Period Piece | New York
—Ogden Nash (1931).
A 2002 article in The Village Voice pronounced the South Bronx “one of the last bastions of urban hell”. It’s common to see South Bronx mentioned along with the phrase “urban decay” in the same sentence.
The South Bronx in New York City is only minutes away from Manhattan, but the glass facades of the skyscrapers that punctuate Manhattan are nowhere to be seen here. The steel interiors of the tiny Mexican and Spanish restaurants are cramped caverns—these are no chic cafés. The grocery stores are packed to the gills, their shelves spilling over, with hardly any wiggle room for customers—these are no luxurious, airy supermarkets.
The South Bronx lies in the poorest Congressional district in the US. It has high crime, high unemployment and poverty—and looks nothing like popular stereotypes of New York.
The South Bronx is also home to some of the oldest and prettiest neighbourhoods in New York. Much of the Mott Haven area was built in the 19th century. Quaint, beautifully designed houses are still intact here, and the area has been divided into three Historic Districts. Unlike vintage houses elsewhere in the US, Mott Haven is largely undiscovered—there are no camera-toting tourists milling around here.
Lloyd Ultan, 74, has been the borough historian of the Bronx since 1996. Ultan, who has lived in the Bronx all his life, agreed to show me around Mott Haven. His rasping enthusiasm overcomes the slight wheeze that age fills his voice with. “I’ll be wearing a blue shirt and baseball cap with ‘The Bronx’ written on it,” he says when I call him up to set up an appointment.
Ultan takes me on a walk around Mott Haven. We approach a desolate dead end underneath a bridge. The Harlem river flows on the other side of a red industrial building. A friend who visited this corner later remarked that the place looks apocalyptic—she could almost imagine desolate music playing in the background.
Ultan points to the faded words on a brick wall reading “JL Mott Iron Works”. J.L. Mott, he tells me, was the inventor of a coal-powered cooking stove. Mott started the company named after him—and also set up in Mott Haven what we would today call an industrial park.
Until the 19th century, the Bronx was a rural area largely disconnected from the rest of New York City. As lumber yards, sawmills, piano factories, and other industries set up shop in the industrial area started by Mott, residences started coming up nearby. These residences today are a part of Mott Haven’s three Historic Districts. Because of the area’s development, the Bronx rapidly grew from a rural outskirt to an integral part of New York City in 1874.
We walk past a giant black cloth shrouding the front of a building ostensibly under repair. This, Ultan tells me, was the location of the erstwhile farm of Jonas Bronck, the first European settler here, who also gave his name to the borough.
As yet, we are still some distance away from the three Historic Districts. A bright red clock tower looms above an L-shaped building ahead. This building is named, rather imaginatively, “The Clock Tower”. Built in 1885, it was the factory of the Estey Piano Company. Indeed, the South Bronx was a centre of piano manufacturing in the US—with more than 63 factories in the neighbourhood at one time.
The Clock Tower’s faded clock looks rusty—but the building’s spotless red outer walls show no signs of age. Today it houses lofts and studios. A real estate listing describes it as “perfect for musicians, artists, photographers and other artist types”.
As we pass the clearly upscale Clock Café and Martini Bar on the ground floor of The Clock Tower, Ultan talks of the slow gentrification of the neighbourhood, but there is no regret in his voice. “As a historian, I know change always occurs. Thank God for that, because if change didn’t occur, we historians would be out of business,” he chuckles.
As we cross the road from a bleak-looking, 16-storey, low-income public housing complex, the graceful buildings of the Bertine Block unexpectedly spring into view. Built in 1891, this row of houses, named after developer Edward Bertine, is the first of the Historic Districts—the Bertine Block Historic District.
Every house in the row along Bertine Block is distinctive. No two facades look alike. Each bare-brick front is topped by different kinds of gables—some curved, some staggered, some sloping, some bell-shaped. Heavy brass doorknobs and thick wooden doors face the road. Fanlights and arches above windows and doors have faded stained-glass patterns.
As we stroll across the Bertine Block in the cold winter sunlight, I slow down, take in my surroundings and take a deep breath.
A couple of houses at the end of Bertine Block look much newer than the rest. The older buildings that stood here were burnt down in the 1960s and 1970s, says Carol Zakaluk, a community activist and resident of Bertine Block whom I meet the next day.
In the 1960s and 1970s, an unprecedented wave of arson swept through the Bronx. As rent control laws were tightened in New York City, landlords in the Bronx burnt down houses to claim insurance payments. “All I could remember in my childhood was the sound of the fire engines everywhere, every day. The record, I think, was 40 fires in a single day,” says Zakaluk. An enduring image of the time is a photograph of then president Jimmy Carter disbelievingly walking across the rubble of burnt down apartment complexes in 1977.
