Killian Jordan

Killian Jordan moved to the Grand Concourse from Manhattan’s Upper West Side mainly because she wanted to live her politics. “I’m just not a yuppie,” she says.

Living in the culturally and ethnically diverse South Bronx is political in a personal way because the majority of the residents there are not white middle-class women like her, so she is experiencing firsthand “what it means to be a visible minority.” And she practices her politics more directly through the development consultancy she set up to provide advice for nonprofit organizations. Run from an office in her apartment, the consultancy has advised clients that range from a daycare center in Colorado to an academy for multiply handicapped deaf children in Florida as well as several organizations based in the neighborhood, including the environmental justice group Sustainable South Bronx.

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Click on the arrow to see more photos of Killian and her apartment.

“Basically, I do insanely inexpensive work for nonprofits, helping them with organizing and theorizing and doing fundraising as well as funder research and proposal writing.” With so many groups in need of development advice, she is always busy, but she has no regrets about leaving the Upper West Side. For some time she had watched with dismay as wealthy lawyers and bankers moved into her neighborhood, forcing out culturally diverse middle class residents, attracting big box mall retailers, and “homogenizing” the streets. When two sleek glass towers, 31 and 37 stories, went up on her street despite intense community opposition, she had seen enough.

In April 2008, after over 30 years on the Upper West Side, she decided to leave her apartment on West 100th Street, where she had lived for almost ten years. At the same time, since she was “approaching Social Security age,” she planned to retire from her position as a magazine editor (her career includes stints at Life and Time Out) and devote herself full time to political causes.

Activism doesn’t pay very well, so her plan would only work if she could sell her apartment for enough money to buy a new one outright and leave some left over for a nest egg to supplement her income. She was priced out of Washington Heights and although she found parts of Inwood “charming” it reminded her too much of suburbia. A visit to friends who lived near Hunts Point got her looking in the South Bronx, but in search of a neighborhood where she could enjoy walking, her favorite pastime, she soon decided that the best place for her was the area east of Yankee Stadium. It didn’t hurt that she’s a lifelong Yankee fan.

After a brief search, she found an 1100 square-foot two-bedroom apartment for sale by the sponsor in a coop building at 166th Street and the Grand Concourse. The second-floor apartment comprises two large bedrooms, one bathroom, a large foyer, kitchen, living room, and no less than seven closets, including one lined with cedar. Little work had been done in the apartment over the years, but the finishes, especially the hardwood floors, were in good condition. The windows face west and north, and overlook a large courtyard, letting in abundant light at all times of day. She kept one bedroom for herself and uses the other for guests, especially for her three grown children, who visit often.

The low price of $202,000 didn’t put too much of a dent in her nest egg and freed up about $10,000 for renovations, which consisted of taking down a couple of walls and most importantly converting the large front foyer into an office for her development work. The living room is spacious enough to comfortably accommodate her quilting frame. Quilting is Killian’s second favorite pastime, and she makes quilts for her children and to commemorate important family events, like the birth of her granddaughter. Her apartment is decorated with quilts and other kinds of folk art. She loves folk art “for all its imperfection or perhaps because of its imperfections. You always sense the hands of the craft person behind it. That’s why I love quilts, and these crazy folk art lamps that are made of popsicle sticks.”

Her love of handcrafted work also explains her collection of molas, colorful panels of fabric made using a reverse appliqué technique by the women of the Kuna Indian tribe, from the islands off the coast of Panama. To her, molas are “the most exquisite form of female art,” and she purchased most of her collection on a trip she to Panama several years ago. They are displayed in “kind of a shrine to molas,” a tall cabinet made by cabinetmaker Tommy Simpson.

Although her area is well served by public transit—express subway trains run up and down east and west sides of Manhattan and several bus routes follow the Grand Concourse—she walks as much as she can, through the parks, and down the main thoroughfares as well as the back streets, browsing through the 99 cent stores, checking out the “drunken architecture”—the mélange of architectural styles that range from Tudor to Orientalist—and sampling the good inexpensive food. Sometimes she heads up to Arthur Avenue, the Little Italy of the Bronx, where the streets are lined with delis, bakeries, cafes, and various Italian merchants.

Killian fell in love with the neighborhood right away, but her three children had heard stories about the South Bronx in the 1970s and were not initially enthusiastic. When her youngest son, a Yankees fan, came to visit for the first time, she advised him to get off the subway stop at 161st Street and after checking out the new Yankee Stadium to walk the eight blocks to her place. On the way he saw kids playing soccer, parents with children in strollers, and “he found that if he smiled and nodded at people, they said hello.” By the time he arrived at Killian’s building, he had completely changed his mind about the neighborhood. “He saw the neighborliness that is very much in the air here. When we go out, we have to visit a little over a baby on front steps or say hello to super and ask about his wife.”

The current political situation could keep an army of activists busy. Killian is concerned about the presidential election, corruption at city hall, and the epidemics of asthma and diabetes in the Bronx. And despite cheering for the Yankees on the field, she has a few questions about the off-field activities of the organization. How is it possible that the site of the new stadium was assessed between 10 and 20 percent of its actual value, thus drastically lowering its property taxes? What happened to all the money that was supposed to be disbursed to community organizations as part of the stadium deal? And how did they get away with reducing the amount of parkland in the area? She has lots more questions but that’s a good start. “You can’t focus on everything,” she says, “but you do what you can.”