By: Joel Epstein
Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge, I thought, anything at all. — The Great Gatsby
It has been six months since I affixed a mezuzah to the doorpost of my Harlem apartment. Though I am not religious, that is something I do. I picked this place because I like the area, not because there is a synagogue nearby. I live at 150th Street and as best I can tell, this is not an area from which an old shul is a block away. In other words, it’s not the Bronx.
Still, even here in West Harlem, the doorpost reveals that mine is not the first mezuzah to adorn this apartment. Like in so much of the city, many different groups have called this part of Harlem home.
From my desk I look out on the landmark James Bailey House with its wedding cake design, red brick NYCHA projects further to the east and Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx off in the distance. The morning skies are often beautiful from my window albeit without the palms trees and lemon blossom-scented air I long enjoyed from my window in Los Angeles. Seated at my desk I don’t see the gas station that mars this stretch of Saint Nicholas Avenue and partially obstructs my view of the famous circus showman’s home. A friend says the gas station reminds her of an Edward Hopper painting. I say, so much for zoning.
Being back in brick and terra-cotta New York after decades away has been all I hoped for. While I have no regrets about my time out on the Best Coast, New York was always home and probably always will be. Each day here is filled with memories as well as new experiences. A walker in the city, I take it all in, savoring the city’s sights, sounds, tastes and variety anew. The view has changed, or rather my perspective is different, but I still marvel at all that I get to see and experience daily.
With the midterm election looming I am waiting for Bert Lewis, the father of a childhood friend. Our destination is the Bronx from which he hails and a place that has inexplicably called to me since I was a toddler. I am a Bronx boy of sorts as well, though I was born in San Francisco. I like to say that I am the only one who ever moved from San Francisco to the Bronx. At that age I was pretty much carried there by my Brooklyn-raised parents returning east so my father could continue his medical training at Montefiore Hospital.
A few minutes pass and Bert pulls up in his car. As much as I like to walk from my apartment to the Bronx, Bert has had his exercise for the day and balked at my suggestion. Fair enough, on this rainy day we can certainly cover more ground in a car.
Like many visitors to my ‘hood Bert hasn’t been here before or at least it has been a long time. So I point out the Bailey House and the stately brownstones and small apartment buildings on Saint Nicholas Avenue in the 140s. At 141st Street we turn right and head up the steep hill past Hamilton Grange, across Convent Avenue and over to Amsterdam Avenue. From there it is south to 135th where we hang another left bringing us past the landmark Croton Aqueduct Gate House at Convent Avenue to the former home of Music & Art, the famed high school for talented students on Saint Nicholas Terrace that Bert commuted to on the D train many decades earlier from the Bronx.
Now retired, Bert who made a living in real estate, has been an artist for as long as I have known him. So I was surprised by his blank stare when I asked him when was the last time he had walked through City College. Since moving to the neighborhood, this collection of neo-Gothic architectural masterpieces has become part of my daily constitutional. For Bert, Music & Art had been a beeline from the subway station up the steep grade of Saint Nicholas Park and back again after school. Maybe on a future jaunt I will show him the beautiful murals and grand auditorium in Shepard Hall and other parts of the Harvard of the proletariat campus.
Past the new graduate architecture and science buildings south of the former Music & Art we turn right and head back to Amsterdam Avenue to travel north again. At 141st Street and Convent Avenue my daily jaunt continues along what have to be some of the finest residential blocks in all of Manhattan. Like everyone I walk or drive here with, Bert is stunned to find the area as beautiful as it is. Even the brutalist Church of the Crucifixion at 149th Street and Convent can’t dim our mood.
Before heading to our planned destination for the day, it seems natural that our next detour should be the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Sylvan Terrace at 160th Street. On the way, I point out the lovingly maintained Convent Garden and the former home of Duke Ellington at 935 Saint Nicholas Avenue. At Morris-Jumel Mansion we park the car across from Sylvan Terrace, an English style, cobblestoned mews and take a walk around the mansion and gardens. The view from the heights attests to what made this such a fine headquarters for General George Washington in September and October 1776.
Visiting the sober mansion and walking along the block’s cobblestone streets I love the contrast with the bodegas, discount stores and lively streetscape just a block away.
Though I could keep the upper Manhattan tour going without breaking a sweat, it is time to cross the bridge to the Bronx, ostensibly the reason for our reunion.
Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge, I thought, anything at all.
While for Fitzgerald, Manhattan was where anything could happen, for me it is in the Bronx and other less traveled corners of the city.
Our route across the Harlem River is the beige erector set Macombs Dam Bridge at 155th Street which drops us at Yankee Stadium at 161st Street and Jerome Avenue. The home that Ruth built can wait as our first stop is a brick and terra cotta stunner of an apartment building at 163rd Street and Jerome. Though the front of the building is somewhat obscured by scaffolding, it is easy to see and appreciate the long-gone craftsmanship and love that went into the building’s facade. When we swing around and head back toward the ballpark Bert reminisces about the summer years ago when a friend of the family, a reporter for a once grand New York daily, blessed him with a pair or press passes that gave him special access to the stadium. That was the summer he soured on the Bronx Bombers, watching the shenanigans and listening to the crude boasts of the Yankee lineup from just above their dugout.
From Ruth’s house it is east on 161st Street, to the Acropolis-like Bronx County Courthouse and Kilmer Park with its tribute to Heinrich Heine at the Grand Concourse.
At the light we turn left at the Concourse because that is what you have to do to appreciate the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx.
Art deco abounds here on what is still for me one of New York’s finest boulevards. Sure, it take some imagination to appreciate the faded grandeur of the avenue. The current residents of the Concourse don’t have the cash and the owners of the buildings lack the will to keep up the facades and interiors of landmarks like 1150 Grand Concourse and the Andrew Freedman Home.
