As American and European cities modernized, narrow streets and alleys were replaced with wider thoroughfares to speed travel and promote commerce. Some grand boulevards were icons and symbols of the good life like the Champs Elyseé in Paris, Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, and the Grand Concourse. In the Bronx of the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Concourse was the place to live. Not the wealthiest but certainly more attainable than Park or even West End Avenue.
Within three decades, the Concourse had changed. The elevator men and doormen were gone; Art Deco buildings lost their sparkle; and middle class strivers moved out. While the situation on the Concourse was never quite as bad as in other parts of the Bronx, where buildings were burning, it was no longer a “boulevard of dreams.” Constance Rosenblum’s account of the history of the street is evocative and informative.
Published at its centennial, the book reminds the reader just how recently the Bronx was an area of farms and forests and how the Concourse, designed to be the heart of the borough, was part of larger planned development which featured substantial parkland. She challenges common theories about reasons for the Bronx’ sharp decline, noting that there were multiple causes rather than it being the fault of the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway and Co-op City. Rather, changing norms and expectations led a new generation of strivers to eschew the small apartments in the Art Deco buildings in favor of single-family suburban homes.
The New York Society Library has chosen Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx by Constance Rosenblum as a winner in the 2009-2010 New York City Book Awards. Founded in 1996, these awards are given annually to books that capture the essence of New York City.
Download the whole 3-page .pdf, with full color pictures, here.
Writers who are passionate exiles from their childhoods in New York City’s Bronx, and its Jewish soul, the Grand Concourse, may well wonder at the credentials of this reviewer. Several of my Bronx friends – Cynthia Ozick, Jerome Charyn, Leonard Kriegel, Marshall Berman – are quoted in “Boulevard of Dreams,” Constance Rosenblum’s celebration and lamentation for the Grand Concourse, its history, golden moments in literature and architecture, its unmistakable Jewish “tam” (flavor), and the end of that world − but I never lived in the borough. While my childhood was spent on a street, Blue Hill Avenue, that was a synonym for Boston’s largest Jewish district from the 1920s through the ‘60s, I have rented on Manhattan’s Lower East Side since 1963. I witnessed my neighborhood go from solid Jewish, Italian and Ukrainian families, and artists and poets, to welfare clients and drug dealers, and today back to young professionals and college students. I missed the Bronx in its heyday, though I recall a trip in 1957 to a stretch of gloomy high-rises, through endless corridors, up shabby elevators, to a friend’s shadowy apartment. That and the bleak drive along the Cross Bronx Expressway, and the echoes from the lives of my own students from the Bronx was the sum of my knowl- edge.
Until this fall, I had never wandered the Grand Concourse, but I am grateful as others who never set foot there will be for “Boulevard of Dreams.”
Bronx history includes large Jewish population
Boulevard of Dreams. By Constance Rosenblum.
New York: New York University Press,2009.277 Pages.$27.95
Those who come from the Bronx (doesn’t everyone?) will be fascinated by this intriguing account of its rise, fall, and the beginning of its rise again.The “boulevard” in the book’s title is actually the Grand Concourse, the wide thoroughfare that stretches north and south through the Bronx. This history by Constance Rosenblum, a New York Times reporter and editor, is being released just before Nov.24,2009 when the Grand Concourse will celebrate its 100th birthday. In the years before the Grand Concourse was constructed, the Bronx consisted largely of farms and park land. It was annexed from Westchester County by New York City in 1874, becoming the only part of the city attached to the mainland. Louis Risse, a French engineer who settled in New York at the age of 17, designed the Grand Concourse as an 11-lane speedway where wealthy New Yorkers could race their horses while, at the same time, it served as a link to the parks of the Bronx. Conceived in 1892, the Grand Concourse was dedicated in 1909,by which time the horses had given way to automobiles. In short order, the Victorian houses lining the Grand Concourse were replaced by opulent five- and six-story Art Deco apartment houses. Upwardly mobile Jewish families from the Lower East Side moved into these apartments. Read the rest of this entry »
Full story here.
