The Bronx Is Burning: The African Haven That Almost Wasn't

From 2014-2016, the New York Times (NYT) wrote widely popular articles exploring the massive influx of Africans, especially West Africans, to the country.

One NYT article, titled Influx of Africans Immigrants Shifting National and New York Demographics, reported: "Between 2000 and 2010, the number of legal black African immigrants in the United States about doubled, to around one million. During that single decade, according to the most reliable estimates, more black Africans arrived in this country on their own than were imported directly to North America during the more than three centuries of the slave trade".

In the Bronx, the number of West African immigrants alone doubled from 28,154 in 2007 to 45,723 in 2017, not including unreported immigrants.

In fact, my most recent experience in the Bronx suggests that the trend is true. I see West Africans at every turn throughout the borough. The Bronx has become a haven, a sort of meeting place, more home-like than it is foreign, for many Africans. From African markets, African braiding shops, boutiques, restaurants, churches, and cultural events, we have formed a little Africa in this borough and in many enclaves in New York City and country.

But just 40 years ago, the Bronx, as the haven it now exists for African immigrants, did not EXIST. The Bronx was burning. Literally.

The history and politics of the borough around this time is especially interesting, and is more complex that a single blog post will allow me to delve into. But in short, from the mid 70s - early 90s, New York City, yes, New York City, was on the verge of bankruptcy. Between industrial decline, middle class flight, and widening city deficit from welfare allowances leading to financial crisis, massive layoffs, and rampant violent crime, the city was under duress. The picture of the City, especially the Bronx, was grim: streets of abandoned and burned buildings, drug houses, assaults, gangs, theft, graffiti subways, stray dogs, murders. As one of my coworkers said in his personal account of the 'Bronx of the 70s', "the borough smelled of smoke".

The blackout on July 13th, 1977 was especially telling. As reported, "That night, a major blackout— "a total urban eclipse"—struck, and all five boroughs of New York City and most of Westchester County were suddenly without power for several hours. The mass looting that ensued remains the only civil disturbance in the history of NYC to encompass all five boroughs simultaneously, and the 3776 arrests were the largest mass arrest in the city's history."

It took decades of failed policy, urban planning and development, fiscal discipline and regulations, uncompromising and unpopular leadership, and some contested strategies (ie. quality of life policing) to finally see the city and borough we have now.

I write about this history because of a conversation I had with my uncle who also lives in the Bronx last week. He expressed that he could never live in Ghana; that it is too dirty, that things don't work. I told him that things will only work if we make it work and explained to him that the convenience he now enjoys in the Bronx came at the expense of someone's effort; that the Bronx, however "troubled" some of us see it now, did not sprout into its modern day efficiencies, safety, and cleanliness on its own.

Rather, the borough we enjoy today as African immigrants is a product of deliberate effort, teamwork, and leadership.

Imagine: just 40 years ago, the Bronx was burning. Not too long ago, a few strong minds had to join hands and work to construct and maintain the conveniences we enjoy in the Diaspora. What are we going to do to make the cities and villages on the African continent prosperous and safe 40 years from now?

What can we do in 40? 40 years is within a lifetime.

P.S. In just 2 days, on July 13th, I celebrate my birthday! I want to give this year; all of my experiences from the last year tells me that this is the best way to honor 27!

Specifically, I will be doing a fundraising campaign for a cause I am passionate about and would sincerely appreciate it if you would join me.

All the details of my giving campaign will be posted on this site on Thursday. See you then! Cheers!