Tag Archives: Grand Concourse

Trees are more trouble than they’re worth

to some people, but others take painstaking care to preserve them.

Meet Jimmy, one of my favorite individuals at work.

His job is exclusively to build and repair tree guards on the Grand Concourse construction site. He is, he told me, officially a carpenter by trade, as far as the union is concerned. That’s an honorable and well-paid profession. But we’re lucky to have him doing what he does. He squares up the enclosures and hammers the boards together, often standing back to scrutinize them before he starts to correctly gauge the tenor of the job.

We’re chatting.

You must get tired of this, I say, referring to the orange snow fencing, a bale of which he carries around with him much of the day. It’s constantly getting ripped from the frames and he is constantly fixing it.

No, he says. I used to be. But now I covered my house with it inside and out, that’s how much I like it.

He sees himself as a bit of a comic.

What I see is a skinny, herky jerky guy who dances down the Concourse like a leprechaun, cigarette in mouth, hammer in hand, tool belt clanking, working his magic to protect the trees from harm.

It’s good you do it, I say. Otherwise the crew would knock down the trees.

No, they wouldn’t, he contradicts. They know they’re living things. I tell them that that tree there was Jesus’ original crown of thorns.

He means the honey locust – the site has a forest of them. Tree workers hate them because they get pricked so bad.

No, says Jimmy. The guys appreciate the trees. They are sweethearts. Really.

Well, shut my mouth. Sometimes I think a particular machine operator takes some sadistic joy in breaking branches with his bucket.

Still, I know that one day these tree guards will come off and the honey locusts and American elms and London planes and amur maples will once again introduce themselves to the world, and the neighborhood will be the better for it. It takes work to preserve them, but it’s well worth it.

Jimmy is a lot of things, a philosopher, a comedian, even an arborist. I told him I appreciated what he does and he told me he appreciated me appreciating what he does.

And he may possibly an actor. A producer discovered him on the job and told him he wanted him for a bit part on screen.  Then he came back. He told Jimmy they decided they wanted him for a bigger role. He was just too good to be a cameo.

That would be great, he’d get his SAG card and hobnob with hot shots. But it would be a loss for the Grand Concourse to have him no longer nurturing the tree guards, butt in mouth, a hammer in his hand.

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Hair is big

on the Grand Concourse. I pass at least one hair salon on every block, interspersed with supermarkets, household goods, bodegas, hookah shops and the goat restaurant.

The signs are not all for hair braiding. Straight hair gets its due.

Including this goofy martian coif.

But mainly the ads showcase braids.

Extravagant hair styling makes me think about novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-selling Americanah, described accurately by the New York Times as “witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic,”  and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013. It’s a moving story about two people from Nigeria, one of whom comes to America and one to London. I won’t tell the rest in case you read it (and you ought to). But one thing that stands out for me in the fabric of the novel is the amount of time the main character spends in African hair braiding salons. This was foreign to me. If you read Adichie, the granular detail with which she describes having her hair done could only have come from her own experience.

Scholars of African history see the practice as many thousands of years old, with braids even etched into the back of the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza. African tribes, groups and regions adorned their heads in specific ways, not restricted to cornrows. Styles date back to at least 3000 B.C., including Ghana braids, Fulani braids, Goddess braids, Box braids and dreadlocks.

On the Concourse, there are many more images of fancy hair braiding than there are actual stylings on the street. It seems to be more aspirational, or maybe done for a special occasion.

Of course there are other origin tales besides the African. Some go back to the Venus of Willendorf, thought to be 25,000 years old and discovered in Austria in 1908. 

Just 11.1-centimeters tall, this limestone beauty  seems undeniably to have a head of cornrows. If I could steal one object from a museum, this would be it. I’d have to go to Vienna, where the Venus is exhibited in their Natural History Museum

Now for an alternative narrative, possibly apocryphal. It is said that cornrows were used to help the enslaved escape their misery. Cornrows were used to transfer information; they were maps of a sort. Benkos Bioho, a radical who lived in Columbia, South America, is said to have devised the practice in the 1500s. Bioho and ten others escaped the slave port of Cartagena and founded San Basilio de Palenque, known as the “village of maroons.” Later this became the first free village in the Americas. His reward: he was captured by the government, hanged and quartered. Before that, though, he taught braiding.

iCurved braids represented roads to be traveled to escape. Also, the enslaved hid seeds in their hair to plant crops once they reached freedom. No slaveholder would ever suspect.

