For Art Deco — The Gold Goes to The Bronx

This post is the first part of a short series covering similarities between Vancouver, British Columbia and the Bronx — noted while I was vacationing there last summer. I introduced the series, through the remaining days of the 2010 Olympic Games only — here.

This is a tough category for Vancouver to beat out the Bronx.
And it did not.
The Bronx has more examples of Art Deco and Art Moderne architecture than most cities on the planet. This has been chronicled a lot recently, here and here— as 2009 marked the 100th year of the Grand Concourse. In fact, the NYC Landmarks and Preservation Commission has turned its attention to designating a historic section of the Grand Concourse between 153rd and 167th streets.

So what does Vancouver have. Vancouver has the Marine Building which is the only remaining Art Deco skyscraper in the city. At one time, it was the tallest building in the entire British Empire and once owned by the Irish brewer Guinness. The Marine Building is easily noticed — it is red brick while the surrounding downtown buildings are glass. And the front entrance is completely adorned with seashells, ships, waves, various sea urchins — all aspects of a bustling port town such as Vancouver.  Regrettably, I did not go into the lobby, which is apparently decked out.  The “Vancouver” Rough Guide notes that builder J.W. Hobbs envisioned the lobby as a “27m-long ‘Grand Concourse’ adorned in the manner of a Mayan temple laden with treasure”. Grand Concourse?!! I am taking that comparison literally here!

Almost any building along the entire stretch of the Grand Concourse is a profound Art Deco specimen though I’ll toss in a couple of Off-Concourse examples. One is the building housing Burger King on 161st opposite the Bronx Courthouse. I noticed it by accident — among the waving BK banners are lovely images of horse heads along the top edge.

Another is the irresistible and spooky old Westchester Station on Westchester Avenue at the Bronx River — best seen from above on the 6-Train as it makes the turn near the Whitlock Avenue station. I don’t know if this crumbling station qualifies as Art Deco. Its facade is still gilded and I love the slices of citrus(?) motifs. The station was closed to passengers in 1931, but the entrance resembles the front of the Marine Building which was completed in 1930.

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10 Things to Do During Lunch Break While on Jury Duty in the Bronx

Executive Towers at 165th Street and the Grand Concourse.
Executive Towers at 165th Street & the Grand Concourse. Notable curved balconies and the only circular driveway on the boulevard. It was the last luxury building built on the Concourse in 1963.

The spring before last I was called for jury duty and spent those gorgeous hour and half lunch breaks chatting on my phone in the park across the street from the Courthouse.  What a waste!  If only I’d known then what I know now about that area and The Grand Concourse. I could have taken a short stroll in any one direction to find something of interest.

So here are 10 Things To Do During Your Lunch Break While On Jury Duty at the Bronx County Courthouse:
(To maximize your time “sightseeing” I suggest bringing your lunch. That way, you don’t have to spend precious time waiting for and paying for lunch).

1. Stroll around the Courthouse itself. {built 1931-1935} The statues that flank each staircase are related to the images on the frieze, around the top edge of the courthouse.

Bronx Time Capsule Marker at the Bronx County Building
Bronx Time Capsule Marker at the Bronx County Building

2.  Time Capsule – buried on the courthouse grounds in 1989 — imagine what the Bronx will look like in 2089 when it is opened up.  Fernando Ferrer contributed his cigarette lighter in an effort to stop smoking. I wonder if he misses it/replaced it. What would you put in the Bronx Time Capsule?

3.  Walk in Joyce Kilmer Park:  bring your sneakers and get your heartbeat up by taking an energizing power stroll around the park.  I saw a couple of women doing this in business dress and their sneaks.  As you’re walking, memorize Kilmer’s famous poem:

“Trees”
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

4. The Tree Museum:  brilliant creation by artist Katie Holten who has tagged over 100 trees along the Grand Concourse — each with an accompanying audiocast by Bronxites who live(d) along or near the Concourse speaking their thoughts of the grand boulevard.  Trees in the museum can be identified by a marker on the sidewalk bearing a phone # to call to hear the audiocast. Maps available at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.  The Tree Museum was scheduled to “close” October 12th, but will remain open until January 3rd, 2010.

