A walk in New York’s northernmost borough
“Whatever you do, do not go to the Bronx.”
“Do you understand?”
“You do not go to the Bronx.”
I received this strong advice during my first ever visit to the USA back in 1986.
On my first night in New Jersey the family I was staying with invited me out to dinner along with several of their friends. During the meal I mentioned my plan to visit New York for the first time the following day. The boyfriend of one of the daughters then took it upon himself to issue a stern warning about not visiting the city’s most northern borough. His message was quite clear: if I crossed the Harlem River, I would probably not live to tell the tale.
He needn’t have worried, of course, because I never had any intention of going anywhere near the Bronx. For one thing, there was more than enough to keep me occupied in Manhattan for the limited number of days I had planned to stay. For another, I had already heard that the Bronx was a fearsome place and had even seen the 1981 film “Fort Apache: The Bronx”. Although even back then there were some people who claimed that movie was not exactly fair in its representation of the borough.
Suffice to say that in 1986 doing a walking tour of the Bronx was definitely not my idea of a fun day out. I never dreamt it ever would be either.
Things change though.
In the years since 1986 the New York Police Department have worked hard to improve safety in all parts of their city. Their fantastic success has been celebrated all over the world and in 2018 things even reached the point where, for a month or two at least, the murder rate for the “Big Apple” was lower than that for London.
Statistically the Bronx is now as safe as most places in New York. You still have to be careful and you still have to chose where you wander, but a walk around the Bronx, especially in the daytime, is not such an unreasonable thing to consider.
The borough is still struggling with its old reputation though and you only have to search “Is the Bronx safe?” online and then look at the travel chat rooms to see how annoyed and frustrated residents get at being asked the same old “Fort Apache” questions again and again.
In the years since my first visit I have been lucky to return to New York many times and the city certainly has a special place in my heart. I like nothing better than wandering its streets, getting a little lost and finding new things to see. The more I have visited, the more adventurous I have become. Over the past few years I have started to go far beyond Manhattan and have enjoyed excellent walks around parts of Queens and Brooklyn. In 2018 I decided to venture further still and, finally going against the advice I received all those years ago, make a plan to visit the Bronx.
I knew I would have one spare day as part of a stopover during a forthcoming trip in autumn 2018, so I did a bit of research on the internet and put together a (roughly) 13 mile walk that would cover a whole day. As the Bronx has a lot of green space, I planned to mix walking through urban streets with a fair bit of strolling through parkland and gardens.
Here is an account of my walk with 13 of the waypoints listed.
Friday 19th October 2018 – 9am
I had a quick coffee and a croissant at Zaro’s bakery and then jumped on an uptown “2” train at Penn Station. The train destination board flashed alternatively “6 Ave Express” / “Bronx Local” to indicate that it wouldn’t be stopping much in Manhattan but would be making all the stops in the Bronx. That sounded perfect to me.
I was planning to take the subway to the centre of south Bronx and then start my walk there. I had designed a route that would start in the south and then make a kind of an arc northwest towards the suburb of Riverdale almost on the edge of the Hudson River.
The train got emptier as it travelled north and before long it arrived at 3rd Avenue/ 149th Street, an area that is otherwise known as “The Hub”.
1) The Hub (0 miles)
I emerged from the subway at 149th Street. The Hub is a major intersection where several roads meet. It is often described as the “Times Square” of the Bronx. Historically it has been one of the borough’s most important centres with a concentration of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.
My first impression was that although it was bustling, there was clearly a very different vibe from much of Manhattan. The pavements were crowded with people shuffling along past lots of small but brightly-lit independent shops.
The shops were obviously targeting a less affluent clientele. There were places offering cheap jewellery with signs saying “We buy gold, diamonds and watches” and a couple of furniture shops that promised “no credit checks”. There were computer repair shops, places to pay bills and electrical shops that had counters where you could have mobile phones unlocked. On the second floors above many of these establishments were hair, nail and eye brow salons or small clinics offering alternative remedies.
