The Cracked Landscape – The Bronx and the Rise of Crack Cocaine


Figure 1 Crack User, South Bronx. Angel Franco (1988). New York Times accessed at

The image of the South Bronx and its association with the massive crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s has been permanently etched in the minds of many Americans. However, the South Bronx was not always considered a blighted area. The image of the South Bronx that has been portrayed as an image of a “war zone” and an example of inner-city ghetto developed as a result of demographic changes and marginalization that occurred between the 1920s and the 1980s. By examining policies related to the South Bronx, this paper proposes that changes in the built environment produced a social, economic and physical environment perfectly suited for the arrival and expansion of the crack cocaine epidemic that devastated the community in the 1980s. Furthermore, once crack cocaine was established in the South Bronx, the usage and selling patterns of the drug created new meanings and appropriation of built space.



From Suburb to Ghetto: The South Bronx 1890s to 1979


Figure 2 Section of Bronx Map (1897): Note the largely empty streets next to dense, tenement housing in the upper portion of the image. New York Department of Street Improvements, 23rd and 24th Wards “Birds Eye View” (1897) Accessed at:

It would be hard for a resident of the Bronx at the turn of the 20th century to imagine the popular scenes of devastation, destruction and drug abuse that the Borough became synonymous with in the last decades of the 20th century. Located north of the island of Manhattan, the borough of the Bronx was in many respects, a completely different place than in the 1920s and 30s than it is today. Initially settled in 1693, throughout most of the 18th and 19th century, the Bronx was only lightly populated and was associated with a bucolic, semi-rural image among residents of New York (Bronx Historical Society, 2011). However, by the 1890s, extreme population density coupled with increasingly cramped and dirty conditions of working-class tenements in the Lower East Side and East Harlem led many Manhattan dwellers to look for more ideal and spacious housing off the island. With the expansion of inexpensive public transit, including the subway and streetcar lines, by the beginning of the 20th century, the Bronx emerged as a viable, affordable and desirable location for many, primarily second generation immigrants (Jonnes, 1986:20). At this time, the Bronx was promoted my political leaders as the “banner home ward of the city” and the “Wonder Borough” of New York City (Gonzalez, 2004:5). In many ways, this description was accurate. The area boasted stable ethnic neighborhoods, working class housing that was superior to that of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and burgeoning industrial and commercial sectors (Gonzalez, 2004:5). As a result, during the early years of the 20th century, the Bronx saw tremendous migration and population growth, leading it to be labeled one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world at the time (Gonzalez, 2004:5). By 1930, more than one million people called the South Bronx home (Gonzalez, 2004:5). As more residents flocked to the South Bronx, the area began to resemble the mixed commercial and residential character of earlier working class tenement neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn (Jonnes, 1986:33). Streets that had been empty 40 years earlier became crowded with the 5, 6, and 7 story tenement buildings.


Figure 3 South Bronx Market (early 20th century). In the background, you can see a mix of residential and commercial space. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library digital gallery. Accessed at:

By 1930, the South Bronx had become a bustling, ethnically mixed and commercially vibrant Borough of New York. However, as the population of the South Bronx grew, increased population density, crowding, pollution and street life expanded (Gonzalez, 2004: 5). The same conditions that forced residents to leave Manhattan soon became apparent in the South Bronx. By the mid-1930s, the Bronx had the highest population density of any predominantly residential area in the United States (Gonzalez, 2004:5). As Figure 3 shows, the street layout, transit lines, a dense, multifamily dwellings created crowding and pollution that was becoming increasingly intolerable for the area’s middle-class and more affluent residents (Gonzalez, 2004: 6). The high percentage of multifamily rental dwellings (over 90% of residential space in some areas), provided few opportunities for middle class families aspiring for homeownership (Gonzalez, 2004, 109). The growth of new extended transit lines and the expansion of car ownership in the 1920s made it easy for middle-class Bronx residents to reach new suburbs like Fordham and Kingsbridge (Gonzalez, 2004:101). The high percentage of multifamily rental dwellings (over 90% of residential space in some areas), provided few opportunities for middle class families aspiring for homeownership (Gonzalez, 2004, 109). The Bronx was, by then, “too old, too crowded, and too inconvenient” (Gonzalez, 2004:109). A final factor, the pro-suburban government policies of the late 1940s and early 1950s, including the Federal Housing Authority and the Veterans Administration programs, provided enough motivation and financial incentive to push the remaining middle-class households out of the South Bronx (Jonnes, 1986:75). Through these federal subsidy programs, middle-class residents of the South Bronx were able to receive lower, zero-down mortgage payments on new houses in Westchester and Nassau counties. (Gonzalez, 2004:110).  At the turn of decade of 1960s, the South Bronx was ethnically mixed, but homogenous in its working class status.

