How a Mott Haven Man Tries to Preserve His Neighborhood

When Samuel Brooks, 55, takes visitors through his neighborhood of Mott Haven, he can’t help but point out some of the changes taking place. One recent Saturday afternoon, he noticed that five different residential buildings were going up along 138th street, near the corner of 3rd Avenue. “It’s just crazy,” said Brooks. “We got one, two, three, and there’s two in the back there, concurrently. Unheard of.”

Brooks, who works in finance, has lived in Mott Haven since 1975. He moved to the South Bronx with his family from Honduras during an era of great unrest for this part of the borough, when fires raged, buildings were abandoned, and violence abounded. Brooks remembers it well. The first building that his family lived in was set on fire in 1974. “I remember very vividly,” he said. “We used to go up on the roof in 1974 and look at the entire city, as the South Bronx was burning, and it literally was.”

But through all the distress and destruction, Brooks stayed. And now he is trying to help other longtime residents do the same thing.

He owns a town home on 140th Street, in Mott Haven East, which was designated a historic district by the city in 1994. The three Mott Haven Historic Districts stretch from East 137th Street to East 141st Street between Willis and Third Avenues. The districts are characterized by houses of neo-Grec, Queen Anne, Renaissance Revival, and Flemish Revival architectural style, all built in the early 20th Century, shortly after rapid transit lines made the area accessible from Manhattan.

While homebuyers shied away from Mott Haven in the latter half of the 20th century, today there is a renewed interest in the area. Sasha D. Catus is a real estate broker at Haven Group Real Estate, LLC, a Mott Haven-based real estate company. He said in the past four years, demand for property in Mott Haven has increased at a stunning rate.

Catus cited a number of factors that have drawn people to the area, including increased security. One of the biggest factors, Catus said, is transportation. Most Mott Haven real estate is close to the 4, 5, and 6 trains, just one stop from 125th Street and 20 minutes from Midtown. “Few areas have such efficient and swift proximity to Manhattan,” said Catus, noting that rival Brooklyn neighborhoods, such as Bushwick, are nowhere near as close to Manhattan.

Mott Haven is also, by today’s New York real estate standards, still relatively affordable. Catus noted that a townhouse that would cost $3 million in Harlem, right across the river, would go for anywhere from $700,000 to $900,000 in Mott Haven.

Still, as new money comes in, so do new developments to the neighborhood. Bruckner Boulevard, the closest street to the waterfront, has its own stretch of trendy bars, restaurants, and shops. The New York Times named the South Bronx one of the 52 Places To Go in 2017. And Brooks said many people in his neighborhood have gotten offers to sell their homes from aggressive investors.

Samuel Brooks of the Mott Haven Historic Districts Association. (Courtney Vinopal / NY City Lens).

Samuel Brooks of the Mott Haven Historic Districts Association. (Courtney Vinopal / NY City Lens).

“All of a sudden in the last two years, you see an influx of high-end real estate,” said Brooks. “And then you have speculators that have been knocking on doors constantly, and dropping offers of all-cash, $500,000 to $600,000.”

Brooks said some of his neighbors, who have lived in their homes since the 1950s and 1960s, paid $16,000 to $18,000 for their property, and have no mortgage. And Brooks wants these people to stay. “I noticed there was always an interest in what’s new, about developers coming into the area,” said Brooks. “And I was saying wait a minute, we are stepping over something that has been here since 1639.”

This is part of the reason why Brooks started the Mott Haven Historic Districts Association, an organization seeking to preserve the culture and history of the community—and to ensure that long-time residents continue to have a stake in it. “There are homeowners that have owned their homes since the ‘50s, early ‘60s. And they’re not affluent, they have no mortgage on their property. The exterior is protected by a landmark, but the interior requires some work,” said Brooks.

To start the organization, Brooks paired up with SoBro, the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, which is providing support for the initiative. The Historic District Association’s first major event is a decorator’ showcase, which will be hosted at Brooks’s own Mott Haven home this summer. A number of interior designers and artists from the area will volunteer their talents for the showcase. Brooks will give them free reign to re-design the historic home, and charge visitors $20 to walk through.

With proceeds from the first Mott Haven decorator’s showcase, Brooks intends to help other neighborhood residents renovate their homes, particularly those who have considered selling their houses and moving. Brooks noted that the efforts of his organization would not only be geared toward those living in historic townhouses, either. “We are surrounded by projects here too,” said Brooks. “So my hope is to walk into a Mitchel Houses building and say, ‘OK we’re going to take the three apartments, empty everything, and invite designers to re-design it.’”

Carmen Cordona, 61, is one neighbor of Brooks’s who has stayed despite constant calls from investors looking to buy her place. Cordona moved into her home on 140th Street in 1976 when she was 20 years old. She has lived there ever since. Cordona’s kids have since moved upstate, but her job is here—she works at Montefiore Hospital—and she said she intends to stay, especially now that some of the issues that once riddled the neighborhood are no longer prevalent.

“I still have my job here, and I feel comfortable. I love the neighborhood. It’s not like when there were drugs in the past.”

Another longtime resident of Brooks’s however, Frank Camal, has finally decided to sell his place. His father bought the house in 1945 for $15,000, and Camallo grew up here. When his mother died, he inherited it. He recently found out that his inheritance tax would make it more doable to sell, so he finally decided to put it on the market. One of his next-door neighbors, a resident who recently moved here, put him in touch with a friend who is buying the house for $750,000. Camal will live with his sister until he finds a new place to live.

Asked if he was sad to be leaving, Camal said, “Of course, I was brought up here. Fifty-six years, that’s a long time.”

For now, Brooks’s efforts have helped bring a bit more attention to Mott Haven. It was recently selected as one of the “6 to Celebrate” neighborhoods by the New York Historic Districts Council, which aims to advance local preservation campaigns.

Despite its relative affordability compared to Manhattan, Mott Haven is nowhere near as affordable as it once was. Sasha Catus said that as prices go up, renters living in homes on destabilized leases are particularly vulnerable to being pushed out of the area. He said that for these people, anything from a new landlord to a change in owners could cause rent to go up.

“In that respect displacement is occurring,” said Catus of Mott Haven, “as it has in much of Harlem, much of Brooklyn, and much of Queens, before it.”

While the Mott Haven Historic Districts Association might not be able to keep rents in the neighborhood from rising, Brooks hopes that it will at least give people an appreciation of the history and culture. The South Bronx is, after all, the birthplace of hip-hop, the former home of some of the nation’s foremost piano factories, and the namesake of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. There’s history here.

“We knew what we had many, many decades ago,” said Brooks. “I’m just focused on history, and preserving the culture, for those who have been in the community for decades.”