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19th Century Bronx.

19th Century Bronx.

On the Mott Haven Historic District in the South Bronx.

Mint Lounge(Wall Street Journal India).

The Bronx.

No thonx.

– Ogden Nash(1931).

A 2002 article in the Village Voice pronounced the South Bronx ‘one of the last bastions of urban hell’. It’s common to see South Bronx mentioned along with the phrase ‘urban decay’ in the same sentence.

The South Bronx in New York City is only minutes away from Manhattan, but The glass facades of skyscrapers that punctuate Manhattan are nowhere to be seen here. Steel interiors of tiny Mexican and Spanish restaurants here are cramped caverns – these are no chic cafes. Grocery stores are packed to the gills, their shelves spilling over, with hardly any wiggle room for customers to move around – these are no luxurious, airy supermarkets.

The South Bronx lies in the poorest Congressional district in the United States. It has high crime, high unemployment and poverty – and looks nothing like popular stereotypes of New York.

The South Bronx is also home to some of the oldest and prettiest neighborhoods in New York. Much of the Mott Haven area in South Bronx was built in the 19th century. Quaint, beautifully designed houses from the 19th century are still intact here, and have been designated as three Historic Districts. Unlike vintage houses elsewhere in America, Mott Haven is largely undiscovered – there are no camera-toting tourists milling around here.

**

73 year old Lloyd Ultan has been the borough historian of the Bronx since 1996. Ultan, who has lived in the Bronx all his life, agreed to show me around Mott Haven. His rasping enthusiasm overcomes the slight wheeze that age fills his voice with. “I’ll be wearing a blue shirt and baseball cap with ‘The Bronx’ written on it,” he says, when I call him up to set up an appointment.

Ultan takes me on a walk around Mott Haven. We approach a desolate dead end underneath a bridge. The Harlem river flows on the other side of a red industrial building. A friend who visited this corner later remarked that the place looks apocalyptic – she could almost imagine desolate music playing in the background.

Ultan points to faded words on a brick wall reading “JL Mott Iron Works.” JL Mott, he tells me, was the inventor of a coal-powered cooking stove. Mott started the company named after him – and also set up in Mott Haven what we would today call an industrial park.

Until the 19th century, the Bronx was a rural area largely disconnected from the rest of New York City. As lumber yards, saw mills, piano factories, and other industries set up shop in the industrial area started by JL Mott, residences started to come up nearby. These residences today are a part of Mott Haven’s three historic districts. Because of the area’s development, the Bronx rapidly grew from a rural outskirt to an integral part of New York City in 1874.

**

We walk past a giant black cloth shrouding the front of a building ostensibly under repair. This, Ultan tells me, was the location of erstwhile farm of Jonas Bronck, the first European settler here, who also gave his name to the borough.

As yet, we are still some distance away from the three historic districts. A bright red clocktower looms above an L-shaped building ahead. This building is rather imaginatively named ‘The Clocktower’. Built in 1885, it was the factory of the Estey Piano Company. Indeed, the South Bronx was a center of piano manufacturing in America – with more than 63 factories in the neighborhood at one time.

The Clocktower’s faded clock looks rusty – but the building’s spotless red outer walls show no signs of age. The Clocktower today houses lofts and studios. A real estate listing describes it as “perfect for musicians, artists, photographers and other artist types.”

As we pass the clearly upscale Clock Bar in the ground floor of the Clocktower, Ultan talks of slow gentrification of the neighborhood, but there is no regret in his voice. “As a historian, I know change always occurs. Thank God for that, because if change didn’t occur, we historians would be out of business,” he chuckles.

**

As we cross the road from a bleak-looking 16-storey low income public housing complex, the graceful buildings of the Bertine Block unexpectedly spring into view. Built in 1891, this row of houses named after developer Edward Bertine, is the first of the historic districts – the Bertine Block Historic District.

Every house in the row along Bertine Block is distinctive. No two facades look alike. Each bare-brick front is topped by different kinds of gables – some curved, some staggered, some sloping, some bell-shaped. Heavy brass doorknobs and thick wooden doors face the road. Fanlights and arches above windows and doors have faded stained glass patterns.

As we stroll across the Bertine Block in the cold winter sunlight, I slow down, take in my surroundings and take a deep breath.

**

A couple of houses at the end of Bertine Block look much newer than the rest. The older buildings that stood here were burnt down in the 60s and 70s, says Carol Zakaluk, local community activist and resident of Bertine Block, who I meet the next day.

In the 60s and 70s, an unprecedented wave of arson swept through the Bronx. As rent control laws were tightened in New York City, landlords in the Bronx burnt down houses to claim insurance payments. “All I could remember in my childhood was the sound of the fire engines everywhere, every day. The record, I think, was 40 fires in a single day,” says Zakaluk. An enduring image of the time is a photograph of Jimmy Carter disbelievingly walking across the rubble of burned down apartment complexes in 1977.

Once burnings began and inhabitants fled, vandalism and looting set in. The poverty and lawlessness that triggered the wave of arson persisted for years. It took until the 80s and 90s for the South Bronx to stabilize itself. Poverty and crime rates dropped significantly, although they’re still among South Bronx’s top concerns.

