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:

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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KRAZY! Cosplay

These days, My Favorite 15 Year Old is all about everything Japanese: mochi and daifuku, anime, J-pop delivered by pretty guy-liner eyed boys whose clothing dips deep into cross-dressing. She totes around the yellow and black Japanese for Dummies and by my untrained ear, her accent sounds quite impressive.

Thanks to her, we recently had our first Cosplay experience as part of Japan Society‘s current anime, manga and video games exhibit. I imagine that this is what a Star Trek Convention must be like but with more satin bows. We saw wigs in every hue and height, shiny intergalactic impenetrable fabrics, red contact lenses, seven foot swords, knee socks and samurai, hoop skirts and bustles, even a cascade of LED lights with a battery pack tucked away in a skirt bustle. (Very cool, literally, the tiny lightbulbs weren’t hot at all. I made a note for my next dress up moment.)

I was struck by the number of girls dressed as male characters and by the number of scullery maid get-ups with floppy caps and lacy aprons. “Lolitas” My FF15YO said, adding they’re usually licking giant lollipops or carrying palm sized plushy critters.  “Oh.” I replied.

The party was sold out. Reni, a Cosplay singer, in bunny ears and coquetteish dance moves sang to us in Japanese. I asked around if anyone hailed from the Bronx. Other than us three I didn’t find anyone else.

The costumes were great. The best were the original ones. A few were sewn by the Cosplayer themselves. The mood was upbeat and full of teen (and 20s something) spirit. We had a great time.

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Walls So Thick, So Hairy, but Ghosts Still Get In

The Valentine-Varian House, a solid brick farmhouse on Bainbridge Avenue, has walls 21″ thick.
Walls insulated with a homemade recipe of horse hair, pig hair and mud.

Walls so thick and so sturdy, that when it was dragged from the corner of Bainbridge and Van Cortlandt catercorner across the street, then turned 90 degrees to its current location, nothing was used to brace it nor to belt it.

Hairy insulation in the walls of the Valentine-Varian House.
Valentine-Varian House hairy insulation.

Walls so thick and so well insulated, that the day we visited I had to take my coat off to keep from passing out.
And I was further comforted to learn that the heat wasn’t even on.

Tour guide and Caretaker Marcus Hickman lead us to the cut-a-way in the wall exposing the home’s layers of hairy insulation.

What else is so special about the Valentine-Varian House?
It survived the American Revolution for one.
Built in 1758, it is the second oldest home in the Bronx. (The oldest is the Van Cortlandt House built in 1748).
And it has all its original wood plank flooring and nails (probably forged right there in the blacksmith shop).
It is the Museum of Bronx History.
Isaac Valentine, the original owner, was a blacksmith and owned the surrounding 300 acres with slaves to help run the farm.
The blacksmith shop is gone, but the original door leading to it from the house is still in place.
Valentine was a neutralist during the Revolution and the house was occupied by American, British and Hessian soldiers.
The road running in front of the house was a major thoroughfare (Van Cortlandt Avenue) which led to Boston.

The Varian family bought the farm in 1792 and kept it in their family until 1905.
Issac Varian, the 63rd mayor of New York City, was a grandson of the original Varian owner.

The house is not furnished (they are working to change this) and the current featured exhibit is a tribute to Yankee Stadium.

As The Museum of Bronx History, the permanent collection has photographs and objects of the Bronx early years. We’d come at the tail end of the Black History Month exhibit on the history of Bronxites of African descent. Many of the early Bronx landowning families had black slaves working on their estates (the first enlaved blacks arriving to the Bronx were from Barbados) and African Burial sites were situated nearby. The exhibit displayed historical maps to show the location of those burial sites–long since built over with no marker to indicate their existence.
I believe that exhibit should be absorbed into the museum’s permanent collection. Not much light is given to the early history of blacks in the Bronx.

The Valentine-Varian house itself has a feeling that evokes a different period. It actually has a lot of rooms on the ground floor. It was not considered a luxurious residence, in comparison to the Van Cortlandt House for example, but it is clearly the size home of a farmer with some means.

Marcus, as caretaker, has the Valentine-Varian House as his home address. He reminded us that historic homes often have a full time resident. I do remember hearing a baby crying from the upper floors of the Bartow-Pell Mansion the day we visited.
And yes, Marcus did confirm the house has ghosts.
“Friendly, ones. If you live in an historic home, you have to respect that they’ll be here.

Afterward, we went around the back of the house to the Williamsbridge Oval. What a great park! With tennis courts, soccer fields, a running track and playgrounds. And all along I thought it was a fenced in reservoir.

Williamsbridge Oval Park.
Williamsbridge Oval Park.

