President’s Letter: August 2023
Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein
A couple of weekends ago, on a perfect late summer Saturday, I took the MAS Upper Grand Concourse Tour with Alexandra Maruri. I confess that I had two reasons to join the tour. The first is that I spent a lot of time in this part of the Bronx because I attended the Bronx High School of Science. (As it happened there were two other tour takers with me who share that alma mater. Neil deGrasse Tyson also went to Bronx Science too but didn’t make the tour!)
The other purpose of my perambulation was that this tour is being featured on News 12 this week. And I wanted to see it for myself. In some ways the Upper Grand Concourse is the Hollywood Blvd. of New York City. It was home to Rob Reiner, Penny Marshall, and Stanley Kubrick to name but a few of its luminaries.
This was a bookend tour to one I took of the lower Grand Concourse walk during Jane’s Walk weekend. The Grand Concourse is still going strong. The architectural styles are more varied now with some modern apartment buildings taking the place of private homes. However, it still feels all of a piece. There were lots of people out on a sunny Saturday, running errands and certainly curious about the gaggle of folks making their way down the boulevard.
The richness of the stories that Alexandra shared were both enlightening and heartening. She grew up in the neighborhoods here and told tales of her own childhood riding a bike up and down the Concourse when some of the lanes were closed to traffic – a predecessor perhaps to the Open Streets of today. She shared colorful word pictures of the music that enlivened those streets and of sitting as a teen with fellow neighborhood kids on the porch of Poe Cottage with the caretaker. Those caretaker’s stories must have been fantastic to hold the attention of active teens!
I grew up in the Bronx at the time when the borough was on fire. Howard Cosell, the sportscaster for the Yankees is said to coin the phrase “the Bronx is burning.” Landlords were destroying buildings for insurance and stable neighborhoods were being totally undermined by systematic government programs. Whole communities lost fire protection, garbage removal, and policing as pressure to empty the Bronx of poor neighborhoods that had been Jewish, Italian, and Irish but were increasingly African American and Latino (Puerto Rican, Dominican and Honduran) immigrants.
I grew up close enough to the South Bronx to have seen the remnants of this horrific hollowing out of neighborhoods. I have memories of buildings with no fourth wall and squatters living inside. This was not the New York City, the sparkling city by the harbor, that drew people from all over the United States and the world seeking a better life.
I recently heard State Assemblymember Tony Simone talk about the New York City he grew up in, a place where fire fighters and bankers lived on the same block. He was describing the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That is a lovely way to describe the often diverse building stock that housed families from a range of economic classes and countries of origin.
This resonates for me. The neighborhoods I like the most are ones of contrasts in the best sense, different people, the long-time tenants, the newer comers, the accommodation of those less and better off all in one place. And neighborhoods that take a soupcon of pride in that mix.
The heartening part of Alexandra’s tour was that the Grand Concourse still proclaims its neighborhood pride.
The influx of immigrants into New York is challenging our ability to absorb the many newcomers. This influx is on top of the pandemic impacts on low-income neighborhoods largely reliant on the service economy. This is without a doubt a difficult moment for the city. But one thing that is surely not the answer is the lack of compassion that we have periodically been hearing from the Mayor’s Office. Whether the desire to roll back the “right to shelter” law or the clearing of merchants from Corona Plaza, this lack of compassion is, at the very least, tone deaf.
It is probably too much to imagine Mayor Adams taking Alexandra’s tour. However, as we ended at the empty Kingsbridge Armory with its fantastical parapets and enormous entry door, I hoped that we will hear more soon about the Mayor and Governor Hochul’s commitment to finding a new use for that building. It is essential that the new use or uses compliments and highlights the vibrant neighborhood it inhabits. The Bronx and the city deserve that.
I hope that you find a wonderful New York adventure this Labor Day weekend. Thanks for all your support.
President, Municipal Art Society of New York