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West Bronx Wisdom

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from the magazine

West Bronx Wisdom

The building-friendly early history of the borough carries important lessons for today. Winter 2020
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets
Arts and Culture

The West Bronx is haunted and mysterious: an intricate, labyrinthine place. Walking through its oldest parts, you’ll begin to see themes. Lines of five- and six-story apartment houses form shallow canyons. Canyon walls are punctuated by damp courtyards. Metal fire-escape ladders cling to hard facades. Deco, Tudor, and neoclassic elements abound, with certain motifs characterizing individual buildings. The massing often feels almost tyrannically uniform, but familiar variations interrupt: lines of short row houses and clusters of storefronts. Then parking lots, supermarkets, and housing projects. At a bluff above the Harlem River, the High Bridge—a nineteenth-century piece of the Croton Aqueduct whose tall arches echo its Roman ancestors—juts out over the inky water toward Manhattan, where a slender stone water tower resembles a campanile. This is a place of aging masonry and rocky terrain. Yes, time and neglect have damaged it; but like the ancient ruins, its blight also suggests a kind of permanence.

The streets of the West Bronx are contoured along two ridges: one overlooking the Harlem River and the other traced by the Grand Concourse. Between the two, Jerome Avenue—with an aging and rickety elevated train—runs through a shallow valley and divides the numbered streets between their appellations of East or West, as Fifth Avenue does in Manhattan. Among these tight blocks, an unexpected stranger will sometimes appear: a stand-alone frame structure, out of proportion, set back from the sidewalk line, looking lost among the solid blocks. Sometimes, its onetime clapboard has been covered with pastel-colored aluminum siding. Details like cones, turrets, and wraparound porches may have gone missing, been modified, or been dismantled and replaced with low-maintenance materials. Sometimes, a front yard has been paved to create parking spaces or demarcated from the sidewalk by chain-link fencing. Or garages have been built, or a boxy storefront. Yet there it stands, defying the surrounding urban consensus: the battered remnant of a large, detached, nineteenth-century Victorian house.

Today, such a structure is rarely found among similar houses. Instead, it usually stands alone, squeezed between two large apartment buildings, or awkwardly set back among neatly attached row houses that hug the dusty sidewalk line. When it does appear, it is easy to overlook—a mere crumb of urban detritus, perhaps evidence of bad planning: ugly, out of place, waiting to be washed out in the next wave of speculation, if that ever comes. In a rural setting, the same house might spur rumors of ghosts among neighborhood children; in the Bronx, it might inspire trepidation for more worldly reasons. Yet despite its forlornness, it points to a secret element of how New York became a great city. And in doing so, it offers a clue to the lost wisdom of urban patterns from another time.

Traditional urbanism is an imprint of people’s life patterns across time, a mix of stability and natural change. Squares, churches, and public buildings may stand still for centuries. Some homes and businesses may do so, as well. But over time, individual structures are usually modified or replaced to meet changing needs. Yet street patterns are incredibly durable—some towns in Europe have layouts that remain from antiquity. The character of a traditional neighborhood is precarious. Forms are transmitted through iterative patterns, yet space exists in each instance for a response to change. The green shoots of today will become the stable limbs of tomorrow; or they will die and be replaced by ones that can thrive.

Heavy industry brought radical disruptions to traditional urbanism, peaking in the late nineteenth century. Its novel patterns crept into Victorian cities through a conservative legal paradigm, with an abiding adherence to old customs. As a result, the neighborhoods of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had little legal guidance compared with neighborhoods of today. Cities were presumed to grow dynamically, incrementally, and responsively. Trends toward smaller lots and attached structures were understood as natural stages in a familiar pattern. Property law in the industrial age remained quite traditional and shaped growing neighborhoods—like those of the West Bronx—with a much lighter hand than today’s zoning.

