Sam Goodman spent the first 15 years of his life in the Bronx.
But in 1966 his parents read a New York Times story. “Grand Concourse: Hub of Bronx is Undergoing Ethnic Changes” described white flight from the borough, as African Americans moved in.
Sam’s mother Blossom took the article to her congressman, James H. Scheuer. His advice: move.
Three months later, the Goodmans bought a house in Westport.
The Bronx was certainly changing. When Sam became a bar mitzvah in 1965, his temple had 3,000 families. Three years later it was sold to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, for less money than it cost to build — in 1924.
His father Arthur called himself a “Bronx refugee.” Not only were people urged to leave, Sam says. “Police were telling people how not to be victims of crime. Garbage was picked up less often. The city abandoned the parks.”
It was, in New York Housing Commissioner Roger Starr’s famous phrase, “planned shrinkage”: the deliberate withdrawal of city services to blighted neighborhoods, as a means of coping with dwindling tax revenues.
Between 1970 and ’80, Sam says, 303,000 people “disappeared from” the Bronx.
Most people know about the fires, he continues. But most do not realize that landlords paid money to have them set. The insurance they collected was far more than the buildings were worth.
Sam found Westport to be “absolutely amazing — great. People were friendly and outgoing. They enjoyed life. There was a lot of space.”
Coming from an apartment, he thought he lived in a huge house. In retrospect, he realizes, it was small for Westport.
Sam made friends fast. He thrived at Long Lots Junior High School, then Staples.
High school was where he learned to think, and develop a philosophy of life. Principal Jim Calkins encouraged students to stand up for what they believed in.
His parents, and Temple Israel’s Rabbi Byron Rubenstein, were enormous influences too.
Sam’s involvement in Project Concern (bringing Bridgeport youngsters to Westport schools) and the Staples Governing Board (a unique, powerful collaboration between administrators, teachers and students) taught Sam about the importance of being a citizen. Done right, he says, “government works.”
At Kenyon College, Sam majored in political science. After graduation he returned to Westport to take care of his mother, who was sick. He drove school buses, Minnybuses and MaxiTaxis.
Sam earned a master’s in urban management and municipal planning from the University of Bridgeport, then spent 10 years as executive director of the Westport Transit District.
But Sam could never forget the Bronx — or the political policies that had obliterated it.
In 1995 he got a job as an urban planner for the Bronx borough president. He’s been in that position ever since.
But it’s his side gig — Bronx tour guide — where Sam really shines.
He leads tours for the Municipal Art Society, Art Deco Society of New York, New York Adventure Club and Einstein Medical Center (for new pre-med students).
The tours cover history, architecture, urban planning, the politics and finances of rent control, and more.
As Sam talks, fields questions and shepherds groups in and out of buildings, they’re amazed. “People know pieces of the story,” he says. “But they’ve never heard it all connected. It gives them a new perspective. They can really appreciate what happened.”
Of course — the Bronx being less than an hour from here — Sam has Westporters on his tours.
One woman grew up there, but had not been back in many years. “She wanted to learn,” Sam says. “People told her she was crazy to go the Bronx.”
That’s a common stereotype. But, he notes, folks on his tours “see how pretty it is, and how friendly people are.” One man regularly invites Sam’s groups into his apartment — and gives them chocolates.
The “stigma hangover” lingers, though. “People still imagine it as it was in the 1970s and ’80s,” Sam says.
“The median income is low. There are many challenges,” he admits. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad place. It’s cleaner. There’s less crime than ever. People here are striving for something beautiful.”
His own co-op — of which Sam is treasurer — just spent $1 million to restore the lobby. Many other apartment buildings are being renovated.
His 1-bedroom is 900 square feet. He has parking, a doorman, and can get to midtown in 20 minutes. You could buy it for $300,000.
Prices like that attract young professionals from Manhattan and Brooklyn. Their mortgage and maintenance is half of what they pay for a small studio there.
Yet if you can’t take the Bronx out of Sam, you can’t remove Westport either.
He still owns the home he inherited from his parents. (He rents it out. A few years ago, he says proudly, his tenants’ twin sons were Staples’ valedictorian and salutatorian.)
Occasionally he takes the train here, rents a car and drives around. Westport, Sam says, “gets more beautiful each year.”
The Bronx tour guide — and one of its biggest boosters — concludes, “Westport still lives inside of me. It gave me the chance to grow into the person I am today.”
That person is a proud Bronx booster. There’s a lot more to the borough than just the Yankees.
Sam Goodman can tell you all about it. Just ask.
Or take his tour.
(Hat tip: Susan Thomsen)