As the middle class moved out of the South Bronx, successive waves of working class immigrants moved in (Gonzalez, 2004: 6). By the late 1940s, as a by-production of slum clearance measures in other boroughs of New York, the Bronx was one of the few remaining affordable places for New York’s immigrants to settle (Jonnes, 1986:97). The settlers of the South Bronx at the turn of the 20th century had been predominantly second-generation families of Irish, Italian and German decent (Gonzalez, 2004:99). As middle class residents moved out, the neighborhoods of the South Bronx saw an increasing number of African Americans and Puerto Ricans move in (Gonzalez, 2004:99).

The African American population likely showed the greatest population increase. For instance, in 1910, a census showed that there were 4,100 “blacks” in the Bronx, or approximately one percent of the borough’s population (Gonzalez, 2004:99).  By 1940, that number had jumped to 23,500 (Gonzalez, 2004:99). Post-war slum clearance and the demolition of neighborhood to create public housing in Harlem displaced many African American and Hispanic Manhattan residents (Gonzalez, 2004:110). Given the segregated housing environment of New York City, displaced individuals had few affordable housing options. With nowhere else in the city to go, many of these displaced individuals headed north to settle in the South Bronx (Gonzalez, 2004:109). As a result, by 1960, the number of African Americans and Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx had reached 267,000 (Gonzalez, 2004:110).  By 1980, when crack cocaine made its debut in the South Bronx, nearly 745,000 (or nearly two-thirds) of the Bronx’ population was Hispanic or African American (Gonzalez, 2004:110).


Figure 4 – View of Bronx Tenements (1936). Laundry hanging from tenements became an iconic image of the Bronx and other ethnic, working class neighborhoods of New York City. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collection

While slum clearance began in the 1930s in other parts if the city, Figure 4 shows that tenement conditions deteriorated in the Bronx. A 1940 census of the area revealed over 92 percent of the area’s dwelling units were rental apartments (Gonzalez, 2004:97). Townhouses, where they could be found, were converted into low-cost rooming houses and single-room rentals (Jonnes, 1986: 94). Since more than half of the housing in the South Bronx and been developed before the 1901 Tenement House Law, a 1939 study concluded that the area’s housing did “not have the minimum standards for decent, safe and sanitary housing which are at present a legal requirement.” (Gonzalez, 2004:97).

The more recent, “colored” residents of the Bronx, including African Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants occupied some of the worst of the these dwellings and were relegated to residential neighborhoods in close proximity to factory and warehouse locations near the riverfront and in Mott Haven (Gonzalez, 2004:101). One example of this can be seen in a 1927 report describing a Mott Haven tenement populated by African Americans that contained no heating, no hot water and no toilet facilities for its residents (Gonzalez, 2004:101). But, despite the dire circumstances of some of the housing in the South Bronx, when city officials compared it to comparable housing in areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn, it didn’t look so bad. As a result, no part of the South Bronx was included in clearance efforts conducted by the Slum Clearance Committee in the 1930s (Gonzalez, 2004: 101).