It’s also said that braided hair was called “cane rows” to denote the sugar cane fields in which captive workers toiled so horrifically.

This strategy recalls the red blanket hung on the line to guide those on the underground railroad to freedom.

How much of this legacy is embedded  in the hair styles of Grand Concourse? The signs advertising braiding always looked gaudy to me. It’s good to look deeper.

 

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Median Cool

A raised traffic median is just a long trough with soil in it. And, of course, plantings, and sometimes trees.

The City of New York has applied its hive mind to widening the street medians of the Grand Concourse, which is what brings me here – to inspect the existing trees that might be impacted by the street construction, and to check out the importation of shrubs etc. when it takes place later this fall, in the cool planting season.

So… why is this happening? We’re talking about a raised median, which is rare in NYC. Yes, there is the West Side Highway, which I was lucky enough to tour in a golf cart earlier this year when bidding for a job to maintain its vegetation.

There’s a strip of beautiful trees and roses in season dividing two lengths of highway, all with a phenomenal view of the Hudson River.

Every median holds 24 inches of soil above the roadbed, according to the Department of Transportation Street Design guidelines. Hard to imagine this collection of construction debris materializing into a cohesive bed of plants, but that’s the plan. And crews are hard at work making it happen.

It seems that the point is not only beautifying a thoroughfare but controlling the vehicles that use it. Lane narrowing, which comes about when more space is taken up by medians, has the effect of what the experts call “traffic calming.” Sometimes cities remove an entire lane, which is known as a “road diet.” In this case the road will still be wide, 2 lanes northbound and southbound and service lanes on either side as well.

There is a famous, old traffic median in this city, running the length of Park Avenue north of the Helmsley building, which straddles it. It might be worth visiting NYC just to drive through that twisty tunnel. The median’s tulips and begonia beds date to the 1950s.

The park narrowed over the years but I’ve always found it beautiful, and obviously diligently cared for.

Back in the day, traffic was a bit unwieldy in NYC, especially at the turn of the century, when horse carts jockeyed for space with street cars, pedestrians and even some automobiles.

Pictures from the turn of the 20th century  show traffic going every which way. It definitely needed some calming! Park Avenue, though, was a respite – it was actually a pedestrian park seated in the middle of a tamer Park Avenue.

People could stroll, sit, push prams, whatever, in safety. Now the powers that be are planning a remake for Park Avenue to become more like it once was.

Designs have been sketched.

I want to go there and be calm.

But I think that the Grand Concourse will be completed first.

We have trees. Lots of honey locust.

Some of the areas farther downtown have already been finished.

It’s hard to imagine the stretch of the road where I monitor trees botanically beautified. I can’t wait to see it.

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New York Trashy

Should be the nickname of this small piece of the Bronx. You can’t escape the litter.

Maybe there just aren’t enough appropriate receptacles?

Someone carefully put her half-full cup on the ground. I don’t like Dunkin iced coffee either, but I don’t leave it just hanging out there.

There are guardians of the clean everywhere if you look for them.

Every day I walk past Darion hosing down the sidewalk in front of the defunct Paradise Theater.

His job is to keep the place clean, “and it’s big!,” he told me. It sure is — in its heyday it was one of the biggest in the city, if not in the country. Some of the other shopkeepers water their sidewalks, too – I like that as it cleans the soles of my workboots when I walk by.

Others use a ubiquitous small broom and dustpan to get the litter.

Tidy.

The proprietor of a juice bar told me, “You have to keep it clean. It’s better for business.” I will go in to get a green smoothie today.

First thing in the morning, 7am, they are out creating order out of chaos.

Discarded masks lay around everywhere.

