The history of the Bronx and its Grand Concourse is a story of community diversity and cultural vibrancy surviving – and even flourishing – during the spectacular rise and fall, tumult and turmoil of the borough’s history.
Grand Concourse: 1902 to Present Day
2006. View of the Grand Concourse looking south with Manhattan in the background. Courtesy Librado Romero/ The New York Times
1800s: Bronx ‘Clean Country Air’
Considered a bucolic escape from Manhattan, in the 1800s the Bronx was largely rural, with farms, trees, and green spaces dominant. The majority of the land was agricultural in use – the borough grew most of the vegetables, fruit and grains that fed the City and fur traders trapped the area’s plentiful resident beaver (whose image still graces the City’s official flag). In 1846 (when the population of the borough totaled between 5,000 - 8,000 individuals), the famed poet Edgar Allen Poe brought his wife to a cottage on the road that would become the Grand Concourse in the hopes that the clean country air would help cure her tuberculosis.
Early 1900s: The First Boulevard is Built
The Grand Concourse was built in 1909, designed by engineer Louis Risse to provide access from Manhattan to the large parks in the Bronx. Modeled on Paris’ Champs-Élysées, the original design had separate paths for horses, cyclists, and pedestrians, and underpasses at all major intersections.
1920s — 50s: Development Boom and the City Beautiful
In the early 20th century, increased transit options (including the Grand Concourse, as well as extensions of the NYC subway) and new wealth enabled many families (primarily Jewish and Italian) to leave cramped and crowded Manhattan tenements and move to the Bronx. The ensuing development boom soon extended to even the least accessible parts of the borough.
Most buildings lining the Grand Concourse were built in the 1920s and 30s during the height of the City Beautiful movement, which was premised on the idea that a neighborhood’s architecture influences the community’s functionality and humanity. Advocates of the movement believed that grand urban design could inspire harmonious social order, increase quality of life, and minimize social ills. Today, the Grand Concourse hosts the largest collection of Art Deco and Art Moderne style buildings in America. The buildings were – and still are – grand, with elaborate ornamentation, large lobbies, beautiful painted murals, courtyards, elevators, large windows and many amenities that older Manhattan apartments lacked.
1960s — 80s: Decline & Community Resilience
Change came quickly to the Bronx of the 1960s. City housing policies and urban renewal projects relocated many poor black and Puerto Rican residents to the South Bronx. This demographic shift and the resulting social unease, combined with diminished city services due to New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s led to an exodus of South Bronx residents to Queens, the Connecticut suburbs, and other parts of the borough. In the ten years of the 1970s, 30% of Bronx residents left the borough.(1) The Bronx was plagued by arson and crime. Rent control laws made it more costly for landlords to maintain their buildings than to abandon them, and many owners committed arson to collect their property’s insurance value. Famously, when a fire broke out near Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series, an announcer stated, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen: the Bronx is burning.” This remark became a symbol of both New York City’s and the borough’s decline.
Tenaciously, in the midst of this tumult, Bronx culture flourished. In the early 70s DJs Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaata – all from the Caribbean – were developing a new method of cutting and mixing music, and hip-hop was born. Hip-hop, graffiti art, breakdancing. beat-boxing, and other new forms of expression and affirmation of urban life swept the streets of the Bronx and radiated through the city, influencing art, fashion and culture through today.(2)
1980s — Today
Starting in the mid-1980s, city housing policies and community leaders worked to rebuild the social, economic and environmental infrastructure of the Bronx. Residential development has drawn new residents, who are in turn attracting retail activity. Unlike most of the South Bronx, none of the buildings along the Grand Concourse itself were destroyed, so the street looks much the same as it did 60 years ago.
Today, many of the Borough’s concerns – from high asthma rates to lack of grocery stores - have become a focus of city agencies and Mayor Bloomberg. City re-zonings and infrastructure investment are providing new opportunities for residential development (including affordable housing), encouraging the reuse of vacant land and lots, connecting and greening neighborhoods, and attracting retail businesses. These citywide activities will provide real benefits to the Bronx and the Grand Concourse. As just one example, the New York City Department of Transporation recently unveiled improvements to the Grand Concourse and Lou Gehrig Plaza that included replacing the E. 161st Street underpass arch structure, adding urban landscape design elements to the plaza, and incorporating new roadways, traffic patterns, sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes to improve mobility and safety for pedestrians, motorists and cyclists.
(The Bronx Historical Society site has an excellent chronology of the borough.)
(1) Sam Goodman, Office of the Bronx Borough President
(2) One Planet Under a Groove: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art. The Bronx Museum of the Arts. 2001.