In the history of New York City, the Bronx belongs to one of two narratives. The first is a narrative of irrelevance, of mere proximity to Manhattan, without the stature of a storied outer borough like Brooklyn. The second narrative is one of terminal decline, the terrors contained within a simple geographic designation — the South Bronx. Constance Rosenblum ’67JRN, a former editor of the New York Times City and Arts & Leisure sections, adds a forgotten narrative to the standard two, even if her chronicle of urban splendor, erected at the very center of the Bronx, does evolve into the familiar narrative of devastation. Boulevard of Dreams describes “a moment of all but tangible optimism and seemingly unlimited possibilities,” experienced in the vicinity of a single street, the Grand Concourse. It was completed in 1909 and was, from the 1920s through the 1960s, a place of vaunting architectural and immigrant (or postimmigrant) ambition.
Boulevard of Dreams creates memorable images of the Grand Concourse in its midcentury golden age — its spectacular buildings, its elegant, vibrant street life — and Rosenblum includes many fascinating biographies, starting with civil engineer Louis Risse, the European-born visionary who dreamed of a Parisian concourse in New York. The book concludes with present-day visionaries seeking to revive this street and its surrounding area. If their modest successes do not amount to a renaissance, they may mark the end of a long and miserable phase.
A review of Boulevard of Dreams appeared in the 9/20/09 issue of the New York Times Book Review.
Rosenblum didn’t grow up in the West Bronx, but that doesn’t stop her from feeling nostalgic for this onetime haven for upwardly mobile Jewish families — a high-end Art Deco neighborhood that has since become part of the poorest urban county in the United States. A writer and editor at The New York Times, Rosenblum is an infectiously enthusiastic tour guide. You can almost feel her pulling you up and down the Grand Concourse — which was completed 100 years ago — giddily pointing out the sights: the absurdly opulent Loew’s Paradise movie theater, say, or the daring, mermaid-bedecked Lorelei fountain. Of course, one man’s paradise is another’s nightmare: “The boulevard was off limits to blacks in virtually every respect,” Rosenblum writes. At what came to be called “the Bronx Slave Market,” in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, white matrons hired black women for household labor and often exploited them. Institutional racism, Rosenblum says, set the neighborhood up for the urban apocalypse of the ’70s and ’80s, when the once-glamorous area turned hellish: “Fear bled into a barely concealed racism that in turn morphed into panic.” Without acquitting the more famous villains of Bronx history — Co-op City and Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway — she suggests that the aging residents’ terror of outsiders helped destroy the neighborhood they loved.
The New Yorker’s book blog interviewed Constance about the book and the Bronx.
The area nurtured literary genius—Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Allan Poe. But, you also note, sometimes “a budding poet was also suffocated by the relentlessly middle-class values that engulfed him.” How so?
This was for the most part a middle-class neighborhood, and certain relentlessly middle-class values were cherished. A mother loved to brag about “my son the doctor” or “my son the lawyer” or “my son the professor.” But “my son the aspiring novelist”? Not so good. And certain sorts of sensitivity were even frowned upon. Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist and writer who grew up in the area, said to me, “If you admired a sunset, everyone assumed you were gay.” The Bronx certainly produced its share of artistic and literary figures, but it wasn’t always an easy place in which to be a sensitive, creative soul.
The influence of Robert Moses on the area is the source of some controversy. Would you describe it?
Controversy is too weak a word. Even today, and probably until the end of time, people will be arguing about the impact of Moses’s Cross Bronx Expressway on this part of the borough. Many people maintain that the expressway was largely responsible for problems the southern half of the Bronx faced during the last part of the twentieth century. The ramming of a major highway through residential neighborhoods along and near the Grand Concourse was clearly destructive and highly traumatic. But the forces that brought trouble to these neighborhoods were many and complicated and involved much more than the highway, devastating as it was.
Could you elaborate on what happened during the last three decades of the twentieth century?
