From Passionate Bronxite to Mott Haven Historic Districts Association President
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Mott Haven section of The Bronx being named a Historic District and Alexander Avenue named a Historic Landmark. Although the borough has 12 historic districts today, Mott Haven was the very first bestowed with this distinction on July 29, 1969.
Like so many other critical Bronx local achievements and neighborhood accomplishments resulting from the hard work and commitment of Bronx residents, the founding and ongoing success of the Mott Haven Historic Districts Association (MHHDA) is yet another triumph by a proud Bronxite.
Calling Mott Haven home for most of his life, Sam Brooks is the driving force for the development of the MHHDA, for which he is president. According to Sam, “I got involved in the neighborhood associations out of passion for my neighborhood and being up on the happenings with regentrification throughout neighborhoods in New York City.”
As a proud Mott Haven homeowner for the past 18 years, Sam observed that many of his neighbors had tried to form an association throughout the past decade, but unfortunately, nothing actually materialized. That’s when Sam decided, six years ago, to transform his passion for his beloved neighborhood into the formation of a legitimate community association.
His initial efforts included taking charge to structuralize an organization as well as outreach to his neighbors about his vision. Then four years ago, Sam took the pivotal step of formally registering the Mott Haven Historic Districts Association. In total, there are three historic districts within Mott Haven that now comprise the MHHDA.
With a great deal of strategic thought, Sam purposely chose not to call the new organization a “homeowners association” as his intent was to make the MHHDA as inclusionary as possible regardless of homeownership or not. According to Sam, “my vision was to have all residents in the zip code feel they had something to offer to this historic community and at the same time provide a pathway for neighborhood involvement for the younger generation in the community for future preservation.”
But, what exactly sparked Sam’s desire to be an active community leader? Like so many before him, Sam emigrated straight to The Bronx as a little boy. Arriving from Honduras on July 14, 1974, he would soon fall victim to the raging apartment building fires of the 1970’s and 1980’s throughout the Borough and would be forced to relocate temporarily to a shelter and then to Mott Haven, where he would become a life-long resident. Sam attended local elementary school and would go on to become part of the second graduating class of South Bronx High School. Sam graduated from Stony Brook University and has enjoyed a successful career in both education and finance.
Needless to say, with a history of nearly 5 decades in Mott Haven, Sam has witnessed first-hand many changes throughout the years to the cultural fabric and demographics of the neighborhood. With a predominantly black population in the area upon his arrival in the early 1970’s, the neighborhood saw the addition of more blacks and Puerto Ricans from Harlem throughout the same decade. More population shifts occurred during the last twenty years, according to Sam, with the inflow of Domincans and Central Americans as well as Mexicans.
Perhaps the biggest changes in the neighborhood would begin to take hold roughly ten to fifteen years ago when developers, seeing great opportunities in Mott Haven, began to trickle into the area At around this same time, another shift was happening. “I began to see that the older generation, including many of my own neighbors who had been in the area for 50 years in homes that had been passed down from generation to generation, were either passing away or moving out,” says Sam.
As this was happening, the neighborhood began to reinvent itself with white professional Manhattanites buying the town houses, largely as a result of word of mouth. Folks who were coming from lower Manhattan would tell their former neighbors and friends about available properties and a trend began. “Thirteen years ago the price of a renovated townhouse was about $430,000. Today, the value has increased and on average, a town house that requires work will go for about $700,000. One of my neighbors just sold her place for $1million, so to me, with these shifts happening, it felt even more vital to have an association to establish a common thread between all the different folks living in the Mott Haven area,” notes Sam.
Of course, through the years dating back to the 1970’s there had always been a variety of tenant associations in the area, made up in general by blacks and Puerto Ricans, however, there was never any real structure or a board of directors to these groups. That’s where Sam has and continues to make a difference, accomplishing considerable inroads for the historic districts of Mott Haven.
Since registering the MHHDA, he has built valuable relationships with professionals in the area whose legal prowess will assist in Sam’s next goal of creating a non-profit. For Sam this insures having a firm structure in place for the newer generations to move up the ranks and continue the legacy. With the historic value of this area, it is of paramount importance to preserve both the history and the culture for generations to come.
In 2017, Sam made a submission to the Historic District Council for Mott Haven to be considered and celebrated. Their reply was a resounding yes with The Mott Haven Historic Districts celebrated in The Bronx, bringing tremendous notoriety to the area.
Most recently, on July 29, 2019 the MHHDA enjoyed the success of its massive endeavor to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Mott Haven being named a Historic District. Engaging the Mott Haven branch of the New York City Public Library, a lovely exhibit was installed to commemorate the event, which is on display through April 2020. The festivities included numerous officials, comprised of members of the Landmarks Preservation Committee, a commendation from United States Congressman Jose Serrano, massive media coverage by local news, including News 12 and the support of local businesses who supplied food, wine and beer for the celebration.
According to Sam, “We are thrilled that the Mott Haven branch of the NYC Library is featuring the Mott Haven Historic Districts exhibit. As a NYC Landmark itself, the library was built in 1905 and is the oldest library building in the Bronx and it is our sincere hope is that some aspect of the 50th Anniversary exhibit will remain on display permanently.”
With the momentum going, Sam Brooks has no intention of stopping. In fact, moving forward, one of his foremost goals is to see more signage added to the area to indicate the Historic District. “Unfortunately, many of the old signs have been vandalized or destroyed so we are working with the Historic Districts Council, the advocate for all of New York City’s historic neighborhoods, and the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission to achieve this objective” says Sam. “Signage is critical so you know you are walking through history as you walk through Mott Haven.”
What’s more, thanks to Sam and his commitment, a self guided tour map is now available to all visitors of Mott Haven. You can literally get off the subway and begin your tour of the 18 historic buildings within the historic district!
Till next time,
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Elisa is a travel blogger and freelance writer. She is co-founder of TravelinCousins.com travel blog and writes a weekly column for ThisIsTheBronx.info.