The moniker was further cemented into legend with the release of the 1981 film, “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” starring Paul Newman.
“It’s a shame that Hollywood is not here today,” said Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., applauding the work of police officers past and present.
Like the neighborhoods under its jurisdiction, the 41st Precinct, which moved to a newer building on Longwood Ave. in 1993, has struggled to shed the stigma associated with its past.
“Fort Apache was a name given in desperation,” said deputy inspector Philip Rivera, the precinct’s commanding officer. “Along with the sacrifice of the greatest officers, the residents who stayed . . . the businesses that rebuilt . . . led to a rebirth in this community that no one back then would have thought possible.”
After the ceremony, the sun started to come out, and children ran up and down the closed street. Their parents smiled and laughed with others from the neighborhood and the officers, active and retired.
“This is a community that will continue to grow,” said Richard Sherman, 68, who has taught at public schools in the area since the 1960s. “To see this building still in use is wonderful. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come.”
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Fort Apache is, metaphorically, a building, complex, or defensive site providing shelter from hostile action in the form of crime (in police drama) or native insurrection or enemy attack (in John Ford movies).
The metaphor is now used by military and police to refer to a post which is beset/besieged. Recent examples may be found in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another example is "Fort Apache, The Bronx", a name used in the past for the NYPD's 41st Precinct Station House at 1086 Simpson Street in the Bronx and the 1981 movie named for it.
"It was bad," George Hankins said as he sat in the shade in the South Bronx, his 260-pound boxer's body bending the chair beneath him. "When I first came to the precinct there were the youth gangs: Savage Skulls, Savage Nomads, Ghetto Brothers, Black Spades, Spanish Mafia, Seven Immortals, Seven Crowns."
He stretched his memory back 25 years to his days as a rookie patrolman in the 41st Precinct, whose station house was known from here to Hollywood as Fort Apache, a solitary outpost in a neighborhood of death and decay and gangs with grandiosely macabre names.
"What was that gang on Memphis Place?" asked the 49-year-old Mr. Hankins. "All of them had cowboy names. You laugh, but I'm not kidding. Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James. They were dangerous. They'd kill you before God got the message."
Next month, the once-besieged headquarters, a stocky stone bunker at 1086 Simpson Street, will close as the officers of the 41st move to a gleaming new building off Southern Boulevard. And left behind, many in the community hope, will be a symbol of a South Bronx that barely exists anymore.
The area is still among the poorest in the nation, a place where per-capita income is $5,379 and where drug dealing and prostitution are regular jobs. But it is not the human zoo depicted in the 1981 movie, "Fort Apache, the Bronx." (By the time the film was made, the precinct had actually earned a second nickname, "Little House on the Prairie," because two-thirds of the 93,900 people who lived within its boundaries in 1970 had fled.)
These days, new single-family homes rise from lots once covered with the charred bones of buildings that had burned to the ground in the late 1960's and early 70's. People pay $150,000 for the privilege of living here now, amid throw-rug lawns and plastic geese.
Just as these streets -- Charlotte, Home, Simpson -- became emblems of urban neglect, many in the community hope an event as seemingly insignificant as the move of a precinct headquarters will reflect the area's revival and help anchor a more hopeful future.
"As bad as it was, the symbol of blight, now it's the symbol of -- I don't know if success is the word -- but the struggle for survival and the reconstruction of a neighborhood that was destroyed," said Mario Tolisano, vice president of Sebco Inc., the church-based developer responsible for 3,000 new homes in the area. "It was a neighborhood that rebuilt itself."
Community leaders fought for a decade for a new station house, and not just because Fort Apache, opened in 1914 in a rural borough, is cramped and showing its age. Many in the neighborhood believe the name is an insult: two years ago, Community Board 2 voted against giving the neo-Renaissance building landmark status, though in 1992 the city Landmarks Commission did so anyway.
"Fort Apache was a racist name," said Fitz Christian, a 47-year-old computer engineer from Antigua, who lived in the area in the 1970's then moved back last year with his wife to fulfill their dream of owning a house. "It evokes images of savage people, uncontrollable people, people society gives up on."
On July 9, if all goes well, the new two-story, $13.5 million station house on Longwood Avenue and Southern Boulevard opens, only seven blocks away but closer to the center of the precinct's boundaries. The old building will undergo an $8 million renovation and eventually house the headquarters for Bronx detectives and other specialty units.
