Blogs > HNN > Robert Parmet : Review of Constance Rosenblum's Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in The Bronx (New York University Press, 2009)

Nov 8, 2009 4:22 pm

Robert Parmet : Review of Constance Rosenblum's Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope Along the Grand Concourse in The Bronx (New York University Press, 2009)

[Robert Parmet is Professor of History at York College of the City College of New York.]

After having grown up on Walton Avenue in the Bronx, N.Y., three blocks west of the Grand Concourse, I can emphatically say that Constance Rosenblum is correct. It was indeed a source of great pride to have resided near that magnificent thoroughfare in the 1950s. “The Concourse,” as it was called, was where worldly Bronxites viewed foreign films at the Ascot Theater, Hollywood productions at the Loew’s Paradise, under a ceiling sprinkled with stars, and purchased affordable but eminently respectable clothes at Alexander’s department store. It was also the showplace of the West Bronx, with broad roadways, Art Deco apartment buildings, and splashy Memorial Day parades. To the south was the massive Bronx County Courthouse, overlooking 161st Street and Yankee Stadium, where the lords of baseball reigned supreme.

As attractive as these features were, the Concourse neighborhood was where a working-class Jewish family such as mine could live in decency. An automobile was not a necessity, because there was ample public transportation, including two subway lines four blocks from each other. Then, too, there were synagogues on and just off the boulevard, and excellent public schools on all levels. It seemed ideal, and in Boulevard of Dreams, Constance Rosenblum has captured its spirit.

In addition, she has added names and faces and imparted a human touch, with numerous black-and-white archival photographs. Here one can see engineer Louis Risse, the engineer who designed the Grand Concourse, as well as Gerald McQueen, an usher at the Loew’s Paradise, and African American women awaiting job offers on a street corner in what came to be known as the “Bronx Slave Market,” located just off the boulevard. “Hired by the white, mostly Jewish matrons of West Bronx,” these women were household workers, and virtually the only blacks in the area. Almost all of the broad thoroughfare, Rosenblum notes, “during most of its existence . . . was off limits to blacks in virtually every respect. . . . Along the Grand Concourse . . . resistance to minorities was notorious.” Amidst the grandeur of the stately Concourse Plaza Hotel, Andrew Freedman Home and Theodore Roosevelt apartments, this “slave market” endured into the 1950s.

A social and economic history of the West Bronx as well as the thoroughfare, Boulevard of Dreams contains relatively few political names, but is loaded with architectural, entrepreneurial, literary, entertainment, and celebrity figures. The long list includes former residents such as architects Israel Crausman, Horace Ginsbern, and John Eberson, developer Logan Billingsley, novelists Theodore Dreiser, E. L. Doctorow and Avery Corman, singer Eydie Gorme and film director Stanley Kubrick. In addition, it features urban builder Abraham Kazan and “power broker” Robert Moses, whose creations, Co-Op City and the Cross Bronx Expressway, respectively, contributed to the decline of the West Bronx, beginning in the late 1950s. New apartments to the north, increasing crime rates, and bulldozed neighborhoods, as well as destructive public and private attitudes, led to the “abandonment” of the previously glorious Grand Concourse.

Rosenblum concludes her book on a cautiously optimistic note. Hoping for the area to rebound, she identifies recent revitalization efforts, including the reclamation of the Loew’s Paradise and the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. However, she also reports that “everyone agrees [there is] a long and arduous journey ahead, particularly given the economic upheavals that began in 2008.”

Despite this difficult task, pride in the Grand Concourse and West Bronx remains alive. This affectionate volume will help keep it that way by serving as a tangible reminder of what is very much saving and restoring in the Bronx. There was and still is something special about that “boulevard of dreams.” The ethnicity of the dreamers may have changed, but the hopes have not.

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