I didn’t begin this column with that information because Assemblywoman Septimo is right. Stories about the South Bronx invariably start with trauma, casting the community as victim. For students, the new Dream school is a place of hope and opportunity — a new chapter and good news for the neighborhood.
That said, the historical arc of 20 Bruckner, as the building is called, is instructive and tells a larger tale about the Bronx, change and renewal. The ice plant was built when the borough was booming, at the turn of the last century. Its owner, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, was the Knickerbocker Beer baron, and a United States congressman. Brewers needed ice to make beer. Ruppert’s construction of the plant dealt a blow to the notorious Tammany bosses who monopolized the city’s wildly overpriced ice business, helping to break up what was then known as the “ice trust.”
Beer drinkers also loved baseball. In 1915, Ruppert bought the struggling New York Yankees, four years later acquired Babe Ruth’s contract, then moved the team across the Harlem River from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan, constructing Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a brisk hike from the plant.
The rest is history, as far as the Yankees go. As for the building, by the 1960s Knickerbocker had shut its brewery, and a variety of tenants cycled in and left. By the ’70s, like much of the rest of the neighborhood, 20 Bruckner had fallen into ruin, a victim of Robert Moses and urbicide — avoiding demolition only because the billboard profited the landlord.
A decade ago that was Drew Katz’s father, Lewis Katz, a lawyer and philanthropist who made money in billboards and parking lots. Lewis Katz died in a plane crash in 2014, leaving his son in charge of 20 Bruckner. Around that same time, Port Morris, especially the blocks near the building, started to gentrify. Katz and Madruga saw an opportunity.
So Madruga hired nonunion teams to clear debris from the interior and sought a tenant who might pay to revamp the building.