THE BRONX IN BRIEF
THE BRONX IN BRIEF
The Bronx is named in memory of the areas first European settler, the Swede, Jonas Bronck. The earliest settlement in The Bronx took place along the Harlem River in 1639, in what is now Mott Haven. The Bronx originally was part of Westchester County. In 1841, the New York and Harlem Railroad began regular commuter service between The Bronx and Manhattan, and by 1895 the area had become a part of New York City. At the turn of the century, the quiet suburban streets and farms of The Bronx began to yield to rapidly expanding factories and urban neighborhoods. In 1914, the borough’s main thoroughfare, the Grand Concourse, was completed; it had been inspired by Paris’ great boulevard, the Champs Elysées. By the 1920s the Fordham Road-Grand Concourse intersection was a great commercial nexus and a center of tree-lined avenues, with luxurious homes and apartment buildings designed in the latest Art Deco and modernist styles.
The last decade of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century were the formative years, too, for many great landmarks which continue to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to The Bronx every year. The Bronx Zoo, one of the largest zoos in the world; the beautiful park-like New York Botanical Garden; the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College (the former campus of New York University) and, of course, Yankee Stadium, are just a few of the borough’s many outstanding attractions. All of these sites are featured as part of The Society’s tours of The Bronx.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF THE BRONX
The northern borough of New York City contains forty-two square miles and is the only section of New York City on the mainland. The borough has a population of about l.2 million in 1990 and by the late 1990s its bridges, highways, and railroads were more heavily traveled than those of any other part of the United States. There are twelve colleges and universities in the borough: Fordham University, the Maritime College of the State University of New York, three branches of the City University of New York (Lehman College, Bronx Community College, and Hostos Community College), the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, the College of Mount St. Vincent, Manhattan College, Mercy College, the College of New Rochelle, Audrey Cohen College and Monroe College. Almost 24 percent of the land area is parkland, including Pelham Bay Park, which is the largest park in the city.
In 1874 the towns of Morrisania, West Farms and Kingsbridge, all of which were west of The Bronx River, were annexed to the City of New York. (Until this time, New York City had consisted solely of Manhattan.) In the 1890s there was strong support in parts of Eastchester, Pelham, and the village of Wakefield for consolidating with New York City the area east of The Bronx River, along with the towns and villages of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Most people assumed that high real-estate values in Manhattan would cover the public debt already incurred by the towns and pay for further public improvements being planned, such as a sewer system in Wakefield. In 1894 a nonbinding referendum on consolidation was passed by voters in New York City and its outlying areas but defeated overwhelmingly in the city of Mount Vernon and by one vote in the town of Westchester. The state legislature defeated a bill inspired by the referendum but in 1895 passed another bill annexing to the city the area east of The Bronx River, parts of the towns of Pelham and Eastchester, the village of Wakefield, and the town of Westchester, which because of its central location was included despite its negative vote in 1894. The newly annexed district was placed under the jurisdiction of the commissioner of street improvements for the areas west and east of The Bronx River, which was then commonly known as the Great North Side. (This office eventually became the model for borough presidents.)
In 1898, all of the areas that had been annexed in 1874 and 1895 became the borough of The Bronx.
Morris High School, the first public high school in The Bronx, opened in 1897. Many of the Italian immigrants who moved to the city about the turn of the century settled in The Bronx, often near the factories of Melrose or in Belmont, where they found work in the building trades or in landscaping the New York Botanical Garden and The Bronx Zoo nearby. Others helped to build the Jerome Park Reservoir and some bought farms in the rural northeastern Bronx. A studio was opened on 142nd Street between Brook and Willis avenues by the Piccirilli brothers of Pisa, who carved the statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial from a design by Daniel Chester French, and a statue of George Washington for the World's Fair of 1939-40.
In 1904 the first subway connecting The Bronx to Manhattan was opened. The new subway lines opened at this time and in subsequent years, along with the older Third Avenue Elevated line, provided cheap rapid transit to and from Manhattan. During the first third of the twentieth century these rapid transit facilities served as a catalyst for hundreds of thousands of workers and their families to leave tenements in Manhattan for spacious new apartments in The Bronx. Many ethnic groups made this move but the largest contingent was Jews from central and eastern Europe and their descendants.
Between 1900 and 1930, the number of Bronx residents increased from 201 thousand to 1,265,000. Along with this growth, grocery stores, restaurants, vegetable and fruit markets, tailors, and hardware stores became common characteristics of neighborhood shopping districts. Inhabitants throughout the borough also shopped in department stores and boutiques at 149th Street and 3rd Avenue, an area known as the Hub that also had movie palaces and vaudeville theaters. Alexander's opened a department store there in 1928 and a branch on Fordham Road in 1938, where it soon made more sales per square foot than any other department store in the nation. Eventually a section of Fordham Road eclipsed the Hub as the main shopping district. In 1929 Loew's theater syndicate built the Paradise Theater for $4 million on the Grand Concourse immediately south of Fordham Road; it had four thousand seats and a baroque decor that included a ceiling painted dark blue to resemble a nighttime sky, with small light bulbs added to resemble stars and simulated clouds blown across the ceiling by a cloud machine.