There were also small non-chain chicken, burger and pizza shops and quite a few vendors on the pavement selling hot food to passersby.
The people themselves were a cosmopolitan mix. There were plenty of Latin Americans but I also noticed quite a few people who I guessed could be from Somalia or Ethiopia as well as others wearing different forms of Islamic dress. There were hardly any white people in the crowd. The atmosphere wasn’t exactly friendly but it certainly wasn’t at all intimidating either. In short, the people looked just like New Yorkers often do; in a bit of a rush.
I started to make my way north along 3rd Avenue and then turned right into Westchester Avenue. After a few blocks the subway line rose up from the ground and took its place elevated over the middle of the road. The structure formed a canopy over the road and continued into the distance as far as the eye could see.
I don’t know why, but I find walking down the streets with the subway rumbling overhead a bit romantic. Perhaps it is because it reminds me of all those car chases in films like the French Connection (actually filmed in Brooklyn) that I watched when I was younger. On this particular morning the sunlight was creeping through and it created interesting patterns on the road beneath the metal structures which added a little to the experience too.
I followed Westchester Avenue and the subway line as far as Simpson Street. I continued under the line as it adopted Southern Boulevard as far as 174th street and thereafter along Boston Road. The walk was quick and was accompanied by the constant, pleasant rumble of the trains overhead.
I stopped at a little shop that advertised itself as catering to the Latin American and West Indian markets and bought a bottle of water from the friendly owner.
I carried on.
In between residential blocks I passed a mixture of grocery stores that advertised the 24 hour availability of hot and cold sandwiches, several Kennedy Chicken outlets and numerous nail salons. Every so often there was a station with an ornately designed staircase that led up to the trains. Around the stations there were usually more shops. In particular there were large meat markets and shops with signs that said “Deli and Lottery”.
The roads were full of traffic but the sidewalks were not so busy. Most of the people I came across seemed to be African, African-American or Latin American. As I went further north the shops thinned out a bit, there was a Howard Johnson hotel and then an auto repair shop or two.
I was enjoying myself. It was the kind of walk that I have done in London many times before; a trek through a pretty nondescript urban landscape that is constantly changing but has few stand out attractions. It is difficult to describe why it appeals to me. In a way, it is interesting precisely because it is not so interesting!
2) East 180 Street Station (3.3 miles)
Eventually the subway tracks rose higher off the ground and twisted off to the left. At that point I carried straight on and quickly came to 180th Street. I turned right and soon I was looking back towards the subway tracks, now behind me, as they crossed Devoe Avenue. Confronting me was a typical view of urban wasteland; ancient warehouses and a parking lot strewn with several abandoned vehicles.
Yet when I turned and looked in the opposite direction, I had a completely contrasting view: trees, a river and a beautiful waterfall. I had arrived at Bronx Park and I was looking over a bridge into the famous Bronx Zoo that occupies its south eastern corner.
The Bronx River, the only fresh water river in New York, flows through the park on its way from its source 20 miles north of here to its discharge in the East River a few miles to the south.
Walking east one block I came to the East 180th St Subway Station. The entrance building is often heralded as the most attractive on the New York system. This is cheating slightly as the structure, designed to look like an Italian villa, was originally built as the administration block of a long-abandoned suburban railway that used to share the station. It is certainly very beautiful but the subway people inherited the building rather than created it themselves.
Like many New York subway stations, the interior is decorated with stained glass and mosaics. The ones here, not surprisingly, take the theme of the nearby zoo.
3) Entrance to Bronx River Greenway (0.1 mile / 3.4 miles total)
From here my intention was to walk along the Bronx River Greenway; a paved path that stretches the 23 miles from the mouth of the river to its source. The entrance, clearly marked, was just a few steps away from the station. The people who run New York’s parks had obviously been investing in the trail because I found a freshly paved dual-lane cycle path that had excellent signage.