So many things happened. The city overall was changing in profound ways during those years, and the Grand Concourse was no exception. This street, which represented so much for so long, fell victim to broader forces that were making it increasingly hard for urban neighborhoods to survive. Money and political power were being directed to the suburbs. Jobs that for generations had supported working-class families were disappearing. Racism was a major factor, and so was public and private indifference. And because change swept through the area so quickly, its effect was especially traumatic; residents said it was as if the Grand Concourse had been transformed “overnight.” It hadn’t, but it felt that way.
Read the article here. View the audio slideshow here.
The Grand Concourse, the four-and-a-half-mile boulevard that for much of its life was described as the Champs-Élysées of the Bronx, has often sat for its portrait, as have many of the handsome buildings along its flanks. But there is one image that captures in poignant fashion exactly what the street represented in the mid-20th century.
t is a grainy black-and-white snapshot of a boy named Sam Goodman, a third-generation boulevard resident, wearing a dressy coat and hat and standing in front of the Lorelei fountain in Joyce Kilmer Park. Anyone who knew the area would recognize the luscious white-marble concoction of mermaids and riverfront siren, which had been created in Germany in 1893 and brought to the Bronx with much fanfare six years later.
Lorelei was not the boulevard’s only charmer. This broad, tree-lined street, the ultimate prestige address for vast numbers of the city’s upwardly mobile Jews, was also home to a movie palace where stars twinkled in a midnight-blue ceiling, a grand hotel where political intrigue played out amid marble columns and crimson carpets, and a stellar collection of Art Deco apartment houses.
That world has evaporated. The stars in the movie palace (now home to sports events and concerts with a Latin beat) are gone, along with the political intrigue in the hotel (now a residence for the elderly) and most of the trees. The 182-foot-wide roadway has been sliced and diced over the years. But Sam Goodman, the little boy in the snapshot, who now works as an urban planner in the Bronx borough president’s office, is hardly the only survivor of that era whose voice softens at the mention of the thoroughfare that even today, nearly a century after it was built, is considered one of the city’s legendary streets.
The Wall Street Journal just posted a glowing review of Boulevard of Dreams!
A Golden Seam In the Bronx
It was a mecca of sorts, decidedly middle-class, a pristine boulevard sitting on its very own hill in the West Bronx, and once considered the borough’s classiest address. The Grand Concourse will be 100 years old come November, and in those years it has gone through a roller-coaster ride of stunning growth and decline, and growth again, as it seems to have risen out of its own ruins. Constance Rosenblum, a New York Times editor, has charted this ride with clarity and panache in “Boulevard of Dreams,” a history of the Concourse.
Originally known as the Grand Boulevard and Concourse, the project was, in a sense, doomed from the start. Late 19th-century engineers and planners in New York had imagined it, Ms. Rosenblum says, as an “integral rib” of a new “Oz-like metropolis” called the Bronx. These planners were looking for nothing less than “a northern extension of Fifth Avenue”—or, as one official at the time said, “a vigorous rival” to Manhattan itself. But the boulevard that opened in 1909, after years of skulduggery and delays, was a remote road on a ridge, with few ties to Manhattan or Fifth Avenue. Still, the Grand Concourse was quite beautiful to behold, and a neighborhood grew up around the road until it transformed itself into a prosperous little island of Jews, the Bronx’s “golden ghetto.”
…Ms. Rosenblum has written with real thunder about the Grand Concourse and the wild dreamers who once lived there. “Boulevard of Dreams” is a passionate and deeply elegiac book.
Read the whole article here.
From Sunday’s “Required Reading” Column:
Boulevard of Dreams
by Constance Rosenblum (NYU Press)
Once one of the most magnificent roadways in New York City, what started out as the Grand Boulevard and Concourse in the early 1890s, was designed by French-born civil engineer Louis Risse. Risse, writes longtime journalist Rosenblum, saw it as “a thoroughfare that would shuttle the fashionable world of Manhattan to the rural expanses of the Bronx.” She takes us through the different generations of immigrants who made Concourse neighborhoods their home, looking at the big picture and the changing details of people’s daily lives.