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25th October

First Published in The New York Sun,  October 25, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Years ago, I was familiar with the city of Providence, Rhode Island, only by reputation. My late father was in the jewelry business, and at one time he represented a manufacturer of watchbands located there. Jewelry was a big industry in Providence. Since a check would arrive every week postmarked “Providence R.I.,” I assumed that this must be a rich, magical, wonderful place. My dad set me straight. “Providence? It’s a dump!”

Thirty years ago, my wife and I were driving up to Boston to spend the weekend. As we passed through Providence on I-95, my wife wondered whether there was anything worth seeing there. “Providence? My father says it’s a dump.”
My father was right. Providence was, for years, a dump. A crummy little city gone sour, its industry missing, its infrastructure crumbling — the watchband factory was long gone.

Cut ahead a quarter century. My son was attending Wheaton College in Massachusetts, less than a half-hour from Providence. For the first time in years I had occasion to spend time there, and it was a different Providence from the one my dad warned me about so many years earlier.

Today’s Providence is filled with upscale restaurants, shiny new hotels, a huge mall, and rivers on which many evenings gondolas drift past the city’s now famous “WaterFire” exhibition, which features 100 bonfires seemingly floating in the waterway.

On a frigid winter night, I was amazed to see hundreds of families and couples ice skating to classical music on a beautiful rink in the center of town. Providence is now a model of renewal, a town that picked itself out of the ash heap. It’s a vital, exciting place to live and work.

I bring up Providence because I know a little bit about being part of a community in a downward spiral. I have lived in the Bronx for over a half century. Its decline brings tears to my eyes. The Bronx once had a thriving economy and was an unparalleled incubator of success for generations of immigrants.
Why has Providence been able to do what has eluded the Bronx? In a word, the answer is leadership. Even his most bitter critics concede that the Providence renaissance is due to the leadership of its long-time
mayor,Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.

When Cianci became mayor in 1975, things were so bad that the monkeys at the decrepit Providence Zoo were literally escaping onto I-95. Today, the Providence Zoo is considered one of the nation’s finest. Now, we have a zoo in the Bronx, too. It’s a better and more famous zoo than the one in Providence. We also have a few good restaurants here, though not nearly enough for a “city” of 1,300,000 people — eight times the population of Providence. But amazingly, there isn’t a single respectable hotel in all of the Bronx. If there is another area of our country this large and heavily populated that is so devoid of the infrastructure of success, I don’t know about it.

There is virtually no private sector business development in the Bronx. The largest industry is public sector health care. Things are so bad in the private sector that the Bronx Chamber of Commerce actually went out of business a couple of years ago. It’s last full-time executive director was also the campaign treasurer of Fernando Ferrer, the former borough president.

When Mr. Ferrer was running for mayor in the weeks after September 11, I found it humorous to hear him advocate building offices in the outer boroughs to replace the space inventory lost during the attack. During the 15 years that he was borough president, not a single square foot of prime office space was built in the Bronx.

No Chamber of Commerce, no new office space, no hotel. What did Mr. Ferrer manage to contribute to the Bronx economy?

One area of great expansion was in the borough’s “hot sheet motel” industry. Parents bringing their sons and daughters to check out the campus of Fordham University may have nowhere to stay overnight, but if you’re looking for a no-tell motel, we have a wide range of options for you in what was once known as the “Borough of Universities.”

In Community Board 12, which covers much of the northeast Bronx, there are 18 such motels. When Mayor Giuliani held a town hall meeting there two years ago, an angry crowd demanded that he do something to end this plague. He came up with a plan that would change the zoning of the main commercial area to preclude the construction of more motels.

When the plan came before the Community Board in October of 2000, only a firm called Gaseteria, owners of a number of service stations, came to protest. But the board couldn’t gather a quorum and the matter was laid over until the following month. By then a “Merchants Association” had surfaced, represented by an attorney from the law firm of Roberto Ramirez, then the Bronx County Democratic Chief. A fast-talking lawyer named Linda Baldwin convinced the board to vote down the plan. The next step took place at the Bronx Borough President’s office, where the compliant Borough Board, under the thumb of Mr. Ferrer, ratified the Community Board’s position. The Giuliani anti-“Hot Sheet” zoning plan was dead.
Ms. Baldwin’s husband, Adolfo Carrion, is now the new Bronx Borough President. Mr. Carrion was elected with the help of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Gaseteria and its owners, while much of the food on the Carrion household table presumably comes from the legal fees she earned with the Ramirez law firm, handling ugly matters such as this.

Should we care? The borough president stands at the center of the city’s land use process.At one end, he or she appoints all community board members, and at the other end he or she appoints a member of the City Planning Commission. There is involvement by the borough president at every intermediate point along the way. Meanwhile, Ms. Baldwin continues to practice land use law in Bronx County.
The hot sheet motels still thrive. Just this week, gun runners who used the Friendly Motel on Gun Hill Road as their Bronx headquarters, were sentenced in Bronx Supreme Court. The hookers are still peddling their wares, the philandering spouses are still cheating. It’s capitalism, Bronx-style.

Meanwhile, up in Providence, there is a new mayor. Buddy Cianci was forced out of office recently, having been convicted of racketeering. He now awaits sentencing.

But at least the folks in Providence got a lot of accomplishments to go along with their corruption. Cianci may have taken bribes for city contracts, but at least he brought development to Providence and improved the quality of life. Maybe we should ask the judge to sentence Buddy to community service in the Bronx. I’ll take his brand of corruption any day of the week. Perhaps then we’ll reclaim our economy and maybe even get a real hotel in the Bronx.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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