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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It is fitting that Ralph Lauren, an American icon of Anglophilic gentility, grew up near the Concourse; in his younger years he was Ralphie Lipschitz. Professionally, his aim was not to immortalize the Bronx in American fashion; it was to leave the Bronx behind by entering the upper reaches of the American elite, and to make this entry, or this motion, accessible to his customers.

Ralphie Lipschitz’s transformation into Ralph Lauren reflected a demographic truth. Concourse dwellers who continued their upward mobility either went south to Manhattan or north to Westchester County. The children raised on the Concourse in the 1940s and 1950s, the writer E. L. Doctorow and the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick among them, rejected the world of their parents, Rosenblum writes. In some ways, however, they were recognizably their ancestors’ offspring. An earlier generation had fled tenements and slums for the Concourse, and the generation before that had left the Old World for the New.

The postwar departure of youth, from the Bronx and into the wide world, foreshadowed an unanticipated collapse, and Rosenblum’s book about urban dreaming makes the nightmare city of the 1970s and 1980s, the South Bronx of legend, seem all the more strange and terrible. The leaving had begun early, and it collided with other large-scale trends. A predominantly Jewish middle class initiated a rapid diaspora from the Bronx in the late 1960s, mostly to the suburbs, “a textbook example of how the American city fared in the 20th century.” It is a daunting illustration, made vivid by the vertiginous career of this unfortunate street. A collapse of infrastructure and a rise in crime and narcotics, coupled with heedless urban planning, turned a Parisian boulevard into a dangerous highway from which the poor and the elderly were unable to escape — and hardly able to cross.

Rosenblum’s tone is not entirely consistent in Boulevard of Dreams. It wavers between an exuberant enjoyment of “the Golden Ghetto” and shock at a city’s tragedy that was not caused by war or natural disaster. The rise and fall are two contrasting elements of the same story. But Rosenblum’s book is not a work of analytical history, nor a book about causes. It is a beautiful act of re-creation, untainted by nostalgia, and too varied, too accurate to be only despairing. Perhaps because of her background in journalism, Rosenblum has a fine feel for the everyday people who walked the Grand Concourse; she incorporates their voices into her history.

At the beginning of this charming book, Rosenblum writes about Louis Risse and his audacious decision as chief topographical engineer to include the Bronx on the first official map of Greater New York, which he finished in 1900. In Boulevard of Dreams, Rosenblum has done the same with the Grand Concourse, putting its history on the map of the Bronx and helping, once again, to put the Bronx on the map of Greater New York.

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