[Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on the Grand Concourse and art in the Bronx.]
The Bronx, home to over 1.4 million people, which often does not come to mind when discussing artsy neighborhoods in New York. But on the contrary, the Grand Concourse is a street that has a rich history of serving as both a hub of transportation and culture in the Bronx. Over one hundred years old, the Grand Concourse celebrated its centennial in November 2009. Happy 105th birthday, time for a facelift!
Stretching from the southernmost tip of the Bronx up past Fordham University, the Grand Concourse is a thoroughfare for connecting Manhattan to the northern Bronx. The past century has proven to be one of immense development for the Grand Concourse. The idea for this roadway was first conceived in 1890, designed by Alsatian-born engineer, Louis Aloys Risse. Once called the “Park Avenue of the middle class” by its inhabitants, the Grand Concourse is lined with Art Deco style buildings. Having emerged from the City Beautiful Movement of the late nineteenth century, the Grand Concourse has magnificent proportions comparable those even of the Champs-Élysées in France.
The City Beautiful Movement arose from the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, as architects from Chicago and New York collaborated and realized for the first time that the key to an aesthetically pleasing city was to plan it on a large scale. New York city at the turn of the twentieth century was even described as a “ragged pin cushion of towers.” The 1956 Bard Act, brought about by New York lawyer Albert Bard, played a role not only in the beautification of the city, but also worked toward making the city inherently livable. On the heels of this act came the Landmarks Law for aesthetic regulation, which brought about the means for preserving historic landmarks such as the Grand Concourse itself. It has often been compared with Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive, because of its distinct architectural style. Sewell Chan of the The New York Times describes the early Grand Concourse as a “model for real-estate developers and speculators who extolled the intense planning that transformed the rocky, rustic landscape into a magnificent north-south thoroughfare.” Not only was the neighborhood unique because the buildings were exquisitely constructed, but also because of the taste of culture implemented by its inhabitants. The Bronx became a potluck of old world Europeans immigrants together with the promise of a new modern America.
The Bronx became a destination for middle class caucasian Russian, Italian, Polish, German, and Irish families in the early twentieth century, back when the population was prominently foreign-born Europeans and lingered around 1,265,000 (Population 1930). Joyce Carucci reminisced on her childhood in a 2009 response to the Concourse’s centennial. Carucci, a ‘Bronxite’ from birth, accounts growing up on Ogden Avenue near the Grand Concourse during the early-mid twentieth century. She recalls, “Our weekend routine with young friends was to walk to the Grand Concourse, do window shopping, go to Krums for an ice cream and view all of the beautiful decorated candy. If lucky to have enough money from babysitting, we would attend a movie at the Loews Paradise Theatre.” Carucci remembers her childhood as somewhat of a fantasy world, as she passed her time in this theatre with a “majesty of art and decorations.” Though Carucci has since moved out of the Bronx, she still considers herself a Bronxite. She continues to enjoy a love for art even today and feels that this passion stems from her childhood of “wandering the Concourse and looking into the building lobbies, viewing some of the most wonderful tile work, marble and artwork that decorated those grand buildings.” As she spent her childhood immersed the eclectic Bronx, her childhood neighborhood still holds a special place in her heart, and even recently visited her old building on Ogden Avenue, pleasantly surprised to find it still intact and looking much like it did many decades ago.
A trend beginning in the 1960s-1970s was the beginning of “white flight.” This period marked the deterioration of the south and central Bronx. As the crime risk grew in this New York borough, caucasian residents felt the pull toward suburban life in the tri-state area and beyond. The “white flight” saw many families, much like Carucci’s, flee, spurring the largest urban population drop in history, with the exception being the result of war. As this mass exodus was taking place, an influx of upwards of 170,000 people moved in. Displaced by slum clearance in Manhattan, many African American, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican people relocated. The city was essentially left to burn in the ‘seventies, as New York City began to pay landlords in order to facilitate the relocation of those receiving welfare to the Bronx. As a result, by the mid-1970s, the South Bronx was “the most devastated urban landscape in America.”
Today, the Grand Concourse exists on the National Register of Historic Places since its induction in 1987, in a U.S. Historic District. Existing in the third most densely populated borough behind Manhattan and Brooklyn, the Grand Concourse is a bustling hub for subway lines, pedestrian foot traffic, and vehicles. During the twentieth century, the Bronx continued to gentrify. What once was a primarily hispanic area has had a steady increase in its caucasian population. “An analysis of three ZIP codes along the southern Concourse shows that from 2000 to 2010 the non-Hispanic white population, though still small, rose by 17.5 percent: to 3,055 from 2,600.” The 2010 census was the first in four decades in which that population did not decrease.
Have you ever felt alone in a crowded room, or should I say crowded city? Walking along the Bronx’s Grand Concourse is an experience quite unlike a brisk fast-walk through Manhattan. What with all of the art deco architecture and Joyce Kilmer Park, nestled along the Concourse between East 161st and 164th Street, we feel serenity and history with every step. In the park lies a statue of Louis J. Heintz, the Commissioner of Street Improvements who advocated the Grand Boulevard and Concourse in 1890, sculpted by Frenchman Pierre-Luc Feitu in 1909. Exploring this historic concourse will find one immersed in a state of pseudo-savoir-faire as I experienced on my journey through this public space. Read on about my experience in my next article about a modern stroll along this time capsule of culture in the Bronx.