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Bakery 188 Cuchifritos, a Puerto Rican favorite for 35 years (Photograph by Robert Reid)

Roaming the Bronx’s “Champs-Élysées”

The man with graying dreadlocks raking outside a New York mansion is hip-hop pioneer Kool DJ Herc. He hasn’t switched careers, but is an artist-in-residence helping out at the Andrew Freedman Home, a one-time “country club” retirement home that’s now a workspace for graffiti artists, a 1920s-styled bed-and-breakfast, and space for homegrown art and theater. Up the street, a yoga class is under way outside Edgar Allan Poe’s 200-year-old cottage. Farther south, the intricate Beaux Arts façade of the 1913 Opera House, where Houdini once did tricks, is a newly opened hotel that fancies itself “boutique.” All 60 rooms are full, and staff advise guests to dine next door at the tiny Mexicozina taqueria, a neatly converted shrine of devotion to poblano specialties (like the best pig-ear tacos in town).

Few visitors to New York will have seen this. Nor have, to be honest, most New Yorkers. The reason is location.

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Looking north along the Grand Concourse’s historic district from 161st Street (Photograph by Robert Reid)

This is the Bronx.

“The Bronx is super neglected,” says Terence Gower, a Manhattanite artist I meet outside the Freedman, where he’s building an outdoor “SuperPuesto” public space as DJ Herc rakes nearby. “It’s going to be crazy in a couple years.”

Much of this is happening on/off the 4.5-mile Grand Concourse, built to be America’s Champs-Élysées in 1909. In its glory days, roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s, it became an end goal for the “tenement trail,” when Jews, Italians, and Irish poured out of Lower East Side slums for dreamy townhouses with rounded corner windows, cross-ventilation, and sunken living rooms. “To enter a lobby,” wrote Constance Rosenblum in her book Boulevard of Dreams, “felt like stepping onto the stage itself.”

This makes for one of New York’s great flaneur spots. Catch a view along the Concourse, particularly from 153rd to 167th Streets (deemed a historic district in 2011), and it’s easy to mistake it for a view of Park Avenue. To quote the New York Times, “its only national art deco rival is Miami Beach.”

A good starting area to wander the Concourse is a couple of blocks east of Yankee Stadium. You can’t miss the Bronx County Courthouse, built in 1934—a full block of Classic Revival, with statues, gold highlights, and the feel of a “perfect Italian fascist building,” as Gower puts it. I go in to see murals; a security guard says I can roam freely, but I’m best skipping the eighth floor. “It’s pretty much just judges’ chambers. We try to avoid them, too.”

At the nearby Bronx Museum of the Arts, which buzzes with activity and after-hours programs, I counted at least five hard-to-miss notices of “FREE ADMISSION” before I reached the receptionist, who warmly lets me know “the museum is free to visit.” (I wondered if this was art, but an artist on site insists it’s only for publicity’s sake).

On display till January, “Beyond the Supersquare” shows modernism’s effects in Latin America. One mesmerizing six-minute video is shot from a helicopter over a monotonous, cookie-cutter neighborhood in Mexico City, then eventually comes to ground to follow a relay of locals carrying a piñata uncertainly forward. I watch it twice.

A favorite local place for food is Fauzia’s Heavenly Delights, a street food vendor serving “Jamaican fusion” at nearby 161st Street and Sheridan Avenue. Based in Harlem, Fauzia Abdur-Rahman handpicked this Bronx spot a couple of decades ago for her ever changing lineup of goat curries, jerk chicken, and lentil- and yam-based vegetarian dishes.

I meet one woman in a business suit who comes there every Wednesday and Friday for the banana pudding. She literally stomps her feet as she champions it for me: “Sooo good, sooo good. I’ve been coming for years. I used to get two.” Then she jokingly baits Fauzia. “But I want more cookies. More cookies.” Soon she’s off to a nearby bodega she “knows about” where she can get more vanilla wafers to mix in. I order a cup and devour it, as is, in a couple of minutes.

