Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
by Constance Rosenblum
New York University Press 2009
Stretching over four miles through the center of the West Bronx, the Grand Boulevard and Concourse, known simply as the Grand Concourse, has gracefully served as silent witness to the changing face of the Bronx, and New York City, for a century. Now, to coincide with the Concourses centennial, a New York Times editor brings to life the street in all its raucous glory.Designed by a French engineer in the late nineteenth century to echo the elegance and grandeur of the Champs Elysées in Paris, the Concourse was nearly twenty years in the making and celebrates its centennial in November 2009. Over that century it has truly been a boulevard of dreams for various upwardly mobile immigrant and ethnic groups, yet it has also seen the darker side of the American dream. Constance Rosenblum unearths the colorful history of this grand street and its interlinked neighborhoods. With a seasoned journalists eye for detail, she paints an evocative portrait of the Concourse through compelling life stories and historical vignettes. The story of the creation and transformation of the Grand Concourse is the story of New York—and America—writ large, and Rosenblum examines the Grand Concourse from its earliest days to the blighted 1960s and 1970s right up to the current period of renewal. Beautifully illustrated with a treasure trove of historical photographs, the vivid world of the Grand Concourse comes alive—from Yankee Stadium to the unparalleled collection of Art Deco apartments to the palatial Loews Paradise movie theater.An enthralling story of the creation of an iconic street, an examination of the forces that transformed it, and a moving portrait of those who called it home,Boulevard of Dreamsis a must read for anyone interested in the rich history of New York and the twentieth-century American city.
Bronx Envy - May 25th, 2012
No landmark evokes the shifting fortunes of the West Bronx and its magnificently troubled thoroughfare, the Grand Boulevard and Concourse, better than the Lorelei fountain. A tribute to German poet Heinrich Heine, the white marble sculpture depicts the legendary siren of his most famous poem, “Die Lorelie,” perched atop a pedestal ringed by bare-breasted mermaids and dolphins in cascading waters. Rejected by Heine’s home city of Düsseldorf, partly because he was Jewish, the piece was purchased by German Americans and installed at the 161st Street entrance to the boulevard in 1899. Defaced soon after its unveiling, the baroque style carvings required round-the-clock police protection. Gradually winning acceptance, the fountain earned a prominent place in Joyce Kilmer Park in the 1930s opposite the new Bronx County Courthouse. It was shunted to the north end of the park with the approach of World War II, but still lent cachet to the rising middle-class neighborhood. In the late 1960s, however, the fountain fell into disrepair and became a receptacle for garbage and a target of graffiti. During the 1977 blackout vandals chipped off the noses and fins of many of the figures. In 1999, after years of neglect, the fountain was refurbished, rededicated, and returned to the southern tip of the park in full view of the concourse, where it remains today a symbol of urban splendor, crisis, and renewal.
¶ Reading Constance Rosenblum’s affectionate yet clear eyed account of the borough’s 4.5 mile-long, 182-foot wide “Boulevard of Dreams” and the art, architecture, and community life that flourished along its banks has the effect of watching one of those time-lapse photography nature shows in which moons or tides rise and fall in an instant. The author, a veteran New York Times editor, swiftly traces the transformation of the boulevard from a tree-covered ridge to an elegant parkway to a high-speed traffic artery, illuminating how it fostered and then left in ruins one of the city’s most vital, predominately Jewish enclaves. It is local and ethnic history to be sure, but one that captures the fleeting reciprocal process by which all city people shape and are shaped by their built environment.
¶ The story unfolds in three acts. The first, “A Promenade for the Bronx,” excavates the road’s origins in the mind of a dreamy French surveyor, Louis Risse, who as chief engineer of the Annexed District in the early 1890s envisioned a “Speedway” linking the wild woods and small farms of the north with the tightly pack metropolis to the south. “For the Bronx, geography was destiny,” writes Rosenblum, referring to the trio of north-south running ridges that dictated the path of the Grand Concourse (23). But there was nothing predetermined about the scale and stateliness of Risse’s “avenue of pleasure” (25). It featured bridle paths and roadways set off by verdant strips, shared by horses, carriages, pedestrians, cyclists, and, soon enough, motorists – their progress hastened by a system of crossroad underpasses. Financed with public and private funds, the $6.6 million parkway opened to little fanfare and much sleet in November 1909. However, it would take the completion of the Jerome Avenue subway line nine years later to really open up the area for settlement. Al Jolson spoke for many Lower East Side cliff dwellers in the 1927 talkie The Jazz Singer when he promised his Mama, “Oh, yes, we’re gonna move up to the Bronx. A lot of nice green grass up there, and whole lot of people you know. There’s the Ginsbergs, the Guttenbergs, the Goldbergs, and a whole lot of Bergs” (45). Indeed, by 1930, some seven out of ten residents of concourse neighborhoods were Jewish.
