Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams records

Collection REC0025 - RG 008. Bronx Borough President

Abstract

Robert Abrams served as the ninth Borough President of the Bronx from 1970 to 1978. This collection primarily contains the material generated by the daily workings of the Office of the Bronx Borough President during his tenure. Also included are records produced by Abrams as a member of the New York State Assembly (1966-1969) and, later, as the Attorney General of New York State (1979-1993).

Extent

113 cubic feet (192 boxes and 34 volumes)

Dates

1932-1993, bulk 1970-1978



Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Advance notice is required for using original material. Please contact us to arrange access.

Physical Location

Records are stored at both the Municipal Archives (MA) and the Bronx County Historical Society (BCHS) on a series-level basis. The following subgroups/series are held at the MA: Subgroup 1, Series 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 1.6 (copy 1 of 2), 1.7, 1.9, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, and 1.14; Subgroup 2 (all series); Subgroup 3; and Subgroup 4. The following subgroups/series are held at BCHS: Subgroup 1, Series 1.2, 1.4, 1.6 (copy 2 of 2), 1.8, and 1.10, and Subgroup 5. The records held by the Municipal Archives are stored offsite.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The records were transferred from the Bronx Borough President’s Office in 2001 under accession numbers 2001-076 (Subgroup 1, Series 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 1.11, 1.12, 1.13, and 1.14); 2001-077 (Subgroup 1, Series 1.6); 2001-078 (Subgroup 2, Series 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, and 2.4); and 2001-079 (Subgroups 3 and 4).

Separated Materials

Oversize materials have been separated to oversize storage, shelf 195236-195241.

Processing Information

The arrangement and description of the records of Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams, including the preparation of a finding aid, was the result of close cooperation between numerous groups and individuals from 2001 to 2003. The Bronx County Historical Society (BCHS) was interested in making the records of former Bronx Borough Presidents accessible to the public. Meanwhile, the New York City Municipal Archives (MA) had recently obtained most of the records of former Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams. At the end of 2001, the staff at both organizations decided to try to obtain funding to process Abrams’ records. After consulting the Borough President’s Office and New York State Archives, an application for grant funding under the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund of the New York State Archives was submitted by the Borough President’s Office. In the summer of 2002, the New York State Archives notified the Office of the President of the Borough of the Bronx that funding would be provided to arrange and describe the records. BCHS, under a letter of agreement with the Bronx Borough President, hired archivists Bridget Lerette and Maureen Drennan to carry out the work. By the end of June 2003, processing was completed.
Robert Abrams served as Borough President of the Bronx from 1970-1978. The records in this collection are held at both the New York City Municipal Archives and The Bronx County Historical Society. Series held at the New York City Municipal Archives are designated with the suffix “I” while those held at The Bronx County Historical Society are labeled “II.” These records largely reflect the activities of Robert Abrams’ Bronx Borough Presidency, as well as subject files from his work as New York State Assembly Member and Attorney General. Other records include those maintained by Timothy Gilles, a member of Abrams’ staff in the Borough President’s Office. Material types include correspondence, press releases, financial documents, campaign materials, reports, recommendations, printed materials, legal documents, and speeches. There are also newspaper clippings, photographs, audiotapes, daily calendars, telephone logs, dictation notes, and scrapbooks.

Series 1.1, Subject Files I, contains the most substantial volume of records and spans the years 1950-1981. These files document the various local, state, and national issues affecting the Bronx community during Abrams’ tenure. The series contains a significant amount of information about New York City mass transit, utilities, and insurance and banking practices with a particular emphasis on redlining. There are also records discussing politics, the economy, healthcare, housing, crime, civil rights, Bronx cultural events, and unions. Series II, Subject Files II, holds similar materials and concentrates on transportation, consumer rights and protection, the environment, New York City government, and social causes. As Bronx Borough President, Robert Abrams supported a free fare transit system and advocated for tenants’ rights and environmental protections. He was an opponent of discrimination, the Vietnam War, and the raising of utility rates. Material types in Series I and II include office documents, reports, proposals, campaign literature, correspondence, statistics, printed materials, financial documents, press releases, resumes, speeches, telegrams, and news clippings.