Once the arson began and inhabitants fled, vandalism and looting set in. The poverty and lawlessness that triggered the wave of arson persisted for years. It took until the 1980s and 1990s for the South Bronx to stabilize itself. Poverty and crime rates dropped significantly, although they are still among South Bronx’s top concerns.
Fortuitously, most of the houses in the Historic Districts survived the terrible decades without being scarred by fire.
“However, there is still the stigma of the Big Bad South Bronx,” says Zakaluk. This is one reason why the Historic Districts in Mott Haven still haven’t received attention from tourists, she adds.
In the second of the Historic Districts, the Mott Haven East Historic District, the houses taper to the top. The first floor is narrower than the ground floor, the gables narrower than the first floor. Chimneys and TV antennas jut out above the gables, keeping up the appearance of tapering.
Columns with elaborate curves line doors. Two human faces sculpted above arched windows grin outwards. Some houses have wooden boards thrust across their windows, these patches marking them out as abandoned. In the last house in the row, a turret peeps to the side and above the other houses, looking like a castle’s rampart. A dull tungsten light shines from the stained-glass windows in each of the turret’s floors.
In the grey twilight, I feel like I’m in a fairy tale.
Many of Manhattan’s 19th century buildings gave way to today’s skyscrapers. Ultan says this happened unchecked until the 1960s. In 1963, when the railroad industry’s profits were dropping, the then majestic Pennsylvania station was demolished. The station was moved under street level, and Madison Square Garden was built above ground level.
New York’s Grand Central terminal was next on the demolition list. Jackie Kennedy, who was leading a group of influential people to protest against these demolitions, ensured the formation of a Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York City Landmarks Law to protect city monuments.
By the time this law was passed, many of the 19th century buildings in Manhattan had been replaced by skyscrapers. However, the relatively undeveloped South Bronx was still intact until then—and benefited from being classified into Historic Districts thereafter.
In the houses from the 1890s that stretch beyond, wrought-iron balustrades span fronts of houses. Elaborately carved stoops climb to the doors. Lions’ heads are propped up on colonnettes in the main doorway of one building. Wreathed columns line windows. Pairs of metal stairs to the side of a five-storey building look like Escher’s never-ending staircases. Dull lights glow inside a door with the silhouette of an amphora upon it. The bright lights of a Dunkin’ Donuts storefront gleam outwards.
Down the road, the flat square front and roof cornices of the Mott Haven Branch of the New York Public Library don’t look their 107 years. This building was built by industrialist Andrew Carnegie and modelled after his mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue. The tall columns, wide halls and vast spaces in each of the three floors give the building a sense of spaciousness. Children mill about shelves on each of the three floors. Inside a top-floor room, a schoolgirl gingerly holds a violin, coaxing squeaks out of it.
Most houses, Ultan tells me, have undergone gut rehabilitation, which is to say the exteriors are intact but the interiors have been renovated completely. Yet there are a few houses whose interiors have been preserved, he adds.
As Ultan leaves, I realize the only way to find out which houses’ interiors are intact is to knock on doors and ask. In a couple of houses, the response is “go away!” In some others, it’s a more polite “no thank you”. I get into one house, but the owner changes her mind, saying, “My mum is already angry—if you stay here any longer, she’ll go crazy.”
Christopher Hougaard, a student, ushers me in after only a hint of hesitation. Hougaard, who shares his 124-year-old Alexander Avenue house with three housemates, takes me up a narrow, dimly lit brick-lined staircase that is preserved from the 19th century. The rest of the interior, alas, has been remodelled. It now wears a neat, painted look—but is not the same as it was before.
Zakaluk’s Bertine Block house has been with her family for 90 years now. “My family has always seen it as a treasure,” she says. Zakaluk warmly and unhesitatingly welcomes me into her house.
Her grandfather, who came to New York from Amsterdam, bought the then 25-year-old house because the Bertine Block reminded him of home.
Zakaluk has preserved almost all of the house. An 1891 chandelier light hangs in her dining hall. A deep brown fireplace lies dormant under a stack of video cassettes. A “shouting tube” is in one corner of the hall—you would have to shout into it to talk to someone upstairs. A sliding door made of thick wood is still operational. The kitchen sink is intact from 1891. Zakaluk sold her 80-year-old GE refrigerator and decades-old stove a short while ago—but preserves their photographs. A resounding, reassuring thump echoes as I climb her wooden staircase. The sturdiness of the wood evokes a sense of longevity, of permanence.
Mellow lights play across her drawing room, dining room and kitchen—there are no tubelights.
I step out of her house and walk past the unlit windows of the Bertine Block, out of the lane of quiet houses.
Thirty-three years after his first pronouncement, even Ogden Nash seemed to have been convinced:
I can’t seem to escape
the sins of my smart-alec youth;
Here are my amends.
I wrote those lines, “The Bronx?
I shudder to confess them.
Now I’m an older, wiser man
I cry, “The Bronx? God
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org