The Freedman Home, a former residence for wealthy Bronxites who had fallen on hard times, is now a community arts space. When I first stumbled upon it, a lively gathering of green and white clad men and women from Sierra Leone were assembled to learn about the upcoming election in that West African country.
Further north, at Mt. Eden Parkway and Bronx Lebanon Hospital where my sister Susie was born, we turn right toward Claremont Park and Topping Avenue where Bert grew up. The sight of the hospital reminds me of the story my parents always told when I was growing up and would drive past the Loew’s Paradise on the Concourse near Fordham Road. The night that Susie was born my parents were watching Dr. Strangelove at the Loew’s when my mother went into labor. To this day, my parents haven’t seen the end of the anti-war masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, another child of the Bronx.
The Mt. Eden Malls are quite pretty in the fall, with the leaves turning on the towering deciduous trees that have grown so tall since Bert lived nearby. Claremont Park is beautiful too, even in the rain, quiet and inviting on an early November afternoon. Were we in Brooklyn this park would be another Fort Greene Park teaming with hipster families with pricey strollers and sustainable bamboo toys for their rug rats; the old timers shaking their heads at the changes to their ‘hood. On Saturdays, a farmers market would sell locally grown fruits and vegetables and artisanal bread and pies baked in repurposed light manufacturing lofts nearby.
Bert’s building on Topping Avenue is still there, no worse for wear. Passing by he reminisces about his mother’s insistence that her children eat their vegetables and how his sister would hide the boiled peas she hated behind a radiator near the kitchen table.
Just north of Bert’s old apartment on Topping Avenue the Bronx is cut in two by the Cross Bronx Expressway, the permanent gash that keeps on giving. In the 1970s and 80s, parts of the Bronx were nearly burned to the ground but somehow it lives on. In spite of the arson and deep wounds inflicted by Robert Moses who built the Cross Bronx Expressway and Co-op City, built by the Amagamated Clothing Workers of America, the Bronx somehow rose from the ashes to continue to serve as the home and sometimes land of opportunity to new immigrants and native born New Yorkers.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is the favorite expression of my mother, a child of Brooklyn who has also done her time in the Bronx. How often have I bemoaned the fact that instead of investing in the cities and public transit, unions continue to use their pension funds to fund suburban development and other neighborhood killing projects like Co-op City.
The Cross Bronx Expressway and the flight of 40,000 plus residents to the transit desert of Co-op City was a one-two punch to the Bronx. And who ever heard of building a neighborhood out in the sticks without a subway or commuter rail station? A plan to extend the IRT Pelham Line to Co-op City ran out of money back in the late 1960s and the MTA has been been planning to build a Co-op City Metro-North station since the 1970s. As of October 2018, the agency was blaming Amtrak for holding up plans for new stations at Co-Op City, Morris Park, Parkchester and Hunt’s Point.
Still, the Bronx lives on in its vibrant street life, its architectural heritage, its well-known treasures like the Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo and hidden gems like the pedestrian-only Aqueduct Walk. In the words of many Bronx residents, a falta de pan, buenas son tortas.
The Aqueduct Walk sits on top of the Croton Reservoir aqueduct built to bring clean, soft Catskill water to the city. From West Fordham Road I like to take Aqueduct Walk south to Bronx Community College, the former NYU Uptown campus that crowns the bluffs of University Heights.
Admiring the Bronx Community College campus on a cloudless November day a few days after my visit to the Bronx with Bert, it is hard to recall NYU’s near bankruptcy and sale of the campus to the City University of New York in 1973. Surely there is a New York Times best seller in NYU’s real estate and business blunders including the fire-sale of the Bronx campus which housed its engineering school. It would not be until 2004 when NYU got back into the engineering business with its absorption of Polytechnic University in Brooklyn (MetroTech Center), the school which had acquired NYU’s engineering faculty in 1973. Back then, did it really take a CCNY graduate like Andy Grove to appreciate that someday New York’s Silicon Alley would need engineering talent and a sprawling Bronx campus with room to grow?
I am a fan of the collection of classical revival and late modernist architecture overlooking the Harlem River and Upper Manhattan once known as NYU Uptown. Of course the school’s mostly white and mostly male Hall of Fame for Great Americans arcade is a dinosaur, but it is also beautiful and captures, in stone, a different era in America.
It has been a Bronx month of sorts for me and my family. Last week, my mother and son ran into Susie Essman on the Upper West Side. My mother has known Susie from well before her famed roles on Curbed and Broad City and in movies and for her standup comedy. Back in the early 1960s, Susie’s father and my father were partners in a medical practice with offices in the Louis Morris Building on the Concourse. Like so many others, the partners eventually left the Bronx for lower Westchester, part of the wave of white flight that plagued New York during the 60s and 70s. That was a long time ago. What draws me back there? Perhaps you can go home again. Whenever I can, I like to walk the nearest bridge to the Bronx and visit a place that has meant so much to me and my family.
As I wrote years ago in a piece about mass transit in Los Angeles, the Bronx to me will always mean “dinner at Schweller’s and Epstein’s (no relation), long-closed Jewish delis on Jerome Avenue underneath the noisy El” near Gun Hill Road and Montefiore Hospital. It always will mean those things to me, but the Bronx also means so much more than lean pastrami. To quote a better writer than me, “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge, I thought, anything at all.”
Joel Epstein is a New York-based communications strategist and writer focused on public transit and other urban issues.
Bert Lewis is an artist known for his colorful abstract figure paintings and urban scenes.