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Editorial: Learning from the Bronx

The Bronx is not usually considered a borough of great architectural monuments. Sure, it has some outstanding works built over the years by the likes of McKim, Mead & White, Marcel Breuer, and Richard Meier. Most recently WXY Architecture has transformed the Bronx Charter School for the Arts into a model of how a 21st-century school should be organized. But these remain largely isolated projects in a vast urban landscape of undistinguished residential and commercial development.

Yet if one looks beneath the footprints of this body of nondescript structures, there is another design tradition, not often enough recognized, of extraordinary planning initiatives spanning two centuries. From the 19th-century park advocates who lobbied for open space—the Bronx has one-quarter more dedicated parkland than any other borough—to Robert Moses, who parlayed Bronx estuaries into Orchard Beach even as he sundered other neighborhoods to realize his grand vision; and from the planners of the Grand Concourse to the engineers of the Saw Mill, Bronx, and Hutchinson parkways, this borough has an urban infrastructure that should be the envy of New York.

The Grand Concourse is of course famous for the art deco buildings that line the boulevard as it sweeps its way through the central part of the borough. But what really distinguishes the Concourse is not simply these buildings, but their relationship to the broad, Haussmann-like scale of the boulevard. There are other streets in New York City that have similar ensembles of deco buildings and boulevards (Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn comes to mind) but they do not have the grandeur and elegance of the Bronx Concourse.

Likewise, Mosholu Parkway—one of the most underappreciated and majestic boulevards in the city—connects two great open spaces: the Bronx Park (home to the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo) and the borough’s second-largest open space, Van Cortlandt Park. Planned in 1888, it is not a street of great architecture—although Paul Rudolph’s monumental Tracey Towers loom over it—but Mosholu Parkway is still a great landscaped space precisely because it was so carefully and thoughtfully developed in both design and execution.

Though these important urban planning prototypes seem to have been forgotten in recent years as the borough became increasingly suburbanized with the ranch-style homes of Charlotte Gardens, the two-family modular houses of Villa Maria, and the half-timbered Nehemiah housing project, the tide seems to be turning back to a development pattern based on the borough’s more appropriate historical planning initiatives. The Grand Concourse is currently the focus of an ideas competition sponsored by the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the Design Trust for Public Space to modernize this great boulevard. And Melrose Commons, despite mayoral attempts to weaken its intent and impact over the years, still offers the best hope for a reenergized and repopulated central Bronx. Of course, great architecture would be the icing on the cake in this modernization effort, but only if it builds upon the borough’s proud urban planning tradition.

William Menking