Fortuitously, most of the houses in the historic districts survived the terrible decades without being scarred by fire.

“However, there is still the stigma of the Big Bad South Bronx,” says Zakaluk. This is one reason why the historic districts in Mott Haven still haven’t received attention from tourists, she adds.

**

In the second of the historic districts, the Mott Haven East Historic District, the

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houses taper to the top. The first floor is narrower than the ground floor, the gables narrower than the first floor. Chimneys and TV antennas jut out above the gables, keeping up the appearance of tapering.

Columns with elaborate curves line doors. Two human faces sculpted above arched windows grin outwards. Some houses have wooden boards thrust across their windows, these patches marking them out as abandoned. In the last house in the row, a turret peeps to the side and above the other houses, looking like a castle’s rampart. A dull tungsten light shines from the stained glass windows in each of the turret’s floors.

In the grey twilight, I feel like I’m in a fairy tale.

**

Many of Manhattan’s 19th century buildings gave way to today’s skyscrapers. Ultan says this happened unchecked until the 1960s. In 1963, when the railroad industry’s profits were dropping, the then majestic Pennsylvania station was demolished. The station was moved under street level, and Madison Square Garden was built above ground level.

New York’s Grand Central terminal was next on the demolition list. Jackie Kennedy, who was leading a group of influential people to protest against these demolitions, ensured the formation of a Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York City Landmarks Law to protect city monuments.

By the time this law was passed, many of the 19th century buildings in Manhattan had been replaced by skyscrapers. However, the relatively undeveloped South Bronx was still intact until then– and benefited from being classified as historic districts thereafter.

**

The Mott Haven Historic District is the third of the Historic Districts. As I walk by the clean narrow tiles of the walls of the St. Jerome’s church, the vastness and cleanness infuse me with peace. Across the road, the doors of the police station built in 1922 are closed, but a policewoman stands underneath the door’s fanlight smoking, engrossed in her cellphone.

In the houses from 1890s that stretch beyond, wrought iron balustrades span fronts of houses. Elaborately carved stoops climb to the doors. Lions’ heads are propped up on colonnettes in the main doorway of one building. Wreathed columns line windows. Pairs of metal stairs to the side of a five storey building look like Escher’s never ending staircases. Dull lights glow inside a door with the silhouette of an amphora upon it. The bright lights of a Dunkin Donuts storefront gleam outwards.

Down the road, the flat square front and roof cornices of the Mott Haven Branch of the New York Public Library don’t look their 107 years of age. This building was built by Andrew Carnegie and modeled after his mansion on New York’s fifth avenue. The tall columns, wide halls and vast spaces in each of the three floors give the building a sense of spaciousness. Kids mill about shelves on each of the three floors. Inside a top floor room, a schoolgirl gingerly holds a violin, coaxing squeaks out of it.

**

 

Most houses, Ulton tells me, have undergone gut rehabilitation, which is to say the exteriors are intact – but their interiors have been completely renovated. Yet, there are a few houses whose interiors are still preserved from the 19th century, he adds.

As Ulton leaves, I realize the only way to find out which houses’ interiors are intact is to knock on doors and ask. In a couple of houses, the response is ‘go away!’ In some others, it’s a more polite ‘no thank you.’ I get into one house, but the owner changes her mind, saying ,”My mum is already angry – if you stay here any longer, she’ll go crazy.”

Christopher Hougaard, a student, ushers me in after only a hint of hesitation. Hougaard, who shares his 124 year old Alexander Avenue house with three housemates, takes me up a narrow, dimly lit brick-lined staircase that is preserved from the 19th century. The rest of the interior, alas, has been remodeled. It now wears a neat, painted look – but is not the same as it was before.

Carol Zakaluk’s Bertine Block house has been with her family for 90 years now. “My family has always seen it as a treasure,” she says. Zakaluk warmly, unhesitatingly welcomes me into her house.

Her grandfather, who came to New York from Amsterdam, bought the then 25 year old house because the Bertine Block reminded him of back home.

Zakaluk has preserved almost all of the house. An 1891 chandelier light hangs in her dining hall. A deep brown fireplace lies dormant under a stack of video cassettes. A ‘shouting tube’ is in one corner of the hall – you would have to shout into it to talk to someone upstairs. A sliding door made of thick wood is still operational. The kitchen sink is intact from 1891. Zakaluk sold her 80 year old GE refrigerator and decades-old stove a short while ago – but preserves their photographs. A resounding, reassuring thump echoes as I climb her wooden staircase. The sturdiness of the wood evokes a sense of longevity, of permanence.

Mellow lights plays across her drawing room, dining room and kitchen – there are no tubelights. I step out of her house and walk past the unlit windows of the Bertine Block, out of the lane of quiet houses.

33 years after his first pronouncement, even Ogden Nash seemed to have been convinced.

I can’t seem to escape

the sins of my smart-alec youth;

Here are my amends.

I wrote those lines, “The Bronx?

No thonx”;

I shudder to confess them.

Now I’m an older, wiser man

I cry, “The Bronx? God

bless them!”

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