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Bronx

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My last post included a photograph of a 1940s military recruiting booth on the Fordham Road overpass at the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  Portrayed above, another wonderful oddity of Bronx architecture: Public School 11, originally Grammar School No.91, in the Highbridge  section of the borough. The core structure of the school, designed by George W. Debevoise, was built in 1889.  A portion of a 1905 addition, designed by C.B.J. Snyder.the most prolific of the New York City public school system’s superintendents of building, is visible at the far left of the photo.

New York City’s public schools — or their facades at least — were designed to conjure up ennobling palaces of education in which all pupils could feel equal, and as deliberate contrasts to the often substandard housing from which most pupils came. Public School 11 is a rare example of a  New York City school with a facade inspired by Romanesque Revival, a style that, in the city’s massive school building program, was soon surpassed by Neo-Gothic and later, by Neo-Classicism, Art Deco, and Modernism.

For an introduction to the architecture of New York City’s public schools, click on the website of the NYC Department of Education.  And, if you went to public school in New York in decades past, feel free to join me in singing  a chorus or two of “East Side, West Side”!

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Two images of non-monumental structures, each with monumental tales to tell…

Both photos were taken in the late-1980s on 6×4.5cm transparency film using a light-weight, fixed-lens, wide-angle (28mm-equivalent) Fuji roll-film camera which featured manual focusing by estimation of distance and depth-of-field and a very accurate built-in manual light meter, so accurate, that when using it, I almost never bracketed exposures, not even when the camera was loaded with low-dynamic-range, transparency film. I miss the camera and I miss the 3:4 format ratio of its output.

Above: The one-time Corfu Diner on 10th Avenue and West 18th Street in lower Manhattan, a stereotypical Greek-owned, railway-car inspired diner, and a hangover from a past age when the Hudson River docks still flourished and provided work and ample venues for heavy-eating and hard-drinking to stevedores, truckers, warehouse workers, and others.  I haven’t walked down lower 10th Avenue for many years and have no idea if the Corfu Diner still stands, whether vacant or open in a new incarnation. Any updates are welcome, thus. (Note the slogan on the orange-painted truck parked to the background at the left side of the photo: “Schleppers, Moving Storage, Never a No Show.” The 1980s saw the rise of  independent non-unionized moving companies in New York.  Many, like Schleppers — Yiddish for “draggers” or “carriers” — and Moishe’s were owned by recently arrived Israelis, legal and illegal, and staffed by their compatriots, mostly young, strong, and well pumped-up for long hours of lifting and carrying with liberal rations of cocaine.  Other independent movers provided women with entree into this formerly all-male domain.  The memorable name of one of the first such  company: Mother-Truckers!)

Below: The last of several World-War-II-era US military recruiting booths (this one, if I am correct, originally built for the Navy, per its streamlined art deco take on the bridge and stack of a ship, and later transferred to the Marines) that stood on the Fordham Road overpass spanning the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.  (In the background, the Wagner Building, a 1930s office block, one of a piece with the many great art deco apartment and commercial buildings that line the Concourse from 161st St. northward).  From the early-1940s on, generations of neighborhood young people — Jews, Germans, Italians, Poles, and Irish, followed by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and African-Americans — volunteered at this and the other booths to fight America’s wars, just and cynical, against enemies real and invented. Some volunteered out of idealism and others for adventure, to avoid prison, or to escape into the larger world and begin life anew.  Many returned alive, be it unscathed or maimed; many others, however, had their lives cut short.

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Gino Flea Market, New & Used, West 168th Street, Bronx, New York, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge

Gino Flea Market, New & Used, West 168th Street, Bronx, New York, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge

Retailing at the urban edge, beyond the rapacious locational analyses of chain and big-box stores.  Recycled goods, low-value inventories, uncertain provenance, low-rent locations, minimalist architecture, utilitarian displays, and clientele low on disposable cash.  (NB: Those who delight in the idiosyncratic orthography and grammar  of NYC signage will note the absence of a possessive apostrophy-s appended to Gino.)

Recommended in this context: Bronx Bodega by the inimitable gurus of urbanism, the “Internets Celebrities,” Dallas Penn and Rafi Kamm.

Courtyard, near Anderson Ave., West Bronx, 2012.  Note the traditional New York City fire escapes and the razor wire atop the original wrought iron fencing. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

Rear courtyard, near Anderson Ave., West Bronx, 2012. Note the traditional New York City fire escapes mounted on the walls and the razor wire atop the original wrought iron fencing in the foreground. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge.

In the 1920s and 30s Art Deco facades came to define the face of the west Bronx but, for decades, it was the unadorned rear courtyards and fire escapes of the very same buildings embodied the raw life of the neighborhood. Fire escapes served as balconies, summer sleeping quarters, laundry racks, improvised gardens, and winter-time ice boxes.  Socially, they were settings for family dramas and neighborly dialogues from the mundane to  a theatricality worthy of Ben Hecht or Clifford Odets.

A half century ago, the construction of Robert Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway cut a ghettoizing east-west slash across the Bronx, isolating the southern half of the borough. This and New York’s tough, dangerous, drug years of the 1970s turned Bronx courtyards from domains of life to domains of danger. Will the present decade see the removal of razor wire or its reinforcement and expansion?  Will it bring the integration of this magnificent neighborhood into citywide trends or its continued marginalization?  Will it fall victim to gentrification or the “cool” settlements of “hipsters” that have “ethnically-cleansed” darker skinned, lower income, and gray haired folks from large swaths of Brooklyn? Comments are welcome.