5. Bronx Museum of the Arts (165th and the GC) It is a great space — modern and open and the zig zag facade follows that of many of the art deco buildings along the Concourse. Check out the current exhibit in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Grand Concourse.

6. Andrew Freedman Home (166th and the GC) — the grand palace of the Grand Concourse, the only building on the boulevard with a lawn, built in 1925 as a retirement home for poor rich folks.

7. Yankee Stadium(s) — you can relax and sit on the benches here at Babe Ruth Plaza, taking in the new stadium and reminiscing on the old, catch yourself between two stadiums. I am no baseball fan but the enormous banners and photos of the players do give you the feeling of walking in a canyon.

8.  Find the Statue of Liberty — on 161st between the Courthouse and Jerome Avenue is a small Statue of Liberty, see if you can spot it. Hint: look on the rooftops.

"Fish House" built in 1936 by Horace Ginsburg. The ultimate example of art deco -- rounded corners, angled windows and the fish mosaic.
"Fish House" the ultimate example of art deco -- rounded corners, angled windows and the fish mosaic.

9.  The Grand Concourse — This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Grand Concourse. It was modeled after the Champs-Élysées in Paris for all its art deco and art moderne buildings —  the mosaics, the rounded curves, the zig zag facades — the most found on any boulevard in the country. “Fish House” at no. 1150, is the ultimate example — including angled windows, designed to maximize sunlight streaming into the interior.

10.  Bronx Walk of Fame — Follow it from the courthouse going downtown, to where it ends at Hostos Community College on 149th Street. A lot of greats here. My childhood favorites Rita Moreno (“HEY YOU GUYS!”) and Sonia Manzano (aka Maria on Sesame Street) are here. For me, Rita Moreno was famous for Electric Company waaay before Westside Story.

Rita Moreno's marker on the Bronx Walk of Fame.
Rita Moreno's marker on the Bronx Walk of Fame.

Bonuses for those jury duty days ending at 2 o’clock:
11Ben Shahn murals at the Bronx Main Post Office (149th & GC) — lobby filled with large murals painted by artist Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn, during the Roosevelt administration. The panels depict the American worker of the 1930s and include one of Walt Whitman speaking to a crowd of people.  In 1933, Diego Rivera asked Shahn to be an assistant on his infamous mural at Rockefeller Center and Bernarda Bryson was a reporter from Ohio who’d come to New York to interview Rivera.

Ben Shahn mural at Bronx Main Post Office.
Ben Shahn mural at The Bronx Main Post Office.

12.  Longwood Art Gallery at Hostos (149th & GC) — directly opposite the Bronx Main Post Office, check out whatever is on exhibit there, it is a bright airy gallery space.

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Podcast: Professor Lloyd Ultan, Bronx Borough Historian (Part 2)

Professor Lloyd Ultan in Bronx Historical Society library.
Professor Lloyd Ultan in Bronx Historical Society library.

Here, at long last, is the second part of my interview with Bronx Borough Historian Professor Lloyd Ultan.
{The first part is here.}

Or download the podcast as an mp3.

Show Notes

00:00 Intro

01:14 What makes the Bronx unique? Its size / parks / types of homes. The Bronx is large enough to be the 6th largest city in America.

02:41 Bronx population is very diverse.

04:45 “The Bronx has always welcomed the other.”

07:03 European immigrants come to the Bronx from Ireland and Germany.

10:00 Eastern European Jews arrive in the Bronx.
Baron de Hirsch Fund established workshops to teach Jewish immigrants industrial skills necessary for living in an urban environment.

11:34 African-Americans and Puerto Ricans arrive in the Bronx.

11:56 In 1980s to 1990s, the Bronx becomes still more diverse.

12:54 Bohemian Community in the Bronx near Fordham in the 1860s:
John Savage, Irish poet
Robert Barry Coffin, writing as Barry Gray, wrote “Cakes and Ale at Woodbine: from Twelfth Night to New Year’s Day”, “Out of Town: A Rural Episode”.

