Monthly Walk Series: Grand Concourse, The Bronx

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.

bronx county courthouse

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.

poe cottage

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.

our route along the grand concourse


Monthly Walk Series: Green-Wood Cemetery & Sunset Park, Brooklyn

One of the most unexpectedly moving parts of getting married, for me, was the way it allowed me to experience my community. I don’t mean my geographic community — although my native New Yorker husband and I did take the subway to our own wedding and get stuck in traffic on the BQE on our way home — but my human community. Our loved ones took time away from their lives and flew across the country (or the ocean, in one case) or drove for hours and paid for expensive New York City lodging to witness an event we conjured. One friend even left his home state of Texas for the first time in a decade just to attend our wedding! It was a monumental reminder that each of us as individuals and our relationship to one another doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a vast, strong, interconnected network of love, support, and community. Even months later, I feel full of gratitude at the thought.

After we came home from our honeymoon, we decided that it was important to us to actively cultivate that community and foster those bonds. One of the ways we’re doing that is by hosting a monthly walk series, an opportunity to explore and connect with New York and with our community here. We’ve led two so far. The inaugural walk took place in November: we met at Columbus Circle, walked the main loop of Central Park counterclockwise, and then had lunch at Whole Foods after. It’s one of my favorite routes in the city, but it was also one with which I was intimately familiar. Although the last one was years ago, countless long runs along that loop in snow and rain and blazing heat meant that I knew every water fountain, every incline.

This past weekend, we took the opposite approach in our second walk by visiting a neighborhood that was entirely new to us. We met outside the main entrance of Brooklyn’s landmark Green-Wood Cemetery, one of those places I’ve meant to check out a thousand times but never actually got around to visiting. It was the morning after the season’s first snow, brisk but clear, the cemetery blanketed in softening white. None of the four of us who met that morning knew much about Green-Wood Cemetery, but someone recollected that it had served as an inspiration for Central Park, and it was easy to see why as we walked along the perimeter of the most picturesque and fascinating cemetery I’ve ever explored.

We passed tranquil ponds, rows of hedges, steps that wove up sheltering hills. A field of plain grave markers contrasted with a cluster of ornate Grecian tombs, adorned with statues and columns. Everywhere, the inscriptions evoked for us stories we could nearly imagine as memories of an old New York. We examined a monument to D. M. Bennett, densely inscribed with his ideas. “He had a thousand friends,” the stone banner proclaimed (“and even more opinions,” we quipped). We read a poem on an elaborate stone, a tribute from a husband to his deceased wife, and observed from his much more modest marker that she must have died first, even though their dates were buried in snow. We found a grave for “Alexander the Great,” which appeared to be for an unnamed child of the Alexander family, dead the year after birth. We saw a tomb shaped like an Egyptian pyramid, decorated with Christian statuary. There was a point where we could stand and see the Manhattan skyline looking one way and the Statue of Liberty looking the other.

A lap later, we emerged back out of Green-Wood’s main gate and were tempted into Baked in Brooklyn, across the street, by the delicious aroma of fresh-baked bread. After we left, laden with cupcakes and enormous cinnamon buns and other confections, we walked through the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to its namesake park, which offered even more splendid views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty than from the cemetery. From there, we made our way to 8th Ave, the main thoroughfare of Sunset Park’s Chinatown. In the stretch we walked, about a mile, it seemed full of the same sensory pleasures as every other New York Chinatown — tantalizing roast meats, mini hot cakes, gloriously colorful produce — but without the throngs of tourists. Easily accessible via the 8th Ave stop on the N train, now that I’ve been there, I’m more surprised than ever how few people know about or visit Sunset Park’s Chinatown. We stopped for lunch at Kai Feng Fu Dumpling House, where we gorged ourselves on astonishingly cheap comfort food; my favorite, the fried pork-and-leek dumplings, were flavorful and deliciously greasy and cost $1 for 4.