Art Deco west Bronx: Noonan Plaza, Highbridge Heights, Bronx, NY.  Constructed, 1931.  Architect, Horace Ginsbern. Photograph, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge,

Neo-Mayan Art Deco  Bronx: Noonan Plaza, W. 168th St. Highbridge Heights, Bronx, NY. Constructed, 1931. Architect, Horace Ginsbern. Photograph, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge,

Facades of the West Bronx, a modernist entree into America and into real and illusory dreams of social mobility for hundreds of thousands fleeing the oppression and degradation of the Lower East Side more than three-quarters of a century ago. Linear design, economy (or penury?) of materials, and just enough ornamentation to break monotony and enable fantasy.  For a new generation of inhabitants arriving in the 1970s, such facades comprised the grim face of a socioeconomic ghetto in decline.  As to the future: May this neighborhood remain a place for those who fight their way up, rather than of gentrifiers who usurp and flatten through economic privilege and disposable cash.

Detail, Service Entrance, Mayan-inspired terracotta tiles, Park Plaza Apartments, Jerome Avenue, Highbridge Heights, Bronx, New York.  Constructed: 1929-1931.  Architects: Horace Ginsbern, Marvin Fine. The six-pack of Heineken is fortuitous.  2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Detail, Service Entrance, Mayan-inspired terracotta tiles, Park Plaza Apartments, Jerome Avenue, Highbridge Heights, Bronx, New York. Constructed: 1929-1931. Architects: Horace Ginsbern, Marvin Fine. The six-pack of Heineken is fortuitous. 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

From: White, Norval; Willensky, Elliot; Leadon, Fran (2010-05-29). AIA Guide to New York City, Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition:

Noonan Apartments

“These seven-story apartments, arranged to form a quadrangle, are entered diagonally through a highly decorative masonry arcade that leads to a central court, the original splendors of which can only be guessed at today. Art Deco-cumMayan was then the idiosyncratic style of the Ginsbern firm.”

Park Plaza Apartments

“One of the earliest (and best) Art Deco–inspired apartment buildings in the Bronx. Influenced both by the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, and motifs from Mayan architecture then fashionable. Note the elaborate polychromed terracotta ornament. The façade is Fine’s work, the body Ginsbern’s.”

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River.  Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that underlies the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known.  Anderson Avenue, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River. Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that comprise the reality behind the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known. Anderson Avenue, Bronx, NY, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

In the headline above, I’ve intentionally left out Miss Gladys’s family name.  No matter.  Even if I’d included it, you wouldn’t find Miss Gladys on the internet or in books or newspaper archives.  You can, however,  find Miss Gladys deep in the hearts and memories of scores of people in the Bronx and in Harlem.  And, to search these, no last names are required.

Miss Gladys passed away two years ago yesterday.  As per the title of this post, her life was one of ascent through a world as stark and roughly surfaced as the stairways and alleyways of the Bronx.  In it bare-bones outline, Miss Gladys’s biography was paradigmatic of many African-American women of her generation: Born in the south, traumas at a young age, a move north, single motherhood, years of hard work while studying to become a nurse, disability from an on-the-job accident, and a final earthly rise into the rarefied world of Alzheimer’s.  Miss Gladys’s ascent through life was as steep, deliberate, and demanding as that of the stairways that slice through the west Bronx.  Miss Gladys climbed her way upwards with outspokenness, arch humor, and energy, and with love and devotion to her daughter, a magnificent, courageous woman in her own right.

I met Miss Gladys only a few months before her death, at a party celebrating her daughter’s 50th birthday.  From the rarefied heights of Alzheimer’s, Miss Gladys introduced herself to me over and again, each time explaining that it was actually her own birthday party and asking me to bring her her first slice of cake, since she hadn’t yet had one. Between a growing tally of first slices, she conversed with adult guests and passed life’s lessons and worthy admonishments to the children present.

Several weeks ago, a lengthy and extremely read-worthy article on the treatment of Alzheimer’s appeared in the New Yorker magazine.  The article framed Alzheimer’s, not as an aberration, but as a higher, possibly purer form of being, in which parts of the cognitive self peel away and allow personality to shine through in a manner closer to the origin of self and of human antecedents.  The article also documented a “new” and “novel” form of treatment: regarding of Alzheimer’s patients and their whims as normal and prescribing their full integration into social contexts.  It seems that the author, Rebecca Mead, never searched for Miss Gladys, her daughter, fellow church-goers, or myriad of friends and former co-workers.  If Ms. Mead had, she would have found to her surprise that what she called novel and innovative is simply the way life is lived within at least one tightly-knit circle of African-Americans and a sprinkling of “whites” in Harlem and the heights of the West Bronx.

What did I learn from Miss Gladys?  Something quite simple: That if I live life as if I am ascending the steep steps of the west Bronx, that if I protect those who I love, remain outspoken, truly believe in the worth of things beyond the boundaries of my own self, and continue against growing odds to try to “get ahead,” I might yet find that I still have a goodly number of slices of cake in my future.