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Just as the Great Wall of China was intended to keep the Mongol invaders out, there are those who saw the Cross-Bronx Expressway as a similar buffer. Of course, it didn't work - and millions of I-95 travellers transitting through New York were treated to some of the worst the city had to offer. In the 1980s, the city had even gone as far as pasting over the windows of the burnt-out apartment building shells which lined the highway with varied "covers". These simple plastic prints included window shades in various stages of "openness" - and some even bore a stylized potted plant or table lamp on the "window sill"... but they fooled no one.
Today, much of the "Berlin after the war" quality is gone; a "victim" of real urban renewal. The Cross-Bronx has lost much of its "earthy" character - but that is truly no loss. (The traffic, however, is even worse than in the past, when the city had more residents.)
If I had not visited the area of the Grand Concourse in the mid-1980s, I would have assumed that very little had changed since the 1970s. The photo at left shows 50 East 172nd Street and Townsend Ave - just a block or two down the hill from the Concourse - and one block from Jerome. It was the place to which I moved when we finally gave up the South Bronx... and also the place where Cat and our infant son stayed while I was doing my 1970/71 Vietnam tour. However, in the 1980s, the building facing it had been gutted by arson; you could see the sky looking up through a second-floor window. During the winter, frozen six-story waterfalls covered the building's stairways and exterior bricks... from free-flowing water when junkies stole the plumbing for sale as salvage. Today, it is whole again - and tenants enjoy the building.
Cruising down the Concourse, the really notable changes are the signs over storefronts (usually including Spanish these days) and the absence of the Synogogues, Hebrew homes for the aged, and YMHA/YWHA buildings. There is no doubt that the vast Bronx Jewish Exodus (to places like Co-op City) immeasurably aided the 1960s/70s destruction of the Bronx. Of course, they shouldn't have bothered running so quickly, and en masse; wicked "social scientists" just couldn't permit a "rich" ghetto in the Pelham section, and forced a percentage of welfare cases into Co-op City and environs.
Things started changing once you passed below the 161st. Street Courthouse; The "annex" just north of Cardinal Hayes HS is doing even better business than in the past - and probably still serves notice for Hayesmen that should they fail to graduate, there is a job waiting for them right next door!
My old pre-draft workplace (the Bronx GPO) is unchanged at 149th Street - but south of 149th a huge Community College complex straddles the broad Concourse on both sides - complete with a third and fourth-story bridge across the avenue, joining the disparate halves.
Just for the kids (since no tiny "tour" of the Bronx would be complete without dodging El pillars), a trip up River/Jerome Avenues displayed the ugly additions made to Yankee Stadium. It is nothing like it used to be - it looks like they added a third tier of overpriced seats. Boo Yankees!
The pasture-like campus of Fordham University has been built over with modern edifices, and is no longer recognizeable. The Sears is still there on the lower reaches of Fordham, but all of the old landmarks (Cousin's, Jahn's, etc.) have changed to mostly Spanish-speaking second-hand clothing stores, tiny "dollar" stores, and the like. Even the huge Alexander's which used to dominate the hilltop at Fordham and the Concourse seems to have shrunk in its current embodiment as a "Caldor" place. I drove right past the location of the Paradise theater - one of the most famous Bronx landmarks - and didn't see anything even resembling a theater.
I guess rebirth includes some big losses.
138th Street 140th Street St. Mary's Street The NEW South Bronx Return to the Tapestry Project Photographs and content © 1998,1999, 2001 John P. Tomany