As I was scanning my 35mm black and white negatives from 1977 I came across a series of images that I could not locate in the city, at least at first. I remember roaming the five boroughs with my camera, sometimes taking the subway to the end of the line, with no particular goal in mind other than satisfying my curiosity.
Looking at the image above, I was not sure where it was — and I could not remember ever taking it. I knew it was not Manhattan because of the relatively low buildings and the fact that the street was passing underneath my position behind a balustrade and a row of telephone booths. That doesn’t happen often in Manhattan. But having spent a lot of time in the Bronx the past few years going to my son’s basketball and baseball games, I knew it had to somewhere along the Grand Concourse, the broad boulevard that runs through the center of the borough.
Bisecting the Concourse is Fordham Road, a busy shopping street that for a half mile or so defines the southern edge of the Fordham University campus. In 1977 it was a visually cacophonous place, and it still is today. The creeping blight, the fires and abandonment, of the South Bronx never made it up to Fordham Road though it threatened.
The RKO Fordham Theatre was showing Star Wars, the cultural touchstone that premiered in 1977. The theater was demolished years ago and replaced by a nondescript retail building. And back then, there were still stores that specialized in “hosiery.”
Alexander’s was a big discount department store that dominated the corner of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse. The building is still there, but divided up into smaller retail outlets. That’s a Checker Cab to the left and Ford Mustang to the right.
Hair on Face Removed Forever. We Dissolve the Roots. These buildings are still there, but the Dollar Savings Bank is now an Apple Bank, and the parapet decorations to the right have either been stripped off or are obscured by new cladding.
I was able to locate this photograph by reversing it in Photoshop and identifying the Ascot Theater across the street. It was demolished in 2016.
This one was hard to find, but I eventually located a small triangular park on Google street view at 181 Street and the Grand Concourse. It’s still scruffy looking, but there are now a half dozen trees behind the benches.
Despite the it’s bucolic “field of dreams” image, baseball has urban roots. Before the development of suburbs after World War II, baseball was a city game played in vacant lots, and even in the street. The development of the suburbs changed the geographic and socio-economic basis of the game, and the rising popularity of football and basketball displaced the primacy of baseball as the great American pastime.
But baseball is still played in the city on scruffy fields caged behind yards of chain-link fencing. My son, Brendan, is one of a relatively small number of New York City kids who made it all the way through Little League to college ball. I’ve journeyed to dozens of games in the Bronx and all over the five boroughs. These fields are not glamorous places — unlike nearby Yankee Stadium. They don’t engender much nostalgia, though I still feel somewhat attached to Pier 40 on the Hudson River in lower Manhattan, a disused passenger ship terminal converted into a recreational facility.
Baseball is played on fan-shaped fields, while New York is a city of rectilinear blocks. It’s not a natural fit. Nevertheless, baseball remains deeply associated with the city historically and in the present. In Greenwich Village Little Leaguers play on J.J. Walker field hemmed in by a high outfield fence to prevent well-struck balls from breaking windows across the street. And in the Bronx, housing projects overlook Monroe High School where many of the best Latino players in the city learn the game.
In the midst of running my Kickstarter campaign — which was successful despite a nail biting finish — I traveled up to the Bronx to see my son play baseball with his school team. New York City has decent quality baseball despite horrible conditions, fields that would be considered unplayable elsewhere. And they are often in out of the way places where space is at less of a premium. I got off the 6 train and joined a crowd of people waiting for the Bx39. It’s moments like this when the pocket camera comes out and I snap a few pictures, usually one right after another, and then I’m done. So, here are two such pictures. Thin slices of urban tissue, waiting for a bus.
Whatever happened to the Freedom Tower? That is what former Governor George Partaki called One World Trade Center when it was still an architectural concept. And if you wander through the crowds of tourists downtown, you will still hear people refer to David Child’s 1,776 foot tall skyscraper as the Freedom Tower. The Port Authority, however, abandoned that name years ago, and few New Yorkers seem inclined to use it.
One section of my forthcoming book WTC is comprised of vernacular images of the Twin Towers — posters, murals,and graffiti. And there are books and photographs for sale in the street, many of which graphically show the destruction of the Trade Center. It has been 15 years, but helped by constant visual reminders, the Twin Towers remain fixed in the mind’s eye. Images of One World Trade, however, are harder to find.
One World Trade — or Freedom Tower — was envisioned by some as a patriotic gesture, not just real estate. Some might argue that in New York City real estate and patriotism go hand in hand. Whatever the case, One World Trade Center has only slowly begun to achieve the iconic status of its progenitors, the Twin Towers. Maybe it never will. So, I was stopped in my tracks yesterday while walking through the Bronx. There on the ground was a pizza box with One World Trade and an enormous American flag printed in red white and blue. The Freedom Tower lives…perhaps.
And then in Brooklyn — there it is again — standing tall in support of Bernie.
Please help make WTC possible by supporting my Kickstarter campaign.
Quotes from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation website:
The Wiechquaskeck Lenapes occupied this site when, in 1639, the Dutch East India Company brought the first Europeans to settle in the Bronx. In 1646, Dutchman Adriaen Van Der Donck (1620-1655) became the first single owner of what is now Van Cortlandt Park. His vast estate “de Jonkeerslandt” gave Yonkers its name. The land passed through several families, each gradually developing it into viable farmland and a working plantation. During the 1690s, the 16-acre lake was created when Tibbetts Brook was dammed to power a gristmill.
The Van Cortlandt name was first associated with the tract of land bounded by modern Yonkers City Line between Broadway, Jerome Avenue, and Van Cortlandt Park East in 1694, when Jacobus Van Cortlandt bought the property. The Van Cortlandt Mansion was built in 1748 by his son, Frederick Van Cortlandt, whose family occupied the land until the 1880s. Frederick also established the family burial plot on Vault Hill where, at the onset of the American Revolution, City Clerk Augustus Van Cortlandt hid the city records from the British Army.
My New York park photographs: New York Primeval