NEW YORK - Fraught with rotting, graffiti-covered buildings next to vacant, trash-ridden lots, the Morrisania and Grand Concourse areas of the South Bronx seem to confirm every stereotype of the hopeless condition of the inner city.
But by working with several local groups, Natwest Bank has helped renovate several of the most rundown buildings in these economically ravaged areas into bright, colorful homes.
In addition, the bank has opened a new branch - the first in years - in nearby Grand Concourse Plaza.
The vigorous expansion of Natwest's commitment to this area has brought the Jersey City-based bank awards, "outstanding" ratings under the Community Reinvestment Act, and customers.
"We've developed strategies and we're treating this as any business decision," said Susan Rice, a senior vice president of Natwest and head of the bank's Community Development Division. "We have targets, goals, and plans. We're just taking disciplines of good banking and applying them to community development."
Natwest, a subsidiary of London-based National Westminster Bank PLC with $29 billion in assets, has actively worked to assist communities throughout New York and New Jersey.
The bank has provided millions of dollars in construction loans to renovate old buildings and has made mortgages at below-market rates. Earlier this year, the bank committed $150 million to assist low-income families with mortgages, as well as small businesses and developers in New Jersey.
Many of the buildings in Morrisania and the Grand Concourse were taken over by New York City years ago, and later sold to private developers financed by Natwest. Passing through the neighborhoods, it's nearly impossible not to notice the renovations.
In Morrisania, aquamarine fire escapes, graffiti-free walls, and meticulous detail surrounding the windows of a refurbished high-rise apartment building stand out against the crumbling shell of a building behind it. Across the street, two other buildings gleam as a result of renovation financed by Natwest.
The Grand Concourse section, a vibrant, high-rent area decades ago, is no less poverty-stricken and the renovations stand out even more. The stucco homes glow with three shades of a pastel pink that, according to Ms. Rice, is a nod to the area's large Hispanic population.
Each building houses two families and is surrounded by a sturdy black metal fence that locks. The residences even come with a parking space, almost as rare in New York City as a bank branch in the South Bronx.
The apartments and houses drew immediate interest from the community.
"We had people lined up around the block to try and move into these buildings," Ms. Rice said. "Many people have lived here their whole lives and now they're excited that they can stay here and build equity."
While the bank's efforts earn credit under CRA, Ms. Rice said Natwest would be involved in activities such as these even if the law did not exist.
"I think a lot of banks initially got into this marketplace because of CRA," she said. "But we simply see this as another marketplace to do business. This is something we'd be doing anyway."
These and other projects in the South Bronx - a total of 54 abandoned properties - earned Natwest the American Bankers Association's Outstanding Community Development Initiative Award and Social Compact's commercial bank-corporate headquarters award.
Francine Justa, president of Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, one of many community groups with which Natwest deals, said the bank's efforts in low-income areas has been impressive and thorough.
"They're involved with a lot of different groups," said Ms. Justa. "It's particularly important to many of these neighborhoods, because some of the renovated buildings were the last vacant buildings on a block. It makes a significant difference."
Natwest's new branch in the South Bronx is also making a difference. For many in the area, this is their first exposure to banking, according to Grand Concourse Plaza branch manager G. Donald Jasmin. Many of the customers have never dealt with a financial institution other than a check- cashing store, which line the streets.
"We've had to teach people about banking from A to Z," Mr. Jasmin said. "We walk them through it slowly. What's an account? How do I open it? How much do I need to keep in it? Is it going to cost me?"
That lack of experience in dealing with a bank provides a sizable marketing challenge for Natwest.
Mr. Jasmin said his branch has been serving 2,000 to 3,000 customers per week since opening on July 31. He expects that to keep growing as word spreads.
To accelerate that, the branch is throwing a grand opening party Sept. 30 in the parking lot of Grand Concourse Plaza, complete with a carousel, slide, and pony rides, as well as bank staff to answer questions.
Natwest also has set up tables in shopping markets and office buildings to "let people know we're here," Mr. Jasmin said.
The design of the branch itself helps market the bank.
A wall housing nine televisions broadcasting news or promotional videos greets customers as they walk in. Across the lobby, in a area that can be accessed 24 hours a day, customers can use automated teller machines with instructions in English and Spanish.
The place is awash in the bright red of Natwest's logo.
"We wanted to do this first class, like we would any other branch," Ms. Rice said. "What we're saying is that we respect the neighborhood we're moving into."
Mr. Jasmin said recognizing the area's ethnic diversity was crucial as well. He said 57% of the area's population is of Hispanic descent, while about 40% is African-American.
Mr. Jasmin said that 75% of the bank's staff is bilingual, and nearly all live in the South Bronx. Also, the branch has extended hours on Saturdays.
And because of the area's economic status, the bank's lending method will change as well.
"There are many underprivileged people in this area," Mr. Jasmin said. "There's no point in giving these people what they can't afford."
The risk inherent in making loans to low-income people is an inevitable part of opening the South Bronx branch, Ms. Rice said. However, the move into the area is a business decision, she said, and wouldn't have been made if the bank didn't think it could succeed.
"My goal is to have it grow and grow and become profitable," Ms. Rice said. "Now we're figuring out how to do that."