In the mid to late 1800’s New York City was a burgeoning metropolis. By contrast, The Bronx was a pastoral place, a refuge for those who found the cramped Manhattan tenements unpleasant. One such citizen was famed writer Edgar Allan Poe, who moved to a small wooden farmhouse in the Kingsbridge section in 1846 to provide his ailing wife respite as she battled the “consumption” what we know today as tuberculosis. He thought the fresh country air would be good for her failing lungs.
More and more people began migrating to The Bronx making it one of the fastest growing urban areas, however, it was mired by inaccessible and underdeveloped roads. Several complaints were lodged to the New York City Government and in 1890 a new “Department of Street Improvements” was created to address the issue. A French immigrant and life-long civil servant by the name of Louis Aloys Risse was named its Chief Engineer. Risse, who spoke little English and had moved to The Bronx from his native St. Avoid, near the Franco-German border, was a visionary whose ideas earned him the moniker “crazy Frenchman.” He began designing a “Grand Boulevard” fashioned on Paris’ Champs-Élysées and that, in his words, would focus “not simply on getting from here to there, but more importantly, on the agreeableness of the journey – the ease, the charm, the logic.” His plan would include a dirt and cinder bridle path down the center of the road for pedestrians, cyclists and horse-drawn carriages. It would, according to his plans documented in his publication The True History of the Conception and Planning of the Grand Boulevard and Concourse in The Bronx, be 182 feet wide and 4½ miles long, connecting the increasingly popular parks. The project was considered quite the undertaking, but Risse assured the skeptics that the revenue generated from those traveling from far and wide to visit the parks would more than cover the exorbitant costs of its development.
Though some construction began in 1897, it was slowed due to lack of funding and corruption within the 19th century New York City government. Five years later, in 1902 the contract was awarded, and it took another six years to complete a portion of the boulevard. By then so much time had passed since Risse’s original concept, that part of the road, intended for horse-drawn carriages, had to be paved to accommodate the more current mode of transportation: the automobile.
By the 1920’s a great deal of development was taking place in the borough. Luxury apartment buildings were replacing the modest Victorian homes that lined the boulevard, and the road was extended and extra half mile south of 161st street to 138th street to what is known as Mott Haven.
Art Deco architecture featuring wraparound windows and sunken living rooms were built forever changing the landscape of the Grand Concourse. During the “Roaring Twenties” era, it was considered a status symbol to live along The Grand Concourse.
The 1970’s brought social upheaval to the entire country. New York City was on the verge of economic collapse, and it was said that “when New York catches a cold, The Bronx gets pneumonia.” The borough was the epitome of urban decay and landlords, unable to raise rents due to rent control laws, decided it was more lucrative to abandon their investments or burn the buildings for insurance. This sparked years of rapid decline for The Bronx dubbed “the borough of abandonment” by the Bronx Realty Advisory Board. But The Bronx was not the only borough hit hard by the financial crisis. Brooklyn also saw its share of crumbling neighborhoods, and, for that matter, the entire city was within a hair’s breadth of bankruptcy.
By the end of the 1990’s the city was experiencing an economic boom and The Bronx started to see growth. Then Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a native Bronxite himself, knew all too well the struggles he and many others endured during the dark times of decades past. He introduced several initiatives to enhance the borough’s image including the Tour de Bronx, the largest free cycling event in New York State, and The Bronx Walk of Fame.