By the late nineteenth century, reformers were seeking ways to construct a framework for the challenges of industrial cities, in order to provide a tempering effect—just as simpler customs, such as covenants or nuisance suits, had once exerted on the excesses of preindustrial life. In New York, such reforms comprised a series of statutes, framed as building-safety codes, that included the Tenement House Acts of 1867, 1879, and 1901. Before zoning, safety codes (which have existed in cities since antiquity) remained the most prescriptive rules and often represented the law’s last word about what could be built. From there, it was up to builders.

In 1874, Brooklyn remained an independent city. Queens and Richmond Counties comprised villages and farmland. In that year, what is now the West Bronx was annexed from Westchester County to become the North Side of New York. In the newly minted wards, the Department of Public Parks was charged with street improvements, but infrastructure and private investment soon lagged. In 1887, North Side leaders demanded home rule, and in 1891, they got it. Louis Haffen took the reins of the Department of Street Improvements for the 23rd and 24th Wards; Louis Risse, a French-born architect, became chief engineer. Records show a marked increase in accomplishments following the transfer of responsibilities: the city had paved less than 11 miles of streets between 1874 and 1891; nearly 39 miles were completed between 1891 and 1895.

In tandem with a concerted effort to develop infrastructure, the agency commissioned more ambitious urban-planning initiatives. Risse and his team diagrammed streets for the entire area between Manhattan and the Bronx River. Lands were condemned to secure public rights-of-way. Property owners were compensated. Some of the plan drew connections between existing streets, but many parts were wholly new. The most significant element would be the Grand Concourse, an eight-lane thoroughfare inspired by the Champs-Élysées, with service lanes and landscaped islands. In 1890, Risse conceived of the concourse as a link between Manhattan and an extensive park system on the North Side. But it would also become an aesthetic focal point for new development. Drawings show a curving boulevard, traversed by horses, skipping over busy intersections on strategic overpasses, with detached Queen Anne houses and large reservations of open space.

Elements of this suburban Victorian era remain today. They haunt the West Bronx in subtle ways, hinting at a less urban vision from its past. Streets remain curved, following the sinuous contours of the hilly landscape. Terraced blocks remain woven together with step streets, like those in Rome, transcending an indomitable stone topography. The numbered streets bear only a casual resemblance to the orderly, graph-paper blocks of midtown or Harlem, whose lead they purport to follow. Instead, they meander over the rugged suburban landscape. An 1897 local trade group’s guidebook, The Great North Side, depicts a landscape of large detached houses and lush greenery. Its authors, including Risse, envisioned a future built upon the suburban, Romantic elements of the existing fabric. During this period, which straddled the turn of the twentieth century, the West Bronx was defined by the detached Victorian houses that today appear forgotten and strange.

The residents of that time were a mix of wealthy New Yorkers seeking refuge from the urban conditions of Manhattan, building large suburban homes; middle-class buyers of smaller row houses; and tradespeople and local laborers, who may have lived in flats above stores, in smaller frame houses, or in the handful of tenements near factories and railyards. Had development continued apace, the West Bronx today might comprise neighborhoods that more closely resemble parts of San Francisco than New York proper: homes with Queen Anne details and postage-stamp yards on steep, winding streets; and green parks with vistas of the Harlem River; Roman step streets among traditionally scaled houses, leading down to the faux-ancient High Bridge and reflecting the neoclassicism of the late nineteenth century. For a fleeting moment, such an urbanism almost crystallized—but undeveloped parcels meant that it never quite reached coherence.

Still, such a vision seems to be precisely what North Side civic leaders of the time had in mind. What they promoted in the 1890s strongly foreshadowed elements of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City: spacious homes, a healthful proximity to nature, and the absence of crowding. Contributors to The Great North Side predicted that factors like the borough’s rough topography and large lots, along with lessons learned from Manhattan tenements and an ample supply of open land, would prevent the Bronx from ever becoming densely urban. They envisioned a suburban enclave that would attract a mix of the city’s wealthy and its growing middle classes, providing space for well-appointed detached homes and tidy new blocks of private row houses.

