Bronx politicians are lobbying for an Apple Store

In the passenger seat, state Sen. Ruben Diaz scrolls and scrolls through the settings on his iPhone, trying to spot a glitch as he battles traffic on Bronx's Longfellow Avenue, hurrying between meetings and calls.

It needs to be fixed immediately, but it probably won't be. Despite living in a borough of nearly 1.5 million people — nearly as many as Manhattan — residents of the Bronx must travel 30 minutes to the closest Apple stores, in Westchester, Queens or midtown Manhattan.

That's because Apple — the owner of Dr. Dre's Beats— doesn't have a store in the borough where hip-hop was born.

While Apple touts its support of the American working class, Diaz said Apple has left the Bronx out of its plans for New York.

"We have always been pushed aside in the Bronx," Diaz said. "We are black. We are Hispanic. I would say 75 percent of us have Apple products. Apple is the best — they are number one. To go to the Manhattan and Ridgewood, that is ridiculous, when we could go here in the Bronx."

Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., who represents the Bronx, speaks at a Puerto Rican Heritage Month celebration at Don Coqui on City Island in New York City.
Anita Balakrishnan | CNBC

Almost every elected official in the Bronx has signed a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, urging him to consider the Bronx for a new Apple store. For a community that has been through so much, leaders say the store would send the world a message that the Bronx has risen from the ashes.

"For years, the Bronx has been labeled as an up-and-coming borough and we deserve quality brand stores such as Apple," said Rafael Salamanca, a New York City councilman born and raised in the borough. "When you look at the demographics, we're the seventh largest city in America, if we were to be our own city. ... We are three times bigger than Staten Island. I don't understand why the Bronx doesn't have its own store, other than to think that it's discrimination. It may be because of our demographic makeup, I don't know how else to explain it."

For many Americans, their last brush with the Bronx was an iconic 1977 newscast, as buildings burned to the ground around Yankee Stadium, symbols of crime and economic dilapidation. Statistics on the Bronx in 2016 tell a very different story — and the borough needs a new symbol, politicians said.

In the second week of November, there were 374 serious crimes in the Bronx (including murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny), according to the city. In Manhattan, there were 442 (251 in the south and 191 in the north).

The borough was one of the few areas in the nation where the number of jobs continued to grow steadily through the 2008 recession.

"A lot of people just don't appreciate the market," said city Councilman Andrew Cohen. "It's a little bit undiscovered. There are some good things about that, too ... but I think that there's a certain desire for recognition of the economic revival. That would be another feather in our cap. Someone else appreciating what's going here."

Still, with its rapid population growth, there are still too many Bronxites without jobs — the unemployment rate there is higher than the other boroughs, Census data show. With a median household income of $34,284 as of 2014, Bronx residents are much poorer, on average, than the median $71,656 earned in Manhattan.

That's something that its leaders hope to change.

Clergy from across the city tell stories of how Diaz — who has met with them regularly for 30 years — has blessed their congregation with jobs. Later, at a Puerto Rican Heritage Month celebration on City Island, Bronx borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. — the senator's son — gets a standing ovation at the mention of the 15,000 new jobs he's been credited with bringing to the borough.

People take pictures on their phones at a Puerto Rican Heritage Month celebration at Don Coqui on City Island in New York City.
Anita Balakrishnan | CNBC

An Apple Store could play a role. The company showed off its job creation powers in Austin, Texas, for a New York Times story over the weekend. But since the letter, Apple hasn't made any announcements about a store, and declined to comment to CNBC on this story.

Whether a community wants a store or not tends to fall pretty low on the list of priorities for most companies, said Dave Marcotte, senior vice president of retail insights at Kantar Retail. It's usually a real estate decision that typically involves obvious factors — rent, utilities, access to transportation, utilities and foot traffic. Then there are less obvious factors, like whether the store will be standalone, an anchor, and how it would affect the brand if the location doesn't work out.

But unlike most cases, Marcotte said he'd be surprised whether there isn't a conversation within Apple about the Bronx, given the iconic status of different New York neighborhoods. Indeed, Borough President Diaz has managed to pressure big brands like Barnes & Noble and Amazon to provide more service to the area.

"I think there is something symbolic about Apple in particular," Cohen said. "It's cutting edge. Front and center in retail and putting out new devices that engage people. Shopping there is 21st century shopping. You never go to the cash register. It all happens phone to phone. It's reflective of what the whole brand is. We'd like some of that here in the Bronx."