In 1923, Yankee Stadium was opened at 161st Street and River Avenue as the home of the New York Yankees. The team soon became known as the "Bronx Bombers" because of the large number of home runs hit in the following decades by such players as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Reggie Jackson. The stadium was also used for football games, championship boxing matches, religious gatherings and concerts.
The onset of the Depression ended the period of tremendous growth that had begun at the end of the nineteenth century, but privately financed apartment buildings continued to be constructed (mostly in the art deco style). This was especially true of the area of the Grand Concourse, which became a symbol of social and economic success and had many apartment buildings of five or six stories with wide entrance courtyards bordered with grass and shrubs. About 49 percent of the inhabitants of The Bronx in 1930 were Jews, most of whom worked in Manhattan. By 1934 the housing in the borough had many more amenities than that of the other boroughs: almost 99 percent of residences had private bathrooms, about 95 percent central heating, more than 97 percent hot water, and more than 48 percent mechanical refrigeration.
The largest housing development of the time, Parkchester, was undertaken by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Completed in 1942, it housed forty thousand residents and had parks, playgrounds, sculptures, convenience stores, and movie theaters. During this period, Edward J. Flynn, the Democratic leader of Bronx County and an early supporter of the New Deal, secured public funds to repair streets and build the county jail and the central post office, as well as neighborhood parks. The borough became known for its colleges and universities. It also had a growing number of public high schools, among them The Bronx High School of Science, which by the mid 1990s had a higher number of graduates with doctorates than any other high school in the United States.
After the Second World War new housing was built and the makeup of the population changed. Construction ranged from luxury apartment buildings in Riverdale to public housing in the southern Bronx. Longtime residents and former servicemen moved from older housing in the southern neighborhoods of Hunts Point, Morrisania, and Mott Haven into privately built housing in the northern Bronx, to the other boroughs, and to the suburbs. About 170,000 persons displaced by slum clearing in Manhattan, mostly Black and Puerto Rican, moved to Hunts Point and Morrisania, as well as to Melrose, Tremont, and Highbridge. In 1950 social workers reported enduring poverty in a section of the southern Bronx.
Systematic rent control was introduced during the Second World War to prevent rents from skyrocketing as empty apartments became scarce; it soon prevented conscientious landlords from paying for repairs to their aging buildings. Buildings were often set afire, at some times by unscrupulous landlords hoping to collect insurance, and at others by unscrupulous tenants taking advantage of the city's policy that burned-out tenants should be given priority for public housing and receive money for new furnishings. A period of rampant arson in the late 1960s and early 1970s ended only after this policy was changed and a limit was imposed on insurance payments for reconstructing burned-out apartment buildings. From that time on thousands of one-family homes and row houses were built, hundreds of apartment buildings restored, and several apartments converted to cooperatives and condominium units, permitting more residents of the southern Bronx to own their homes.
After Flynn's death in 1953 Congressman Charles A. Buckley succeeded him as the Democratic leader of Bronx County. Buckley gained federal funds for the construction in the 1950s and 1960s of public housing and a network of highways linking The Bronx with the rest of the city, among them the Major Deegan Expressway, the Cross Bronx Expressway, and the Bruckner Expressway. As commuting by automobile became more convenient, high-rise apartment buildings were erected in southern and eastern neighborhoods along the new roads, including Soundview, Castle Hill, Spuyten Duyvil, and Riverdale. Co-op City, a complex of 15,372 units built in the northeastern Bronx between 1968 and 1970, housed sixty thousand persons and was among the largest housing developments in the world. The distribution of products to the metropolitan area and the rest of the east coast became easier for industries occupying new industrial parks in The Bronx, such as those along Bathgate and Zerega avenues, and for fruit and vegetable dealers in the Hunts Point Food Market (1965).
Puerto Ricans accounted for a growing share of the population and became more active in politics: Herman Badillo was the first Puerto Rican to be elected to the borough presidency (1965) and later to the U.S. Congress; Robert Garcia was elected to Congress in 1978; Fernando Ferrer was elected borough president in 1987; and Jose Serrano succeeded Garcia in 1990.
After a period of dramatic population losses in the 1970s and early 1980s, the population of The Bronx began to grow again. More than a quarter of the 1.2 million residents in 1990 were Puerto Rican, and there were also growing numbers of Dominicans, Cubans, Jamaicans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, Greeks, and Russians. Many Albanians settled in Belmont, many Cambodians in Fordham. Co-op City remained a successful development, luxury apartments built in Riverdale in the 1950s became cooperatives, and the housing stock continued to include the world's largest concentration of buildings in the art deco style. Entrepreneurs formed new businesses, and the borough's public schools were overcrowded with new immigrants.
As The Bronx Borough President, Fernando Ferrer, notes in his Centennial article in this issue, confidence in the future of The Bronx has been restored. In 1997, the Bronx received an All-American City award from the National Civic League because of its successful efforts to rebuild its communities. For the next century, the challenge will be to make sure that the borough becomes a place of increased economic opportunity for all of its residents.
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