Grand Possibilities: Remaking the Concourse

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If you take Daniel Libeskind’s word for it, the Bronx is historically one of the most grand and beautiful places in all of New York, but suffers from a chronic lack of self-confidence. The renowned architect and master planner of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero, who spent some of his formative years in the Bronx and attended Bronx High School of Science in the early 1960s, returned to the borough to headline a symposium on Bronx architecture. It was one of several events planned by the Bronx Museum to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the borough’s widest, most recognizable avenue, the Grand Concourse.

“The Bronx has always had sort of an underdog view of itself,” Libeskind told a rapt audience of design professionals, community organizers and others at the symposium’s keynote address on March 7 at the museum. “But the Bronx deserves so much more.”

And what is it, exactly, that tips a neighborhood, a borough, a community in the public image from downtrodden to destination, from hard-luck to happening? Those were the questions Libeskind and other noted architects, urban planners, artists, historians and neighborhood residents explored during the opening segment of the ongoing event, Intersections: The Grand Concourse at 100.

The Bronx Museum is marking the centenary of the Concourse with programming examining the past, present and future of the boulevard. (An exhibition of archival documentation and original artwork are on view through July 20, and a daylong street fair is planned for June 21.) The series will culminate with the outcome of an international ideas competition focused on reinventing the Grand Concourse for revitalization as a public space to be used for generations to come. The competition is being run in partnership with the Design Trust for Public Space, the nonprofit organization that conducted a study for the re-use of the High Line elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side and a similar international competition focused on revitalizing Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

The Grand Concourse was designed by architect Louis Risse during the height of the City Beautiful movement, which sought to use grand architecture in public spaces and monument-like structures as a means of social control, encouraging moral virtues and civic mindedness. The Concourse, which was built in 1909, was modeled on the Champs-Elysees in Paris and was originally conceived as a way to allow wealthy Manhattanites to travel north into the then-rural stretches of the Bronx, including its vast parkland. Just over four miles long, the Concourse is lined with significant examples of Art Deco and Art Moderne residential buildings, with soaring lobbies and large-scale windows and living spaces that were harder to come by among the tenements of Manhattan.

Having an address on the Concourse was once a sign of social status. But as the Bronx slid into economic decline during the 1960s, many of the Concourse’s grand buildings fell into disrepair.

Participants in the symposium agreed that community organizing and capitalizing on significant people and places in the Bronx’s history would be key tools to bringing the Concourse back to its glory days. But some also bemoaned the lack of political clout, or funding, that the Bronx received in its planning efforts.

Still, there was much hope and anticipation for what the future bears for the most well-known avenue in the Bronx.

Sam Goodman, an urban planner in the Bronx borough president’s office and a lifelong resident of the Concourse, noted that African immigrant women from the neighborhood had harvested tomatoes and other vegetables last summer from the soil in the medians on the Concourse. The dangers of planting and harvesting vegetables on a narrow median in the middle of lanes of speeding traffic notwithstanding, the occurrence – however peculiar or perilous – was telling, Goodman noted. It showed the stark contrast from the Concourse’s lowest days in the 1960s, when, after the grass had withered on the medians, the city Parks Department decided to forego replanting, instead filling the medians with concrete and painting them green.

The symposium was also a chance for participants to dream a little. “Let’s bring back the Sunday Stroll,” one audience member suggested, referring to a pre-1990s era when the Concourse was closed to vehicle traffic every Sunday during the summer and fall, sparking more ideas: a dedicated bicycle lane, closing portions of the Concourse to traffic on Sundays or weekends, or during certain seasons of the year to encourage pedestrian use. The Sunday vehicle lane closures were terminated during the Giuiliani administration. Bronx officials have sought for years to reinstate the Sunday traffic ban, including a recent push last year, but to no avail – a narrative which only underscored Libeskind’s assessment of the Bronx as the underdog borough in need of greater political clout.

In generating ideas for the newly designed Concourse, which the Design Trust for Public Space will work to implement, Susan Hoeltzel, director of the Lehman College art gallery and member of a panel focusing on the future of the boulevard, noted the importance of designing the physical space to make the suggested uses feel more permanent: “To do it in a way that you can never take it away.”

– Michelle S. Han