In the late 1980s, Bruckner Boulevard was a forbidding stretch of asphalt strung with disused factories, dim tattoo parlors and fast-food depots. The thoroughfare, blisteringly sketched by Tom Wolfe in his satirical novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” was part of the wasteland that was the South Bronx — “entire blocks of the city,” as he wrote, “without a building left standing.”
Flash-forward three decades, and this once-shattered swath of New York’s northernmost borough has undergone an image transplant. Neighborhoods like Mott Haven, Port Morris and Melrose are still poor and plagued by various urban ills. But no mistake: The South Bronx, the area that gave rise to hip-hop, is being celebrated — some would say appropriated — by a clutch of entrepreneurs, real estate developers and, inevitably, the fashion tribes.
Earlier this year, Gucci, wise to the borough’s rich cultural heritage, cast its prefall 2017 ad campaign with black models vamping and break dancing at a 1970s-style “Soul Train” party.
“We’ve felt a little like outcasts,” said Henry Obispo, an entrepreneur who recently opened a cold-pressed juice bar and green rooftop for yoga and meditation.
That has changed. Mr. Obispo ascribes the area’s newfound self-respect in part to a spate of new building and speculation by outsiders — the South Bronx had the fastest rate of business growth in the borough from 2000 to 2011, according to the office of the state comptroller — a factor that has spurred locals to wrest back their community and reclaim it as a seat of urban cool.
Still, the prospect of gentrification rattles. Alarming to some is the seven-tower, $400 million residential and retail complex rising along the former industrial waterfront in the Port Morris section. Keith Rubenstein, a founder of the real estate investment company Somerset Partners, which is developing the property with the Chetrit Group, is predicting strong demand for some 1,300 units, mostly by young professionals in search of upscale amenities and sweeping waterfront views.
A couple of years ago, Mr. Rubenstein incited a backlash by throwing a “Bronx Is Burning” one-night art show attended by more than 2,500 people — Adrien Brody, Naomi Campbell, Kendall Jenner and Carmelo Anthony, among them — sipping Dom Pérignon and Patrón tequila. The event drew the ire of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, who charged that it exploited the South Bronx’s troubled history for entertainment.
Further stoking the controversy was a Somerset billboard touting the area as “the Piano District.” Other speculators were quick to chime in, proclaiming the Bronx as the new Brooklyn.
“We don’t need another Brooklyn,” said Roselyn Grullon, a partner in Bronx Native, an apparel company. “We don’t want developers to push out the locals and flatten our beautiful, diverse culture.”
But she is not averse to efforts by Bronx artists and merchants to spruce up the area. In the last year alone, the formerly forbidding Mott Haven neighborhood has welcomed La Grata, an upscale restaurant and pizzeria; Filtered Coffee, a low-key Third Avenue gathering spot; Cross Gallery, showcasing art, technology and design; and 9J, a boutique on Bruckner Boulevard that is a magnet to locals and music world luminaries.
These businesses and others are ambassadors of Bronx culture at large, said Jerome LaMaar, 9J’s dapper owner. “And what’s a brand without the right ambassador to push it?”
Here, a look at some of those South Bronx ambassadors and their pioneering efforts in this new frontier.
The Wiz of Bruckner Boulevard
“I want to be the Jeffrey Kalinsky of Bruckner Boulevard,” Jerome LaMaar said, referring to the merchant whose luxury fashion emporium was vital in transforming the once gritty meatpacking district into a high-style fashion destination.
At 32, Mr. LaMaar, a Bronx-bred former designer, has a similarly lofty goal: to turn his boutique 9J into a fashionable anchor on Bruckner Boulevard. Today the shop attracts locals and high-profile outsiders like Tina Knowles and Jennifer Lopez’s lively entourage, their implicit endorsement fueling Mr. LaMaar’s ambition.
“At first, I wanted to tap into the local culture — that’s home,” he said. Now he envisions his store as a club, one that draws a heady amalgam of local artists and borough bigwigs along with deep-pocketed sightseers and businesspeople.
Not that he would neglect his assorted friends. “They’re skaters, drag queens and young professionals of all ages and colors,” Mr. LaMaar said. “This is a place where they can feel like themselves and not be judged or ostracized.”
On a practical level, it’s a place where they can shop. The store is a tidy bazaar stocked with kimonos and embroidered peasant smocks, jewelry, T-shirts and pastel-tone sneakers, the prices varying from about $3 for an adult-friendly toy, say, to $3,000 or more for substantial, and colorful, home furnishings. He hopes to take his vision, loosely modeled on the fabled Parisian concept store Colette, global.
Yet his roots remain in the Bronx. A production of the “The Wiz” that he saw as a boy, formed his aesthetic and is still informing his fantasies.
“The movie wasn’t about fashion per se,” Mr. LaMaar said. “It was about the Wiz, how he was dictating things, how the look of those things should shift and change. That’s the way I see my store, my career, my life.”
She Rules the Runways
Flora Montes, 52, started Bronx Fashion Week three years ago with her last $200 unemployment check and gumption to spare. “I have to believe that somewhere along the line I was meant to be the vessel that brought it to life,” she said.
Fashion enthralled this Bronx-born single mother of two from the time she saw her first runway show in Manhattan, in 2014. “That was a Saturday,” she recalled, “and on Sunday I started to get the legal paperwork together and reach out to my small network of supporters. I thought, ‘The other boroughs have their fashion week, and now it’s time for the Bronx to step up.’”
