Westchester Square: The Crossroads of the Southeast Bronx

Westchester Square/East Tremont Ave. Subway Station

Westchester Square/East Tremont Ave. Subway Station

By Lennin Reyes

The Bronx Journal Staff Writer

Take a look at a map of the Bronx and zoom in to the southeastern portion of the borough. While many of the neighborhoods are instantly recognizable, one east of Parkchester is emerging. Some call it Westchester Heights. Others name this neighborhood after its main attraction — Westchester Square.

According to New York City Parks, the square and surrounding village was named West Chester by the British since it was west of New England. Shortly after, it became the county seat for Westchester. Westchester Square’s status as a village center grew when the IRT Pelham Line (now the 6 train) and adjacent highways were built in the early 20th century. New housing and shops like Woolworth’s were built around the same time.

Woolworth’s had an impact on Westchester Square’s shopping district. “If you shopped at Woolworth’s, you also shopped at nearby stores,” said City Councilman James Vacca, whose district covers Westchester Square.

After decades of being the anchor for Westchester Square, Woolworth’s closed its doors in 1994 due to bankruptcy. Not only did the store’s closure decrease business for nearby stores, but the space would go through a carousel of tenants until ABC Super Stores opened up in 2008. Simultaneously, Westchester Square’s demographics shifted from largely white to largely Hispanic and Asian.

Several merchants wanted to resolve several quality of life concerns and find ways to revive the shopping district. These aspirations led to the creation of the Westchester Square Merchants Association (WSMA) in 2005. Spearheaded by John Bonizio and Joe Regina, the WSMA has teamed up with elected leaders to achieve these goals.

John Bonizio (left) and Joe Regina of the Westchester Square Merchants Association

John Bonizio (left) and Joe Regina of the Westchester Square Merchants Association

The WSMA joined a “clean streets” initiative in 2006 where additional street sweepers were hired to clean sidewalks and streets. They also joined Councilman Vacca and other politicians in preventing the closure of the Westchester Square Medical Center and the expansion of homeless shelters into the neighborhood.

In addition, the WSMA helped open a new parking lot on Blondell Avenue for officials from the nearby Army Recruitment Center and Department of Motor Vehicles. “They were known to take up parking spaces for most of the day, preventing potential shoppers from giving us business,” Bonizio said.

Parking, a Longstanding Issue in Westchester Square

Parking, a Longstanding Issue in Westchester Square

Parking was not the only thing the WSMA helped tackle. For years, Lehman High School students were allowed to go out for lunch due to a cramped cafeteria. This caused students to openly swear and misbehave, thus shooing potential customers away from restaurants. Nowadays, city funding allowed for the Lehman cafeteria to expand. “We collaborated with Lehman to only allow upperclassmen with good grades to go out for lunch, thus preventing the infamous lunch rush,” Bonizio adds. This policy is complemented by the influx of police officers stationed around Westchester Square during dismissal. However, Annette Siguenza, 23, a commuter from nearby Morris Park, feels that’s not enough. “There should be more cops at the Square in the morning,” she said.

Recently, the WSMA and other officials celebrated a groundbreaking of Owen Dolen Park, signaling the start of a $5 million renovation. Hopes are that the long-vacant community center will finally be put into good use.

Owen Dolen Park Under Renovation

Owen Dolen Park Under Renovation

Both Councilman Vacca and the WSMA have more future goals in sight. “Our biggest goal is to become a Business Improvement District (BID),” Regina said. “It might mean more taxes, but it would allow us to have a bigger say in Westchester Square matters.” The creation of the BID is part of the WSMA’s “Four Point Plan,” which also includes overall economic development, encouraging private commercial development, and developing cultural attractions.

Two of the many future plans are moving the Westchester Square Library into the site of the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room. Not only would the move mean improved subway access, but also access for the elderly due to the lack of elevators at the library’s current site. The second proposal is the creation of a shuttle bus between Westchester Square and the Hutchinson Metro Center. Countering the current Metro Center shuttle bus, this shuttle bus would serve the shopping strip and nearby hospitals as well.

Proposed Westchester Square Shuttle Bus

Proposed Westchester Square Shuttle Bus

While these plans are still on the books, some merchants are skeptical about the cost. “Where is the money coming from?” said Nicholas, the owner of One Westchester Square Florist, who asked that his last name not be used.

Other issues, such as the lack of parks for toddlers, need to be ironed out. “Most of the parks around here are designed for those over the age of five,” said Octavia Rubio, 25, a mother of two. “I hope Owen Dolen Park’s renovation fills that void.”

Despite some of the issues, Westchester Square seems to be on the rebound as shopping is turning around thanks to new stores and demographics. However, it retains the small-town charm thanks to the mom-and-pop stores and the lack of criminal activity at night and weekends. “We are putting Westchester Square back on the map,” Councilman Vacca said. With these plans, Vacca hopes those looking at maps would notice this neighborhood right next to Parkchester.

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