Take Five

The history behind Grand Concourse, the "Champs-Élysées of the Bronx"

By Emily Nonko  | January 5, 2016 - 8:59AM

The BQE, this isn't: The Grand Concourse, which stretches four miles throughout the Bronx, is far from your average highway. It's one of New York’s most impressive, historic thoroughfares—as the name suggests, it's a grand, wide roadway separated into different parts by tree-lined medians and flanked by apartment buildings, businesses, and imposing civic structures on either side. It was built between 1894 and 1909, during the height of the City Beautiful Movement, a North American philosophy that aimed to beautify urban centers through city planning that incorporated parks, boulevards, civic centers and cultural destinations. The project cost $14 million, a fortune at the time.

The roadway’s designer, Louis Aloys Risse, was a French immigrant who had previously worked for the New York Central Railroad. He envisioned the Grand Concourse as New York’s version of the Champs-Élysées—only longer—and the project would span 180 feet across, with bicycle paths, pedestrian sidewalks and three distinct roadways split by lush landscaping. Since then, the concourse has become home to outstanding architecture (including an impressive collection of Art Deco co-op buildings) as well as New York City landmarks (think Yankee Stadium).

For this Take Five installment, we spoke with Ed García Conde, founder of the Welcome 2 The Bronx website, and Daniel Almekinder, a Corcoran broker who lives and works in the area, about what makes this stretch of the city so unique.

(Photo: Flickr/Shannon McGee)

1. It’s not one single neighborhood.

When we’re talking about the Grand Concourse, you can’t sum it up as one cohesive neighborhood. “There are three different segments to the Grand Concourse, and each segment has a different vibe and feel to it,” explains García Conde.

The northernmost section begins at Mosholu Parkway, in the Norwood neighborhood, and goes down to around 167th Street. According to García Conde, the northern portion has diverse architecture that includes single-family homes, without the high concentration of Art Deco buildings; the middle part of the concourse, between 167th Street to 149th Street, is “the civic heart of the Bronx.” This portion is home to the Bronx Supreme Court, the Bronx Borough President’s Office and the Bronx County Clerk’s Office. Around 167th Street is where you will find a cluster of Art Deco co-ops, for which the Grand Concourse is renowned. The lower concourse, which runs from 149th Street to the end at 138th Street, is mostly residential, with more co-op buildings.

(Photo: Flickr/Shannon McGee)

2. It's an architecture buff's dream.

When the subway opened a few blocks west of the Grand Concourse in 1917, it initiated a housing boom along the thoroughfare. Jewish and Italian families looking to escape Manhattan tenements from the 1920s into the 40s rushed to liveable, five- and six-story buildings that now comprise some of the best remaining Art Deco and Art Moderne buildings in the city. “It’s like an open museum,” says García Conde.

These buildings, now both rentals and co-operatives, were distinguished by wide entrance courtyards, landscaping, private bathrooms and central heat. The emphasis on light and air throughout larger apartments was prompted and enforced by the Tenement House law of 1901 and the building styles reflected not only the City Beautiful philosophy but the current fashions of Manhattan—Tudor, Renaissance, and Colonial Revival designs between 1922 and 1931, then Art Deco and Modern between 1935 and 1945, according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

By the 1930s, there were nearly 300 apartment buildings along the boulevard. The Works Progress Administration—a New Deal agency that employed unemployed people to carry out public works, and commissioned a series of murals by artist Ben Shahn in the Grand Concourse Post Office—called the Grand Concourse as "the Park Avenue of middle-class Bronx residents.” in its 1939 WPA guide.

The architecture remained throughout a period of citywide decline from the 1960s to the 1980s , including the "Bronx  is burning" era.  “There weren't any fires breaking out along the Grand Concourse,” says García Conde, although the neighborhood lost its reputation of grandeur and many owners stopped investing in the maintenance of their buildings. Due to the solid construction of the buildings, they survived largely unscathed through the decades of owner neglect, retaining the architectural details and character that first attracted residents to them in the 1920s and 1930s. And in the late 1980s, the borough began to see a resurgence as landlords started working with with community organizations and tenants to rehab multifamily housing.

