New York's Rx for Urban Blight: Hide It Behind a Wall of Decals

UPDATED 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/12/1983 at 01:00 AM EST

Gazing at the scenery along New York City's Cross-Bronx Expressway, many motorists feel an intense need to communicate with the Almighty: They utter a quick prayer that their steel-belted radials will hold air for at least a few more miles. The landscape that inspires such terror is called the South Bronx, and it has been, for a decade, a national symbol of poverty, arson and urban decay. From the expressway the scene resembles nothing so much as the final footage of The Day After. Rows of high-rise apartment buildings stand gutted and burned. Recently, however, the city of New York promised to change all that. Motorists have begun seeing in the buildings' windows the comforting signs of life—shutters, shades and potted plants thriving on window sills.

Unfortunately, the beauty is only skin-deep. The city doesn't plan to rebuild the gutted apartments. It is merely giving them a lived-in look by pasting vinyl decals that depict homey scenes over the empty windows. City officials hope that the decal program—involving $70,000 of federal funds—will help attract business to the nation's poorest congressional district. Robert Jacobson, director of the Bronx office of the Department of City Planning, points to a new 21.5-acre industrial park as proof that the area is already coming back. "The false assumption is that the South Bronx is nothing but devastation," he says. "This is an attempt to change that image, to give it a more real image."

Many South Bronx community leaders disagree, viewing the trompe I'oeil windows as an attempt to hide the community's problems instead of solving them. "The decals are phony curtains to camouflage the devastation," says George Palermo, 27, a community organizer who has seen both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan visit the neighborhood and promise to repair it. Xavier Rodriguez, 35, president of a local community development agency, feels that the decal money could be better used to fund neighborhood homesteaders. "The commuters need to see these abandoned buildings," he says. "They're a constant reminder that there's something wrong in this country."

Some South Bronx residents, however, have shown at least partial support for the decals. "I think it makes sense," says Michele Williams, 22, of Fulton Street. "For people who come to the South Bronx for the first time, it's pretty scary to see all those vacant buildings." The problem is not an abstract one for Williams; a part-time recreation supervisor in a local school, she is struggling to raise her two daughters in a tiny three-room apartment that sits across the street from an abandoned building. She hopes that the city will rebuild—not just redecorate—her blighted neighborhood. "Decals are all right, but there's a lot more that can be done," she says. "People can't live in those buildings even if decals are on them."

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