While middle-class residents of the Bronx were receiving federal subsidies to move to suburbs beyond the Bronx, those residents left behind were excluded from programs that would have improved the area. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) provided no assistance for upgrading the aging tenement housing in the South Bronx (Gonzalez, 2004:110).  Due to the area’s racial and ethnic mix, as well as low-income status, the FHA, the VA and private institutions had deemed the South Bronx too risky for mortgage loans in the 1930s (Gonzalez, 2004:110). At the state and local level, loans and tax incentives were available to renovate older apartment buildings. However, few South Bronx landlords found these incentives meaningful (Gonzalez, 2004:111). Given the South Bronx’s low-income, rent-control neighborhoods, incentives for improvements did not make economic sense since landlords had few options to recuperate the costs (Jonnes, 1986: 146). Furthermore, land owners in the Bronx looked to potential urban renewal programs and public housing developments being debated in the municipal and federal governments (Gonzalez, 2004:111). Since these project proposals sought to tear down large sections of tenement housing, land owners believe the government would buy their aging buildings, as ways to salvage their investments (Gonzalez, 2004:111).

In the Post-World War II era, the Bronx saw massive changes to the built landscape as a result of highway and urban development programs. Many of these initiatives were launched by Robert Moses and the New York City Housing Authority (Jonnes, 1986:117).  In the years following the Second World War, the Bronx became the site of the country’s largest concentration of public housing (Jonnes, 1986: 118). From the perspective of city planners, redevelopment was the only way to repair the problems witnessed in the South Bronx. On the topic, Robert Moses stated, “You must concede that this Bronx slum is unrepairable [sic]. It is beyond rebuilding, tinkering and restoring. The must be leveled to the ground” (Robert Moses, in the New York Times, January 18, 1973). All over the South Bronx, blocks of tenements were slated for demolition to create massive public housing projects in the style of “towers in gardens” (Jonnes, 1986: 117). While it was true that the old tenement housing was in disrepair, the new projects that took their place were, in many ways, not much of an improvement for area residents. The projects lacked neighborliness – it was impossible to watch children from the 13th floor of a high-rise. In tearing down old tenements, local bodegas and stores were wiped out. Without stoops and shops, a sense of community that was found in the street life of the South Bronx was lost (Jonnes, 1986: 118).

For many residents, these towers represented a hostile intrusion onto their neighborhood (Jonnes, 1986:117). A longtime resident, Clara Rodriguez noted, “They are huge; they are ugly; and they were, most importantly, unsafe. People in the projects were afraid, it was an unfriendly place. Playing space was at a premium, the kids were a surplus commodity. Tensions were high. Sure, they didn’t have roaches, but what about the quality of life?” (Jonnes, 1986:118).

The Cross Bronx Expressway was one of the Robert Moses developments to scar the South Bronx landscape in the post-war years. The Cross Bronx Expressway carved through an area of 113 streets, 3 railroads, 1 subway line, 5 elevated rapid transit lines, and 7 other parkways or expressways (Jonnes, 1986:121). To build the expressway, which was designed to shuttle suburbanites and trucks into and out of Manhattan, the CBE required the demolition of 60,000 housing units and displaced tens of thousands of households, including many pockets of the remaining Jewish and Italian residents (Jonnes, 1986: 121).  The development of the Cross Bronx Expressway was supported by all the major powers in the Borough, including the Bronx Board of Trade and then Borough President Jim Lyons (Jonnes, 1986:122). Many believed the expressway would make the area more accessible and attractive to business (Jonnes, 1986:122). However, not all residents supported the new highway. Numerous community organizations banded together to create the Cross-Bronx Citizens’ Protective Association to oppose it (Jonnes, 1986: 121). However, at the end of the day, the highway was built without modification (Jonnes, 1986:122). The Cross Bronx Expressway was in many ways, the nail in the coffin for the South Bronx. Residents that had to move struggled to find adequate, affordable housing (Jonnes, 1986:122). The demolition and construction created pollution, dust and mountains of debris (Jonnes, 1986:122). Emptied buildings became home to “vagrants and winos that scared local residents” (Jonnes, 1986:122).