Many police officers and residents have a deep ambivalence about Fort Apache and whether the name should carry over into the new era.
The commanding officer, Harvey Katowitz, is one who hopes it will die. He loves the old building, from its 17-foot ceilings to its insect-encrusted flypaper, as much as anyone. He first visited it as a 7-year-old invited to an auxiliary police Christmas party in the 1950's and has served three tours of duty there.
But he sees the name as a slur, and not a particularly accurate one, because the nation has turned to places like Crown Heights, South Central Los Angeles and Miami as symbols of urban violence and hostile relations with the police. These days, the police, residents and community advocates all say relations are good -- in stark contrast to 20 years ago -- in part because of community policing.
"The mystique of Fort Apache?" Captain Katowitz asked the other day in his office. "For the people who lived here and worked here this building was the last safe haven in the community. Now there's a rebirth."
For years, starting in the early 1960's, the precinct led or was near the top of the city for crime and homicides. The source of the nickname itself is in dispute: a 1976 book, "Fort Apache," by Thomas Walker, a former officer, suggests that it was coined in the early 70's during a protest at the station house. Others recall hearing it as early as the late 50's.
The precinct still has its share of crime, though murders nowhere near approach the level of the early 1970's, when there were between 120 and 130 a year. There was a double homicide on Avenue St. John the day that Captain Katowitz talked about the move, but he noted that reported killings are down this year, from 22 last year at this time, to 18 this year. Reported robberies, often the best indicator of safety in an area, dipped 19 percent in 1992 and all serious crimes dropped 11 percent. "We are no longer under siege," he said.
The statistics reflect a larger change. Two new supermarkets have opened over the last few years, a good sign when almost no new private business opened for a decade. People are moving back -- more than 5,000 since 1980 -- and the Longwood and Hunts Point sections are among the fastest growing in the Bronx.
Robert Nieves, 36, sees himself as part of that change even if, as a former gang member, he was among the reasons why the precinct earned its reputation. He said the danger was always overrated, though it was hard to believe as he explained the other day how to make a zip gun, the homemade rifle which often backfired in the faces of gang members.
"That Fort Apache thing, that was Hollywood -- it was nothing like that," said Mr. Nieves, who last year opened a grocery on Freeman Street, just outside the precinct's boundaries. "The gangs back then, we used to respect everybody. You could sleep on the fire escape. Now they would steal it out from under you."
Still there are some, especially on the police force, who will miss Fort Apache, both the building and what it stood for. Serving there was a badge of honor, which is why Officer Manuel Galarza can earn extra money making wooden plaques at home with wood-burnt images of the precinct.
Sgt. Robert Kippel, who trains rookies, makes a point of showing new recruits the movie, even though he admits that it does not really represent today's South Bronx.
"There aren't too many precincts they made a movie about," Sergeant Kippel said. "And Paul Newman as a cop, that was my ideal of what a cop should be. That was my favorite movie. And here I am now."
Mr. Hankins, the retired officer, believes the area is stuck with the name, no matter how much life has changed. And as the director of the Fort Apache Youth Center, founded in 1975 on Fox Street to train young boxers, he hopes for his young fighters' sake the name never goes away.
"Back in the early 70's when we first started they had teams that wouldn't fight us," he said. "When they announce a boxer from the Fort Apache Youth Center, it just has a special ring to it."
Photos: "The mystique of Fort Apache?" asked Captain Harvey Katowitz, commanding officer of the 41st Precinct in the South Bronx. "For the people who lived here and worked here this building was the last safe haven in the community. Now there's a rebirth." (Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times) (pg. B1); A decade ago, the 41st Precinct station house, center, was one of the few buildings remaining on Simpson Street in the South Bronx. The building, opened in 1914, will undergo an $8 million renovation and eventually house the headquarters for Bronx detectives and other police specialty units. (Carl T. Gossett/The New York Times); The new headquarters of the 41st Precinct, at Longwood Avenue and Southern Boulevard, is to open July 9. (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times) (pg. B2) Graph: "AT A GLANCE: 41st Precinct" shows the population, race and ethnicity and per capita income of the 41st precinct. (Source: New York City Planning Commission) (pg. B2) Map of the Bronx showing location of the 41st Precinct. (pg. B2)