Civic leaders of the 1890s were right to envision the Bronx as an escape valve for Manhattan’s compact urbanism, but they underestimated the speed and intensity with which it would grow. Their vision failed to account for two forces reshaping the city: mass immigration and improvements to rapid transit. In response to the city’s continued growth, the West Bronx would soon be crisscrossed with brand-new subway lines, its generous lots giving rise to large apartment buildings, rather than mansions, at a furious pace. In the early twentieth century, the Tenement House Department kept meticulous records of apartment construction across the five boroughs. Its reports tell the story of the Bronx’s sudden transformation in striking numbers.

Victorian houses, which once dominated the borough, now sit interspersed among apartment buildings constructed as the local population exploded. (COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR, THEO MACKEY POLLACK)

Between the turn of the century and World War I, the Bronx would experience the first dramatic wave of such construction. It began in the borough’s southwest quarter, following the new IRT elevated subway line, which offered a direct link to the new system, along Westchester Avenue, in 1906. Growth soon expanded along subway extensions to the north and west, with fierce bursts of development along Jerome Avenue and the Grand Concourse. The new urban fabric comprised new-law tenements, in the same styles that would define Upper Manhattan neighborhoods like Washington Heights and Inwood: built into hilly terrain, with spacious rooms overlooking open courtyards. By 1917, two-thirds of the borough’s new-law development had occurred in the West Bronx, with more than 100,000 new apartments, comprising more than 430,000 new rooms, in just 15 years. Put another way, private developers, working within the framework of the 1901 Tenement House Act, created new housing for nearly half a million people in the Bronx in the course of one generation.

New Bronxites hailed from various walks of life. As the city grew, apartment living on the Upper East Side had become a trend for members of the city’s upper class. Across Manhattan, others followed suit. New apartments ceased to be “tenements,” in the negative sense of the word, and became aspirational addresses that emulated the trendsetters of Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue. Such buildings were concentrated in the West Side neighborhoods nearest Central Park or the Hudson River. In the Bronx, which offered neither the proximity nor the distinction of a prime Manhattan location—but which now had the draw of a subway—a similar housing stock was geared toward middle- and working-class tenants. The new Bronx housed a mix of native-born Americans and recent immigrants—including many Irish, Italians, and Jews—seeking to escape from aging, crowded downtown enclaves. In modern, urbane buildings resembling the best real estate of Manhattan, they found spacious, affordable homes sprouting amid the grassy blocks of late-Victorian houses.

The onset of World War I slowed construction across the city, but development quickly recovered after the Armistice. As New York’s economy roared through the 1920s, a second great wave of construction swept over the West Bronx. It was here that the absence of prescriptive land-use measures allowed the market to drive the most dramatic transformation: many of the Victorian houses in the West Bronx sat on oversize parcels that made perfect canvases for new-law tenements. As the balance tipped decisively toward apartments, the Bronx began to take on its present appearance; eventually, just a handful of old Queen Anne houses would remain. In place of gingerbread and gardens, art deco became popular, especially along the Grand Concourse. Detailing made use of modern elements, like aluminum and white concrete, while higher floor counts—supported by elevators and improved building techniques—became the norm.

In the halcyon years of the 1920s, nearly 160,000 new-law apartments were added to the housing stock, providing homes for another 600,000 people. In all, from 1902 through 1929, private development in the Bronx provided 264,394 new-law units, comprising 981,971 new rooms—space enough for 1 million new residents. In the same period, the population of the Bronx rose from 200,907 to 1,265,258, and these numbers don’t account for new, smaller houses excluded from the tenement figures. When considering a population growth rate of essentially one person per room of new construction, the costs of this new housing seem to have remained low enough to avert significant crowding—even though the residents were primarily working- and middle-class families competing for real estate in New York City. This is a remarkable accomplishment.

The second great wave of Bronx apartment development came to a hard stop with the onset of the Great Depression. After World War II, new real-estate trends emerged. Federal law had slowed immigration, and suburban development—subsidized by FHA mortgages and intense highway construction—deflated the market for city housing. The West Bronx suffered. Property values fell, landlords deferred maintenance, and poorer tenants moved in. The well-known history followed: with existing buildings neglected, abandoned, and eventually burned, zoning limits on new development were meaningless. Throughout these years, a handful of old Victorian houses remained scattered throughout the declining blocks, avoiding the wrecking ball. For the rest of the twentieth century, they were forgotten. Demand looked elsewhere.

