That has changed. Mr. Obispo ascribes the area’s newfound self-respect in part to a spate of new building and speculation by outsiders — the South Bronx had the fastest rate of business growth in the borough from 2000 to 2011, according to the office of the state comptroller — a factor that has spurred locals to wrest back their community and reclaim it as a seat of urban cool.
Still, the prospect of gentrification rattles. Alarming to some is the seven-tower, $400 million residential and retail complex rising along the former industrial waterfront in the Port Morris section. Keith Rubenstein, a founder of the real estate investment company Somerset Partners, which is developing the property with the Chetrit Group, is predicting strong demand for some 1,300 units, mostly by young professionals in search of upscale amenities and sweeping waterfront views.
A couple of years ago, Mr. Rubenstein incited a backlash by throwing a “Bronx Is Burning” one-night art show attended by more than 2,500 people — Adrien Brody, Naomi Campbell, Kendall Jenner and Carmelo Anthony, among them — sipping Dom Pérignon and Patrón tequila. The event drew the ire of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, who charged that it exploited the South Bronx’s troubled history for entertainment.
Further stoking the controversy was a Somerset billboard touting the area as “the Piano District.” Other speculators were quick to chime in, proclaiming the Bronx as the new Brooklyn.
“We don’t need another Brooklyn,” said Roselyn Grullon, a partner in Bronx Native, an apparel company. “We don’t want developers to push out the locals and flatten our beautiful, diverse culture.”
But she is not averse to efforts by Bronx artists and merchants to spruce up the area. In the last year alone, the formerly forbidding Mott Haven neighborhood has welcomed La Grata, an upscale restaurant and pizzeria; Filtered Coffee, a low-key Third Avenue gathering spot; Cross Gallery, showcasing art, technology and design; and 9J, a boutique on Bruckner Boulevard that is a magnet to locals and music world luminaries.
These businesses and others are ambassadors of Bronx culture at large, said Jerome LaMaar, 9J’s dapper owner. “And what’s a brand without the right ambassador to push it?”
Here, a look at some of those South Bronx ambassadors and their pioneering efforts in this new frontier.
“I want to be the Jeffrey Kalinsky of Bruckner Boulevard,” Jerome LaMaar said, referring to the merchant whose luxury fashion emporium was vital in transforming the once gritty meatpacking district into a high-style fashion destination.
At 32, Mr. LaMaar, a Bronx-bred former designer, has a similarly lofty goal: to turn his boutique 9J into a fashionable anchor on Bruckner Boulevard. Today the shop attracts locals and high-profile outsiders like Tina Knowles and Jennifer Lopez’s lively entourage, their implicit endorsement fueling Mr. LaMaar’s ambition.
“At first, I wanted to tap into the local culture — that’s home,” he said. Now he envisions his store as a club, one that draws a heady amalgam of local artists and borough bigwigs along with deep-pocketed sightseers and businesspeople.
Not that he would neglect his assorted friends. “They’re skaters, drag queens and young professionals of all ages and colors,” Mr. LaMaar said. “This is a place where they can feel like themselves and not be judged or ostracized.”
On a practical level, it’s a place where they can shop. The store is a tidy bazaar stocked with kimonos and embroidered peasant smocks, jewelry, T-shirts and pastel-tone sneakers, the prices varying from about $3 for an adult-friendly toy, say, to $3,000 or more for substantial, and colorful, home furnishings. He hopes to take his vision, loosely modeled on the fabled Parisian concept store Colette, global.
Yet his roots remain in the Bronx. A production of the “The Wiz” that he saw as a boy, formed his aesthetic and is still informing his fantasies.
“The movie wasn’t about fashion per se,” Mr. LaMaar said. “It was about the Wiz, how he was dictating things, how the look of those things should shift and change. That’s the way I see my store, my career, my life.”
Flora Montes, 52, started Bronx Fashion Week three years ago with her last $200 unemployment check and gumption to spare. “I have to believe that somewhere along the line I was meant to be the vessel that brought it to life,” she said.
Fashion enthralled this Bronx-born single mother of two from the time she saw her first runway show in Manhattan, in 2014. “That was a Saturday,” she recalled, “and on Sunday I started to get the legal paperwork together and reach out to my small network of supporters. I thought, ‘The other boroughs have their fashion week, and now it’s time for the Bronx to step up.’”
Her first event, stretched over three nights in September of that year, drew close to 1,000 visitors who watched models of diverse races, ages and body types strut the work of local designers and others. Some designers were short on cash. “But I don’t turn my back on anyone,” Ms. Montes said. “I don’t have the heart to say, ‘No, you can’t show because you can’t pay a fee.’”
For Ms. Montes, a poet and chef, the show’s success seemed surreal. “I had no connection to the industry,” she said. “I’m no fashionista. My daughter used to tease me: ‘Mom, you used to walk around the house in sweats and a ponytail. When did you become a fashion thing?’”
For her next event, on Aug. 26 at the Mall at Bay Plaza, Ms. Montes hopes to lure a few Manhattan dignitaries, among them Mayor Bill de Blasio.