Peter Feinman: The Bronx State of History


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502px-Bronx1867What is the Bronx state of history? Despite its long history, it is only 100 years ago when it was officially recognized as a county in New York State. Bronx County Historical Society educator Angel Hernandez will speak on the early history of The Bronx through its achieving county status on March 29 at The Bronx Archives Building.

On April 9, The Bronx County Historical Society will present an exhibition at the Museum of Bronx History titled “Bronx County – 100 Years.” One notes that this recognition of county status occurred subsequent to the creation of the expanded New York City.

The Bronx differs from the other boroughs in New York in that its name includes the definite article “the.” One doesn’t refer to “the Brooklyn” or “the Queens” but one does say “the Bronx.” Indeed to drop the article would expose one as a foreigner unfamiliar with the borough. One should also note that it is the New-York Historical Society as well. Some of the old traits linger.

One can still visit the colonial home of the Broncks. However that homestead is in Greene County and from a collateral line of the ethnically Swedish Dutch family who gave its name to the borough. As Dave Dorpfeld, the Greene County historian reminded me, the family home, where I get seasick standing due to its lack of right angles joining the walls and the floor, celebrated its 350th anniversary in 2013. In the Bronx, traces of the original Dutch settlers are fleeting and often in name only like Van Cortlandt Park which had been purchased in 1646 by Adriaen Van Der Donck who gave his name to Yonkers in Westchester County.

The Bronx itself was part of Westchester and there is a story to be told about how it and other parts of the mainland became part of what is now New York City. One interesting trivia factoid is that the Bronx River served as a dividing line between the towns that were in New York City to the west and those that weren’t to the east. The Bronx River itself has experienced somewhat of a revival. Recently the former toxic river amidst unappetizing industrial and commercial structures became home to over 100,000 oysters, a small down-payment to restore what once was ubiquitous along the river. People walk and paddle the river now as well.

The Bronx River Parkway follows that river. It serves as a reminder that when these roads were first built they were called “parkways” because they were “ways” or “roads” which were in parks. They followed the natural contours of the river valleys unlike the Interstate system. These narrow winding roads such as the Saw Mill River Parkway and the Hutchinson River Parkway were built for an earlier era prior to mass commuting and still are subject to flooding. My mother remembers when my grandfather took the family for an outing from New York to drive the Bronx River Parkway. Traffic was less than. Now in parts of Westchester, the parkway is closed on Sundays for biking. Times change.

Other changes have occurred as well. In this post-Solomon Northup era, students at Public School 48 appear to have uncovered an African slave burial ground in Joseph Rodman Drake Park. The school has asked the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to officially recognize the park. This work was spearheaded by Philip Panaritis of the NYC Education Department who was involved in the Teaching American History program. He is a strong advocate of bringing local history, specifically The Bronx, into the school curriculum. In fact, Andrew Meyers, of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx [full disclosure: I am a graduate] has taught a high school course using the borough as a field school for the students. Shouldn’t every borough or county at least have an elective on its own history?

This year, the Grand Course celebrates its centennial…or at least it is the 100th anniversary of its completion. It is difficult today to fully experience the impact and significance of that accomplishment. Last year I attended a symposium at the Bronx Zoo in honor of the 125th anniversary of The Bronx Parks. The images displayed of what the borough looked like at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century were truly remarkable. I refer to the huge expanses of land not that long ago that had no buildings, no streets, and no cars. The completion of the Grand Course heralded a transformation of the borough as immigrants poured in often following the subway lines from lower Manhattan where they had first settled after they arrived. To see The Bronx just before the Grand Concourse and Yankee Stadium were built is to travel back in time to one far removed from the physical reality of the borough today. It was an astonishingly quick transformation.

Back then, they though grand. The Grand Concourse was exactly what is name meant. It was a splendid street of magnificent art deco buildings and a classy place to stroll. Another example of the grand was in the Post Offices. The General Post Office on the Grand Course is now up for sale by the cash-starved United States Post Office. The Depression-era building is one of those spacious high-ceilinged buildings one doesn’t often see anymore. It is graced with 13 huge murals as was the style in many government facilities built during the Depression. Representative Jose Serrano, himself an immigrant as child, said “Those murals are part of the history of that community.” The building once intended to foster pride in the community succeeded but in the internet era it has become functionally obsolete. As part of the social fabric of a community which really began in the 20th century, it is a piece of its heart and soul whose value transcends the number of stamps purchased or letters mailed. Here is a need for recycling for the 21st century.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts has launched a “Back in the Bronx” to reach out to those who have left the borough. The museum itself began in 1971 in the courthouse before moving to a former synagogue on the Grand Course, an example of building recycling. Allison Chernow, the museum director of external affairs conceived the program based on a magazine of the same name published by a former high school teacher in the Bronx. Stephen Samtur, the teacher turned publisher, organized a reunion of 1100 Bronxites. This has spurred the Bronx Museum of the Arts to maintain the momentum. Holly Block, the museum executive director seeks to celebrate the collective experiences that make up the Bronx identity. One wonders how many paths through history could be created in the borough if the program of that name sought to sustain community identity.