It really was a well constructed path but it wasn’t quite what I had been expecting. It was probably bad planning on my part, but as I walked north I found the Greenway, or at least this section of it, a little disappointing. I think I had expected to be walking closer to the river but instead I found that I was skirting car parks full of tractors, traipsing around the back of a police headquarters and walking alongside a busy motorway. It was unsatisfying.
Eventually I came to a map display and I saw that the path actually went nowhere near the river at all. The problem was that the Bronx River Parkway motorway was clearly in the way. Instead of plunging into the greenery the path made its way gingerly around a cloverleaf at Fordham Road via a series of pedestrian crossings.
I had been intending to use the Greenway to go around the New York Botanical Gardens but when I came to a sign pointing to the East gate, I decided to enter and use it as a short cut instead.
4) Botanical Gardens East Entrance (1.8 miles / 5.2 miles)
It cost me $23 dollars to enter the Botanical Gardens and I quickly realised that I would have to stay for an hour or two to get a return on the investment. Of course, “staying a while” wasn’t exactly a hardship; the gardens are a world-class attraction and, along with the nearby Bronx Zoo, they are usually at the top of any “things to do in the Bronx” list.
Having entered on the eastern side I got to cross the Thain Forest wooded section first. This was a bonus because apparently it is missed by many visitors. Immediately the scenery improved dramatically and I was soon faced with lovely glades resplendent in autumn colours and then a little bridge over the Bronx River with the chance to walk down to a gushing waterfall below.
They were having a Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii event in the main part of the gardens and so I viewed an exhibition of her paintings in the library before walking around the conservatories. One of them had been transformed into a Hawaiian island with relevant tropical flowers and plants. It was very well done.
Before leaving, I stopped at the main café for some water and a coffee. It wasn’t very busy but there were still quite a few people in there. As I sat drinking I noticed that, save for two Japanese tourists, all the people around me were white. This was, perhaps not surprising, but it was still interesting and it was in complete contrast to the neighbourhoods I had been walking through before entering the gardens.
5) Keating Hall, Fordham University (1.1 miles /6.3 miles)
I left the Botanical Gardens and crossed the busy Southern Boulevard Road and then immediately arrived at the rear entrance of Fordham University. I walked in. I wasn’t challenged at all by the guards sitting in their hut at the gate post. When I exited via the front later I saw that the guards were checking all the student IDs. I wondered whether I should have been allowed onto the campus at all.
Fordham, the oldest Catholic university in the north eastern USA, was founded in 1841 and it has a very attractive campus. I walked past a large sports stadium and then towards the very English-looking Keating Hall at the centre of the complex. I spent a few minutes sitting there on the steps of the hall watching the students reading or chatting together on the field below.
6) Arthur Avenue Retail Market (0.5 miles / 6.8 Miles)
After emerging from the campus I crossed East Fordham Road and, after another short walk, I turned into Arthur Avenue: centre of Little Italy in the Bronx.
In the same way that people claim the real New York Chinatown is in Flushing, Queens, many people claim that the area around Arthur Avenue is a more genuine version of Little Italy than its touristy counterpart in Mulberry Street, Manhattan. Whether that is true or not, it was certainly a fascinating place to wander around.
There certainly seemed to be more shops in this version than restaurants or cafes, and I browsed in bakeries, delicatessens, a fish market and several butchers including one specialising in Italian sausages.
At the centre of it all was the Arthur Avenue Retail Market: a kind of covered Italian bazaar with all kinds of fresh produce and even a stall dedicated to making and selling cigars.
I had a good look around. I walked all the way south down past 187th street and then wandered slowly back again. The extra time I had spent in the Botanical Gardens meant that I didn’t really have the time for a sit down meal, so I put together a little picnic of bread, ham and cheese and then bought some still-warm chocolate bread rolls from an old-style bread shop for dessert.
The people who served me were charming and I heard Italian being spoken on several occasions. I think the area gets its fair share of tourists though and I couldn’t help noticing that some of the licence plates on the parked cars were from neighbouring Connecticut. For them it must be an easy ride into the northern edge of the city to go shopping and have a meal.
