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 3rd Avenue bridge, 79 Alexander Avenue has become something of a metaphor for the tug between the old economy, based in manual labor and manufacturing, and the new–digital, wired and computer savvy. Typical concerns about the displacement of local manufacturers revolve around industrial spaces morphing into expensive lofts. Instead, the developments at 79 Alexander have the potential to provide jobs–but 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 Manhattan-based management company that now owns the building. The extensive renovations to the building also include 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 cabinet-making shop. “It’s all manual labor.” Several other small manufacturers 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 good rents in the outer boroughs.
The Bronx component, the BronxSmart District, is fast expanding, under the administration of the South Bronx Economic Development Corporation. SOBRO is responsible for four buildings, including an “incubator” building 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.”