14:15 Edgar Allan Poe lived in Fordham in 1846.

17:08 Small bohemian community of Broadway actors and actresses lived on Wilton Street near St. Ann’s Avenue, west of St. Mary’s Park.

17:50 East and north of Crotona Park, writers gathered in Crotona Park.
These writers were Eastern European Jews who wrote in Yiddish.

18:43 Literary salon in the home of a Bronx dentist and his wife every Sunday.

19:38 Today, artists in Mott Haven
Jazz musicians live on Manida Street in Hunts Point

Additional Resources for topics discussed in this podcast:
The Bronx County Historical Society
Intersections The Grand Concourse beyond 100
New York Public Library: The Bronx on the Web

Books by Prof. Lloyd Ultan
“The Bronx In The Innocent Years, 1890 – 1925”, with Gary Hermalyn (1991 2nd ed).
“The Beautiful Bronx, 1920-1950” , (1979).
“The Bronx: It was Only Yesterday, 1935 – 1965”,  with Gary Hermalyn (1992).
“Bronx Accent: A Literary And Pictorial History of the Borough”, with Barbara Unger (2000).
“The Northern Borough: A History of the Bronx”,  to be released this year.  It is the first single volume on the history of the Bronx since 1912.

This podcast features Creative Commons music:
One for Me” by SackJo 22
Que Pena” featuring Tamy by s.c.mixer

A Special Thank You for all things IT related to:
Colin Turner, Chief urbologist, urbTek, LLC

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Finding Utopia in the Bronx

Hammer, Sickle and Compass above doorway of Coops building "J".
Hammer, Sickle and Compass above doorway of Coops building "J" in the Bronx.

Where are the bohemian communities in the Bronx?

This has been the enduring quest of this blog and is certainly not unfair to ask of the Bronx.  Many enormously accomplished artists took their first breaths here. To find the equivalent of the Left Bank or Greenwich Village seems natural to me, but has not proven readily apparent.

I recently learned about a group of people who could easily fit the idea of Bronx Bohemians.  What I didn’t expect though, was that at home they would speak Yiddish.

First Coops residents.
First Coops residents.

“At Home in Utopia”, a film by Michal Goldman and Ellen Brodsky, tells the story of Jewish garment workers who build their dream home — The Coops, a cooperative apartment complex — on the corner of Allerton Avenue across from Bronx Park East in 1925.

The garment workers, immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland, were members of the United Garment Workers Union and living in the squalor of the Lower East Side tenements.

The majority of them were Communist or some degree of very left leaning.

Most of the idea of The Coops took shape during getaways to Camp Nitgedeiget, Yiddish for, loosely, “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, a kind of carefree and spirited camp that the workers owned in upstate Beacon, New York.

The workers would pool their life savings to buy shares ($250 per room) in the cooperative that would be their dream home.  They wanted light, lots of light, a window in every room and trees and gardens. An architect would design all of that for them, including a hammer, sickle and compass on the mantle above the doorway of building “J”.  (It is still there.)

The original founders of the Coops (rhymes with stoops) would come up to the Bronx by subway.  Land in the Bronx was cheap and wide open. The archival photo of the patch of land they bought made me gasp — so hard to visualize a busy street like Allerton Avenue so open and overgrown with weeds.

When the workers moved into the Coops it fulfilled their dreams of being in beautiful surroundings and they lived a very communal life there.

The basement was the hub of social activity with club rooms for youth gatherings, a library and reading room, day care center,  a communal cafeteria, rooms where the musicians could jam and  “shules” where lessons were taught in Yiddish after school.

And no matter what, they could never be kicked out. The Coops had a policy that no one would lose their apartment for not being able to meet rent payments.

All of their board meetings were held in Yiddish.
And they argued and fought bitterly all the time.
On politics.
Stalin’s pact with Hitler.
Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s mass murders.
They would find their communist ideologies continually challenged, creating chasms in the Coops that would never be resolved.

Coops building detail.
Coops building Tudor style detail.

