Two white people, one of them a young woman decked out in a royal-blue Avenue Foch jacket with shoulders out to here . . . enough matched luggage in the back seat for a trip to China . . . a $48,000 Mercedes roadster . . . in the middle of the South Bronx . . .Miraculous!
Twenty-five years later, a comparable Mercedes roadster would set Sherman McCoy back about $108,000. But the latest model comes equipped with a voice-activated navigation system that would have warned him away from the South Bronx where a hit-and-run accident involving a black honor student triggered a chain of events that dethroned McCoy as a Master of the Universe in Tom Wolfe’s racially-charged novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Today, if McCoy were still flush with a Wall Street bonus, he might even be armed with the mobile app patented by Microsoft a year ago to warn people away from “an unsafe neighborhood.”
Now, some parts of the South Bronx have become desirable residential neighborhoods “so it’s possible that McCoy would be up there looking at a luxury condo development in which he’s an investor,” said Sarah Chinn, a professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York. “But of course, that GPS would in many ways make the set-up of ‘Bonfire’ obsolete — he wouldn’t have got lost in the first place.”
The South Bronx is still poor and the majority is nonwhite. Bruckner Boulevard, on which the Manhattan-bound McCoy wound up after making a fateful wrong turn on what used to be called the Triborough Bridge, remains uninviting in the shadow of the elevated expressway during the day and is still more desolate at night.
But the South Bronx is no longer the vast wasteland — “entire blocks of the city without a building left standing”— depicted in the novel. The population has grown, more apartments have been built or renovated, median household income has inched up and reported crime has declined.
The book was widely praised by critics and was a popular success. It also became a movie with Tom Hanks starring in the McCoy role that was poorly received by critics and the public.
Mr. Wolfe said he has not returned to the South Bronx in the 25 years since his novel was published to witness any changes for himself.
“I’m afraid I haven’t,” he said, adding, though: “I shall investigate.” (He is writing his own 25-year retrospective, though he will not say where it will appear.)
Regardless of demographic differences, he said, New Yorkers are not yet living in a post-racial climate.
“Legally,” he said, “Sherman McCoy would be in worse shape today than he was in 1987, because prosecutors’ zeal to convict The Great White Defendant is now even more fervid in the wake of the scandals of the subprime crash of 2008 — although, of course, he may very well have been laid off, even at age 64, like so many of his brethren, making it a moot point, moot but a very sad one for him.”
But Edward W. Hayes, the model for the defense lawyer in the novel (“Bonfire” was dedicated to Mr. Hayes and to Burton B. Roberts, a former judge who died in 2010), suggested that the city has, indeed, changed since 1987, mostly for the better.
“There is much less crime, racial appeals are not quite as strong and it’s a much richer city,” Mr. Hayes said, “but McCoy could still get lost because it’s always hard to find one’s way in a strange neighborhood.”
Another inspiration for a character in the book, the Rev. Al Sharpton, described New York as “not as polarized as it was, but it’s still a tale of two cities. I don’t think we’re in a post-racial period, but we’re in a better racial period,” he said.
“Life for blacks and Latinos is better than it was, but it is qualitatively different than for whites,” he added. “You don’t want to settle for better; you want to settle for equal. It is wrong to say it’s not better and some of the people that fought and marched and who he demonized are people who made it better.”
In the two police precincts that cover much of the South Bronx, there were 22 murders and 576 robberies last year, compared with 72 and 3,257, respectively, in 1990.
In a Mott Haven census tract near where McCoy’s fictional hit-and-run occurred, the Census Bureau in 1990 recorded an unemployment rate of 18 percent, a median household income of $17,633, and 51 percent of families living in poverty.
By 2010, the unemployment rate stood at 13 percent unemployment rate, median household income at $20,253 and 40 percent of families were living in poverty.
Even more visible changes occurred in McCoy’s Manhattan enclave, too. The historically impenetrable East 96th Street barrier that separated rich and poor was breached as developers planted luxury high-rise apartments deep into East Harlem.
“What’s changed? Everything,” said Fernando Ferrer, who had just become the borough president when “Bonfire” was published. Would Sherman McCoy and his mistress be as fearful today (“Human existence had but one purpose: to get out of the Bronx,” the mistress thought)?
“Sherman McCoy would have been fearful anywhere that wasn’t in his universe,” Mr. Ferrer said. “Conceivably you could make a wrong turn in Paris.”
Changes aside, some critics complained all along that the South Bronx of “Bonfire” was a caricature that made a bad situation worse. In fact, the book did provoke protests from Bronx boosters.
“To be honest, I never bought the premise of ‘Bonfire,’ ” Professor Chinn said. “Rather, it was a symbol of terrifying otherness, not unlike the image of the ‘inner city’ that still gets invoked by apps that help us steer clear of ‘bad’ neighborhoods. The Bronx of ‘Bonfire’ is the Bronx of the white imagination, not the Bronx of, say, DJ Kool Herc or, not to press the point, Sonia Sotomayor.”
To which Mr. Ferrer added: “That’s why they call it fiction.”