The Borough of the Bronx in New York City is home to Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, the Bronx Botannical Garden, and Fordham University.
It is also home to the South Bronx.
The South Bronx is the politician's favorite specimen of urban blight, the area that both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan visited to blast the nation's cities policy. It is a place where the name of a gang can be as frightening as the gang itself, and urban renewal means painting windows and flower pots on the abandoned buildings.
At first, the corner of Third Avenue and 157th street seems typical. The schools look more like jails, the churches are decorated with graffiti, and business activity seems dead except for a few corner stores.
But on the triangle of Vyse Avenue, Hoe Street, and Bryant Road, right off 157th Street, a cluster of cranes and bulldozers announce that something different is happening: New homes, less than two months old, have been erected and more are going up. Television technicians are there to capture the activity. And at the center of the commotion is Jim Lebenthal.
Lebenthal, the man with the smile and the "Built by Bonds" slogan, was standing at one end of the street two weeks ago, talking to Hal Culchin, the director of his next commercial.
"What I really want to get across is a capital program that has a great return," he said. "I want the people of the city to understand and appreciate the real value of New York City bonds. "
The work, construction of neat,. two-family homes intended to revitalize the neighborhood, is being done by the New York City Partnership. But to make sure that public finance got credit where it was due, the business group called in Lebenthal.
More than anyone, Lebenthal is the man who made the municipal bond business go public. "He encouraged our membership to advertise," said Caroline Benn, senior vice president of communications for the Public Securities Association.
"Our current ~Built by Bonds' campaign, although headed by [Samuel R. Fales, vice president and co-manager of public finance at Balitimore-based Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.], is an outgrowth of the enthusiasm Jim brought to the program," she said.
The publicity work began in 1984. The PSA's current project highlights cities around the country with large projects financed by tax-free bonds.
Saving a Neighborhood
That includes Vyse, where the proceeds of New York City general obligations bonds and state-issued housing development bonds are being used to finance the creation of a new neighborhood.
Jim Lebenthal wants everyone to know that.
Lebenthal, 65, is the president of Lebenthal & Co., a New York retail municipal bond firm started by his father and mother in 1925.
He is passionate about everything he does, and one thing he is particularly concerned with is the future of the city.
On the way to the South Bronx, Lebenthal stopped near a school where a teenager was shot. On one side was a garden with about 10 young trees and a large mural showing the world being stretched between the devil on one side and the forces of good on the other.
"After that kid got shot, the neighborhood was devastated," he said. "The other kids in the school vented their anger not through violence but in that mural. It's a pretty simple drawing, but it's a start."
Much of what Lebenthal has to say about public finance is also about beginnings.
Lebenthal said the issuance of municipal bonds can be a "very good start to improving all aspects of an area. "
"Investing in bonds that might help a community ain't the only answer," he said. "But, if a community like the South Bronx can be helped by bonds, then I think people should know."
Lebenthal is not an idealist. He said he appreciates that investors are not "buying bonds to be nice guys." The perceived strength of a state or city's credit is the only reason investors will buy securities backed by that credit.
"This business is about making money," he allows. "But, like I will be saying in this commercial, ~The returns are impressive.'"
In this case, one of the returns is a new neighborhood.
Nobody knows when a new community will be born from the work on Vyse Avenue, but about a dozen families have already moved into those of the planned 109 houses that are standing. With a minimum family income of $40,664 a year as the chief requirement, owners make only a 10% downpayment on a home's $157,960 cost and can rent out half of a house for $525 a month.
The work began with the New York City Partnership, a group founded by David Rockefeller in 1979 to funnel private funds into public projects. Its focus is housing, education, and economic development, with the goal of creating new opportunities for employment while improving revenues for the city.
Katherine Wylde, president of the housing partnership, said the South Bronx, which was subject for the movie, "Fort Apache, The Bronx," was one of the worst areas in the city.
"For some of these lots, we paid the city only $500," Wylde said. "But by owning the land, we returned the property to the tax books and returned several revenues to the city."
Then the proceeds from state and city bond sales are used.
Counting Costs and Benefits
As the group figures it, the public funds used for the various housing projects in development total $2 million. Direct revenues from the project will earn the city $9.7 million.
The annual direct project revenues include $1.2 million in mortgage recording taxes, $31,000 in New York State Transfer taxes, $850,000 in payment for city-owned land, $205,000 from taxes on land during construction, and $2.9 million from filing fees, permits, and fines for late filings.
"So when people ask me what this project costs the city, I tell them it would cost the city $7.7 million per year if the program wasn't around," Wylde said.
One of the residents of the area, though, said the program has done more than create revenues for the city.
Hugo's Market sits on the corner of St. Anne's and Vyse Ave. "In 1981, the buildings started to be torn down," its owner said. "By 1983, most of the buildings that were still standing were filled with people that had no home and nowhere else to go."
"What has happened here looks like a miracle," the storekeeper said. "Business is much better. "
He also said the improved housing has made him much more comfortable about raising his kids in this area. "These improvements rub off on all parts of the community, "he said. "My son's grades have even improved."
The storekeeper said he "is happy about the changes" but added that he "looks forward to when the bulldozers are gone."
"It was a lot quieter before the construction began," he said. "Of course, there was no business, either. "
But Wylde said there was an image problem with the project.
"It looked like just another city project designed along the tax-and-spend line," she said.
This is where Lebenthal comes into the picture.
"Jim Lebenthal will allow us to bring the message directly to the people that says this is how these homes and this neighborhood was constructed. "
Lebenthal is no stranger to showmanship. After graduating from Princeton University in 1949, he went to work as Life Magazine's Hollywood movie correspondent.
After stints with Disney Studios - where he shot a documentary on otters - and NBC News, he joined Lebenthal & Co. in 1965.
And he is no stranger to promoting bonds. On many a Sunday morning, New Yorkers are greeted on television by an effusive bond salesman named Lebenthal.
In one of his latest commercials, Lebenthal is seen riding the New York subways, standing in a newly constructed sewer, and looking at New York construction sites.
The commercial opens up with Lebenthal in a power plant, his hair standing on end.
"I'm Jim Lebenthal, getting a charge from power plants built by bonds," he proclaims over the din of the working turbines.
In every shot, Lebenthal casts a knowing glance at the camera, proclaiming, "You may catch me riding a New York subway, built by bonds!" And you might. He rides the subway to work from Manhattan's Upper West Side to his office on Lower Broadway.
His commercials are humorous but still communicate his basic message - that a community's infrastructure needs must be addressed.
"I have approached the infrastructure needs of this area as I know best," he said. "Pressure on the local level, through advertisements and letting politicians know what I want, is effective."
Lebenthal does not shy away from endorsing a campaign or candidate, but he holds to certain criteria.
Before he will donate to a politician's campaign, the candidate must specifically address the infrastructure problems - the condition of its streets, waterways, sewers, and mass transportation.
"I definitely want to affect politics on a local level," he said. But he definitely does not want to hold public office himself.
"I'm selling the bonds, and through that I'm intentionally trying to change the attitudes about investing in a long-term capital improvement plan," he said. "The commercials are merely bringing the message to the streets."
He said he's not really sure if the commercials have been successful, but he definitely enjoys himself.
"Aside from a fairly good sunburn on the top of my head, the shoot went fabulously," he said after the making the commercial in the South Bronx.