Series 1.7, Campaign Material I, and Series 1.8, Campaign Material II, are the second largest in volume, composed of records from Robert Abrams’ campaigns for political office in New York. Abrams ran for New York State Assembly Member, Bronx Borough President, and New York State Attorney General. Both series contain campaign literature, correspondence, endorsements, financial records, press releases, polls, reports, contact information cards, and newspaper clippings generated during the elections.

The next largest series in volume is Series 1.6, Press Releases, consisting of approximately 1,500 releases and related material issued by the Bronx Borough President’s office. The series is described at item level by the press release title and spans from December 1969 to November 1978. The records consist primarily of one- to three-page press releases stating the Bronx Borough President’s position or action taken on numerous matters in the borough. The press releases document Robert Abrams efforts regarding mass transit, housing, healthcare, crime, economic problems, utility costs, insurance, banking, politics, cultural events, pollution, consumer affairs, and the rights of different minority groups.

Series 1.3, Correspondence I; Series 1.4, Correspondence II; and Series 1.5, Recommendations, all contain letters sent to and from the office of Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams. The correspondents include Robert Abrams, members of his staff, constituents, and political leaders, various public and private organizations, businesses, government agencies, and individuals. Both series of correspondence contains material on administrative functions, political issues, financial dealings, elections, constituent matters, and other Bronx related subjects. The two series also include thank you notes, invitations, personal greetings, congratulations, and other materials. Series 1.5, Recommendations, primarily consists of correspondence received from individuals requesting assistance and the responses from Robert Abrams, Ethan Geto, and other members of the Borough President’s staff. This correspondence primarily concerns employment, school placement, and other matters requiring assistance.

The other series in Subgroup 1 consist of photographs, audiotapes, film, daily calendars, telephone logs, dictation notes, and scrapbooks. All of these series document Robert Abrams activities at Borough President of the Bronx and the issues he addressed while in office. Most of the photographs in Series 1.9 and 1.10 are separations from other series. They are described at the item level. There is also one box of oversize materials separated from the series with campaign literature mechanicals, posters, maps, and other large items.

The Timothy Gilles records that makeup Subgroup 2 contain materials similar to those found in the rest of Robert Abrams records. Timothy Gilles was a member of the Bronx Borough President’s staff and worked on Abrams’ campaigns for Attorney General. Gilles maintained subject files comprised of reports, correspondence, news clippings, proposals, and printed matter on various topics related to the activities of the Borough President’s office. A separate, smaller set of press releases retained by Gilles from the Bronx Borough President’s office is in the Borough President Press Releases Series. Documents from Gilles’ campaign work are in Series II, Attorney General Campaign Files, and Series 2.4, Attorney General Campaign Press Releases. The Attorney General campaign press releases are described at the item level and cover both election years.

In addition to the materials from the Borough President of the Bronx, Robert Abrams’ records contain three other groups of documents. The Pre-Administration Material of Subgroup 3 contains nine bound ledgers and journals from two New York companies dated from 1932 to 1955. Abrams’ subject files from his three terms as a New York State Assembly Member, 1962-1969, are organized in Subgroup 4. A small portion of files from Abrams’ tenure as Attorney General is in Subgroup 5; the bulk of his Attorney General records are at the New York State Archives in Albany.
Robert Abrams was born on July 4, 1938, to Benjamin and Dorothy (Kaplan) Abrams in the Bronx, New York City. Abrams grew up in the Pelham Parkway area of the borough and attended Christopher Columbus High School. He graduated from Columbia College in 1960 with a BA and earned a Bachelor of Laws degree from New York University Law School in 1963. On September 15, 1974, Abrams married Diane B. Schulder, and they had two daughters, Rachel and Becky.

