The Battle of the Bronx: A Page Out of History that’s Fighting Homelessness
A bitter winter swept the nation in January 1932 as poverty, unemployment, and the looming threat of eviction made its way into the cracks and crannies of America’s shaky middle class. This period of time, when shantytowns rose and Hoovervilles dotted the formidable landscape, would be known for generations as The Great Depression.
It was at this point in history that the average American family lost nearly half of their wealth. Hundreds of thousands of businesses shut down. Then hundreds of thousands of families were served eviction letters and swiftly kicked out onto the streets.
With more than a quarter of the US population unemployed and many frost-laden nights ahead, one small section of the Bronx, NY would unintentionally birth a revolution of sorts. It start with rent strikes, protests and sit-ins, and ended with policy changes, many of which are still in place to this day. In response to the unprecedented series of events that threatened people’s homes and livelihood, tenants in that tiny region of the Bronx gathered collectively, prepared to withhold, to withstand, and, most importantly, to stand with their neighbors in solidarity.
Today, that united front is oft referred to as the Battle of the Bronx or the Anti-Eviction Movement. The rent strikes and “rent riots” that ensued during this battle helped restore approximately 77,000 families safely back inside of their homes.
Now, archival researchers Christopher Vazquez and Sandra McDaniel say it’s happening all over again – in the same exact location, under near-identical circumstances, on the brink of wintry January, almost 100 years later.
In Anticipation of Approximately 200,000 Coming Evictions in the Bronx Alone, New York Tenants Have Already Taken to the Streets in Solidarity and Their Plight is a Page Right Out of a Social Studies Book
As a testament to the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same, COVID-19 and the economic peril surrounding the pandemic are eerily reminiscent of the Great Depression. In May, it was projected that national unemployment rates exceeded 20% (the official percentage denoting a depression). Those numbers have since been trending downward. But there’s no denying the economic devastation that happened as a result of the novel Coronavirus. Nor can we deny the fact that more than 45.7 million American workers filed for unemployment over the course of the quarantine-induced shutdown.
In early January, when rent moratoriums are set to be lifted, some 34 million renters are projected to be at risk of losing their homes. Approximately 200,000 of them reside in the Bronx.
In response, that protestor’s spirit, already shaken in the shadows of police brutality, is rising yet again. Armed with megaphones, picket signs and unabashed determination, advocates and neighbors are taking to the streets by the thousands. Their hope is to halt the near 200,000 pending Bronx evictions and to prevent hundreds of thousands more before the ink even hits the paper.
Tenant leaders are not taking any chances this time around. Much like their predecessors, these organizers seek long-term solutions and policy changes in the form of:
- Rent relief
- Rent freezes
- Eviction suspension
- Building repairs
- Waived late fees and back rent
To walk through the Bronx in November of 2020 is akin to walking through a museum and seeing the tenants of the Great Depression stealthily refuse to be uprooted. In order to be successful, it will take some self-reflection and the ability to develop an “Us mentality” in a world that has heavily promoted individualism as a way of life.
Tenant Organizer Juan Nunez put it this way:
“The idea is to get everybody in solidarity to make sure that their neighbors don’t get pushed out.”
While such a movement poses its fair share of obstacles, Juan is confident that this mission can and will succeed.
“If it’s our turn to go on a rent strike and have to push back and make sure that people aren’t evicted through eviction blockades, then that’s what we got to do because it’s in our blood.”
Talk to Your Legislators About Preventing Unrest by Preventing Evictions
While there is always room in history for that story where neighbors come together and fight back against the tyranny of oppression, it’s important to remember that civil unrest of this sort can and should be prevented. If the new eviction blockades are anything like what happened a century ago this could mean arrests and injuries for compassionate people who just want to help their neighbors and themselves. While a noble gesture, those arrest records could follow them around for the foreseeable future making it even harder for them to rent apartments in the Bronx (or anywhere).
If we create and implement legislation that reflects the interest of renters and homeowners, we can prevent everything that happens when our nation reaches the pinnacle of division. Contact your legislators today and explain to them the urgency of making rent relief available nationwide.