Also known as The Grand Boulevard and Concourse, the 5.2 mile boulevard of dreams in The Bronx is one of New York City’s great streets steeped in history.
It is one of those streets that everyone in The Bronx knows but, do they know its history?
An address on the Grand Concourse, at one point known as the “Park Avenue” of The Bronx, was once the most sought after address in the borough.
With one of the largest collections of Art Deco apartment buildings in the world and large apartments, many with sunken living rooms and more than one bathroom, it was a place that signified to many that you had made it in New York.
While the apartments remain largely untouched, unlike in Manhattan where they were chopped up into smaller apartments, the Grand Concourse has gone through some changes throughout the over 100 years since its opening.
The idea of the Grand Concourse came from a French immigrant named Louis Aloys Risse who conceived it in 1890 as a way to connect Manhattan to the northern Bronx, which back then was known as the Annexed District.
Risse envisioned a wide boulevard stretching for miles that would rival the Champs-Élysées in Paris which was his inspiration in designing the Grand Concourse but it would stretch miles longer.
You may notice that most streets that cross the Concourse rise and fall as they approach it or go underneath it. This is because it was constructed on a ridge so that the boulevard would be elevated above all.
Construction began in 1894 and lasted 15 years. Finally in November 1909, it was open to traffic but it initially stretched from 161st Street to Mosholu Parkway just south of Van Cortlandt Park It wasn’t until 1927 that it was extended south to 138th Street when Mott Avenue was widened and renamed.
This is why you’ll notice that the roadway becomes considerably narrower below 161st Street.
But it wasn’t until the Jerome Avenue Line, aka the 4 train, was completed in 1917 people began flocking to the Grand Concourse as a construction boom took place following the subway.
Shortly there after some of the most iconic buildings opened like the Concourse Plaza Hotel in 1923 as well as Yankee Stadium that same year, the Andrew Freedman Home in 1924, Loew’s Paradise Theater in 1929, and the Bronx County Courthouse in 1933.
The first residents were mostly Jewish and Italian residents, many with professional backgrounds from doctors to lawyers and just the average American upwardly mobile middle-class family.
New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission wrote:
“During the 1920s, the Bronx, anointed as “the wonder borough,” emerged as New York’s fastest growing borough, absorbing half-a-million new residents. As noted by Rosenblum, the vast majority of the newcomers to the Bronx in this era were Jewish, and for several decades the Grand Concourse and its surroundings were one of the city’s five most heavily Jewish communities.
“For nearly half a century the Grand Concourse was considered one of the city’s most prominent Jewish neighborhoods, and having a residential address on the Grand Concourse, or in proximity to that thoroughfare, was a powerful indicator of success. To this end, the modern and sophisticated new buildings were often marketed for upper-middle class tenants in the tradition of the grand apartment houses of Manhattan.
“The Franz Sigel (aka Alexandria) and the Virginia (774 and 780 Grand Concourse, 1926), for example, were touted in real estate brochures as “a bit of Park Avenue transplanted to the Bronx.”
But there was an unspoken rule not to rent to Black and Puerto Rican families, at least during the early years. Even as recently as the 70s, in the midst of the decline, there were many families of color who were simply turned away from obtaining an apartment on the famed boulevard.
By the 1960s, white flight had taken root with many of the South Bronx white family fleeing deteriorating conditions and moving to other parts of the borough like Co-op City which had just opened. Others fled to the suburbs which were rapidly expanding during this period as a result of this outward migration.
But despite deteriorating conditions from the 60s through the 80s, the Grand Concourse held on. The fires that ravaged the South Bronx seemed to have left the boulevard relatively unscathed and intact.
However, inside many buildings, that wasn’t the case. Many were left to rot with slumlords not taking care of their properties now that they were occupied by tenants of color. The once grand lobbies were a shell of their former glory.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when crime began dropping, that things started to turn around. Interest in preserving the history of the Grand Concourse grew and in 2011, a large portion stretching from 153rd Street to 167th Street was designated as the Grand Concourse Historic District by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Today, the Grand Concourse is a reflection of The Bronx and the faces you see are a beautifully diverse representation of the diversity that is the people of The Bronx. Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Black, African, Muslim, Christians, Jews—you name it.
And interest in the famed and historic boulevard is once again on the rise as more and more people are buying co-op apartments as the area quickly gentrifies. Apartments are shattering records as median sales prices along the Concourse have seen a 68% increase since 2014 and the apartments have sold above $600,000 breaking records.
We can only hope that future generations can enjoy the beauty of the Grand Concourse from all walks of life and not just a select few as was during its beginnings.
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