|From the Supplement to the 123rd Annual Meeting
Exploring the Grand Concourse with Students
from the Bronx High School of Visual Arts
On May 29, 2008, 30 11th-grade students from the Bronx High School of Visual Arts and Valeria Mogilevich, a teaching artist from the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), gathered at the Bronx Museum of the Arts for a day-long “charrette” on the history of the Grand Concourse, the four-and-a-half-mile long boulevard that stretches from 138th Street in the South Bronx to Mosholu Parkway in the north. A charrette is a participatory learning activity often used by architects and urban planners to involve stakeholders in a design project. The collaborative and visual process of the charrette suggests a dynamic way to engage young people in history.
The workshop was part of the Grand Concourse Centennial Project, initiated by the Bronx Museum of the Arts with the goal of raising awareness about the historical importance and present condition of the boulevard, which will be 100 years old in 2009.
Students began the day-long workshop with a guided bus tour of the Grand Concourse led by Peter Derrick, the head archivist at the Bronx Historical Society. The students learned that the Grand Concourse opened in 1909 and was designed by Louis Risse to resemble a Parisian boulevard. They learned that the completion of the Jerome Avenue elevated train in 1917 began a housing boom that allowed thousands of mostly Jewish and Italian families to escape crowded tenements in Manhattan. They saw some of the art deco apartment buildings that line the boulevard. Students also heard how by the end of the 1960s the population along the concourse changed to predominantly poorer African Americans and Puerto Ricans as the middle class left the neighborhood as a result of landlord neglect, bank disinvestment, and the lure of the newly opened Co-op City.
After recording what they had learned about local history through photographs and notes, the students delved into an the archive of newspaper articles compiled by Mogilevich. She wanted the students to be suspicious of the archive and to recognize the points of view that shaped the articles. She encouraged the students to reflect on and respond to the content by cutting and reassembling the texts, drawing pictures to accompany them, or writing new narratives. The product of the day’s activities is a thoughtful and provocative “zine” entitled Archive City: A Grand Concourse Scrapbook.
The Bronx High School for Visual Arts (www.bhsva.com) is a small high school open to all Bronx residents that specializes in providing an extensive four-year study of the visual arts taught by professional artists. The Center for Urban Pedagogy (www.anothercupdevelopment.org) is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization that investigates the built environment by facilitating collaborations among advocates, architects, artists, city workers, educators, policy makers, residents and students.
In the spring of 2009, CUP and the Bronx High School for Visual Arts students will embark on the next round of their charrette at the museum. This time the students will be asked to build on their exploration of the past and envision the future of the Grand Concourse and surrounding area. The neighborhood is experiencing rapid change. In the spring of 2009 the New York Yankees will inaugurate a new $1.3 billion stadium a few blocks west of the Grand Concourse on what had been 22 acres of public parkland. The city-financed replacement parks are about two years behind schedule and critics of the stadium plan claim the community was left out of the planning process. The results of the charrette should be compelling.
Visiting the Bronx
If you would like to explore Bronx history, a short subway ride will reveal some gems along the Grand Concourse.
Take the 2, 4, or 5 train to 149th Street/Grand Concourse and see the Ben and Bernarda Bryson Shahn WPA mural at the Bronx General Post Office. The 13-panel Resources of America (1939) celebrates the nobility of the American worker.
Walk half a block south to 450 Grand Concourse to visit the Longwood Arts Gallery at Hostos Community College/CUNY (718-518-6728, www.longwoodcyber.org). Longwood is the contemporary art center of the Bronx Council on the Arts with the mission of supporting artists—especially emerging artists from underrepresented groups—and their work.
Stop for a snack and cappuccino at Giovanni’s Restaurant/G Bar & Lounge at the corner of the Concourse and 150th before taking a cab to the Bronx Museum of the Arts at the Grand Concourse and 165th Street (1040 Grand Concourse, 718-681-6000, www.bronxmuseum.org). The museum, founded in 1971, is housed in a former synagogue. As the only fine art museum in the Bronx, it focuses on contemporary art by artists of African, Asian, and Latin American descent. As an institution it has a commitment to exhibit, preserve, and document the work of artists not typically represented within more traditional museum collections. Street Art, Street Life, an exhibit that examines the street as subject matter, venue, and source of inspiration for artists and photographers from the late 1950s to the present, will be on view until January 25.
After leaving the museum, walk two blocks north to the 167 St./Grand Concourse subway station to take the D or B train back to Manhattan. Before entering the subway, be sure to see one of the grandest of the art deco buildings on the boulevard—known as the “Fish Building” because of the aquarium-themed mosaic on its exterior—at 1150 Grand Concourse.
Pam Sporn, who teaches documentary film production at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and teacher, whose work includes Cuban Roots/Bronx Stories and With a Stroke of the Chaveta. She is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.Last Updated: December 15, 2008 12:35 PM