With portraits of her late political mentors in the background of her first State of the Borough address, Borough President Vanessa Gibson touted a vision of the Bronx as a “place of opportunities” while hoping in her first term to make the Boogie Down, a global destination.
A year removed from tragedies that defined her first year in the office, such as the Twin Parks fire in January 2022, Gibson affirmed that “better and brighter days” are ahead for Bronxites. Gibson, elected in November 2021, became the first woman and first Black Bronx beep, succeeding Ruben Diaz Jr., who was in attendance for the event held in Manhattan College’s Kelly Commons on Wednesday.
Platitudes aside, the borough is continuously riddled with underinvestment, lack of safeguards to keep Bronxites in their homes — and when in their homes, they are often without heat — and systemic challenges that predate the Gibson administration such as poor health outcomes and state-high unemployment and poverty rates.
Much of Gibson’s role as a borough president is advisory and advocatory. The limits of her and other borough presidents’ powers preclude them from sponsoring legislation, having the final say or authority on land use or generally affecting law that could make headway into changing the borough’s systemic gaps.
However, Gibson, a few of her colleagues told the Bronx Times, is an effective orator and her ability to use the bully pulpit at events like this provide a lens into her visions and priorities for the borough in 2023 and beyond.
Gibson’s grand-scale vision is to make the Bronx a global tourist hub. The Bronx is teeming with cultural and historic institutions and also benefits from having one of the world’s most-recognizable sports brands, the New York Yankees, play 81 home games on East 161st and River Avenue.
Further, she touted the opening of the Bronx Children’s Museum and the future opening of the Universal Hip Hop Museum as “global attractions” for the borough, with residual workforce and housing benefits for Bronxites.
“Think about the impact that this museum will have on the Bronx,” Gibson said. “Beyond bringing tourists from all around the world, it will bring jobs, preservation of the hip-hop history, and affordable housing along the waterfront.”
But attracting tourists, particularly international traffic to the borough, will be a challenge for Gibson and her newly-created Tourism Council. The Bronx Zoo reigned as the borough’s defining tourist hub last year with 2 million visitors from around the world, according to a 2022 tourism report from the state comptroller.
But the zoo is the Bronx’s only tourist attraction in the comptroller’s list of top 20 most frequented tourist attractions citywide. And perceptions of the borough, range from “unsafe” amongst non-residents to longtime residents who may not readily welcome all that traffic.
The Bronx’s unemployment rate to end 2022 hovered in the mid-7% range after spiking to more than 20% in March 2020 and still 10% by the beginning of 2022. Health care and social assistance sectors — prominent employers of Bronx workers — added 65,000 jobs in 2022.
Gibson expressed the need for more internships and externships to provide pathways to high-paying jobs, and for business owners, access to capital.
“Anytime I have asked a small business owner what are the issues that you face on a daily basis, some will say it’s difficult to navigate government. Others will say it’s difficult to find good staff,” she said. “However, almost all will say, getting access to capital is their biggest challenge. For far too long Bronx businesses have been an afterthought when it comes to these issues.”
The Bronx’s workforce infrastructure has also been upended by mass closures of businesses in South Bronx corridors, waning youth employment and transit deserts that separate East Bronxites from job opportunities around the borough and downtown.
Roughly 40% of Bronx businesses closed their doors during the pandemic. And Bronx businesses were shortchanged when it came to city programs intended to give financial assistance to small businesses, as the borough received just 2.2% of loans under those programs, according to the city comptroller.
The Business Initiative Corporation of New York (BICNY) is finalizing an application to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to directly approve loans from $25,000-$350,000 for Bronx small businesses to offset starter costs and conduct renovations for businesses interested in expanding their Bronx infrastructure.
“We are hoping that closer to the summer we will have a real announcement about those benefits and our target audience for that program,” Rafael Roger, executive director of the BICNY, told the Bronx Times.
Even before the pandemic Black-owned businesses still faced disproportionate financial distress. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, about 58% of Black-owned businesses were at risk of financial distress before the pandemic, compared with about 27% of white-owned businesses.
Roger said that small to medium-sized Bronx businesses can qualify for $100,000 in loans toward getting a green roof, solar panels, electric vehicles or equipment that utilizes modern technology that helps reduce carbon footprints locally. In the South Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point, Port Morris and Mott Haven, some of the borough’s most environmentally compromised, that amount jumps to $200,000.
Gibson also touted the Penn Station Access Project, which will come to fruition sometime in 2027, as a job creator for the 250,000 residents within a half-mile of the four future Metro-North stations — three are slated for the East Bronx.
The tenor of Gibson’s speech regarding public safety is that on city walkways and streets, Bronxites don’t feel safe. While a focus on crime has typically revolved around gun violence and retail theft, the borough’s roadways have been its deadliest for pedestrians in years.
While traffic deaths in NYC fell in 2022, according to the city Department of Transportation — 255 total traffic deaths citywide — fatalities in the Bronx were at their highest in 20 years with 56 deaths in both 2021 and 2022.
The highest rate of crash fatalities was recorded in the Bronx/East Harlem Council District 8. The second highest rate of fatalities were found in Council District 13 in the East Bronx — Allerton, City Island, Morris Park, Pelham Bay, Throggs Neck and Westchester Square — which also has one of the lowest percent of street miles with a protected bike lane in the city.
Last year, 16 children were killed on city streets in traffic crashes, more than any year since 2014, the year Vision Zero — the idea that policymaking should aim to entirely eliminate traffic deaths on city streets — was adopted by the administration of former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Gibson touted belief in Vision Zero, and noted for the Bronx that equitable micromobility and road sharing between the borough’s drivers, cyclists and pedestrians are key to driving down traffic deaths.
“It’s a reminder that we must continue to advocate for safe and equitable mobility for everyone who uses our roads,” said Gibson. “All traffic violence is preventable and we must do more to keep our roads safe.”