These days, there are a number of well-maintained co-op buildings. 800 Grand Concourse, according to Almekinder, is known for its large apartments and beautiful lobby. 811 Walton Street, right off the Grand Concourse, is also known for its impressive lobby, while 1150 Grand Concourse has an outstanding facade with a color mosaic of undersea creatures flanking the main entrance.

Residential buildings stand alongside the impressive federal structures and the Bronx County Courthouse, the Loew’s Paradise Theater, and more modern additions to the area, including the Bronx Museum of the Arts off 165th Street and Yankee Stadium off 161st Street. In 2011, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated a historic district along the Grand Concourse from 153rd to 167th Street. García Conde says there's now a “loosely organized group” that wants to push for a larger historic district.

(Photo: Flickr/The All-Nite Images)

3. The views aren't too shabby, either.

When Louis Aloys Risse was searching for a locale to build out his grand boulevard, he ended up in this section of the Bronx after spotting a lengthy ridge that ran through the area. “He thought the ridge would be perfect because it had such a high elevation,” explains García Conde. “Today you have views across the Bronx.” Those include views to adjacent neighborhoods like Highbridge and University Heights, as well as Crotona Park and the New York Botanical Garden.

After deciding to build along this “magnificent ridge,” as Risse called it, he wrote: ''It would be a sacrilege against nature to disturb,” according to the New York Times. That’s why he abandoned the usual rectangular block system found throughout New York, leaving the Grand Concourse with fewer intersections than usual.

At the time of construction, Risse realized a bridge had to be constructed to traverse a valley that cut through the ridge at 174th Street. A stone masonry bridge was erected, cutting through existing farmland in the area. The bridge was demolished during the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which opened in 1972. The concourse still has a number of underpasses that Risse designed to facilitate traffic at intersections for horses, carts and wagons; today they accommodate cars driving through.

(Photo: Flickr/The All-Nite Images)

4. It’s home to a diverse demographic.

Since its early 20th century wave of Italian and Jewish immigrants, Grand Concourse has come to be home to a diverse collection of New Yorkers. As García Conde was growing up in the area, the neighborhood was predominately Puerto Rican. And while the area's still predominantly Hispanic today, there's now a large concentration of  West African immigrants in the mix, as well. According to the 2014 American Community Survey, the 10456 area code (around the central Concourse) is 60 percent Hispanic—Puerto Ricans making up 20 percent—36 percent black and 1.3 percent white.

(Photo: Flickr/The All-Nite Images)

5. The affordability is attracting newcomers and change.

The latest wave of newcomers to the area? Buyers priced out of Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to Almekinder.

“The biggest thing we have going for us is the space versus price," he says. “Where else in New York can you find a three bedroom for under $400,000?” Prices are starting to rise throughout the borough, though: The median price for a Bronx co-op was $200,000 for the third quarter of 2015, up from $190,000 one year ago, according to REBNY.

Almekinder definitely sees those price jumps along the Grand Concourse, as he has a one-bedroom at 1855 Grand Concourse under contract for $188,500; it last sold in 2008 for $179,865. “People who would never buy here 20 years ago are doing it now,”  García Conde says. “I just hope it doesn’t become inaccessible to people who already live in the Bronx.”

Neighborhood changes are not just confined to real estate prices. For the past two summers, a group called “Boogie on the Boulevard” got support from the city to close off traffic on seven blocks of the Grand Concourse for a few days for pedestrians to enjoy—and more than 5,000 people showed up.

“It was an opportunity to show people what the Grand Concourse was all about,” says García Conde. Also, streetscape improvements are bringing more planted medians and bike lanes to the boulevard. Almekinder notes that a bakery has replaced a Burger King along the concourse, with some new development (like the 17-story rental at 810 River Avenue) in the works. “Since I moved here six years ago, the retail and restaurant options have changed for the better,” he says.

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