A Day on the South Bronx's Grand Concourse
by Jonathan Zeller, 03/30/2015
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Some visitors—and even native New Yorkers—are under the impression that an optimal stay in the South Bronx involves stepping off the subway, going to a Yankees baseball game and heading right back to the train. That impression is decidedly false. The area around the stadium is packed with cultural attractions and homey restaurants, all within walking distance of the train and one another.
The South Bronx also has a community feel: it seemed like everyone we spoke to in our travels was connected to everyone else up and down the Grand Concourse, the area’s main artery. Grandmaster Caz of Hush Hip Hop Tours frequents Sam's Soul Food. Hush's founder, Debra Harris, speaks warmly of artist Lady K Fever, whose work you can see at the Longwood Art Gallery at Hostos Community College. Over at the Bronx Museum of the Arts you can view photographs by Joe Conzo, who is also involved with the new Bronx Documentary Center—an institution that's dedicated itself to training the next generation of Bronx photographers.
The close-knit neighborhood makes for a rewarding day trip. Here are our tips for what to see and do while you're there.
How to get there:
Take the B, D or 4 train to 161st Street–Yankee Stadium/River Avenue. It's about 20 minutes from Midtown Manhattan.
The Grand Concourse abounds with works of art, not the least of which is the thoroughfare itself. Designed in 1890 by engineer Louis Aloys Risse and opened in 1909, the roadway was intended to be the Bronx’s answer to Paris' Champs-Élysées, and architecture buffs will want to take time to observe the art deco work on every block. Be sure to also walk through Joyce Kilmer Park, its southern end anchored by the white marble Lorelei Fountain—a memorial to German writer Heinrich Heine, sculpted by Ernst Herter, that's stood in the park since 1899.
The most obvious stop on a South Bronx art tour is the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The longstanding institution took residence in a new building in 2006, and its collection reflects the multicultural character of its home borough. Current exhibitions include Cuba Libre!, set to run through June 21. The show, which displays work produced by Cuban artists from 1985 through the present, is timely considering the thaw in US-Cuba relations, and features subversive works like visual art juxtaposing Cuban scenes with American corporate trademarks like Coca-Cola by Meira Marrero and José A. Toirac, and an acrylic-on-canvas representation of an iPod Touch by Abel Barroso. The museum has been exhibiting Cuban artists since the 1980s; an exchange program will send Bronx Museum work to Cuba this summer, with reciprocation coming in 2016.
Also worth checking out is Three Photographers From the Bronx. This exhibition showcases the work of Jules Aarons, who documented family life and the Jewish population of the 1950s Bronx; Morton Broffman, a photojournalist who traveled to the south and captured powerful images of the civil rights movement in the 1960s; and Joe Conzo, whose work includes snapshots of hip-hop's early days in the 1980s, along with protests against the movie Fort Apache: The Bronx, which many viewed as a racist and inaccurate depiction of the borough in that era. The museum is always free, so it's worth dropping by even if you only have a few minutes.
Conzo is among the artists who have worked with a newer entrant to the borough's cultural scene, the Bronx Documentary Center. Founded by former Magnum Photos New York cultural director Danielle Jackson and onetime New York Times war photographer Michael Kamber, the center exhibits photographs and screens documentary films—including rooftop showings during the summer. Admission here is free as well. The center's impact since opening in 2011 has been immense: its Bronx Photo League program has trained local photographers—and helped them with networking connections—who have gone on to work professionally for the New York Daily News, Newsday, and The New York Times. As Kamber says, "They have the talent but may not have the avenues to get there."
Hostos Community College's Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture, meanwhile, is home to the Longwood Art Gallery. The gallery's current exhibitions include pieces from older, established artists who continue working today, as well as Dubbed (running through May 6), which features creations by street artist Lady K Fever. The Hostos Center also houses two theater spaces, and the administrators responsible for booking pride themselves on a "curatorial" approach that brings in multidisciplinary and unconventional performances. There's a particular focus on Afro-Carribbean and Latino programming—for example, Boogaloo Weekend (May 8–9), which will see Joe Bataan, Pete Rodríquez and many other Latin soul artists take the Hostos stage.
One final note on Hostos: it's the starting point for the free Bronx Culture Trolley, which runs on the first Wednesday of every month and stops at museums, galleries and other points of interest in the neighborhood.
Hush Hip Hop Tours also focuses on the South Bronx, the music genre's birthplace. The itinerary gives fans a chance to meet hip-hop pioneers—Grandmaster Caz is the lead tour guide, and figures like Kurtis Blow and the Furious Five’s Rahiem have been known to show up—and learn about the origins of a culture that's now prominent worldwide. They'll even take you to 1520 Sedgwick Ave., site of the first documented hip-hop party. Also featured: the Bronx Walk of Fame, which starts at 161st Street and Grand Concourse and places Caz alongside other Bronx greats like Jerry Vale, Colin Powell and Ellen Barkin.
The uninitiated may not be up on the Bronx's arts offerings, but it's safe to say they've heard of the Bronx Bombers. In addition to the Yankees themselves, Yankee Stadium is now home to New York City FC, the area's newest professional soccer team, which has drawn strong attendance and considerable media attention in the early going. Monument Park and the Yankees' on-site museum are other attractions to check out while you're at the stadium. Heritage Field, the park next door, gives local kids a chance to take their cuts on the same grounds as Yankee greats like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Just across the street is the Yankee Tavern, which has been a neighborhood stalwart since 1923. Few businesses survive from when the Yankee Tavern first opened; it's safe to say no one back then guessed it would outlast the House That Ruth Built itself. The place is blanketed in Yankees memorabilia—including items autographed by Bomber Hall of Famers—and owner Joe Bastone is always glad to chat about the team and the neighborhood's good old days. He says players visit from time to time, though "they don't announce themselves." The bar is also now home to New York City FC supporters' club the Third Rail.
One popular South Bronx restaurant is the Feeding Tree, which specializes in Jamaican dishes like jerk chicken and goat curry. But the South Bronx restaurant that best captures the neighborhood's spirit may be Sam's Soul Food. Owner Samuel Amoah, a Ghanaian immigrant who's run the restaurant for 15 years, is uncommonly warm, not to mention proud of specialties like ribs and cornbread. On Friday nights, you can work off those comforting staples bobbing to music spun by early hip-hop innovator DJ Hollywood, who brings on guests like Kurtis Blow, DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. Asked why Grandmaster Caz, who's also a regular, likes the place, Amoah says, "It feels like home for him here." Even if you're not from the borough, you may find yourself feeling the same way.
To explore more, check out our interactive map of neighborhood attractions, and book the Opera House Hotel so you can stay right near the action.