After working in private practice at his uncle, Henry H. Abrams, law firm, Abrams and Martin, for about two years, Robert Abrams embarked on his political career. Abrams ran as a Reform Democrat in the 1965 Democratic Primary for the 89th Assembly District of the New York State Assembly against longtime incumbent John T. Satriale. He defeated Satriale and went on to win the general election. Following a reapportionment that altered the Assembly Districts in the Bronx, Abrams served two more terms as Assembly Member for the 81st Assembly District. He served on several committees during his tenure in the State Legislature including the City of New York; Insurance; Public Institutions; Health; Penal Institutions; General Laws; and Judiciary Committees. Abrams supported legislation on child abuse, prison work-release programs, rent control, election law reform, pollution, and other political issues.

Following Herman Badillo’s decision not to seek re-election as Bronx Borough President, Robert Abrams entered the race for the position in 1969. Abrams was elected and became the youngest borough president in the history of the Bronx at the age of 31. He served as Bronx Borough President from 1970 to 1978. As a voting member of the Board of Estimate, Abrams influenced the city’s budget, contracts, and land use. He used his role to help meet the needs of the borough’s shifting population by gaining support for schools, libraries, housing, healthcare, senior citizen services, and other capital projects.

During his tenure as Borough President, Abrams responded to a variety of significant local, state, and national problems affecting the Bronx. In the 1970s, arson destroyed much of the South Bronx. Drug abuse and related crime increased. The city experienced an economic decline, and the costs of public utilities, insurance, and mass transit fares increased. The Vietnam War evoked controversy, the energy crisis caused fiscal hardships, and women and minorities struggled against discrimination. Abrams sought to address these issues as well as encourage the cultural expansion of the borough. Bronx Week celebrations, an annual free summer concert series, the opening of the Belmont Branch of The New York Public Library (also known as The Enrico Fermi Cultural Center), and a biking program on the Grand Concourse were all instituted during Abrams’ presidency. He worked to obtain financial support for the Bronx Museum of Arts, Wave Hill, The Bronx County Historical Society, and other cultural institutions. Abrams also hosted a public service television program, The Urban Challenge, on WNYC-TV, to address many of the issues affecting the Bronx.

In 1979, Robert Abrams resigned from the Borough Presidency to become the New York State Attorney General. Abrams was elected to four terms as Attorney General, leaving in 1992. In 1992 he was the Democratic candidate for the United States Senate from New York, losing to Alphonse D’Amato. Abrams then became a partner at the law firm of Stroock, Stroock, & Lavan, LLP in January 1994. He received numerous civic, academic, philanthropic, professional, and religious awards during his career and serves as the President of the Citizens Union Foundation.
The 1970s were trying times for New York City, especially for one of its poorest boroughs, the Bronx. Between 1969 and 1977, the City of New York lost over 600,000 jobs, from an initial base of about 3.5 million. In population, the City dropped from 7,896,000 residents in 1970 to 7,071,000 in 1980, a 10.5% loss. The percentage change was even more dramatic in the Bronx, with the borough losing 20.6% of its population, going from 1,472,000 to 1,169,000. Job loss resulted in a significant decrease in City revenues, at the same time that demands for social services were increasing dramatically. By the mid-1970s, both the City and State governments were in great financial difficulties, resulting in a need to reduce costs and cut services.

Within city government, most of the budgetary power was held by the Board of Estimate, which consisted of the Mayor, City Council President, Comptroller, and five borough presidents. Each member had a weighted vote. (The Board of Estimate was abolished in 1989, and most of its powers were transferred to the City Council.) Earlier in the 20th century, the borough presidents had administrative authority over certain city services, such as streets, highways, and parks, but by the 1970s these powers had been transferred to the Mayor. By this time, the role of the borough presidents focused mostly on championing the needs of their constituency. In doing so, the vote each borough president had on the Board of Estimate was crucial. Each borough president tried to make sure that, in a time of diminishing resources, their borough got as much funding as possible.