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Neil Ralley holds a print at the Poe Cottage. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

Thirty blocks north (at 192nd Street), Neil Ralley is wearing a T-shirt he designed with an Edgar Allan Poe word cloud shaped like a raven. Originally from England, Ralley now lives in the Bronx and runs the Poe Cottage on weekends, which he reckons is “one of the top 20 or 30 most important homes in America.” He elaborates, “It’s the only stand-alone house in New York where you can see how a relatively poor person lived in the 1800s.” That was when this wasn’t yet the Bronx, but a farming village when Poe lived here in 1846 and 1847.

After looking at two floors of period pieces (including the bed Poe’s wife died in) and watching a video that ends with a declaration (“filmed entirely on location in the beautiful Bronx”), Ralley talks me out of buying a copy of “Eureka,” Poe’s essay on the universe (“it’s the toughest read on the planet”). Instead he offers me directions to  the cottage’s original site on nearby Poe Place. I weave along a curving side street, down a pedestrian stairway, to a long alley backed by rows of towering buildings. It dead-ends by a 1970s car decked out in Puerto Rico flags.

A block from nearby Fordham Road, a commercial strip that leads east to two famous Bronx sites—the zoo and botanical garden—I step into Bakery 188 Cuchifritos (158 East 188 Street), a Puerto Rican favorite for 35 years. Inside, the wall’s lined with colorful, hand-drawn signs of cartoon figures. I sit on a sky-blue stool at the diner-style bar and order its claim to fame, mofongo al pilon, sort of mashed plantains served with dried pork and a cup of meat gravy. It’s excellent. I wonder about the dozen fruit-themed refrescas facing me, but my waitress shakes her head. “All very sweet. I’ll bring you water.”

Some suggest it’s only a matter of time that the Bronx becomes the “next Brooklyn,” with its art, “real NYC” hipster cred, cheaper rent, and historic homes. Considering crime in the 1970s led to it being deemed the city’s “number one disaster area,” change is still welcomed. But on the Bronx’s terms.

“We see it coming this time, what gentrification has done in Brooklyn and Queens already,” says Walter Puryear, a Bronx kid who traveled the world and returned to run the Andrew Freedman house as a community center. “It’s about having the community involved. We do.”

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SpazeCraft, who runs graffiti art classes for local kids at the Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx, shows off a work in progress. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

To spur this, artists get studio space in return for teaching local kids, who then teach their friends. One graffiti artist I meet inside, SpazeCraft, grew up in the Upper West Side and now holds classes on several art-related subjects. His vision is for them to be seen as “Super Friends, everyone helping each other.”

That’s part of the plan for Puryear, who is working with a production of Black Wall Street for this fall. He asks, “Why shouldn’t the Bronx have things that other people have?”

To Do This Trip:

The Bronx is hillier than any other borough. And half the fun is taking some back streets for surprising dips and views toward Manhattan’s north, or back across the Bronx. I walked nearly the full Grand Concourse over a couple of days. At its north end, you can see the historic Woodlawn Cemetery, where Miles Davis is buried.

See art. The Bronx Museum of the Arts is great fun, and you’re likely to find artists to chat with at the Andrew Freeman House. Both are a couple of blocks apart, and a short walk from Yankee Stadium, so go up early to add on to your Bronx experience before a baseball game.

Mind the stars. The Bronx Walk of Fame highlights famous locals on street signs up the Concourse. I found Stanley Kubrick’s star near the modest start of the boulevard at 138th Street, where there was a public garden and car repair lots. Let me know if you see J-Lo, C-Po, or B-Jo—as Jennifer Lopez, Colin Powell, and Billy Joel were all Bronx-born.

Use the subway. Good starting points for the most atmospheric blocks are the 2/4/5 lines at 149th Street-Grand Concourse, or B/D/4 at 161st Street-Yankee Stadium. For the Poe Cottage area, ride B/D to Fordham Road or Kingsbridge Road stations.

Detour to Arthur Avenue. The “real Little Italy” is in the Bronx, a short walk east of the Grand Concourse via Fordham Road. Mario’s actually refused Coppola’s offer to be the restaurant where Al Pacino finds the gun behind the toilet “with the chain thing,” but Roberto’s is better.