For area residents, the expressway created a lasting scar on both the physical landscape and community memory. Grace Pelley, a former area resident put the legacy of the CBE succinctly, “[It] hacked across the borough east to west in order to get the automobiles of suburbanites and the huge trailer trucks of commerce from New England to New Jersey and the rest of the United States. It was a conscious decision, made finally on all levels of government, to sacrifice the poor and middle class, the communities in change to the arrogant dreams of engineers, politicians, real estate developers. The bulldozers would follow the hackers and lo! Great areas of brand new land would appear. It didn’t happen that way. The populations of block and blocks north and particularly south of the expressway were delivered to years, decades of instability, abandonment, devastation, fire.” (Rosenthal, 2000:10).


Figure 5 Children playing outside burned out shops in the South Bronx (1975).Due to rampant arson, burned buildings became an integral part of the built environment of the South Bronx. Image courtesy of Mel Rosenthal (2000)

A final force in the shaping of the built environment of the South Bronx prior to the arrival of crack cocaine was the “burning of the Bronx” – the large-scale arson attacks that saw the burning of up to forty buildings a night through the later 1960s and 1970s. Between 1970 and 1981, New York City’s housing stock declined by an estimated 321,000 dwelling units due to arson, many of them in the South Bronx area (Glazer, 1987:271). An estimated one in five dwellings were destroyed as a result of arson in the two decades leading up to the introduction of crack cocaine (Glazer, 1987:270). By the mid-1960s, there were few remaining incentives for land owners to even rent apartments (Jonnes, 1986:147). Since income rates from rental properties in the South Bronx were low and relatively fixed (Glazer, 1987: 273). Crime and disrepair was high (Glazer, 1987:273). Finally, changes in the property regulation and fire insurance plans made arson an affordable and even profitable means for property owners to rid their hands of South Bronx real estate (Jonnes, 1986:147). Once burned, property owners were able to collect their insurance payouts and walk away from unprofitable buildings (Glazer, 1987:275). As Figure 5 shows, arson had a profound visual and functional effect on the buildings of the South Bronx, creating a landscape resembling war-damaged regions of Europe.

Crack Cocaine Enters the Scene

By the beginning of the 1980s, the South Bronx had become a desolate slum. Federal housing policies allowed for the proliferation of abandoned buildings, low-cost tenements and failing commerce and industry. For the most part, individuals living in the South Bronx were there as a last result – those that could have left, already. As the middle class and jobs moved out, economically marginalized ethnic minorities moved in, making the South Bronx and ideal scene for a massive drug epidemic. For these reasons, the South Bronx was the ideal location for an epidemic, and the epidemic that would hit would be crack cocaine.

What is Crack Cocaine?

While urban neighborhoods have long been associated with drug use, none had ever seen a drug that would become as prolific and devastating as crack cocaine. For many, crack cocaine became as synonymous with the South Bronx as burned out tenements, rubble yards and garbage-strewn streets. But, why was crack cocaine so well suited to spread in this blighted urban area? An examination of the drug shows that its chemical composition, its low-cost and easy manufacture, and high addictivity made it thrive in the crumbling South Bronx neighborhoods.

Crack cocaine is the street name for an addictive, stimulant cocaine derivative (NIDA, 2010). Crack is produced when cocaine is processed with baking soda or ammonia, to create a hydrochloride salt or “rock” (NIDA, 2010; CESAR, 2005). Crack cocaine is widely acknowledged to be the most potent form of the drug cocaine (CESAR, 2005). Because crack cocaine is smoked (and not injected or snorted), it delivers an extremely intense and immediate, but short-lived high lasting only five to fifteen minutes (CESAR, 2005). In order to sustain a high, crack cocaine users are required to smoke the drug repeatedly over a short period of time (termed binges) (NIDA, 2010). Because it’s easy to manufacture, affordable, and delivers a rapid and intense high, crack cocaine has been termed the “fast food” of drugs by some researchers (Jacobs, 1999: 4). Users quickly develop a tolerance for the drug and require more of the substance to achieve the same effects (CESAR, 2005). As the drug leaves the body, it causes increasingly severe withdrawal symptoms, including depression, irritability, extreme fatigue, nausea, anxiety, craving and even psychosis (CESAR, 2005). The Center for Substance Abuse at the University of Maryland suggests that habitual users will often continue using the drug simply to avoid the negative symptoms of withdrawal (CESAR, 2010).

