The Bronx, Art Deco, and Neuroscience

By Constance Rosenblum. Cross-posted from, the website for the forthcoming book Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx

The other day I visited the Art Deco apartment of José Diaz-Oyola, a nursing supervisor who lives on the Grand Concourse overlooking Joyce Kilmer Park. I made the visit so I could write about Mr. Diaz-Oyola for the Habitats column of The New York Times. The article will be published in the Real Estate section on Sunday, July 19.

The apartment had all the amenities associated with these buildings — the sunken living room, the wraparound windows — but what particularly impressed me was the sense of flow from one room to another and how open the space seemed to feel. It was a far cry from the claustrophobic railroad flats of old, with their tiny rooms branching off from a single narrow hallway. These mid-century architects clearly knew a thing or two about the design of interior spaces. Even though Mr. Diaz-Oyola’s apartment was not vast in terms of square feet, it felt awfully livable.

I was thinking about the issue a few days later when I read a review in The Times of a book called You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall by a Canadian behavioral neuroscientist named Colin Ellard. When I was writing Boulevard of Dreams, my history of the Grand Concourse to be published by NYU Press next month, I spent a lot of time pondering what made the buildings of the Grand Concourse so appealing. And so I was particularly struck by what Ellard had to say about housing design.

Ellard says we gravitate to certain places in the house because they offer sweeping views that include doors and windows, and that the best architects know this and create spaces that lead us naturally from one such area to the next.

Herbert Lillien, the architect who designed Mr. Diaz-Oyola’s building back in the 1940s, must have instinctively understood this. Although the individual rooms aren’t huge, there are lots of windows and interior doors, and the spaces seem almost to ooze from one to another.

This visit also reminded me how much of the area’s Art Deco past is visible, if you know where to look. In the lobby of the building next to Mr. Diaz-Oyola’s is a mural — of exactly what I could never figure out, despite having looked at it many times — that includes a fragment of a poem by Joyce Kilmer, the poet who gave his name to the park across the street.

And Art Deco touches peek out of Mr. Diaz-Oyola’s building, despite evidence of a harsher present that includes signs on the facade reminding visitors to the medical clinics within that they are eligible for insurance coverage.

“Don’t forget to look at the floor in the lobby,” Mr. Diaz-Oyola tells me as I’m leaving. Good advice. Where the carpet stops near the entrance is a patch of red and cream terrazzo floor, a reminder of the days when such details were common up and down the boulevard. And did I mention that except for the buttons, the silvery elevators are all completely original? Or so I was told.

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