¶ Part of the area’s appeal was its stunning new apartment houses: the Theodore Roosevelt, Lewis Morris, Thomas Garden, and dozens of others that invited comparisons of the boulevard with the Champs Elysees in Paris. These buildings came in an array of styles – Art Deco, Tudor, Gothic, Romanesque – and featured such modernist touches as wraparound windows, zigzag facades, and multicolored mosaics. Inside, sunken living rooms, plump couches, and chintz drapes further attested to hard-won gains. The apartments performed a dual function, says Rosenblum: “They allowed escape from the squalor and congestion of the ghetto… while at the same time replicated aspects of the urban experience that, often subconsciously, these newcomers had come to cherish” (81). A certain tenement sociability persisted, she suggests, that was caricatured on radio and television in the person of Molly Goldberg, the fictional Bronx housewife who could never quite break the habit of yoo-hooing her neighbors out her window.
¶ The second act, “The Golden Ghetto,” describes the boulevard’s heyday as an address for upwardly mobile Jews in the 1940s and 1950s. It highlights such local institutions as Philly’s candy store, Krum’s ice cream parlor, and Loew’s Paradise Theater, the opulent cinema where young Stanley Kubrick studied the movies that would inspire his own films. Rosenblum assesses the cultural impact of local department stores (Alexander’s and Loehmann’s), high schools (DeWitt Clinton, Bronx Science, Walton, and Taft), synagogues (sometimes five to a block), and of course Yankee Stadium. She profiles that architectural and philanthropic oddity, the palazzolike Andrew Freedman Home for gentlefolk of reduced circumstance, and adds to the mythology of the sumptuous Concourse Plaza Hotel, site of the showiest weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Yankee victory dinners.
¶ Rosenblum’s descriptions of these “memory-drenched spots” (125) border on the nostalgic. She writes so glowingly about children growing up with frappes, knishes, and stickball as to stir envy even in an Italian Catholic from California. Nevertheless, she remains alert to the genuine insights contained in memoirs and oral histories. She also taps the fiction of Bronx-born novelists – the celebrated, such as E.L. Doctorow, and the nearly forgotten, such as Eliot Wagner, whose characters spoke in dialect thick as “spuntch cake” (162). To further capture the texture of Jewish life, Rosenblum draws on the writings of Irving Howe, Marshall Berman, and other “Bronxologists” (167). Through it all, she demonstrates the acuity of a seasoned reporter who cannot help but see the shadow of racism, materialism, and insularity that lurked beneath the surface, and indeed made the boulevard off-limits to blacks. She focuses, for example, on the so-called “Bronx Slave Market” in which Negro women loitered on street corners just off the boulevard in hopes of securing a few hours’ housework for a dollar, sometimes less.
¶ The third act, “To Hell and Back,” charts the convulsive changes that made the Bronx the poster child for inner city decay in the 1970s and ‘80s, and ends with a nod to its slow, ongoing recovery. Rosenblum advances no original thesis about the causes of urban blight, but sees the seeds of destruction in the discriminatory labor, education, and housing policies of FDR’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal. New migration from Puerto Rico and the Deep South coupled with deindustrialization led to mounting unemployment, rampant street crime, shrill reportage, shady real estate practices, municipal indifference, deliberate neglect, and white flight. Rosenblum also weighs in on the debate over the impact of Robert Moses’ intersecting Cross Bronx Expressway (“the great gash”) and the lure of Co-op City to the north as causes of neighborhood disintegration and abandonment (211). What role the Rabbinate played in this exodus is not clear, but all of these forces contributed to the borough’s decline into a nightmarish dystopia depicted in such works as The Wanderers; Fort Apache, the Bronx; and Bonfire of the Vanities.
¶ One of Boulevard of Dream’s main virtues, especially for classroom use, is its brevity. Still, one wonders about those left out of the story, such as the original landholders, the workers who laid the foundations for the roadbeds and high rises, and the other ethnic groups in the area; they hover on the outskirts just as they did in life. There are no footnotes, but Rosenblum’s bibliographic essay is generous and valuable, as are the forty-three maps, drawings, and photographs sprinkled throughout. The book will certainly appeal to those who grew up in the Bronx or can trace their roots back to the borough, but it will also reward the interest of anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of the undulating rhythms of urban growth, ethnic influence, and the fragility of our grandest achievements.
– Vincent DiGirolamo, History Dept., Baruch College
Write a Review