Tremont Avenue, where trains squeal high above the street on elevated tracks. The 2 stops at all times, but some 5 trains skip the station during rush hour.

The History

Since European settlement, the river in West Farms has been a magnet for industry. Sawmills gave way, in the early 1800s, to paint, glass and pottery manufacturing, said Lloyd Ultan, a Bronx historian, and larger-scale factories came after 1841, when the railroads arrived. In 1874, New York City annexed West Farms; the land east of the river followed a couple of decades later.

In more recent times, West Farms was the scene, in 1990, of the deadly Happy Land Social Club fire, which killed 87 people on Southern Boulevard near East Tremont. A stone obelisk honoring the victims stands nearby, in the Crotona Parkway Mall park, where flowers continue to be left by mourners even today.