Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 23 Nov 09 13:29
I'm pleased to introduce our next guest author to Inkwell.vue. Constance Rosenblum, a longtime editor at The New York Times, is the author of the new book "Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx," published by NYU Press. She is the former editor of the newspaper's City section and the Arts and Leisure section, and currently writes the weekly Habitats column in the paper's Sunday Real Estate section. And leading our discussion is our own David Wilson. Raised in Paterson, NJ at the height of the bebop era. But had no effect until about 13 years later. Studied cultural anthropology but fell into government job building subsidized housing in Minneapolis. Large family in Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, and Philly. Watched the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway being built. Visited a friend on weekends in the early 60's who lived on the Grand Concourse. Also visited my great aunt's dairy farm in Middle Village, Queens. Thank you both for being here.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Tue 24 Nov 09 18:32
Hi Connie and welcome to the Well. The Grand Concourse in the Bronx can be seen as both the "boulevard of dreams" and the "boulevard of broken dreams." In your book you paint on the whole tapestry and you tell the whole tale. In my family you knew someone had "arrived" when they moved to the Concourse. It was the trip out of the immigrant ghettos they had been dreaming about into the Golden City of America. Along with all the individual striving, New York City and the rest of the country grew up too. After World War II we were at our peak. There were enough industrial and service jobs to go around, the city was the cultural and commercial capital of the country. In the early 1960's things started to change and you document the reasons well. By the early 1970's things got real wrong. All you had to say is South Bronx or Crotona Park and you would scare people away. What happened? If we were archeologists in the future surveying and excavating the Concourse, how would we explain it?
Connie Rosenblum (crosenblum) Wed 25 Nov 09 11:24
That's an excellent question and answering it was one of my key goals in writing the book. So often, when people talk about changes in places like the Bronx, their explanations tend to be simplistic or one-dimensional -- it was Co-op City that ruined the Bronx, or Robert Moses' Cross Bronx Expressway or rent control or whatever. All these forces played a part, but the real explanations are far more complex and their roots go back many decades. For example, in the years after World War Two, policies of the federal government, like making it easier to buy houses in the suburbs and building the highways that led to these suburbs, clearly had a highly detrimental effect on inner cities. So did indifference on the part of municipal governments and private institutions such as banks and insurance companies, which were increasingly unwilling to invest in struggling inner-city neighborhoods. To my mind, one of the greatest causes of change was the precipitous decline of the secure and well-paying blue-collar jobs that had supported earlier generations of immigrants and working-class families. Because the West Bronx had for decades been a largely homogeneous area composed predominantly of white families, the impact of racial changes were punishing. The challenges of supporting an aging housing stock were significant. Political leadership was often sketchy or lacking entirely. And the list goes on. What I hope readers will take away from my book is that the Bronx changed because of profound and complex social, economic and political forces that only now are coming to be well understood.
Scott MacFarlane (s-macfarlane) Wed 25 Nov 09 11:42
What a fine concept for a book, Connie. I'm from the Pacific Northwest, but lived in Weehawken, NJ for five years in the mid-1980s, commuting for most of that time to Port Washington and back. One had to be a military strategist of sorts to keep the commute to a semi-tolerable duration. I distinctly remember that Friday afternoons were always the worst. Coming home, instead of going directly east across the Cross-Bronx, I would exit as soon as I got of the TriBorough Bridge, head south, then get off at the Grand Concourse. I would drive its full length due north until near Yankee Stadium I could re-enter the Cross-Bronx again near the George Washington Bridge. Surprisingly, it was much faster than inching along the Cross-Bronx the whole way. I was always impressed by the feeling of by-gone splendor that one could sense along the Grand Concourse, the literal grandness, of course. I also remember in my line of work visiting the Faberware factory (I think it was) in the Bronx. Never before or since can I remember such working conditions. This was the most dungeon-like places I'd ever seen. Post-apocalyptic, even. I haven't been back in 20+ years, but the South Bronx is one of those places that etches in the mind. Good luck with the book!