But they were incredibly aware of injustices to people around them and jumped into protest and strike. When tenants in the building next door were being evicted, Coops residents joined in the efforts to block the police from pulling the tenants from their apartment with the women acting as human barricades.  This scene in the film uses actual footage of this event on Allerton Avenue.

Religion was not important to them.
May Day, International Workers’ Day was very important to them.
Jewish holidays were not.
And for some, neither was marriage.
Coops resident Amy Galstuck Swerdlow said that her parents never married, believing that a marriage certificate was meaningless. [She says this during an interview on the DVD.]

The strongest moments of the film, however, are about race.

The people in the Coops, including the children, were well aware of the injustices toward Black Americans. They knew of the lynchings of black men in the South and were in solidarity with the Scottsboro Boys, nine black boys accused of raping two white women while travelling on a freight train in 1931. In fact, William Patterson, an attorney who represented the boys was a member of the American Communist party and a frequent visitor to the Coops.  His daughter, MaryLouise Patterson, is interviewed in the film.

In the 1930s they encouraged a small number of Black families to move into the Coops.  This was quite revolutionary at the time, as Blacks and Whites did not live in the same building in New York, nor anywhere else in America in the 30s, 40s nor 50s.  (Parkchester, for example, would not become integrated until the 1970s.)  And few became very prominent in the Communist party including Angie Dickerson, a new name for me. And Queen Mother Moore, whose name was already familiar to me.

The film tells the story of an incident that occurs when Coops residents take buses up to Peekskill, New York to hear Paul Robeson sing. They are surprised to learn that the outdoor concert is met by the locals shouting anti-semitic and anti-black rants and stone throwing.  The footage of the riot that ensues and the retelling by the residents who were there is entirely compelling.

Boris and Libby Ourlicht.
Boris and Libby Ourlicht.

Perhaps the most moving scene of the film, is Coops resident Boris Ourlicht’s story of his first date with his girlfriend, Libby, who is black. He is in love and driving her down to, aptly enough, Greenwich Village when their date takes an unexpected turn.

I will not spoil the moment as this moment is better expressed in the film, but I’ll just note that the people in the Coops were awakened by these events and stunned to see that America had not moved further along on the issue of race. Even within the walls of the Coops, as much as they all seemed to “get along”, some of the founding residents were not equipped to accept the interracial dating that was happening among the younger set.

But it would be the younger generation, Mr. Ourlicht and his contemporaries who would join the communist party, leave New York and challenge the “Negro question” head on, finding work in factories while waiting for the right time to bring up matters on race with their fellow factory workers.  As resident Pete Rosenblum said, “We were brave and stupid.”

At the end of the film, I envied what they had at the Coops. I respected what they were working to achieve.

In 1943, they were confronted with a critical decision about the future of the Coops.
They had taken out a $2 million mortgage and now found themselves unable to pay.
(As Ms. Goldman, the filmmaker points out, the Coops was greatly underfunded from the beginning.)
Each resident would be required to pay $1 more per room.
If they voted yes to the increase, they would maintain ownership of the Coops.
If they voted nay, then they would lose ownership forever.

This was a hotly debated issue — in Yiddish, of course.

The rationale for the decision they finally make is quite fascinating.
Perhaps they recognized the Coops as an experiment that had run its course.
Or maybe they felt they had seen their dream come to fruition, but recognized that it required a different level of cultivation than they were equipped to commit to.

The parallels between what they faced and what we today face couldn’t be more clear:
A nation in financial crises.
Home foreclosure.
An overstuffed mortgage that can no longer be carried.
A look toward FDR’s New Deal for answers and influence.
A shortage of affordable housing for the working poor.
Urban housing for low income families with trees, greenery and parks.

Sixty-six years later, all of these issues remain headlines in our nation’s papers.
And are critical issues right here in the Bronx.

Coops buildings along Bronx Park East.
Coops buildings along Bronx Park East.

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The Coops were not the only cooperative housing complex founded by garment worker unions in the Bronx.  At one time the Bronx was home to four, each representing a unique faction of communist and socialist ideology.  The other three cooperatives were: The Amalgamated, largely Socialist, Sholem Aleichem Houses, founded by Yiddishists, was divided between Communists and Socialists, the Farband was Labor-Zionist.  Only The Amalgamated is still operating as a cooperative today.

