Marjo Benavides

Although the boroughs of New York are known for their ethnic and cultural diversity, Finns are not the people that leap to mind when one thinks of the South Bronx. Yet it was through her Finnish connection that Marjo Benavides, 37, found a coop apartment there.

In 2005, she and her husband were planning to return to New York after living in rural Pennsylvania and found themselves priced out of most neighborhoods in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. During her search, Marjo ran into a photographer friend of hers from Finland, who was a subtenant in one of the Varma coop buildings in the South Bronx. The Varma Cooperative Home Corporation, one of several Finnish coops in New York City, administers two adjacent buildings on Walton and Gerard avenues. Varma is a descendant of the Finnish Home Building Association in Brooklyn, which was started in 1918 to build low-cost cooperative housing for Finnish immigrants. Their model of cooperative housing established the basis of the modern U.S. coop.

Alternative content

Get Adobe Flash player

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

Marjo, who is also Finnish, paid her friend a visit and “fell in love with the apartment and the building.” Within two hours she was ready to buy. She called the president of the coop board and asked about available apartments, and then she told her husband.

“He was petrified,” she laughs. “I called him at seven in the evening and said I’m by Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx and I’m going to be home at a certain hour. And he was so scared at how I was going to make it home from there.” Born and raised in Brooklyn, her husband, who hadn’t been to the Bronx in years, thought the South Bronx was too dangerous to visit, let alone live in.

But then the two of them visited the neighborhood together, and “he was as surprised as I was at how neighborly and civil it was. The parks were clean and neat and actually people were going about their business every day.”

Two weeks later, they were shown a sponsored unit in the Varma building, a 650 square-foot one-bedroom in original condition, and they made an offer on the spot of $40,000, which was accepted later that week.

A year later, Marjo found a larger apartment just down the block. Now working as a real estate broker, she had been keeping an eye on the elegant Art Deco coop at 811 Walton Avenue, and when she saw signs of exterior and interior renovations, she made an appointment with the sponsor’s broker to see four one-bedroom units in the building. They entered into a gigantic “horrific lobby,” which had a bucket in the middle of the floor to catch water from a leaking ceiling, but the broker assured her that it would be properly repaired. (It has since been brilliantly restored to its original condition.) She was impressed by all four spacious, fully renovated apartments, and so taken with a 720 square-foot unit on the fourth floor that she immediately put in an offer for $96,000.

Renovated by the sponsor in a prewar style, the apartment featured stainless steel appliances, to which she added crown molding, light fixtures, custom closets, custom tile work in the bathroom, and a backsplash in the kitchen. Marjo describes the layout as “mysterious,” more like a house than an apartment, with private areas sequestered from the living room and kitchen. With western and northern exposures, the apartment receives abundant light throughout the day, illuminating the bright colors of the eclectic ethnic décor Marjo has created, making it “a haven of spiritual healing in the evening.” The apartment was appraised in 2008 at $200,000.

Although the area is well served by public transit—nearby express subway trains run down the east and west sides of Manhattan—Marjo finds herself staying in the neighborhood to socialize instead of heading into Manhattan.

“I feel very much at home here, so many of my friends have moved to the neighborhood, and I feel like I have everything I need here. I don’t need to go to the city to hang out, I can go downstairs and hang out in my friend’s apartment. I just go downstairs and ring my friend’s doorbell and have a cup of coffee.”

The sociability and strong sense of community extends outside the building, too, as strangers greet one another on the street and neighbors are always in touch. To her, neighborliness of the South Bronx is a throwback to an earlier kind of more rooted New York City life that has disappeared in Manhattan.  

Marjo gets a good look at life on the streets when, three times a day, she takes her 9-pound Chihuahua, Rambo, out for a walk, usually in nearby Franz Sigel Park. The first walk is really run as she meets up with two other residents of her building at 7 a.m. to go for a jog with their dogs. She and Rambo go out again around dinner time when everyone is coming home from work, and again at midnight. 

“Absolutely nothing that I see is of concern for me or other people. It’s just everyone is living together, living their life, no matter what station in life they come from, whether they’ve been here for six months or 60 years. You can live here and have a nice safe life.”