7) Fordham Station Plaza (0.4 miles / 7.2 miles)
I walked a few blocks west on 187th Street and eventually turned north on 3rd Avenue heading up towards Fordham Station. The streetscape became a little more edgy; there were lots of cheap car repair shops, discount supermarkets, a lot more graffiti on the walls and quite a lot of litter on the streets.
I headed across the large plaza that sits atop of Fordham Station and walked around for a while. The station is on the main Metro North line from Grand Central and provides a much faster way into Manhattan than the subway. The area around the station is actually one of the busiest shopping districts of New York.
On this Friday afternoon it was bustling with commuters and shoppers. The local schools had just finished too and there were plenty of small groups of young students walking around together. Although a majority of people seemed to be Hispanic, in fact it was a true multi-ethnic mix.
The sidewalks were crammed with little stands selling fruit and vegetables and the streets were lined with several colourful independent shops some of which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the streets of South American or Indian cities.
The people seemed very friendly and as I motioned with the camera that I would like to to try to take their photographs, most smiled or even stood in a little pose for me.
Eventually I made my way north again along the East Kingsbridge Road towards Poe Park.
8) Poe Cottage (0.5 mile / 7.7 miles)
Poe Park is named for the author Edgar Allan Poe who lived near here in a small cottage. The cottage is preserved at the north end of the park.
The park was filled with a varied selection of people: students were reading, young mothers were sitting with their children, tramps were sleeping on the benches and several groups of youths were congregated around looking bored.
The cottage itself dates from 1797 and Poe (1809-1849) lived in it at the end of his life. The little building seemed quite odd sitting there surrounded by much newer structures. The effect was even stranger because they were doing extensive renovation work. It looked as if they were just building the cottage there and then, or Edgar was about to get himself a new garden.
9) Grand Concourse (0 miles / 7.7 miles)
Poe Park is located on the Grand Concourse; the Bronx’s most significant thoroughfare. This north-to-south avenue, which is up to 9 lanes wide, stretches for about 5 miles. It was constructed at the turn of the 20th century and is said to be based on the Avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris.
I couldn’t really see the likeness to Paris myself, but apparently it was the Bronx address to have in the 1920s when families upgraded to here from crowded Manhattan. This influx was further encouraged by the extension of the IND subway line – the only fully-underground subway in the Bronx- in 1933. This growth in the 1930s also accounts for the large number of Art Deco buildings to be found along the street.
Many of those new residents moved again, this time to the suburbs, from the 1950s and the street didn’t escape the depths of despair that much of the borough fell into in the 1970s. Today it is undergoing something of a revival like other parts of the Bronx.
10) Kingsbridge Armoury (0.3 miles / 8 miles)
Walking west again along West Kingsbridge Road, I was immediately struck by a large structure visible ahead at the intersection with Jerome Avenue. With its castellated towers and large overall roof, this building looked like some kind of grand European railway station. It cut across the front of another elevated subway station, Kingsbridge Road, on the Jerome Avenue line.
It is in fact the Kingsbridge Armoury, apparently the largest such armoury in the world. It dates from 1910 and was in use by the military until 1996. Since then, although preserved as a historical building, it has remained mostly empty. There have been several suggestions for its re-use ranging from conversion to an ice rink to transformation into a vast homeless shelter. So far none have been accepted.
The area around the subway station was buzzing with life. There were several little carts selling a variety of wares ranging from Salvadoran pupusas and empanadas to nuts, hot dogs and kebabs. I got a juice from one of the vendors and stood sipping it whilst I watched two men unload crates of beer from a Budweiser truck and cart them into a little bar.
I finished my drink and then watched as a fight broke out between a driver and a pedestrian who had somehow damaged his car. They ended up chasing each other around the intersection in a circle with the driver shouting to passersby “call a cop!”