Crack cocaine developed and became popular towards the end of the cocaine boom of the 1970s (CESAR, 2005). As a derivative of cocaine that can be produced easily using low-cost household ingredients, crack cocaine moved easily into poor, urban neighborhoods (Bourgois, 2003:24). Once manufactured, crack cocaine proved to be an easy drug to market in the South Bronx since it was more potent and cost significantly less than other stimulants, like powdered cocaine (Bourgois, 2003:24). Low overhead start-up costs for small-scale dealers meant entry into the crack cocaine market was easy, affordable and accessible to South Bronx residents, particularly young, unemployed and unskilled men (Bourgois, 2003:26).

Changes in Land Use: Public and Private Spaces

Once crack cocaine entered the South Bronx and found its niche, it began impact the built environment by altering land-use patterns in public and private space and establishing new commercial operations. The most visible way that crack cocaine altered the built environment can be seen in drug selling patterns. Unlike other drugs that are primarily dealt in secret, crack cocaine commercial operations typically occurred out in the street and in public spaces (Mieczkowski, 1992:153). During the heyday of crack cocaine use in the South Bronx, street corners became the locations for “drug bazaars” and “open markets” (Mieczkowski, 1992: 153). The New York Times described such public exchanges as follows, “It seems that everyone knows exactly where it is going on and who is taking part in it. The corner of Faile and Aldus Streets is busy, dark and dangerous. Nearby are a cluster of retail stores and the clutter of garbage, discarded mattresses and bottles. [Crack] Cocaine deals seem to be going on all the time. Groups of customers move through a network of spotters, steerers and bodyguards posted outside and inside buildings known throughout the neighborhoods as drug outlets.”(Daly, 1983). As a result of such public sale methods, public space became valuable and sought after real estate among dealers (Jacobs, 1999:4). Much of the violence reported during the drug years in the South Bronx can directly or indirectly be attributed to the many large- and small-scale real estate battles raging in the neighborhoods (Jacobs, 1999:5). In this respect, public property became a commodity with a value. Each dealer or network of dealers could at various times claim ownership of the sidewalk, parking spot or section of road (Jacobs, 1999:5). While there was no formal, and certainly no legal division of this land, for residents living in close proximity to drug bazaars, the notion that this was commercial (and potentially dangerous) land was well established by the end of the 1980s (Jacobs, 1999:5).

Figure 6 – Drug user in a crack house in the South Bronx. While it is unclear whether this crack house was located in an abandoned building, the bare room and mattress are typical characteristics of this use of private property. (1979). Image courtesy of the New York Times.

In addition to popular street corner sales, drug dealers in the South Bronx began to appropriate addition public and often private space for their use. “Cuts”, small accessible cubby holes and hiding locations were often used to store drugs prior to sales (Jacobs, 1999:91). Ideal cuts were locations that were not visible from the street-side view of police officers that would be difficult to identify to uninitiated members of the community (Jacobs, 1999: 91). Documented cut locations include gangways, basement pits, abandoned buildings, vacant lots and spaces behind and between buildings (Jacobs, 1999:91). As economic locations, cuts served an important role in minimizing the risk of arrest for dealers (Jacobs, 1999:91). Since drugs could be stored in them and accessed easily, dealers could carry a smaller amount of product with them on the street, and thus limit penalties if arrested. Furthermore, when cuts were used as commercial locations, they served an added purpose of filtering customers, since undercover officers are considered to need too much control over a drug sale to ever frequent a location like a cut (Jacobs, 1999:91).

