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The unedited classwork of a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, currently focusing on the issues concerning the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Bronx is Booming

The sun's barely up and the 2 train is already packed with construction workers hurtling to building sites dotted across the Bronx. A new study confirms what these subway riders know: the borough's jobs are booming. But who's getting them and the boom's longevity remain in question.

The study by The Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a non-profit, non-partisan think tank, assessed job growth over the past decade in each zip code in the five boroughs. In the Bronx, the Highbridge/Morrissania zip 10456 showed the largest percentage of job growth, a 58 percent increase since 1997, making it the 13th highest ranking zip code in New York City with 580 new jobs created since 1997. CUF's director, Jonathan Bowles, says the new jobs are predominantly in health care and education, as well as retail, warehousing and -- as the hardhat-glutted 2 train indicates -- construction.

"We used to be the rough, now we're the diamond in the rough," says Len Caro, CEO of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce. Companies saw the Bronx as blighted, he says, now they're building there. One factor is cheap and readily available real estate. "Frankly," says Bowles, "Manhattan is running out of space to develop." Nearly a thousand companies purchased land in the Bronx this year alone, says Caro. Bowles and Caro also note the Bronx's under-served retail market. Despite the economic downturn, they say, retailers believe the Bronx has a wealth of untapped and eager potential customers.

Giant-sized projects like Yankee Stadium and city's largest mall, the Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market, are responsible for a large chunk of the boom; each requires hundreds of builders. But when the last construction worker packs up his tools, those jobs disappear. "There's a surge because of local construction jobs," says Kate Shackford, executive vice president for the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, "But then each of these projects will create jobs as well." Says Bowles: "The jobs being created at gateway are [not] a panacea for the Bronx," but the retail jobs created "will be be an important entry way [for new workers] into the labor market."

With retail and warehousing wages hovering around the minimum, some, like food warehouse worker Gary Wilson, 36, say the community needs better jobs, not just more. Wilson works seven days a week. To make ends meet, "I need at least two or three more jobs," he says. Poorly paid jobs may proliferate, he says, but in better jobs like restaurant work, "They're not looking for anyone to work behind the counter."

Whether or not even the new low-paying jobs go to Bronx residents is another story. Some, like Bowles, are hopeful. Here "jobs tend to be filled locally. For the most part people don't drive from Queens to the Bronx for jobs." The BOEDC encourages companies to hire from the neighborhood. Yet while its initiative, "Buy Bronx", mandates a portion of materials and services be locally sourced, the corporation's goal for companies to have a 25 - 35 percent Bronx workforce is not compulsory.

Nevertheless, some companies are courting Bronx's potential employees. Best Buy, the discount electronics giant which will be setting up shop when the Gateway Center opens next year, took the bait offered by the BOEDC to set up a recruiting office in BOEDC's "Workforce 1" center, a career center on 149th street in the Bronx. In the basement recruiting offices, applicants watched videos where black and Latino Best Buy employees touted the company's commitment to a culturally diverse workforce, a message Best Buy hoped would resonate with the Bronx applicants.

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