What happened? Did someone just get tired of wearing it and fling it to the ground? Three quarters of the residents here wear masks inside and out, everybody, old and young. I don’t know whether this means they haven’t got the vax or that they got it and they’re protective anyway.

I engaged a sanitation bigwig in a starched forest-green uniform and badge and a driver in her streetcleaning vehicle about the trash. Number one, he intoned, there are three types of trash – homeowners, shops, and garbage on the ground (duh).  It’s much worse, he said, since Covid. Alternate side of the street parking was suspended, which I took to mean that it was hard for garbage workers to get through the cars to get the bags. He said that when they have the resources the City makes inroads with the sidewalk trash. And oh yes, he said, noting my hard hat and reflective vest, the contractors working here are responsible for much of the garbage. What else should he say when I asked him why there was so much garbage lying around. He did not wish to have his photo taken, nor did she.

I don’t think this bench/table is trash, it was simply left in front of the supermarket overnight and serves some purpose.

There are clean shiny things in the neighborhood. Scooters and sanitation vehicles.

Sometimes you have a jarringly deep glimpse of a person’s life.

What happened to this individual and how did so many important documents end up scattered on the Grand Concourse? There is a story there.

Sometimes it’s a glimpse you don’t want, like a used Q-tip.

Tree pits grow yuck as well as trees.

There I draw the line. Each tree should enjoy a pristine growing environment. Although I’m biased, of course.

And I haven’t even gotten to New York Shitty. All the kindly sweepers and washers couldn’t banish what the dogs leave behind.

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Is there a creepy feeling in the air

or is it just me? I’m standing on the sidewalk, looking up at a block-long office building with its name prominently displayed across the front: POE BUILDING. It seems incongruous now, but makes sense when you consider when the building when up, in 1917. The Grand Concourse had just been laid, and the people of New York were going all out to venerate Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe spent a lot of time in the Fordham neighborhood of the Bronx, but only after hopping around from one residence to another in New York City and elsewhere.

Born in Boston in 1809, he first came to Manhattan with his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law Maria, and stayed for a few months in the West Village. They moved to Philadelphia. They returned in 1844, living in a boarding house downtown before moving to a farmhouse owned by the Brennan family, in the vicinity of what today is West 84 Street and Broadway.

Over the years he published not only Gothic poetry but short stories and criticism. He was a central figure in the movement known as Romanticism. Some of his stories (The Tell-tale Heart is an especially creepy one I like) were gold. Supernatural and detective fiction were his specialties.

Poe was apparently the first well-known literary figure to try to support himself off his writing, and it’s unclear whether he made a good job of it. He had no children – perhaps a lack of funds is why. His checkered life included marriage to his 13-year-old first cousin Virginia and an ill-fated military career, failing as a cadet at West Point.

The Raven, an overnight success, was written at the Brennan Farmhouse, and The Evening Mirror, where Poe worked as a critic, was good enough to publish it. The newspaper’s headquarters at 26 Ann Street still have a plaque devoted to Poe (though apparently you can’t get in to see it), as do seemingly all the other nooks and crannies he made his own over the years. The site of Brennan Farmhouse got a plaque, too, when it was razed in 1922.

After yet again moving to Greenwich Village, Poe leased a small cottage in the Fordham section of what was then Westchester County, from the Valentine family. The rent was $100 a year. It was the spring of 1847.

In large part Poe moved there because of Virginia’s illness, tuberculosis – it was thought that the fresh country air would banish it. However, the same year they moved in, she died, and two years later 40-year-old Poe himself was to die, raving on the streets of Baltimore, whether because of disease, substance abuse, alcohol, suicide, syphilis, or existential. The cause has never come clear.

Fast forward a few years, after Virginia’s mother Maria desperately tried to sell off the house’s furnishings (Virginia’s death bed remains).  Literary-minded folks tried to save the cottage, and succeeded in 1913 when the house was moved to a new location, a newly created park with the great writer’s name.

It became a New York City landmark in 1966, standing at 2640 Grand Concourse at East Kingsbridge Road – just down the way from POE BUILDING at 2432, which went up in 1917 when the city was in the grip of Poe-mania.

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