BOOK

Heartbreak Highway

by Michael Kimmage
Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
By Constance Rosenblum
NYU Press, 256 pages, $27.95
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The Fish Building, an art deco apartment house designed by Horace Ginsberg, is one of the jewels of the Grand Concourse. / Photo: Carl RosensteinIn 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.

At the turn of the century, Risse dismissed other Bronx thoroughfares for development since they “could never function as proper boulevards,” and he built the Grand Concourse on a ridge, which gave the street a natural elevation, providing many of its inhabitants with wonderful views. The architects who later built on Risse’s boulevard matched their talent and fantasy to the street’s grand potential; though their apartment buildings, hotels, and cinemas did not conform to any single style, several were (and remain) art deco and art moderne masterpieces.

The Grand Concourse was never a stable destination. It was initially “a mecca for immigrants and their offspring,” especially for Jews moving from the working-class East Bronx to the ostentatiously middle-class West Bronx, which also had its Irish American and Italian American enclaves. The black migration was a presence from the 1920s onward, though blacks were prevented by de facto segregation from living on the Concourse. For the Jewish bourgeoisie that gathered around the Concourse, the paradise of community and of urban glamour was real, and it was certainly desirable, but it was never quite as beguiling as the upward mobility that had brought them to the West Bronx in the first place.

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