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 25 Nov 09 11:54
Haven't read it yet but I'm wondering to what degree you were influenced by Jane Jacobs.
Connie Rosenblum (crosenblum) Wed 25 Nov 09 12:49
Sharon-- Re Jane Jacobs,interesting you should bring up her name. It's practically impossible to write much about NYC history without mentioning Jane Jacobs, but the history of the West Bronx, at least in my opinion, is one of the few subjects in which she's only indirectly part of the discussion. When people talk about the vitality of the street life on and near the Grand Concourse, they're indirectly referencing Jacobs and the sort of things she said and wrote on this subject. But she was referring specifically to the sort of street life associated with brownstones, townhouses, local stores and other low-rise buildings, whereas the bulk of the buildings along the boulevard were five- and six-story apartment houses. However, she did write eloquently about the importance of neighborhoods in the fabric of the city. And certainly a keen sense of the neighborhood one lived in was an essential aspect of life on and near the Grand Concourse.
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 25 Nov 09 16:30
Hi, Constance, and welcome to the WELL. I'm curious about what prompted you to write this particular book. Was the Bronx where you grew up? And, to this non-New Yorker, what makes it special and how does it differ from the other boroughs?
Connie Rosenblum (crosenblum) Wed 25 Nov 09 18:55
Hi, Linda, Everyone asks me that! As it turns out, I didn't grow up in the Bronx, or even in New York City; I'm from upstate New York. But I'd always wished I'd grown up in the city and in a way, writing this book was the next best thing, because I got to experience a certain way of life, at least vicariously. Also, when I moved to NYC after college, I became extremely interested in urban affairs and after doing some newspaper reporting in the Bronx, came to the conclusion that telling the history of the Grand Concourse would be an excellent way to talk about what happened to American cities during the 20th century, an endlessly fascinating subject, at least in my opinion. Your other question, what makes the Bronx special...not sure I know the answer or even that there is an answer. Certainly, though there are other great streets in the city, no other borough had a street with a history quite matching that of the Grand Concourse. And although nearly all the outer boroughs had neighborhoods that people felt deeply attached to, the fact that the Bronx was something of a stepchild, at least compared to Brooklyn, which had once been a separate city, gave it something of an underdog status that made it distinctive. Of course it also had the Yankees....
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 25 Nov 09 20:03
Searchlight Casting (jstrahl) Wed 25 Nov 09 23:42
We (my family) lived in Inwood, upper tip of Manhattan, 2 different places there, Jan '59 to Feb '70s. The Bronx was right across the 207th Street Bridge, we often went to Alexander's at the corner of the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road (which is the street at the Bronx end of that bridge). I went to the Bronx High School of Science, often would go home by taking the D Train which runs along the Concourse to Fordham and walk down. My high school graduation was at the Paramount Theater at 183rd and the Concourse. And i walked along it quite a few times exploring. I remember The Bronx deteriorating in front of our eyes, i do feel that the Cross Bronx Expressway was a HUGE factor, not everything but extremely important. When we first got to New York in Dec '58, we looked at many places to live, one was on College and 172nd Street, right by Claremont Park, a couple of blocks east of the Concourse, it seemed like a nice stable neighborhood. My brother and i accidentally went by the place in April '64, remembered it because the building was triangular, totally different vibe in the neighborhood. In early '69, we went to see a movie on 170th St right below the Concourse, and had the feeling we weren't safe at all. This was even more pronounced when i visited New York in Summer '71 (had moved to California after leaving Inwood). I had wondered whether i had felt previously that the area was deteriorating because of racial bias (my family was shall we say intolerant), but by Summer '71, i'd become a proto-hippie, and i still felt quite unsafe. Even the far northern end of the Concourse (last station of the D Train) seemed like it was deteriorating.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 26 Nov 09 08:25
I a agree with <jstrahl> that the Cross-Bronx Expressway was a huge contributory factor to the the decline of the Bronx. That said, I think you are right on about how the political economic of FHA and VA mortgage insurance and the other incentives to develop the suburbs were the primary factors in urban decay. Add to this the incremental loss of blue-collar manufacturing jobs. New York was built on waves of immigrant labor, but those jobs started going south and then went offshore. There were plenty of migrants waiting for their turn, but there were no more jobs. The way Robert Moses planned and built the highway not only destroyed the neighborhoods, but it was a knock-out punch. Major highways were built in cities all over the country without the level of destruction. Remember, most non-New York Americans' introduction to the Bronx was Mollie Goldberg and her neighbor Mrs. Bloom across the clothslines in the next building. When the Goldbergs moved out to the suburbs on the Island, the long-standing show folded. The Cross-Bronx not only destroyed the buildings physically, it put into play the forces that affected property values,compromised the economics the rental market, and chased out any viable commercial activity.
