Grand Concourse at 100: Growth Abounds

Event: Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx
Location: AIA Center for Architecture, 11.11.09
Speakers: Ray Bromley, Ph.D., AICP — Professor, Department of Geography and Planning, SUNY Albany; Gelvin Stevenson — Special Assistant to the Founder & CEO, Clear Skies Group; Ron Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA — Professor of Urban Planning, Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, Pratt Institute
Moderator: Constance Rosenblum — Editor, the City section, New York Times
Organizers: AIA New York Chapter; Art Deco Society of New York

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Grand Concourse.

Jessica Sheridan

The story of the Grand Concourse in the Bronx is a metaphor for nothing less than “the rise and fall and rebirth of the American city,” according to moderator Constance Rosenblum, New York Times journalist and author of Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (NYU Press, 2009), a new book on the thoroughfare. This event, like the book, was scheduled to celebrate the centennial of the Grand Concourse’s opening in November 1909.

In her opening remarks, Rosenblum told the audience how the concourse had changed from its origins as a “mesmerizing Mecca for the city’s upwardly mobile Jews,” to a decayed and rotting estate “comparable to Dresden after the war.” Race, economic issues, government policy — particularly the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway — all played their part. How can the extraordinary decline of the Grand Concourse during the 20th century be explained?

Gelvin Stevenson, a director of the Clear Skies Group and a long-time Bronx resident, responded first by using the Roosevelt Gardens as a symbol for what happened to the district. Stevenson listed the number of ways in which residents had been duped and cheated out of money and basic services from 1950 to the mid-1970s. By the end, the building’s tenants were literally forced out by spiraling rents. From 1943 to 1973, rent increased by 80%. In the two years that followed, rent rose another 90%. The building, crime-ridden and dangerous, was abandoned in 1975. “The story of Roosevelt Gardens tells you everything you need to know about what went wrong on the Grand Concourse,” he said.

Ray Bromley, Ph.D., AICP, a self-described “amateur Bronxologist” is a professor of planning at SUNY Albany. Responding to Stevenson’s remarks, he countered by taking a macroscopic look at the conditions in the U.S. during the 1960s and 70s. “Cities across the country were devastated by events in the national sphere,” he said. “What happened in the Bronx, Harlem, and Washington Heights happened in Utica, Detroit, and plenty of other places.” The 1960s saw an “intense surburbanization process” which left the inner cities without urban renewal, he said. Those who blamed the Cross Bronx Expressway for “ghettoizing” the Grand Concourse ignore the “broader contextual issues” surrounding it. “It’s too simple just to blame Robert Moses and the Cross Bronx Expressway,” he concluded.

Ron Shiffman, FAICP, Hon. AIA, the only panelist raised in the Bronx, returned to the subject of urban planning. The Pratt Institute, where he is a professor, had researched the area extensively and found that its decay was the “consequence of intentions both good and bad.” So while the Cross Bronx Expressway was a useful thoroughfare for the “middle classes” to get out of the city, it had the unwanted side effect of bisecting living communities in the Bronx. The area was also “eroded” by housing commissioner Roger Starr’s “triage” policy on city services (also known as “planned shrinkage,” withdrawing services from deprived areas so the population is forced to leave). “This is what happens when you plan from the top. You have to plan from the ground. That’s what Roger Starr and Robert Moses got wrong,” he said. Happily, Shiffman was able to report that the 21st-century Bronx was “seething” with activity. “What we have now is what was needed all along,” he said. “A place where we allow people to grow.”