And as recently as a few months ago, when a group of architectural students were preparing to descend on the boulevard in preparation for updating one of the classic guidebooks to New York City, their professor asked me if he should worry about their safety as they made their way along this iconic New York street.
Old myths die hard. The indictment that “the Bronx is burning,” famously uttered in 1977 by sportscaster Howard Cosell during a game at Yankee Stadium as the Goodyear Blimp panned to flames engulfing a building just a few blocks away, lingers in the mind. Even today, decades after the fires that raged through the South Bronx have been extinguished, years after the term SoBro was coined to describe the burgeoning of galleries, cafes and artists’ housing in the borough’s southern tip, the Bronx is still on the ropes in many crucial respects.
It is still the nation’s poorest urban county, with nearly a third of its population living below the official poverty line, a level that is punishingly low in a pricy city like New York. As such, the borough has been especially battered by what is now being called the Great Recession and by forces that in recent years have made New York City ever less welcoming to middle-class families.
Yet though the Bronx has often felt like the city’s stepchild, the borough has a lustrous history. And few places are more integral to that history than the Grand Concourse, the four-and-a-half-mile-long, eleven-lane-wide thoroughfare that winds like a lazy arrow north-south through the borough’s western half. As the boulevard prepares to celebrate its centennial on November 24, it’s a fitting moment to consider the street’s impressive history and remember what this street has contributed to the city as a whole.
These contributions are numerous, fascinating and profound, as I discovered during the years I spent researching the street’s history and its role in the development of New York for my new book, Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, published this fall by NYU Press. The boulevard’s story began in the mid-19th century with the arrival in the New World of a young Frenchman – just a teenager, really – who had stopped in New York as part of what was planned as a round-the-world journey. His name was Louis Risse, and he was so enamored of the Bronx, then largely undeveloped, that he stayed for the rest of his life.
Though Risse is little remembered today, it was he who in 1890 proposed building a great highway along one of the ridges that cut through the wilderness north of Manhattan. The street, which took nearly twenty years to become a reality, was a marvel of engineering, laced by an ambitious series of below-grade transverse roads designed to keep commercial traffic away from what was planned as a grand boulevard in the European style, intended for pleasure driving and pedestrians.
By the 1920s and increasingly in the 1930s, handsome apartment buildings, many in the newly popular Art Deco style, began sprouting along the boulevard’s flanks and on nearby side streets, luring hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to this rapidly growing section of the city. The West Bronx was especially a mecca for the city’s upwardly mobile Jews, for whom an address on or even near what people were already calling the Champs Elysees of the Bronx was the ultimate in prestige.
Nor were the only attraction the streamlined apartment houses, with their sunken living rooms, wraparound corner windows, and lobbies accented with murals, mosaics and gleaming terrazzo floors and ceilings. Even today, half a century after the neighborhood’s glory years, West Bronxites talk in hushed, almost reverent tones about Loew’s Paradise, the opulent 4,000-seat movie theater just south of Fordham Road. They tell you how stars twinkled in the auditorium’s midnight blue ceiling, how live goldfish swam in the marble fountain near the candy counter. They tell you how thrilling it was to watch a movie — any movie — in a setting built to resemble an Italian Baroque garden.
The voices of these mid-century Bronx residents grow equally soft when they recall the dramas played out at Yankee Stadium, just down the hill from the boulevard and home to the most celebrated team in baseball. And on and on the memories unspool — the Concourse Plaza Hotel, where the borough’s best weddings and bar mitzvahs were held; the Lewis Morris, the boulevard’s most prestigious apartment house; majestic synagogues like Temple Adath Israel, which presided over the boulevard like a classical Greek temple; the necklace of parks.
It is no wonder that Bronx novelists such as E.L. Doctorow, Avery Corman, and Jerome Charyn immortalized this world, and that newsletters and websites that traffic in Bronx nostalgia are immensely popular, even among those who have been absent from these streets for decades.
Starting in the 1960s, this world began to unravel. By the 1970s, the defining images of this part of the city were abandoned buildings, collapsing schools and hospitals, rampant crime, much of it fueled by drugs, and of course the fires in the night sky that became the defining image of these once solid and tranquil blocks. The tragic decline of the South Bronx is a deeply familiar tale but no less tragic for the fact that we know the story so well.
Hard on the heels of the decline, a decline that in many eyes occurred “overnight,” came a frantic search for explanations. Debate raged, and continues to rage, over what had led to the transforming and sorrowful changes. Was it Co-op City, the great complex of apartments that opened in the late 1960s in the northeast Bronx? Was it Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway? Rent control? Dispiriting newspaper articles about the neighborhood? Was the culprit white flight or a more complex amalgam of social, economic, and political forces whose roots are only now beginning to be fully understood.
In the eyes of many, the Bronx will be perpetually burning; the vivid image is difficult to shake. But there is no question that in recent years the borough has rebounded considerably, as have large swaths of the city. Crime is significantly lower here, as it is throughout New York, and drugs have loosened their grip on poor neighborhoods.
The recent recession has unquestionably slowed some of the changes in the works and halted others. But here and there, like crocuses poking through the snow, are glimmers not only of a changed reality but, equally significant in some eyes and possibly more important in the long run, changed perception.
A few examples:
Increasingly, newspapers like the New York Times feature advertisements for apartments on and near the Grand Concourse, along with articles describing the attractions of blocks that quite recently were written off as blighted and undesirable.
At a Bronx-related event in Manhattan one day recently, amid debate as to whether the Bronx was truly poised to enjoy better days, a woman stood up and announced firmly, “I’m proud to live in the Bronx, and it’s high time people realized that.”
And not long ago, as members of a walking tour lingered in front of what had been one of the more troubled buildings along the boulevard, a little boy, not much more than eight or nine, piped up to one of the tour’s participants as the group was leaving, “Hey, lady, this is a good building!”
Anecdotal? Absolutely. But it has been years, even decades, since people were expressing optimism about this part of town, since families were moving here voluntarily rather than because they had no place else to go.
“This is a good building?” I couldn’t agree more.