Notably, the transformation of the West Bronx into apartments took place both before and after the city adopted its first zoning resolution in 1916. The new law established height, use, and lot-coverage limits across the city and prohibited certain uses from particular locations, but it was drafted to allow for significant continued growth, leaving many low-density areas free to evolve into urban neighborhoods. The Bronx added more apartments in the wave that followed zoning than in the one that preceded it. Over time, that growth would fill out much of the plan. Only years later, as the politics proved contentious, would zoning emerge as a legal obstacle to market-driven change and conflict arise between abiding rules and changing demand.

This conflict defines our moment in urban land markets. New York City has been growing again, for four decades. The numbers result from a long immigration wave combined with the remarkable expansion and affluence of certain regional industries. Beginning in the 1970s, new growth mainly replaced past losses, driving renovations and redevelopment in desirable, if neglected, locations. As the city exceeds its historical population peaks, new development pushes deeper into old neighborhoods—and collides with zoning. In stark contrast with the West Bronx of a century ago, many of today’s low-density neighborhoods are frozen by calcified land-use laws, which tend to enshrine existing conditions rather than permit dramatic transformations. Often, where today’s demand could fill new apartment buildings, laws prohibit incremental growth.

Plots with small frame houses, like many in Central Queens, the East Bronx, Staten Island’s North Shore, and even many close-in suburbs, could support attached, multifamily buildings. Over a generation, such development could create vibrant new neighborhoods, with a myriad of new housing options in buildings expressing various traditional forms. Yet such lots are instead often redeveloped with McMansions or duplexes, to comply with local zoning—especially lot-coverage requirements. Such developments may help justify high prices (for certain buyers), but they do not increase the total number of housing units in a growing neighborhood or contribute to a coherent sense of place. The outcome, in neighborhood after neighborhood, is paradoxical: a region adding fewer new units than it needs, at higher prices than most can afford; and a city less attractive and more expensive than in past generations.

This illustrates the essential quality of responsive change in urbanism. One can imagine the effect on housing supply if developers today could respond to price signals as fiercely and freely as they did in the early twentieth century, and if space could be made, over the course of a generation, for a larger city instead of merely a more crowded and expensive one. One could imagine the impact on aesthetics if structures could be built that formed new, coherent neighborhoods to match the aging ones that we now preserve. New York could again be a city that is essentially open: where newcomers and a rising generation of New Yorkers could find homes and where longtime residents could live without fearing change. But to imagine such a city, one must also accept the implied lesson of the West Bronx and its lost Victorian houses: namely, that certain visions of how neighborhoods ought to be—even certain beautiful visions—may be ephemeral. Old neighborhoods are haunted and mysterious because they are artifacts of those who are gone—their life patterns and their fleeting visions. The change that makes aging cities poignant is inevitable. It cannot be prevented by laws; it can only be distorted.

While their historical value may merit protection, many of the remaining West Bronx Victorians could be torn down tomorrow, and replaced with newer and larger structures because they exist in neighborhoods that, in 1916, were judged appropriate for future, high-density development. It is ironic that a century ago, at the dawn of modern zoning, a discernible urban trend was permitted adequate space to proceed under the brand-new zoning resolution; yet nothing in the century of planning expertise since has ensured that an adequate portion of the present-day city is slated to meet today’s demand. At a time when the cost of housing in our most dynamic cities has become one of the biggest obstacles to Americans’ economic mobility, this is indefensible. Someday, planners may be able to discern future demands and quantify the transcendent value of place with greater accuracy. Until then, recovering a simpler, if imperfect, approach, evolved through centuries of traditional urbanism, may hold more wisdom: allowing people a broader degree of latitude to shape their communities, one parcel at a time, in response to present needs.

Top Photo: The Chester Hall Apartments, in the turn-of-the-century Bronx (FRANK M. INGALLS/THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY/GETTY IMAGES)

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