25 August 2015

After Paris....A Ride In The Bronx?

Two years ago, the former chief of the French National Police caused a stir when he said that certain parts of Paris were starting to resemble the Bronx.

He was making reference to the increasing crime in those Parisian arrondissements--namely, the 18th, 19th and 20th.  (It also just happens that those neighborhoods contain the city's greatest concentrations of African and Middle Eastern immigrants.)  He is not the first Frenchman, or European, to make such a comparison:  the worst parts of cities, or the banlieues are often likened to New York City's northernmost boroughs, usually based on impressions gleaned from such films as Fort Apache, The South Bronx.  While I certainly wouldn't compare Port Morris with the Place des Voges, not all of the Bronx is poor and crumbling and even its worst parts aren't quite as dangerous as some other urban neighborhoods.  But I guess "Camden" or "North Philadelphia" or "The South Side of Chicago" doesn't have quite the same ring.

Anyway, there is a certain irony in the former police chief's comparison.   It can be seen in certain areas, such as a stretch of the Grand Concourse near Yankee Stadium where I rode today:


While the buildings are in need of maintenance, some are quite nice:  People actually lived in them by choice.  More to the point (for the purposes of this post, anyway), they bear the influences of Art Deco and classical architectural styles found in many Paris buildings.

Also, you may have noticed that the Grand Concourse, like the Boulevard des Champs-Elysees, is wide, has a parklike median and is lined with residential as well as commercial buildings. 

The parallels I've described are not merely coincidental.  At the end of the 19th Century, most of the Bronx was still wooded or farmland; all of its industry as well as most of its population was concentrated in the southernmost part of the borough.  But new waves of immigration would fill Manhattan's tenements and trains almost to their bursting point, and many longtime Manhattan residents sought bigger apartments as well as more open space but wanted a manageable commute to work.  The city's subway and trolley lines were extended into the Bronx, and new street and apartment buildings were constructed. 

Around this time, a man who had been a surveyor, mapmaker and engineer for the New York Central Railroad (then the second-largest corporation in the US, after the Pennsylvania Railroad) was appointed the chief  topographical engineer for New York City.  His name was Louis Aloys Risse. At age seventeen, he emigrated to the US from France, where he was born in 1850.  Thus, it comes as little surprise that while on a hunting trip (!) in the hills of the North Bronx, he conceived of a boulevard, inspired by the Champs-Elysees, that would connect one end of the borough with the other, and with Manhattan.

So...Do you still think it's so odd that I'd take a ride in the Bronx while still in the afterglow of my trip to Paris?



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  3. Interesting observations - I probably wouldn't have thought of the similarities. Have to say, I'm really jealous of you for your trip to Paris. Welcome back!

  4. Brooks: Merci, monsieur.

    I have long known that the Grand Concourse was inspired by the Champs-Elysees, Portobello Road and other grand boulevards of Europe. And, from riding and walking around in the borough, I've seen the Art Deco buildings and parks that recall public spaces in Paris.

    It wasn't until recently, though, that I knew why the Bronx was built that way. Lots of people still think of "Fort Apache, The South Bronx" and parts of the South Bronx--and a few other areas of the Bronx--still resemble Beirut or Dresden after the bombings. But there are still gems, some of which may need cleaning or re-surfacing, if you will.