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The Bronx in The Smithsonian and Abe

Crazy Leg's Jean Jacket in the Smithsonian
Crazy Leg's Jean Jacket and MC Lyte's journal in the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian Placard for Crazy Leg's Jacket
Dorothy's Ruby Slippers in the Smithsonian
Dorothy's Ruby Slippers in the Smithsonian

Last week on Inauguration Day, the Smithsonian, thankfully, was open.  So we had a nice spot to get warm and to use the facilities.  [As a side, I did not know that the Smithsonian was not one museum but nineteen.  We told ourselves that we’ll definitely come back to DC for a weekend visit in an effort to up our identification of buildings other than the White House.] We stopped in the Air & Space Museum and then later walked across the Mall to the National Museum of American History.  I overheard two women mention the Julia Child kitchen had just closed, darn, I really would have liked to see that. But a nice woman in early American dress, either Jamestownian or Williamsburgian, I’m not certain, told me that Lincoln’s top hat was on display upstairs. We got a bit side tracked with Stephen Colbert’s portrait, then ended up in an alcove with Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, the original Kermit and Oscar the Grouch, a beaded gown and super high heeled wedges worn by Celia Cruz. Further in was a case of objects once owned by the Founding Fathers and Mothers of Hip-Hop:  Grandmaster Flash‘s turntable resting on top of Fab 5 Freddy‘s Boom Box,  Crazy Legs‘s jean jacket, (The Big Guy recognized graffiti artist Shy 147′s tag painted in the background, maybe he painted the entire jacket? No mention on the placard)*,  Afrika Bambaataa‘s Zulu nation pendant and MC Lyte‘s suspiciously brand new looking journal.   A few years ago, The Smithsonian launched a multi-year collecting initiative to begin documenting the impact and importance of Hip Hop in American culture.  Ahhh, the Bronx representing in our Nation’s capital.

Grandmaster Flash's Turntable at the Smithsonian.  The white line on the record is the mark made by the DJ where the beat begins.
Grandmaster Flash's Turntable at the Smithsonian. The white line on the record is made by the DJ to mark where the beat begins.
Abraham Lincoln's Top Hat worn the night he was assassinated.
Abraham Lincoln's Top Hat worn the night he was assassinated.

Here is Lincoln’s top hat, the last one he wore on the evening he went to the Ford Theatre. I had a spooky feeling looking at his hat, half expecting to see a round bullet hole. I didn’t see one. I didn’t want to see one.

A wall of Lincoln portraits from the age of 37 to 56 showed how much he’d aged and so quickly.  What a transformation! Upon seeing his face at 37 — clean shaven, bright eyes and dimpled chin, I gasped. Loudly. Others nearby laughed knowingly. His face at 56, with dark shadows around the eyes, the full beard, looked haggard but the more familiar Lincoln image.  (Oddly, though, his hair had not turned white, unlike most recent presidents at the end of their tenure, ie Clinton and Bush Jr.)

Abraham Lincoln at 37 years old.
Abraham Lincoln at 37 years old.
Abraham Lincoln at 56 years old at the Smithsonian.
Abraham Lincoln at 56 years old.

The man standing next to me said, “Hey if you it was your job to free the slaves, let’s see how good you’d look.”

*UPDATE 4/6/09: Legendary break dancer Crazy Legs, sent a comment regarding the artist who painted his jacket — West Coast dancer, Easy Roc did the artwork. See his full comment below.

Street Life Street Art Opening Day In A Word…Muy Caliente

Street Fair on Opening Day of "Street Art Street Life" at the Bronx Museum

The weather on Sunday was sizzlin’ and steamy for the Bronx Museum of the Arts opening day fair of “Street Art Street Life.” It felt more like July than September. A lot of us were swarming around the Delicioso Coco Helado pushcart.  I slurped on a coconut icee (yummm) which helped…for about five minutes.

Offerings from local artists.
Exhibition Catalogue available by co-publisher Aperture
Exhibition catalogue on display.

The sidewalk in front of the museum was lined with local artisans and graffiti artists tempting us with paintings, drawings, pottery, jewelry and one of a kind hand printed garments and totes.

Chiz brought her farm animal prints.
Chiz brought her farm animal prints to the Grand Concourse.

I was happy to see, and meet, Bronx painter Chiz.  I love her sock monkeys! If I ever wanted to write a children’s book, I’d love to have her illustrate.

Bronx Museum staff, Holly Block Executive Director and Sergio Bessa, Director of Education
Bronx Museum staff, Holly Block Executive Director and Sergio Bessa, Director of Education

Holly Block, Museum Executive Director and Sergio Bessa, Director of Education stepped into the sidewalk “photo booth” for a portrait.

DJ Laylo spins on the ones and twos.
DJ Laylo spins on the ones and twos takin' us waaayyy back...

Tucked away in probably the coolest spot on the sidewalk, DJ Laylo was blending some serious old school beats and keeping the vibe super cool.

Rokafella, Hip Hop dancer Extraordinaire!
b-girl, Rokafella, Hip Hop dancer Extraordinaire!
One Hand Handstand by Hip Hop dancer from Geo and Friends
One Hand Handstand by Hip Hop dancer from Geo and Friends

Inside the museum, Hip Hop dance performances were every hour to the beats of DJ Scientific behind the tables.  We caught b-girl Rokafella and Geo and Friends.  (Rokafella, an artistic director and dance instructor, organized all the dance performances.) Their head spins, shoulder spins, locks and handstands kept the Museum rockin’.

Bronx Museum Lobby
Bronx Museum Lobby "Street Art Street Life" Opening Day

The exhibition itself was not what I thought it would be, a survey of street arts in the Bronx and the Hip Hop movement.  “Street Art Street Life” is a broader look at street life post World War II to present day with selected moments of life on the streets of cities and towns well beyond the Bronx — of India and Austria and Berlin for example.   Guest curator Lydia Yee has selected work from a range of 39 artists and photographers including Vito Acconci, Amy Arbus, Jamel Shabazz, Lee Friedlander, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper and Joseph Beuys. We went through the gallery quickly. I know I need to go back and spend more time. I look forward to it.

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