Crack cocaine users and dealers appropriated and changed the meaning of use of abandoned buildings and private apartments through the creation of “crack houses”. Crack houses, also known as “hit houses”, can be broadly defined as physical locations, usually housing units, apartment buildings or abandoned spaces where crack cocaine, sex work, and other clandestine activities were conducted (French, 1993:216; Mieczkowski, 1992, 153). Crack houses are generally located within close proximity to crack-selling locations and drug bazaars, so that drug use can occur quickly after purchase (French, 1993: 216). Typically, crack houses are places where paraphernalia, including pipes and foil, could be rented or used for a small fee or hit of the drug (Mieczkowski, 1992:153). Crack houses in the South Bronx and other urban locations combine a number of features of traditional heroine shooting galleries, brothels, barrooms and community centers (French, 1993:216). Crack houses are considered “havens” for users of the drug since they provide a “safe” space for drug user among peers, as well as an environment of understanding of the “basic nature” of crack cocaine use (French, 1999:216). Just likes cuts, crack houses allocate the built environment in a way that provides a sense of security and risk reduction for users. Since paraphernalia can easily be obtained at a low cost, users are less likely to carry pipes and other smoking apparatus, thus reducing the potential legal risks of using (French, 1993: 216).

As Figures 6 and 7 demonstrate, crack houses were often established in abandoned buildings and tenements in the South Bronx. Following the large scale arson attacks and City-sponsored demolition projects, the number of abandoned buildings in the Bronx reached extremely high numbers by the early 1980s. Since these locations were not owned by the crack house operators and drug users, the start-up costs were minimal. Few supplies were needed to establish a crack house – often they were furnished with very little except a few second-hand couches and mattresses (French, 1993:217). While in other locales basic amenities, including electricity and water were often absent, Bronx residents deployed numerous techniques to service crack house locations (French, 1993: 216).  For example, “No building in the Bronx was truly abandoned. People ran extension cords from the streetlights, carried water from the hydrants” (Kahane, 2008:10).


Figure 7 – Smoking crack in a crack house (1991). Note the background, including broken cabinets and sheet on the door. For photojournalists, accessing the inner sanctums of the crack cocaine epidemic was dangerous and challenging, requiring photographers to gain the trust of drug users and sellers. Image courtesy of the New York Times, Edward Keating.

Why did crack cocaine become so prevalent in the South Bronx in the 1980s? Certainly, changes in the built environment are not the only factor, however they cannot be ignored. Looking at Figure 8 taken by Mel Rosenthal at the beginning of the 1980s, it is easy to see that arson, demolition and public development plans had destroyed not only the physical environment, but also the social one. By the 1980s, journalists and residents were referring to the South Bronx as a war zone (Jonnes, 1986: 327). Social and economic factors that made crack cocaine popular among the urban poor became concentrated in the South Bronx as a result of federal and municipal housing policies. The South Bronx had become a blighted ethnic neighborhood. Housing pressures caused by slum clearance and public housing projects pushed marginalize African American individuals out of other working class neighborhoods and condensed them in the South Bronx. Jobs, especially those available to young, unskilled male laborers, were almost impossible to find as firms moved to areas in the metropolitan regional area outside the Bronx (Gonzalez, 2004:106).  Without employment, the rewards of selling crack cocaine (and using it) increased (Bourgois, 1995:28).

Merrill Singer, in his seminal work on addiction and structural violence, suggests that addiction is the product of marginalization and pacification of the poor. Drugs, he argues function to serve society’s elites by promoting inequitable power structures and socio-economic relations (Singer, 2008:230). By pacifying marginalized members of society, drug abuse minimizes “restlessness and rebellious resentment from the experiences of exploitation and deprivation” (Singer, 2008: 230). In this respect, addiction and drug abuse can be witnessed as means for marginalized members of society to internalize their frustrations and feelings of powerlessness towards elite members of society, but also their physical environment (Singer, 2008:231). While this may not be the conscious intention of elites and upper class members of society, it is a compelling argument in the case of the South Bronx that crack cocaine use diverted energies from angry, rebellion and collective action to individual motives to find “a fix”.


Figure 8 -” Sunday morning walking to church” (1979-1984). This image shows the destruction of the South Bronx, but also the attempts of residents to maintain important religious and social ties. Image courtesy of Mel Rosenthal (2000)

Drug abuse becomes a way to further stigmatize marginalized poor members of society. In popular imagination, inner cities (and the drug abuse that is found in them) have become synonymous with lack of control, unnecessary violence, and moral (as well as physical) decay (Singer, 2008:232). In this context, drug users or “crack heads” become objects of blame instead of social compassion (Singer, 2008:232). In this way, deep structural inequalities, including inequalities in housing, development and public infrastructure, can be minimized at the societal level (Singer, 2008:232). In other words, drug abuse and addiction become alternative narratives to explain the blight and isolation experienced in the Bronx and remove attention from more structural, historic causes.

