Emma Vail

Today was Emma Vail’s second day on the job with Bronx Community Solutions.

Emma works for an organization called ReServe, which provides paid public service opportunities for older New Yorkers. She’ll work two days a week at Bronx Community Solutions, conducting intake interviews, making phone calls and sending letters to non-compliant participants as well as providing support to our busy social service staff.

Emma, who moved with her family to the Bronx in the 1930s only blocks from the courthouse, shared some of her memories with me. Her family moved from Mississippi after her father got word of a job opening at a bakery down the street from Yankee Stadium. At the time, the neighborhood was one of the most desirable in the city – in fact, the Grand Concourse was known as the “Park Avenue of the Bronx.”

In 1952, she and her family moved to the newly built Melrose Houses, on 152nd Street. Emma remembers the houses fondly – their well-tended grounds made her think she was “living in a park.”

Emma lived there until 1969, when she and daughter moved to Co-Op City, a huge complex of 35 high-rise buildings in northwest Bronx built on the site of the old Freedomland USA amusement park. One of the first families to move in, Emma remembers being surrounded by “sand and dirt” while construction continued. Co-Op City was an ambitious experiment designed to promote home ownership among the city’s middle class. It was built under the Mitchell-Lama program, in which developers were given tax breaks and subsidies in exchange for keeping housing affordable. (When Emma moved in, a one-bedroom apartment sold for $1,350.) The complex attracted middle-class families from the Bronx who had previously lived along the Grand Concourse, accelerating the decline of the area.

After working in a variety of human resource jobs in the public sector, Emma began looking for volunteer work after retiring seven years ago. She quickly became frustrated by a lack of good opportunities. She applied to ReServe after seeing a short article in a community newspaper, and was offered a position at Bronx Community Solutions. “I love it here,” Emma says.

Emma continues to live in Co-Op City, which, in recent years, has fallen on harder times. Its mortgage debt soared to $220 million by 2003, and without money to pay for basic upkeep, the complex began to badly deteriorate. Many of its residents are fixed-income seniors (Co-Op City has over 8,000 residents over the age of 65, making it the “largest naturally occurring retirement community in the nation”) who cannot afford increases in maintenance fees needed for upkeep. On March 15, Co-Op City’s 81 security officers and 75 lobby attendants went on strike, fueling safety fears among its residents.

While Co-Op City has struggled, the rest of the Bronx is booming, according to the New York Times. Several large new developments are in planning or are under construction, including the relocation of the Fulton Fish Market, the redevelopment of the Bronx Terminal Market, new commercial development along 149th Street and the construction of a new stadium for the Yankees. Some local leaders and residents are concerned, however, that the new wealth being generated in the Bronx will not be shared by all.

Emma has lived through a number of cycles of boom and bust in the Bronx. Her goal is to “give something back” to the community she has lived in most of her life.