• Day 271: Paradise on the Grand Concourse

    Date: 2010.11.17 | Category: Uncategorized | Tags:

    Whenever my visit to New York City comes to an end, I go someplace very different from the fast-paced, glamorous life my friends/former colleagues lead in glittering Manhattan.

    The longer I’ve been away, the more intense Manhattan Island seems to be, though I love it and will always love it – and it will always feel more like home to me than Boston, which is near where I grew up.

    I used to adore my high-rise apartment, which is smack in the center of the island with huge open views of the downtown skyline and the Hudson River.  I still love it, but it seems more harsh and exposed to me now.  I still sleep well there, but I feel as if the energy is coming at me relentlessly, that there is no escape from the burning power of  Manhattan.

    At the end of my last visit, I took the subway to the Cloisters, at the northern tip of Manhattan – and then walked all the way back down the island through Washington Heights, my favorite neighborhood, and down to a friend’s dinner party on Central Park West.

    I fantasized about moving to Washington Heights if I ever decided to move back to New York from Europe.  In a way I feel more comfortable there, with salsa blaring from the sidewalk stores and hair salons that cater to curly hair like mine.

    This month’s visit concluded with a walk from 149th Street in the South Bronx along the once-storied Grand Concourse to 192nd Street.  I was inspired to walk the Grand Concourse after reading Hollywood promoter/producer extraordinaire Jerry Weintraub’s memoir, When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead:  Useful Stories from a Persuasive Man.

    Weintraub, like many of Jewish kids (Ralph “Lifshitz” Lauren, Calvin Klein etc.), came from this area of the Bronx.  Weintraub in particular spoke of this amazing movie palace, Loew’s Paradise, (in the photo I took above) a spectacular, now 81-year-old building on the Grand Concourse at 188th Street, which inspired hundreds of ambitious young kids like him living in otherwise mundane surroundings.

    I wanted to come see the Loew’s Paradise.

    In the early 1990s, as a reporter with the Associated Press, I came to the South Bronx to do stories at a time when the nightmarish “Fort Apache, the Bronx” days of apartment burnings and the crack epidemic were still in force.  It was a dangerous place.

    Today I felt perfectly comfortable walking alone even though there was not a single other Caucasian face to be found as I walked the Grand Concourse,  a stately boulevard studded with some gorgeous Art Deco apartment buildings.  In its heyday, in the 30s, 40s and 50s – it was called the Park Avenue for Jews and Italians who escaped the tenements of Manhattan.

    Then they left in the white flight as African-Americans and Latinos arrived.  I hoped to see at least a few elderly Jews on my walk.  But I didn’t.  I walked into some of the nicer apartment buildings and talked to the concierges who said a few very elderly Jews still lived there.

    Mostly I saw the names of old temples and synagogues obscured by signs for Baptist and 7th Day Adventist churches.  And I heard Spanish a lot.  I spoke to a woman near a bus stop who’s lived in the Bronx for 40 years. She said there are still a lot of drug dealers on the side streets but the dark days of the ’70s and ’80s are gone.

    Now the Grand Concourse is part of the South Bronx Enpowerment Zone – a $100 million initative begun in 1996 involving areas of the Bronx, Washington Heights and Harlem – that’s reinvigorated the area.

    I enjoyed talking to various people along the Grand Concourse who were so friendly to me.  When I got to Loew’s Paradise theater, it was so exciting to see the place that meant so much to Weintraub.  It’s among a lot of non-descript stores but you can see its past magnificence.  It was closed for years but a new guy bought it a few years ago and now they’re having lots of concerts and awards shows there.

    The guy inside the ticket booth said it was closed at the moment but I begged him to show me inside.  I wanted to see the enormous lobby with its cherubs and gargoyles – the theater is a Bronx cousin of Radio City Music Hall, built in 1929.

    He turned out to be a great guy, a lifelong resident of the Bronx, who took me inside and I was thrilled.  He wanted to be sure I walked even a bit further, to see the cottage where Edgar Allan Poe lived in 1812 – this small, normal-looking little house in the middle of the Grand Concourse.

    When Poe lived here, the area was rural, part of Westchester County.  I love old New York history, trying to picture what Manhattan and environs were when they were mainly farmlands.

    I saw a public elementary school across the street from the Poe cottage.  Before I jumped back on the B train to Caucasian Manhattan, I wanted to go inside the school.   The world I come from in New York is privileged, moneyed, media etc.  My friends’ kids go through all the rigamarole to get into the best private schools.

    But I fantasize about living in one of the grand old buildings on the Concourse.  And what would it be like to send a kid to a local public school?  This is the other side of the world in a way, a public school in the South Bronx.

    I walked into the school, which is K through 6.  It was so sunny, cheerful and bright. I went by the classrooms and read what the teachers wrote on the classroom doors about what their students were doing and learning.  One fourth grade class was collecting fall leaves and pressing them under paper, the same thing I did in elementary school.

    It was 3pm so parents were coming to pick up their kids.  The teachers were smiling, the kids were joking around.  I felt no trouble or tension.

    As I walked back to the subway station at Fordham Road to catch the B train back to Manhattan, I ran into a concierge who I’d spoken to at an apartment building near 165th Street.  He was on his way home. He was delighted to see I’d walked all the way up to the Poe cottage.

    I got back on the subway and began seeing white faces after we roared past 125th Street in Harlem.  I got out near Macy’s on 34th Street because I had to buy something before I left.

    I saw a Christmas sign on the side facade of Macy’s:  BELIEVE.