Many older neighborhoods, concentrated in the South Bronx, had been going through a period of housing abandonment, increased drug use, and rising crime rates since the 1960s. Originally a designation for communities in the most southern part of the borough, by the late 1970s the term “South Bronx” was being used for the area south of Fordham Road, encompassing six of the Bronx’s twelve community districts and, in 1970, about half (764,000) of its population. Between 1970 and 1980, this area lost 310,000 residents, accounting for all of the net population loss in the borough. This loss was reflected in the more than 100,000 abandoned housing units in the South Bronx by the end of the 1970s, by which time hundreds of blocks were lined with burned-out five- and six-story apartment houses. Meanwhile, the ethnic and racial demographics of the Bronx continued to evolve, and by 1980 the population was primarily African American and Latino.

From their offices in the Bronx County Courthouse (the unofficial Bronx Borough Hall) at 161st Street and Grand Concourse, political leaders could look out their windows and see the burning of nearby apartment houses. Robert Abrams saw the South Bronx burning, and said he had the feeling at times of “going against the sea and surf of negative forces.”

Seeking assistance at every level, he managed to get President Jimmy Carter to visit Charlotte Street in 1977 in a bid to win federal support to rebuild the once-lively neighborhood. Despite Carter describing the street as “the worst slum in America,” federal assistance was not forthcoming. Ultimately, it was the actions of local government working with grassroots organizations - such as the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, Southeast Bronx Community Organization (SEBCO), Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, and Banana Kelly, which had begun to organize and stabilize their respective neighborhoods - that drove the massive rebuilding efforts.

At the same time, Abrams worked to maintain pride in the Bronx and to improve its economy. He frequently sought capital funding to develop the Hunts Point Terminal Market and Lincoln Hospital, to construct new police stations, and to rehabilitate the borough’s parks. Abrams’ administration took credit for the city-authorized reconstruction of Yankee Stadium, which kept the team from leaving the Bronx. He won city and state support for improvements to the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, both in Bronx Park. He also worked to obtain city support for The Bronx County Historical Society and the establishment of the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

From 1977 on, the number of jobs in New York City started to increase again, rising steadily until the late 1980s. This return of economic prosperity, together with the efforts of local community groups and political leaders, helped contribute to a turnaround in the Bronx from the early 1980s on. Abandoned apartment houses were either torn down or restored, and thousands of new housing units were built, at a much lower density than before.

Today, the Bronx is home to nearly 1.5 million people, almost equal to its population in 1970. As of 2017, immigrants make up 37% of the total population, twice the share in 1980, and are about half of the borough’s workforce. The South Bronx neighborhoods of Morris Heights and Hunts Point have experienced the most jobs growth, and the unemployment rate throughout the Bronx reached a record low. While the Bronx hasn’t made a complete recovery - issues of poverty and lack of affordable housing persist - the overall outlook continues to be on an upward trend.
The Robert Abrams records are divided into five subgroups. The records in Subgroup 1, Borough President, and Subgroup 2, Timothy Gilles, are organized into several series within their respective subgroups.

Outline of Subgroups

  1. Borough President, 1950-1981
  2. Timothy Gilles, 1957-1984
  3. Pre-Administration ledgers and journals, 1932-1955
  4. New York State Assembly Member subject files, 1962-1969
  5. New York State Attorney General subject files, 1978-1993
Title
Guide to the records of Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams, 1932-1993
Status
Completed
Author
Bridget Lerette, Maureen Drennan, Leonora Gidlund, Dr. Peter Derrick
Date
2002-2003
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
eng
Sponsor
Processing was made possible in part by the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund of the New York State Archives.

Revision Statements

  • 2019: Finding aid updated and standardized by staff archivist Alexandra Hilton.