More abstractly, it has been argued that the dramatic changes and destruction of the South Bronx destroyed a sense of community and identity that had bound individuals together. Demolition led to excessive transiency and the dissolution of familial, ethnic and community ties, and prevented individuals within the South Bronx from developing new local networks (Gonzalez, 2004:124). With the dissolution of urban networks, community order as a result of social constraints and community sanction decreased, and the prevalence of crime, violence and drug abuse increased (Gonzalez, 2004: 124).

Traditionally, public health experts have looked at drug abuse and addiction patterns without considering the role of environment and architecture. By placing the crack cocaine epidemic within this context, this paper is able to shed light on a new dimension of this social health problem. Ultimately, in many respects, the built environment of the South Bronx had become a toxic, unstable and threatening environment for its residents by the time crack cocaine arrived. While poverty, tenements and migration do not inevitably lead to massive damage to the psyche of its residents, the long term, systematic damage and neglect that led to high rates of marginalized individuals and a fragmented social fabric may certainly be a cause. Moving forward, the effects of built environment and urban/rural planning can and should be explored in more contemporary contexts, such as the current methamphetamine epidemic that has emerged in rural areas across the United States.


Bourgois, P. In Search of respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1995

Bronx County Historical Society (2008) Bronx Chronology. Accessed at:

Center for Substance Abuse Research (2005) Crack Cocaine. University of Maryland. Accessed at :

Daly, S. (1983) The Project that Transformed a Bronx Neighborhood. New York Times.

Estrin, J. and Franco, A. (2010). Cops, Neighbors and a Camera in Between. New York Times Lens Blog. Accessed at:

Eveleigh, D. and Dunlap, D.W. (2010) When Drugs Ruled New York Streets. New York Times Lens Blog. Accessed at:

Evelyn, Gonzalez. Bronx: A History. New York: Columbia University Press. 2004.

French, J.F. (1993) Pipe Dreams: Crack and the Life in Philadelphia and Newark.  In Crack Pipe as Pimp, edited by Mitchell S. Radner. New York: Lexington Books.

Glazer, N. (1987) The South Bronx Story: An Extreme Case of Neighborhood Decline. Policy Studies Journal 16(2).

Jacobs, B.A. (1999) Dealing Crack. Dexter: Northeastern University Press.

Jonnes, Jill. (1986). We’re Still Here: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of the South Bronx. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

Kahane, Lisa (2008) Do Not Give Way to Evil: Photographs of the South Bronx, 1979-1987. Brooklyn: PowerHouse Books.

Mieczkowski, Tom. (1992) Crack Dealing on the Street: The Crew System and the Crack House. Justice Quarterly 9(1) (1992) 151-163

National Institute on Drug Abuse (2010) NIDA Infofacts: Cocaine. National Institutes of Health. Accessed at :

Rosenthal, Mel.  The South Bronx of America. Willimantic: Curbstone Press. 2000.


About Madison Leigh Rose

I recently graduated from the Yale School of Public Health with a Masters Degree (MPH).


  1. Jeanette Sanchez

    You should update it now and show how it’s coming back full circle! How the Bronx isn’t burning any longer and how it’s being rehabilitated and revived! How the Bronx has Green Roofs and how it’s looking better than even some neighborhoods in Queens, NY! Funny how people still think the Bronx is burning…smdh…

    • Madison Leigh Rose

      Thanks for the comments, Jeannette. You’re right – the Bronx has come alng way and continues to transform. A follow up article is a great idea.

  2. Emilio

    Man I remember those days. When I was a kid we all where bad but that was the norm. Three years ago I went to visit and did not recognize my old neighborhood finally the old city is evolving, we all do at some point. Take care guys.

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