Jeffrey G. Strahl (jstrahl) Thu 26 Nov 09 10:35
Good points, David, though i'd have to say every highway project did bring a considerable level of destruction, even if not as drastic as in The Bronx. Another factor i remember was in early '64, i was a high school junior (graduated June '65), several schools around Claremont Park (which is just east of the Concourse, west of Crotona Park) were picked for a bussing project, in the face of enormous opposition. This followed several years of crime increase,which while real enough was also sensationalized by the media, including a school teacher who was with her elementary school class in Crotona Park when a thug with a gun grabbed her in front of the class, took her into nearby woods and raped her. This no doubt contributed to "white flight". Lots of my high school friends lived in that neighborhood, i remember that though they were all generally quite "liberal" (i was a junior Goldwaterite) they were expressing increasing fears about living in the area.
Searchlight Casting (jstrahl) Thu 26 Nov 09 21:12
My bad, i think the theater where my high school graduation took place was actually Lowe's Paradise, at 188th and the Concourse. And Alexanders went under years ago, then replaced by another store which also went under, now it's The Children's Place.
Searchlight Casting (jstrahl) Fri 27 Nov 09 10:10
>Also visited my great aunt's dairy farm in Middle Village, Queens.< Were there actually farms in Middle Village into the '60s? I happened upon Middle Village while just doing exploratory walking in Queens summer '67, came back a few times. I had a dream in '68 about visiting relatives living on a farm in Middle Village, decided it was just dream free association with the word "village", but you are saying there were actually farms there till almost that time? Interesting.
Connie Rosenblum (crosenblum) Fri 27 Nov 09 13:37
Hi, Sharon-- Where upstate? Middletown, New York. Actually, just 60 miles north of NYC, but they call it upstate. -------------- and to Jeffrey and david-- your comments on the Cross Bronx echo a lot of what I've been hearing when I speak to groups about my book. Audiences are almost evenly split as to whether the highway was the major element that sounded the death knell of the borough. Some very smart friends and colleagues disagree with me on this matter, and there are surely compelling arguments on both sides. I have a feeling that this is something people will be debating for years to come. One thing is for sure. in addition to the concrete and measurable impact of the Cross Bronx, the highway became a very powerful metaphor for much that was going wrong in the Bronx in those years. Jeffrey, re your high school graduation, you're right, almost certainly it was held at Loew's Paradise, just south of Fordham Road, long since closed as a movie theater but recently restored to much of its original 1929 glory. The Alexander's on the northwest corner of the Concourse and Fordham Road is long-gone also, like so much in the neighborhood.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 27 Nov 09 17:09
Here is my last comment on impact of the Cross-Bronx. Brooklyn had a similar population as the Bronx in terms of race, ethnic groups, and religions. They were both subjected to the same national political economic forces that impacted the entire nation. They both had major highways built through them. Why then was Brooklyn spared the major infrastructure and social destruction that happened in the Bronx? I would argue that the Belt Parkway was build through primarily industrial and waterfront territory instead of residential neighborhoods. The major population dislocations of cutting through Tremont, East Tremont, and adjacent neighborhoods in the Bronx had profound social and economic impacts in addition to the effects of the national trends.