So what should be done? Well, the answer is the same as it was for Brooklyn only with a change of names. Reuben Diaz, The Bronx Borough President, should convene a meeting of the Bronx history community with the Bronx Borough Historian, Bronx County Historical Society, Bronx Museum of Arts, and Bronx Library Center. The agenda items of the meeting should include planning for

1. Having an annual Bronx History Conference where all history organizations can have display tables

2. Having an annual Bronx High School History Conference for student presentations

3. Including Bronx history and civics with field trips in the Common Core Curriculum

4. Designing Bronx Paths through History for the different neighborhoods and themes of the borough’s past for residents, students, and tourists.

As filmaker José Gonzalez said about the reopening of the High Bridge, “Open that bridge, teach them the history and give them pride in their neighborhood.” If you don’t organize to tell your story, it will disappear just like those murals you are fighting to save.

6 thoughts on “Peter Feinman: The Bronx State of History

  1. Bob Ulrich

    I think the term “parkway” was given by Robert Moses to the series of roads that connected his new park system together, one park to the next one. In a heavy handed attempt to keep the NYC poor from despoiling his new parks, he insured the overpasses be constructed too low to permit city busses to pass under ! He did, however, also build community swimming pools in Manhattan to offer an alternative form of recreation to these people.

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  2. Brian G. Andersson

    Nice job. This year is also the 375th of Jonas Jonasson Bronck’s arrival. And now, most will now acknowledge his Swedishness, including a group in Bronck’s hometown, who have established a “Jonas Bronck Center” in Sävsjö. I have personally informed the King of this fact and we may one day host him. We’ll see……

    All the best.

    BGAndersson

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  3. Bob Ulrich

    Interesting article in the Times recently about Marble Hill, a “no-man’s land”, physically in the Bronx, but belonging to Manhattan. Came about when a direct canal was dug between the Harlem R and the Hudson R at Spuyten Dyvel. The original river route got filed in eventually, BUT, Manhattan never gave up ownership of the propert, now separated from it by this “new” canal. Fire and Police services are covered by the Bronx, but legally, it is Manhattan property !

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  4. ray phillips

    Bob, Your comment on the canal opened between The Bronx and Manhattan Island is a not-often told story. (And I won’t attempt telling it here.) Taking longer to construct that the Panama Canal, it changed the geography of the areas. Once opened, it was no longer possible to walk across the Harlem River at low tide as the native Americans once did before Kingsbridge. The Johnson Iron Foundry where the Ranger’s Office at Inwood Park now stands and the large oyster middens along the northern shore are long gone.

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  5. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman

    A reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent me the following comment:

    I grew up — at least a little ways — in The Bronx. My parents lived in Astoria, but I was born 2 months premature, and my mother took public transport and a cab with a very nervous driver (!) to Manhattan Lying In Hospital. While she was there, dad got a job as the “super” in an apartment house on 171st St. , a block from the Third Avenue “El,” so she and I came “home” to the Bronx. He later was moved to a job as super in a 54-family apartment house at 2505 Lorillard Place. We were not far from Fordham University and within walking distance of the Bronx Zoo. (We must also have been near the Bronx Co. Courthouse, because during the infamous Bruno Hauptmann kidnapping trial, his wife lived in an apartment in our house, and my mother “babysat” with their 3-year-old son. I remember being in my crib and being shocked when he “pooped” on the floor. Poor kid; his world must have been falling apart.)

    We used to go to the Zoo quite often on Sundays — free entertainment, and outdoors! When I got lost, my parents could always find me either at the seal cage or the penguin pool. Later they updated things to the “World of the Night,” the African Veldt (lions and tigers — oh, my — wandering loose, far below and well fenced-off from the public). I remember being with my mother in the building where they housed the hippos. One of them turned its back on the public and really “let loose.” The “public” moved back very fast! Later we came back for another look, and mama hippo was relaxing with her chin in the “pile” she had created! I also got to ride a camel once — that was a thrill! (I also remember when the first panda came to the zoo! I think that was after we moved.)

    I also remember that right next door to the left of the Lorillard Pl. house was a private house, set very far back from the street (as I remember it, anyway), with a huge flower garden in front.
    Across the street was a high school. The students used to sneak over to our apartment house and ride the elevator during their lunch hour! It was either Angelo Patri H.S. or was named after a female saint; don’t remember which. One was on Fordham road itself, the other across from us. I started kindergarten somewhere around there, but we moved to upper Manhattan while I was in Kindergarten, as my father opened the Inwood Pet Shop on Broadway near 204th St.

    Mother would walk to Poe Park (?) or at least some park which contained the Poe Cottage — as in Edgar Allen. I don’t remember that, however.

    Reply

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