I was running short of time so I decided to catch the subway for the next part of my journey. I swiped my Metrocard, climbed the stairs and then waited on the platform up above.
I could see Manhattan in the far distance and with its skyscrapers it looked a world away; a completely different city. Interestingly, the Bronx with a population of 1.4 million is certainly big enough to be a city in its own right. Manhattan itself only has 1.6 million.
11) Grave of F W Woolworth, Woodlawn Cemetery (0.5 miles from subway station / 8.5 miles)
I boarded the next northbound “4” train and rode it a few stops to the end of the line: Woodlawn. Woodlawn station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and features some excellent stained glass murals on a “Children at Play” theme.
Just across the road from the station is the entrance to one of New York’s most famous cemeteries. I wandered in and spent quite a while looking around at the graves. There are many famous people buried here including F W Woolworth, Joseph Pulitzer and New York Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia. There is also a special emphasis on musicians; Irving Berlin, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Oscar Hammerstein were all laid to rest here too.
In the late afternoon the place was totally deserted and I found it extremely peaceful and relaxing being there alone. I also thought that it was quite remarkable how very spacious it all seemed compared with many of the London cemeteries I have visited.
12) Van Cortlandt House (1.5 miles / 10 miles )
I left the cemetery and headed south for a while along Jerome Avenue with the subway rumbling overhead once more. I then turned right and headed west for about 15 minutes along West Gun Hill Road across Mosholu Parkway and into Van Cortlandt Park Rd.
These were quiet residential streets with woodlands on one side. I got the distinct impression that the house prices were probably increasing as I made my way west.
Eventually I came to the entrance of Van Cortlandt Park and went in. This is the second largest park in New York (the largest, Pelham Park, is also in the Bronx) and I did a little circuit of the lower part of it before coming to Van Cortlandt House.
The house is named after the Dutch family owners and is yet another sign of the Dutch influence in New York. Many assume that Jonas Bronck, for whom the Bronx is named, was also Dutch, but apparently he was actually a Swede in the service of the Netherlands.
Van Cortlandt House was erected in 1748 and is now the oldest surviving building in the Bronx and, as the sign outside explained, it was used by both British and American troops to rest during the revolutionary war.
13) Corner of 238th Street / Riverdale Avenue (1.5 miles / 11.5 miles)
I emerged from the park onto Broadway. The famous road heads south from here, out of the Bronx, through Harlem, along the Upper West Side, across Times Square and eventually right down to Wall Street near the southern tip of Manhattan.
The subway station in front of me was 242nd Street. It was opened in 1909 and is listed for its “Victorian Gothic” style. It is the northern terminus of the “1” train. That service extends all the way down to South Ferry eventually travelling under Broadway and Seventh Avenue along the way.
The area around the station was, like the other stations I had passed earlier, bustling with life and, as the homeward commute had now begun in earnest, people were constantly leaving the station and diving into the little shops to stock up on things before heading home.
I headed south, under the tracks yet again, to the first station and then I went west along 238th Street into the affluent suburb of Riverdale. After a short walk, 238th street came to an abrupt end and I had to climb a steep set of steps before I found it again much higher up.
Now I was on higher ground walking past pretty little houses in wooded avenues and it was unlike anything else I had seen all day. This area was definitely much more middle class and judging by the people on the street it was much more of a white neighbourhood too.
I emerged onto Riverdale Avenue and then walked in a little loop past coffee shops, a dog grooming parlour and a very trendy looking Italian restaurant with outside seating. I was definitely in a different part of the Bronx.
I then decided that I had completed the route I had planned. I finished the walk and headed off to a nearby bar for a drink and a rest.
By the time I was back out on the street again, it was already getting dark and as I descended the steps back down to 238th Street I could see that the Riverdale Diner opposite the station was lit up and already full of patrons.
I caught the “1” train and as it clattered back towards Manhattan, I decided that my first visit to the Bronx had been a success. I am already planning a second one.
Whatever you do, consider a trip to the Bronx !