Searchlight Casting (jstrahl) Fri 27 Nov 09 23:15
>I would argue that the Belt Parkway was build through primarily industrial and waterfront territory instead of residential neighborhoods. The major population dislocations of cutting through Tremont, East Tremont, and adjacent neighborhoods in the Bronx had profound social and economic impacts in addition to the effects of the national trends.< Exactly. The Belt fitted its name, skirted the outside of Brooklyn, which had no major freeway built across it, the Gowanus Expressway only goes in a few blocks and turns into Ocean Parkway, which is not limited access. The Interborough comes in from Queens but suddenly ends once inside Brooklyn.Robert Moses wanted more (maybe to connect the two?), couldn't get it. I remember riding a bus along almost the entirety of Tremont Avenue in '64, from the Hall of Fame in the far west Bronx to near the Throggs Neck Bridge (with Tremont and East Tremont in the middle of the route), you could see the impact zone quite clearly. Several of my high school friends lived between Tremont and Crotona Park, an area which became an isolated enclave and got emptied out in the mid-late '60s. Connie: thanks for the update on Lowe's, i'm glad it survived, a really neat old theater. Alexander's is now The Children's Place, i "went by there" the other day via Google Maps street level. Great photos of the Grand Concourse at http://www.forgotten-ny.com/STREET%20SCENES/concourse2/concourse.html Even has a photo of Lowe's. See link near beginning for the first part of this, has a photo of an interesting cross over bridge and of Alexanders.
Connie Rosenblum (crosenblum) Sat 28 Nov 09 09:00
Jeffrey, david-- obviously, the whole issue of superhighways plowing through urban neighborhoods is sensitive and complex, and there are no simple or easy answers. But one thing that strikes me about both of your comments is that they underscore how fragile urban neighborhoods are, and also mysterious. it's hard to explain why some endure and some don't, even when buffeted by similar forces. when i was writing about the bronx, i grappled with this issue mightily, the one thing i wanted NOT to do was offer easy or simplistic answers. your comments make clear how convoluted the whole subject is, and not just in NYC.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Sat 28 Nov 09 10:09
Fair enough. When I read your book you mentioned the early groups that convened in the 19th century bucolic, rural Bronx. The name that jumped off of the page at me was the "schnorrer's club." (schnorrer is yiddish for begger). What the hell was that? What was the group like and how did they take a name like that?
David Gans (tnf) Sat 28 Nov 09 11:42
Isn't schnorrer more like "freeloader" than "beggar"?
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 28 Nov 09 11:50
As I understand it (IANAJ), it's a ritual beggar who stands outside weddings and bar mitzvahs and other happy occasions. You get a mitzvah for giving him money, and it was a standard occupation in many of the Russian and Polish Jewish communities.
Searchlight Casting (jstrahl) Sat 28 Nov 09 15:25
Sounds like a good career move:-) Connie: to clarify my own stance, i'm not saying the freeway was the reason. For one thing, i saw firsthand the effect of the larger economic/social trends upon my neighborhood, which was not impacted by the Cross Bronx Expressway. Inwood is technically in Manhattan, but based upon my observations and experiences, it (and the adjacent low-lying section of what is thought of as Washington Heights, along Broadway, as well as Ft George Hill, has/had much more in common with the West Bronx than with other Manhattan neighborhoods: same geography of hills and valleys, same type of common apartment building architecture, similar curving streets (fitting the terrain), similar ethnic population (predominately Irish, Italian, Jews of various European origins 50 years ago, Latinos and African Americans today). People from my 'hood who went to college locally, if they didn't get into CCNY, would go to what was then Hunter College in The Bronx, now it's Herbert Lehman college (like CCNY, a campus of the City University). People would be more apt to go shopping in The Bronx than in Midtown Manhattan. (there is also the Marble Hill area to Inwood's north, which is politically in Manhattan, but now physically in The Bronx, though that was due to a human-created change in the course of the Harlem "River", which left Marble Hill like an island isolated from the rest of The Bronx by a low-lying area used as a train yard, and by the "River" from Manhattan). I found the West Bronx at that point (University Heights, Highbridge, Kingsbridge Heights,.. just like "home", so familiar did it feel. And i started seeing Inwood change within a couple of years after we moved there in '59. Our apartment building was bought by a realty company from its live-in landlord, the realty started cutting back maintenance, we'd get our heat suddenly turned off in the middle of winter, started getting roaches and then rats,.. We moved to another place in the area in '64, but the deterioration continued. When i visited in 1980, last time i was in New York, the area looked like a stereotypical South Bronx 'hood, abandoned buildings, some torched, sketchy streets that were scary even during the day,... So a freeway is not a requirement to ruin an area, though of course it's hard to isolate what the freeway caused from what was happening elsewhere nearby.
