The Bronx, as a borough and county, is a relatively new political entity. As New York City's only mainland outpost (except for Marble Hill, still a part of Manhattan), the Bronx has been a part of Westchester County and then New York County (Manhattan) for much of its history. In 1874, the western portion of the Bronx, consisting of the towns of Kingsbridge, West Farms, and Morrisania, was annexed by New York County, making them part of New York City proper. In 1895, the rest of the present-day Bronx east of the Bronx River joined. The following year, City Island voted to secede from Westchester County and join the Bronx. Finally, in 1914, the Bronx became its own county, separate from Manhattan. Traces of this former Bronx-Manhattan marriage can be seen in the street numbering system, which stretches across the Harlem River.
Much of the borough's persona over the years, unfortunately, has been shaped by the presence of crime and urban decay. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan visited then-empty and desolate Charlotte Street, near Crotona Park, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, respectively, with promises of federal aid. During a World Series game in 1977, the camera panned over to an out-of-control conflagration and Howard Cosell intoned, "The Bronx is burning."
Though drugs and crime remain, as they always will in any urban area, much of the Bronx has been transformed by the construction of new housing and a diminution of crime beginning in the early 90s. Charlotte Street is now a pleasant, tree-lined stretch with detached homes, as is much of the surrounding area; disparate regions like Longwood and Wakefield have also enjoyed comebacks since their nadirs.
There's plenty to interest the urban explorer in the Bronx: the Grand Concourse, with its miles of magnificent apartment buildings and a revitalized Loew's Paradise Theatre; the hills of Morris Heights hold secrets like High Bridge and a lighthouse-shaped tower; Riverdale doesn't resemble the rest of the Bronx, but is a riverside village on the Hudson; and Westchester Square is also a small-town village, complete with a pair of colonial cemeteries. City Island is a fishing village, seemingly airlifted onto Long Island Sound from New England; and Pelham Bay and Van Cortlandt Parks offer hundreds of acres of wild and uncultivated woods, with the occasional abandoned rail line or colonial mansion tossed in.
Mott Haven, The Hub, Melrose, and Concourse Village
Squeezed in between the Harlem River and Yankee Stadium in the southernmost Bronx is a small neighborhood known as Mott Haven, named after Jordan Mott, who built a large ironworks in 1828 (in business until 1906), centered along the Harlem River from about Third Avenue to East 138th Street. His handiwork can be still seen all over town on airshafts and manhole covers built by the J.L. Mott Iron Works. Mott had bought the original property from Gouverneur Morris in 1849; the ironworks produced practical and ornamental metalwork used worldwide.
Port Morris is the easternmost region of Mott Haven, cut off by the Bruckner Expressway. It has never been a major port, but was originally touted as such by Gouverneur Morris, who owned all the property here in the colonial era.
The Hub is where many of the Bronx's major roads meet: East 149th Street, Willis Avenue, and Third Avenue, with Westchester Avenue beginning its long journey to Pelham Bay Park one block to the north. It was also formerly a nexus of some of the Bronx's old trolley routes. Until 1973, the Third Avenue El passed overhead; the IRT subway still roars below under 149th Street. The area naturally became a major shopping district and entertainment center, with silent film and vaudeville theaters and the now-defunct Alexander's and Hearn's department stores.
Patience and Fortitude, the two marble lions guarding the New York Public Library entrance at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, were sculpted right here in Mott Haven at St. Ann's Avenue and East 142nd Street, by Piccirilli Brothers Monument Sculptors, whose family had migrated here from Massa Carrara, Italy, in 1888.
Subway: 4 or 5 to 138th Street-Grand Concourse; 6 to Third Avenue, Brook Avenue, or Cypress Avenue; 2, 4, or 5 to 149th Street-Grand Concourse; 2 or 5 to Third Avenue-149th Street
Bus: Bx19 on East 149th Street; Bx33 on East 138th Street; Bx21 on Third Avenue
1 Piano Row East 132nd Street, between Lincoln and Alexander Avenues
The Steinway piano factory across the East River may be better chronicled, but Mott Haven certainly had the greater number of pianoforte manufacturers, enough so that the South Bronx was known as "The Piano Capital of the United States" prior to World War I. The buildings belonging to the Krakauer, Kroger, and Estey piano works at East 132nd Street between Lincoln and Alexander Avenues are still standing.
2 Bertine Block East 136th Street, between Willis and Brook Avenues
Developer Edward Bertine built several three-story yellow-faced brick townhouses between 1891 and 1895 at 414-440 and 415-425 East 136th Street, between Willis Avenue and Brown Place, joining a number of earlier brownstone buildings. The handsome Bertine Block' is one of a number of Mott Haven streets given over to eclectic residential architecture, most notably on East 139th, East 140th, and East 142nd Streets between Willis and Brook Avenues, many in Dutch/Flemish styles. East 139th and East 140th Streets are in especially good shape, with distinctive stained glass and sculptural elements on some of the houses.
3 Alexander Avenue Alexander Avenue, between East 137th and East 140th Streets
After opening in 1891, Alexander Avenue became known as Doctors' Row and "Irish Fifth Avenue." Some of the handsome buildings from its early days still stand, such as St. Jerome's Church and attendant school, constructed in 1898 between East 137th and 138th Streets, the row between East 138th and 139th Streets, and the neo-Renaissance Mott Haven branch of the New York Public Library, built in 1905 by Babb, Cook & Willard.