Low-rent, High-tec

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Battle lines for the new economy are being drawn in the South Bronx, of all places, as a Port Morris building that has housed woodworking shops for years is being rewired with T-1 internet lines. Nestled among woodworking, antique, and furniture shops a stone’s throw from the Third Avenue Bridge, 79 Alexander Avenue has become something of a metaphor for the tug between the old economy, based in manual labor and small manufacturing, and the new–digital, wired, and computer savvy.

Typical concerns about the displacement of manufacturers revolve around industrial spaces morphing into expensive lofts and co-ops. Instead, the developments at 79 Alexander have the potential to provide jobs–of a very different kind.

“We’re upgrading it to hopefully accommodate a new kind of tenant for the Bronx,” says Brad Barr of Bradford N. Swett, the management company that now owns the building. The extensive renovations to the building include fiber-optic cables as well as a new boiler, elevator and lobby.

“There’s no need for fiber-optics here,” protests Jeffrey Ventura, manager of the first-floor Ventura Cabinetmaker Woodwork, a cabinetmaking shop. “It’s all manual labor.” Several other small manufacturers–mostly in antique restoration and woodworking–still make their home in the graceful waterfront building. “We know [the new landlord] doesn’t want these kinds of businesses here,” sighs Ventura, who says Bradford tried to buy them out of their lease.

While 79 Alexander is the product of private developers, the city has pressed for more new-media-friendly buildings. In April, the mayor announced the creation of “Digital NYC: Wired to the World,” an economic development program aimed at providing high-tech spaces at affordable rents in the outer boroughs.

The Bronx component, called the BronxSmart District, is fast expanding under the administration of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation. SOBRO is responsible for four buildings, including an “incubator” that will house up to 32 tiny start-ups; a building offering 5,000-square-foot offices; and one offering live-work space. “We want the Bronx to be part of this digital technology,” says Neil Pariser, a SOBRO senior vice-president. “It creates very good paying jobs, which we need in this community.”

Low-tech businessmen like Ventura worry they’ll be simply be displaced, and question the wisdom of replacing solid businesses with internet startups. “You certainly don’t want to make it difficult [for business] to come into the Bronx,” says Matthew Lee of the Bronx-based Inner City Press. “But the woodworking stuff? Basically, they should not be disrupted by this stuff, and they don’t have to be. There’s plenty of space.”