Connie Rosenblum (crosenblum) Sat 28 Nov 09 17:28
Hi, Ed and David-- You're right about the meaning of schnorrer, but as it happens, and i'm sure there's some interesting etymological history here, this was a quite exclusive organization of the borough's movers and shakers of the day. They were largely German, as was the area's elite in that era, and many came from powerful brewer families. If Louis Risse wanted powerful political backing for his plan for the Grand Concourse, he could not have come to a better place. When I was doing my research, I came across some fascinating descriptions of this organization and of the high-powered membership, and I could easily have gone off on a tangent saying more about this group.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Sun 29 Nov 09 10:18
I like your survey of literature on the Bronx and the Concourse. You start with Dreiser and then bring us up to the present with Docterow and Charyn. Did you include Kate Simon's memoirs? What did you think of her views? Also, did you know that Henry Roth wrote about his experiences working as a plumber's assistant building tenements in the Bronx? That can be found in "Mercy on a Rude Stream" and they are almost ethnographic in description. Finally, did you interview Marshall Berman? What did he have to say about your book? He is a unique species of being. Even though I've never met him, I'd call him the "smartest kid on the block." Or the smartest guy in the Bronx. I'm sure Jeffrey would agree that a few of his type walked through the halls of Bronx Science.
Searchlight Casting (jstrahl) Sun 29 Nov 09 14:07
Indeed. Smart guy, teaches at my alma matter (CCNY), sees through post-modernism. Probably the best known of my high school class, unfortunately, is someone i'm not too enamored of, neo-con writer Josh Muravchik, in Bronx Science he was a high achiever grade wise but always in discipline problems, he often disrupted the pledge of allegiance in morning assembly, he was a shaggy haired radical, ahead of his time, turned 180 degrees in college (CCNY too) around '67-8. Not exactly serious literature, but Car 54 Where Are You? provided quite a few glimpses into daily life in The Bronx of the early-mid '60s, one reason i liked watching it, being able to say "I recognize this scene".:-)
Searchlight Casting (jstrahl) Sun 29 Nov 09 21:28
A topic that has been forgotten in many accounts of the '60s is the huge school boycott of 2/3/64, in which 45% of New York public school students stayed home to support calls for school integration efforts, including the use of busing. The Concourse area was one of the key pressure points in this, as i mentioned there were 2 schools in that area which were supposed to be paired up for a busing exchange, in the Claremont Park vicinity (right east of the Concourse and 170th St). And Bronx Science (which is just a few blocks to the west of the Concourse) was heavily impacted. I remember it as a very turbulent day, with lots of people who used to be friends getting into near fist fights. There were very few blacks and Puerto Ricans in the student body, but lots of the "white" students sympathized, this after all was a very academically oriented school (one had to take a competitive test and get lots of teacher recommendations to get in), i think only 1 (maybe 2) of my classmates didn't go on to college, more than a few went on to the Ivy Leagues. So lots of the students were already quite active politically. Josh Muravchik was in fact one of the loudest supporters of the boycott. This unfortunately primarily served to scare "white" parents yet further into moving out of The Bronx. (i'm writing as someone who is now absolutely opposed to racism and who is convinced that African Americans have gotten and continue to get a raw deal in this society, in education and otherwise. Back then i was pretty much still a creation of my racist upbringing. But i still see little value to grabbing young children and sending them on bus rides all over the place, outside their neighborhoods, in order to satisfy some arbitrary quotas decided upon by anonymous bureaucrats who send their own kids to private schools).
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