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18th February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 18, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

 Filmmaker Spike Lee was recently quoted in the New York Times with an important observation. “That whole experiment — white flight to the suburbs — really did not work out. All the things they ran away from followed them to the suburbs.” That huge sections of his home borough of Brooklyn are now gentrifying is something that has not escaped the notice of Mr. Lee. 

    The children of the baby boomers are headed back to the city, and many of them choose to stay, even after they have children of their own. However, rather than fleeing the things “that followed them to the suburbs,” I believe that they are looking for the things that didn’t. They want the energy and interaction that the city provides, and as a result, neighborhoods once given up for dead are resurging. 
    This is a wonderful opportunity for New York. If we do the right things, we will plant the seed for a new sense of urbanism that will rival that enjoyed here by the great post-World War II generation. 

    Just as the last renaissance was undermined by the neighborhood busting of Robert Moses and the silver ribbons he built to lure the middle class to the sterility of the suburbs, the current boom is undermined by a different kind of folly. The muchmissed Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one man who got it right. 

    “For the longest while we defined ourselves by spectacular public works,” he told the New York Times in 1998. “Now? The plain fact is that we have developed a civic culture in which prestige more often goes to those who prevent the city from developing than to those who enable it.” 

    This is the disease that afflicts my home community of Riverdale, one of the last of the great middle-class enclaves of the Bronx. No matter how big or small a project is proposed, public or private, opposition is immediate, organized, and often ugly. 

    Take the effort of one public-spirited family to build a new condominium tower — designed specifically for family living — in the heart of the community in which they live. Every planned apartment would have at least three bedrooms, perfect for the young family looking to live an urban middle-class life. 

    Howard Jonas may be one of the great entrepreneurs of our time. When he was a student at my alma mater, the Bronx High School of Science, he operated a hot dog cart outside a methadone clinic. As a student at Harvard, he ran a mail order business from his dorm room, making thousands by selling things such as Bonsai trees and Venus Flytrap plants. He built a telecom giant, the IDT Corporation, basically from nothing but good ideas and hard work.The company grossed more than $1.5 billion in 2002, and is climbing fast up the Fortune 1000 list. 

    The one good idea that made Mr. Jonas a player in the telecom industry was the concept of “callback” service. The young businessman was frustrated with high long-distance rates when calling America from Israel when the rates in the opposite direction were so much lower. Mr. Jonas rigged a device that would allow him to ring a number in New York, which would never answer, but instead call him back in Israel with an American dial tone, enabling him to make the call at the much lower American rates. 

    This clever idea and dozens of others have been parlayed into what has become a huge and successful company. Recently, Mr. Jonas has expanded into the entertainment business with a focus on family-oriented amusements, acquiring a string of animation companies and hiring actor Christopher Reeve to write and direct an animated feature film. He has now purchased a stake in the company that owns the Archie comic book characters, and has the rights to put these clean-cut characters from that other, fictional, Riverdale into future movie projects. 

    Family values come naturally to Mr. Jonas, an observant Jew who has nine children. You will not read about Mr. Jonas in the gossip columns. Until recently, Mr. Jonas, his wife, Debbie, and their happy brood lived in an extraordinarily modest house on Arlington Avenue in Riverdale. With his enormous success and the wealth it has brought, he moved to larger quarters, not on Park Avenue or in a gated community in the Upper Westchester horse country, but a few blocks away, still in Riverdale, still in the Bronx. 

    It is the former Jonas residence to which our attention now turns. It is one of four similar homes on the block, modestly nestled between medium-sized apartment buildings, a half-block away from a huge 15-story co-op that fills most of an entire city block. It is within sight of the 24-story Whitehall co-op, in which baseball legend Willie Mays occupies the penthouse. 

    When Mr. Jonas’s son Shmuel was 17, he told his parents that he wanted to cater his brother’s bar mitzvah. They let him; he did a bang-up job, and now runs a substantial catering business, the kind of real world business that is not for the lazy or fainthearted. This apple did not fall far from the entrepreneurial tree. In fact, the 22-year-old Shmuel looks and acts like a carbon copy of his dad, more like brothers than father and son. 

    It is the younger Jonas who acquired the row of homes and is developing them into the condo. He wants to build high so that the apartments on the upper floors will have panoramic views of the Hudson, the Manhattan skyline, and the vast expanse of Van Cortlandt Park. 

    To maximize the potential of the site, already on one of the highest points in the city, is the fortunate circumstance of the adjoining, underutilized property of St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church. However, it is the attempt to acquire the air rights of the church that has caused an unfortunate but all-too-predictable brouhaha in Riverdale. Rather than fight the anti-development establishment, the church’s pastor has decided to sacrifice the windfall, a decision that will stand unless reversed by the archdiocese. 

    Mr. Jonas can and will build up to around 200 feet high, as things stand, but not having the air rights will limit the floor area in the building. That’s why he’s willing to pay the church $3 million for its “air.” 

    However, the climate in the community has made it difficult even for the church to take Mr. Jonas’s money, despite its dire need and the fact that a building will rise regardless. A winwin situation has become a bitter, self-inflicted wound to a parish in desperate financial straits, and a mystery to an Orthodox Jewish family wanting to take advantage of the unique opportunity to use their wealth to promote their values of faith in all segments of their home community. 

    In an interview in the New Yorker shortly before his death, Moynihan noted, “Some time in the 1960s or 1970s, civic reputation in New York began to accrue to people who prevented things from happening. We’re just getting back from that.” 
    Not yet in Riverdale.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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