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The Grand Concourse in the Bronx.Joe Buglewicz/Handout

New York is a place of extremes: big and small, struggle and affluence, glitz and grit. Nowhere is this more true than in the South Bronx. In the 1970s and 80s, this district of apartment neighbourhoods was torn apart by white flight and crime.

Yet for earlier generations of New Yorkers, it was a refuge, and its heart was the Grand Concourse. This arcing eight-lane boulevard attracted “garden apartments” that provided fine shelter for working-class New Yorkers of the 1930s and 40s.

They’re still there, including some of the best Art Deco and Art Moderne architecture on the continent – just a few subway stops from midtown Manhattan. Often overlooked by visitors, they are ripe for a fresh look – and a visit to a resilient community that embraces every culture that has made the South Bronx home.

I begin my trip at the Langham Hotel, where my spacious suite overlooks Fifth Avenue in the very centre of midtown Manhattan. I rise and head downstairs, past a pair of richly hued Alex Katz portraits, and onto the street. The Empire State Building stands a block away. Completed in 1931, it combines the form-follows-function ethos of Modernism with a shamelessly decorative spire and ornament finely crafted from aluminum and stone.

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Those who could afford it settled into larger apartments along the Grand Concourse.tatarac/Handout

I walk across town and catch a 6 train to meet Alexandra Maruri, who runs Bronx Historical Tours, on the Grand Concourse. She grew up nearby, in the 1970s and 80s, and now leads tours that touch on the history and culture of the area. “This place had incredible diversity,” Maruri says as we walk up a hill near Grand Concourse and 140th Street. “There were definitely ups and downs but in a lot of ways it was a fantastic place to live.”

Walking the eight-kilometre Grand Concourse with Maruri is a journey through the history of how – and why – people lived here. At first they sought peace and quiet, she explains; when French engineer Louis Risse laid out the avenue in the late 19th century, it linked Manhattan with large parks to the north.

And then the Concourse itself became a land of plenty. After the First World War, subway expansion linked the area to midtown Manhattan. Working-class New Yorkers, especially Jewish garment workers, settled here by the tens of thousands. The less well-off lived in tenements; those who could afford it settled into larger apartments along the Grand Concourse.

Which is where the architecture story begins. A handful of architects and builders filled the area with garden apartments, which “can hold a lot of people, but you get some green and lots of light and air,” Maruri explains. These apartment buildings (seen from above) look like Hs or Ts or Is; the mass of the buildings is cut open to make room for courtyards.

And the exteriors have a flash that recalls the Empire State Building. Maruri points out a building by the prominent architect Emery Roth at 888 Grand Concourse. Its yellow brick swooped smoothly around a series of curved corners. Stonework striped up toward the sky, while in front of us, golden-hued tile streaked around a curved vestibule. Marble, terrazzo and mosaic all compete for our attention – trademarks of Art Deco, which was newly in fashion when this was built in 1937.

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The Langham Hotel.Handout

Later we pass a monumental, half-block long slab at 167th Street, its displaying series of arches under grids of brick in a “stack bond” pattern. This won a gold medal from the Architectural League of New York in 1920. Its architects, locals Springsteen & Goldhammer, were praised for “good proportions and an elegant use of brickwork,” I learn later.

If the 1920s and 30s brought comfortable apartment living her, the postwar period underwent dramatic change. After the Second World War, the powerful planner Robert Moses built the infamous Cross-Bronx Expressway through the area. This displaced thousands and altered the social fabric of the area. White Bronxites fled for the suburbs.

Black and Latino families took their place, including Maruri’s family, who had immigrated from Ecuador. “People were in such a hurry to move out, they were leaving nice furniture on the curb,” she recalls of the 1970s. “My mother picked up a Tiffany lamp.”

There was hardship here, she admits, in the infamous period when crime rose and landlords routinely burned their own buildings in search of insurance. “In the eighties, everything went south,” she says simply. “But there has always been a strong community. And government and the courts have always been a source of strength for the area.”

These include the former General Post Office, a solid example of the restrained Deco style of 1930s Works Progress Administration architecture, and the Bronx County Building, a massive stone pile that mixes the strong vertical lines of Moderne architecture with Classical marble statuary, including a rendering of Lady Justice.

Further up the Concourse, the Bronx Museum now occupies a renovated former synagogue. A show I saw there, Bronx Calling, included a wide range of work from local artists including Jesse Kreuzer’s Protest and Counter-Protest, which renders a Black Lives Matter protest in the style of a 19th-century history painting.

Political art isn’t new here. This is the area where hip-hop was born in the 1970s, bringing together the communal celebrations and frank social commentary about the state of the city. The Universal Hip-Hop Museum is scheduled to open nearby next year.

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My spacious suite overlooks Fifth Avenue.michael weber/Handout

The political tumult of the past two years and the pandemic have hit this area hard. But hardship here is not new. And gallery staffer Moises Rivera, who grew up in the area in the 1970s and 80s among Puerto Ricans, Black and Italian families, speaks fondly of the camaraderie that existed even then.

“Everybody played together in the street,” he recalls. “Then you would climb the stairs and smell marinara sauce on one floor, and collard greens on the next.”

You can still taste some of that diversity today, with excellent Jamaican food (Maruri suggests Flava’s). She also recommends lunch at the Court Deli, just up the street – a leftover of the days when many Jews lived here. These days, deli food remains a tradition for Bronxites of all backgrounds, Maruri says.

We descend a steep hill toward the 167th Street subway station; from here the apartment houses to the west rise like a mountain ridge. The scale is stunning; it’s easy to see how this neighbourhood welcomed tens of thousands. At the subway, Maruri points out a stained-glass work by the artist Carol Sun, which depicts a past, present and an imagined future with flowers blooming in a park and a comfortable home.

“People are always coming here to find a better life,” she says, “and it’s always resilient, always building back up.”

The writer was a guest of NYC & Company and the Langham. They did not review or approve the story before publication.

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