Book review – Boulevard of Dreams

<i>The Bronx's artists' colony: As Grand Concourse's centennial approaches, new book celebrates the boulevard's buildings </i>

By Constance Rosenblum, NYU PRESS, 277 pages, $27.95
Reviewed by Sara Polsky

In its heyday, everyone either lived there or wanted to. That’s how Constance Rosenblum describes the Grand Concourse in the Bronx — the 4.5-mile road that will celebrate its centennial this November.

The boulevard began with a French-born engineer named Louis Risse, whose vision for the thoroughfare was inspired by hunting expeditions in the neighborhood. Risse initially imagined the Grand Concourse as a 182-foot-wide road with lanes for cyclists, pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages and trolleys. Between the time Risse conceived of the Concourse and the time it opened on an inauspiciously stormy day in 1909, parts of the design had already been retooled to make way for automobiles.

That was far from the first shift in tenor for the road, which forms the backbone of “Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx,” a microhistory by the editor of the now-defunct New York Times City section.

The street’s evolution makes for a compelling historical narrative that is worth telling. However, the book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, and as a result, it sometimes seems jumpy.

The thematic back-and-forth reduces the impact of Rosenblum’s narrative of the street’s rise and fall. It’s hard to keep track of which residents, described in different chapters, occupied the street at the same time, and when the boulevard’s most important buildings were constructed in relation to each other.

But as an argument about a cultural artifact, rather than a straightforward history, “Boulevard of Dreams” does its job. Rosenblum makes the case that the Grand Concourse’s first 100 years had a lasting sociological and cultural impact on the West Bronx and the city as a whole, and that the street deserves to be preserved for its next century.

As Rosenblum describes, from the 1920s through the 1950s, the boulevard was home to upwardly mobile Jewish, Irish and Italian families who moved from Lower East Side tenements to the East Bronx and then to the Grand Concourse-centered West Bronx. Artists and writers, including E.L. Doctorow and Stanley Kubrick, grew up in the street’s shadow in those years and admitted its influence on their later work.

However, by the early 1960s, the street began to lose some of its stability, residents believed, as drugs and poverty started plaguing the neighborhood. Today, the area is changing again, with residents moving in who are determined to rehabilitate the street’s image as, in Rosenblum’s words, a “battered” neighborhood whose best days seem behind it.

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Rosenblum also highlights the Grand Concourse’s real estate and development.

The street’s groundbreaking buildings included the Theodore Roosevelt at 171st Street, which was reportedly the world’s largest apartment house when it opened in 1922. The boulevard was also the site of innovation in affordable housing: Architect Andrew Thomas popularized the idea of garden apartments for middle-income residents with Thomas Gardens at 840 Grand Concourse.

Between 1935 and 1941, nearly 40 Art Deco apartment buildings were built on the Grand Concourse. The buildings’ lobbies had terrazzo floors, statues, embossed elevator doors and mosaics. The apartments themselves had sunken living rooms and corner windows.

Rosenblum describes the buildings as “enormously beguiling, studded with details and flourishes that almost tumble over themselves in an effort to please.” Even without the photographs included in the book, her descriptions would be three-dimensional enough to visualize.

The Art Deco apartment houses were a source of pride for residents and gave them the feeling of living on the cusp of modernity at an important historical moment. But the traditional five- and six-story apartment houses that alternated with newer-style towers also served an important function, Rosenblum argues, replicating the closeness of Lower East Side tenement life for Jews who wanted upward mobility but did not want to leave the community they knew behind.

The architects who created the buildings were little-known outside the Bronx, but Rosenblum convincingly re-establishes their reputations for her readers. Israel Crausman, Charles Kreymborg, William Hohauser, Jacob Felson and Horace Ginsbern were some of the architects whose work had the deepest impact on the face of the Grand Concourse. Ginsbern, in particular, was responsible for 14 apartment buildings on the boulevard. His most famous, in Rosenblum’s view, was the Fish building, the nickname given to 1150 Grand Concourse, which featured mosaics with “a fantasia of marine life.”

As the character of the West Bronx began to change in the early 1960s, so did its buildings. Although the most elegant structures on the Grand Concourse were largely spared, buildings on adjacent streets were abandoned or burned. By 1980, the residents were ordered out of Noonan Plaza, one of Ginsbern’s celebrated designs. The city took over the dilapidated Concourse Plaza, a hotel where weddings and celebrations were once held.

Some residents even blamed real estate development in the West Bronx generally for the death of the Grand Concourse, as people left the street for new projects, according to Rosenblum.

In December 1968, for example, the Co-op City complex opened on the Hutchinson River. The complex was designed to include 15,372 apartments, three shopping centers and six schools. Two-bedroom apartments hit the market for $2,250, and many of the first applicants were Grand Concourse residents. Newspaper reports at the time accused Co-op City of “siphoning” residents away from the Grand Concourse, though other factors, including the creation of the Cross Bronx Expressway, also contributed to the street’s decline.

Rosenblum maintains a reporter’s neutrality on the questions of why the Grand Concourse declined and how it should be revamped for the future, falling back on historical narrative rather than opinion. For a reader interested in explanations for the changes that have occurred in the West Bronx, her stance can be frustrating at times. But regardless, Rosenblum’s affection for the boulevard still peeks winningly through.