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“At Home in Utopia”, eight years in the making, will air across the nation on Tuesday evening, April 28th on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series.  In New York City,  the film will air at 10pm and again early Wednesday morning, April 29th at 3:20 am.

But I highly recommend the DVD.  The additional scenes round out this story even more.

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Before Parkchester

The Holy Angels School -- the car is the travelling library operated by the NY Public Library.  Unionport Road between Hoguet and Storrow Streets.
The Holy Angels School, 1938. The parked car at left is a travelling library operated by the NY Public Library. Unionport Road between Hoguet and Storrow Streets.

Before Parkchester was Parkchester, and before the Bronx was even officially the Bronx, Parkchester was the site of The New York Catholic Protectory, an orphanage for boys and girls.

At the end of the Civil War a sharp rise of children found themselves abandoned and living on the streets. In 1861, the Protectory, outgrowing its Lower East Side location, came up to the country and farmland — The Bronx (then, the area was the town Van Nest in Westchester county) and set up the school and dormitories for the children.

The boys and the girls were taught a trade so they’d be employable once released. (Many of the boys were tough kids living by their own set of rules and often ran away from the Protectory.) The boys  learned letterpress printing, chair caning, shoemaking, baking, carpentry, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, farming, gardening. The girls learned to embroider, cook and make gloves.

The uniforms they wore were sewn by them in their tailoring department. And the shoes they wore, each child had two pairs, were cobbled on site too.

The boys even had a functioning fire department. But they weren’t able to save the girls’ building when it caught fire in 1875. It was destroyed, but the girls got out safely.

Semi-pro baseball teams rented the fields on the Protectory site for games. High Schooler Lou Gehrig played there with his High School of Commerce team against Dewitt-Clinton. On game days, the number of boys that would most likely run off would drop considerably.

Unionport Road looking south from East Tremont Ave. New York Catholic Protectory, May 1938.
Unionport Road looking south from East Tremont Ave. New York Catholic Protectory, May 1938.

Around 1938, a developer from the Starrett Corporation, a Mr. Robert Dowling, went about looking for land. Seventy-five sites later, he found the land owned by the Protectory. His assessment was that the buildings were “outmoded and dangerously inflammable”. According to his profile in a 1960 New Yorker article, Mr. Dowling, a Protestant, never revealed to the fathers in charge at the Protectory who he was representing. He convinced them that if they sold the site to him, they could find a more cheerful site somewhere else. Mr. Dowling’s company paid five million dollars for the land. He secured the equivalent of fifty-five city square blocks for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company project: Parkchester, the world’s largest apartment house community. The Protectory was razed completely. No original buildings exist.

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I worked with a woman who confided in me that she’d grown up in a protectory on Staten Island in the late 1950’s. She was dropped off when she was two years old with her older brother and sister. Her mother had nine children and could not care for all of them.

My friend told me she was allowed to go home certain weekends and holidays, or sometimes she and her siblings would sneak off and go to their mother’s apartment on E. 8th Street, in Manhattan to spend the weekend. My friend was often in trouble for talking or for her “fresh” mouth. She said the nuns would always tell her, “This is going in your file.”

This elusive file was held over her head the entire 15 years she lived there. And she never saw it. Until, seven or eight years ago, her brother got hold of the file. It is 1 1/2″ thick. She showed it to me. Inside are pages, single spaced typewritten pages — daily records of her activities: her “fresh” mouth incidences, her trips to the infirmary, phone call logs, conversations with her mother (who had moved 28 times in ten years all around Manhattan and the Bronx). But the records are not the work of the nuns. In fact only one or two pages addressed my friend’s “fresh mouth”. The records were kept by the social worker assigned to her family’s case. It is a fascinating yet gut wrenching account of her life, not even the most dutiful mother or father could have kept such a detailed daily diary. I told my friend that that file is an odd and extraordinary gift. She said yes it’s true.

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