Her first event, stretched over three nights in September of that year, drew close to 1,000 visitors who watched models of diverse races, ages and body types strut the work of local designers and others. Some designers were short on cash. “But I don’t turn my back on anyone,” Ms. Montes said. “I don’t have the heart to say, ‘No, you can’t show because you can’t pay a fee.’”
For Ms. Montes, a poet and chef, the show’s success seemed surreal. “I had no connection to the industry,” she said. “I’m no fashionista. My daughter used to tease me: ‘Mom, you used to walk around the house in sweats and a ponytail. When did you become a fashion thing?’”
For her next event, on Aug. 26 at the Mall at Bay Plaza, Ms. Montes hopes to lure a few Manhattan dignitaries, among them Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Media Mavericks With Cheek
Sure, the Bronx is raw. But the Blox TV, a media company with an online channel and companion website, doesn’t shy away from capturing the sordid bits along with the sublime.
Marco Shalma, a founder, with Gillian Todd, thinks big. “We try to represent our borough’s people with things that matter,” he said. In his quest, few topics are off limits. A recent video segment enjoins viewers to call for a cleanup of the needle-and-condom-littered Third Avenue Bridge; it also advises how to cope with immigration sweeps. “Know your rights, stay cool and polite,” various speakers urge. “And remember: The best defense against injustice is a strong community.”
Readers of the site may also learn that Bronx-born artists like A Boogie and Romeo Santos are “all the way up on the music charts,” as Mr. Shalma writes, and, on a more satirical note, that Mon Amour Cafe & Wine on West 238th Street, is among the borough’s five top spots “to dump your summer love.”
Tart humor will alway have a place in the Bronx, Mr. Shalma said: “We’re interested in shaking things up.”
The Artist as Young Rogue
Savvy New Yorkers may know Devon Rodriguez by his soulful oil portraits of subjects caught unaware as they travel the No. 6 train between the Bronx and Manhattan. But Mr. Rodriguez, a 21-year-old graduate of the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, has yet to come up with a catchy way to describe his works, many of them influenced by traditional 19th-century European portraiture, but with an edge.
“This is the new punk,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve never heard that. I’m going to use it.”
Propped in the corner of a makeshift studio at his grandmother’s apartment on East 139th Street, his canvases possess the kind of pomp and depth that prompted a roster of characters, some local, some not, to commission portraits.
“One guy, he’s like a drug dealer,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “He told me, ‘Get my tattoos right, get my Jordans right,’” referring to his gold-toe sneakers. “He paid me in, like, a Cuban link chain.” Mr. Rubenstein, the developer, is another enthusiast, commissioning a 30-by-40-foot portrait, for $6,000.
It wasn’t business as usual for Mr. Rodriguez, who was abandoned by his father as a youngster and left in the care of his grandmother by his troubled mother. “Who needed all that craziness?” he said. “I always thought the Bronx was too rough.”
He likes rough edges — to a point. “But any change going on here, I’m happy for it,” he said. And he’s enjoying the shift in his luck.
“I feel like I’m in a good spot,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “But I’m always shocked when people say yes to the money I’m asking and then send a check.”
Wearing the Bronx on Their Sleeves
A thorny pride in their home turf impelled Amaurys Grullon and his sister, Roselyn, to place their own stamp on the Bronx. “We noticed how beautiful our people are, how beautiful our culture is, how beautiful our history, right?” said Mr. Grullon, 23, a graphic designer and videographer who operates his studio out of his home. “We felt that people weren’t really seeing the Bronx for what it was.”
A couple of years ago, Mr. Grullon and his sister, now a 22-year-old fashion student, set out to create Bronx Native, a clothing line that aims to instill a collective self-esteem in the beleaguered borough. “People still say the Bronx is burning — sure that’s negative,” Ms. Grullon said. “But that’s part of who we are. We’re not so much branding as rebranding the Bronx.”
Mr. Grullon chimed in, “We want to showcase the borough for how it is — the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Still, they’re billboarding the positive with a line of Bronx Native logo T-shirts, ball caps and hoodies, some that send up the brand Supreme, others that deliberately make references to “the old boogie-down Bronx of hip-hop days,” Mr. Grullon said. “We want to make an impact, and not just with our clothing.”
Coming soon: a Bronx Native candle called the 6 Train. What would a subway car smell like? “It’s a blend of green fruits,” Mr. Grullon said. “The 6, you know, is on the green line.”
Peacock About Town
At Filtered, a Bronx coffee shop that draws a strenuously self-effacing crowd, Diego León, suited up the other day in a natty blazer and tartan Bonobos, was hard to miss.
That’s the way he likes it. A onetime preschool teacher, he is the creative force behind Dandy in the Bronx, a men’s blog focused on fashion and a cohort of peacocking pacesetters, many who, like Mr. León, grew up in the Bronx. A native of Hunts Point, he started his blog about three years ago. “It was my résumé, my love letter to home,” he said.
His mission these days is to bring awareness to the south end of New York’s northernmost borough as an enclave hospitable to the fashion tribes. It has been an uphill struggle.
“Everyone gives the side-eye to the Bronx,” he said. As a student at the State University of New York at Fredonia, his background raised eyebrows. “I’d get, ‘Are you in a gang? Do you live in a ghetto? Do you own a gun?’”
A so-called influencer, with 40,700 Instagram followers, Mr. León likes to wears suit coats and shorts around town. Strangers sometimes eye him skeptically, he said, shouting taunts like “Where are you going?”
But there is an upside. His blog has claimed the attention of companies like Amazon, Chivas Regal and Timberland, which commissioned him to feature the products they sell on his blog. “Timberland has roots in hip-hop,” he was prompt to point out. “They know how they got here.”