For our January monthly walk, we headed up to the Bronx to walk the 5-mile length of the Grand Concourse. Built in the 1890s, the Grand Concourse was New York’s answer to Paris’s Champs-Élysées, although having never been to France, I can’t personally compare the two.
I thought I had never been to the Grand Concourse either, but as it turns out, it’s actually my most-traversed stretch of the Bronx. I ran its length twice each in 2013 and 2014, when it served as the out-and-back course of NYRR‘s Bronx 10 Mile road race. During those races, the wide avenue was closed to car traffic. I gave my attention to the gradient of the land, the beat of bodies around me, the rhythm feeding into my ears through my headphones. My experience centered on the pace and the distance, the labor and rewards of movement, the constant grind of will against resistance. It was an entirely different landscape.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t even recognize the Grand Concourse when I returned there for our January walk. It felt so much like my first time there that I only realized it wasn’t when I looked up Bronx 10 Mile course maps while writing this blog post. No longer subsumed by the buzz of the race, the boulevard unfolded before me. As we headed north from the southern end of the Concourse, we passed a couple of small parks, Franz Sigel Park and Joyce Kilmer Park, quiet on a cold Sunday morning. Sandwiched between them was the Bronx County Courthouse, a striking block of a building adorned with neoclassical columns and flanked by clusters of statues.
Soon after, we approached a majestic limestone mansion guarded by wrought iron gates and set back from the street by the Grand Concourse’s only front lawn. It was the day’s most intriguing story: the Andrew Freedman Home, built in the 1920s, served as a poorhouse for rich people who had lost their fortunes, enabling them to continue living in their accustomed affluence. It was hard to imagine a less worthwhile charity.
According to a 1997 profile in the New York Times, “Each resident received free rent, free board, even free servants. … Public rooms had overstuffed sofas, fireplaces, lush plants, bronzes, and paintings. In each guest room was a shower stall of white marble.” Perhaps fittingly, the trust eventually ran out of money, and in the 1980s, the Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council purchased the building and used it to house the elderly poor. These days, it serves as an event space, complete with an artist residency program.
As morning turned to afternoon, and as we continued north, the streets grew busier and more commercial. Here and there, we saw the repurposed relics of a bygone era. Soon after we passed the distinctive facade of the former Paradise Theater, now home to the World Changers Church, we stopped for lunch at Fordham Restaurant, a busy diner with tasty grub, generous portion sizes, and ample options for our picky crowd.
From there, we were only minutes away from Poe Cottage, the small white cottage in what was then Fordham village where Edgar Allan Poe spent the final years of his life. Poe and his wife Virginia retreated there in 1846 in hopes that the country air would do some good for her tuberculosis. Alas, Virginia did not survive long, but her original deathbed remains in the house, on view for visitors.
Poe Cottage was also the site where Poe composed some of his most famous poems, including “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee,” a favorite of my teenage years. At $5/person, we found the tour we took engaging and well worth the price of admission, but an hour-long chat with the docent on the front steps of the cottage as we were leaving did throw off the rhythm of our walk a bit. We might have to leave museum visits off the itinerary in future months.
From Poe Cottage, it was just over a mile to the north end of the Grand Concourse, where it runs into Mosholu Parkway at the conveniently located Mosholu Parkway subway station. In this last stretch, the Concourse evolved away from busy commercial districts to more residential blocks. I enjoyed seeing colorful single-family homes tucked between big stone apartment buildings and the storied character the mix added to the neighborhood. Like the rest of the Grand Concourse, it had the dignified nonchalance of a place that has survived glory and decline and revitalization and knows that there’s more to come.