Reflection on The Bronx .

triprptIn my 40 yrs of travel, and million miles of flight, I’ve been everywhere. Well, not everywhere. Until this week, I’ve never been to the Bronx or Yonkers (beyond a single Yankees game). And when I depart Sunday, I will visit Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, New Rochelle, and the rest of the tiny wedge of land due north from Manhattan.

I crossed the Tappan Zee, instead of the George Washington bridge, and sa,w an entirely different New Jersey; lush, rocky, natural. I rode south on the Sawmill Parkway, an amazing surprise like many urban cities have (DC’s Rock Creek pkwy, my own Detroit’s Hines Drive).

Popping up in Yonkers was a trip back to my childhood. The exact housing stock of Detroit; c.1890’s to 1920’s, with tear down/rebuilds from the 1950s and 60s snuck in. But unlike Detroit (and Tampa Bay) those childhood memories of neighborhood retail, those little strings of 3-5 storefronts abutting the sidewalk are alive, in living neighborhoods with pedestrians everywhere. p0728a1Bodegas, sure, but cellphones, lawyers & doctors, small clothiers, barber shops and hair salons, ALL KINDS of restaurants, and the triumph of city over suburban life: fast food places sans drive thru. Yes, checkers, Carvel, and even subway all with only parallel on street parking. I once saw an SNL skit, and it seems true, that there are Dunkin Donuts EVERYWHERE, often on both sides of the street in the same block; with no parking, no drive thru. … the new urbanist in me got chills.

Of course, some chains were victorious with McD, BK, Wendys, CVS, Walgreen, and Advanced Auto all having cleared double lots for a store, parking (plus a drive thru for the restaurants). brx2eHistoric 1950s motels filled their entire block to the sidewalk, with room windows facing out and an archway access for cars. Guest cars were parked in the shielded courtyard, like in Europe.

Behold my sights: A first floor medium footprint grocery store with apartments overhead. Storefronts lining both sides of a street capped with a century old El train (a labyrinth of rusty sea green I-beams and crosspieces). A shoe store at street level with a Planet Fitness upstairs, the big picture widows full of treadmills with walkers watching the street life and shoppers watching the gym (like the zoo?).

People everywhere: at 10am, at 2pm, at 7 at night, at ten and even one am. I was a minority, especially late at night, and I enjoyed seeing “people of color” getting along. Young couples freely mixed between black, hispanic, and ever shade in between. Although politically incorrect, I jokingly thought of ‘Irish need not apply’. There was no “West Side Story” here, as Maria and Tony were holding hands everywhere. This was my unscientific impression, of course, from a couple hours of ride by, on main streets, on my scooter.

brx2fOf course sections of housing stretch uniformly tall with 5, 6, and 7 story apartment blocks. Not like those deep-set free-standing suburban towers, resembling NASA rockets surrounded by mall size parking lot launch pads. This housing runs right to the sidewalk, to all 4 corners, and are as shapely as any packing crate or cinder block. To be fair, many have decorative brickwork, in two tones and repeating patterns, and flourishes in the windowsills or the roof line considered gaudy by modern standards.

brx2cEvery such street, urban canyon actually, is parked to capacity on both curbs, so dropping riders, or food delivery (a regional pastime) is simply done with unquestioned double parking. During daylight, its UPS trucks and delivery vans, and even small refrigerated semi trailer trucks restocking those hundreds of Bodegas and tiny restaurants snarling every street. Double parking is simply a cultural phenomena, like folk dancing among rural European people.

Motorbikes are notoriously aggressive here as lanes swap without warning from 3 to 2 to 3 to bus lane to forced left to 1 with parking on both sides. There are no “connecting dashed lines” thru intersections to keep people organized. Rather each corner, each squeeze, each added lane is, by design, a free for all. And motorcyclists use this anarchy with aggressive relish. Consequently, people stare at me when I wait my turn in line with cars. Remember, there is no turn on red anywhere in NYC, so cyclists only squeeze rudely to the front, then jack rabbit out first with the green light.

The roads are in good shape, some are bumpy or covered in long bands of dangerous and disconcerting slippery tar. However, there is an epidemic of uneven manhole covers. Seriously deep, like a 3 inch drop then a 3 inch rise just two feet later. Its enough to damage your bike and loosen your fillings. I’m now finally used to being hyper-vigilant, and I now slalom ALL manholes, regardless of condition, just like the locals. And I underst

Brx3a.jpgThe Bronx is packed with a hybrid home unit, closely resembling row houses, but most in a 1960’s era styling. Some are only 2, some 4, the longest i saw was 8 units long, but I’d estimate that around 15%-25% of the housing stock is freestanding individual homes on single lots, some even with detached garages just like the suburban dream, right there in the Bronx.

p0728a2My airbnb is part of a 3-plex, connected, yet not a condo or cooperative. Consequently, you see individual fenced or stone-walled front yards, different color and style add-on awnings, and different age and color of roof shingle. As an ex condo board member, I want to shout “get your act together!’ because you all sink or swim together. Luckily, of the several hundred properties I drove by, I saw only one where a middle unit was damaged, abandoned, boarded up. And this I cannot say may have been from fire or water damage. What a nightmare to the adjoining homes!

0729fix2The units are almost universally three stories with the first being a one car garage and small family room with access to a small “garden size” backyard. Due to hilly terrain, the garages are almost universally embedded below surface, some only 18″, others 2 or 3 feet, surely causing a headache parking your car. At least half of the properties, including my host, have converted this first floor garage to a “garden level” living space. We have 2 bedrooms, a small kitchen, bath, and dining room (plus  a divider providing a space for an elderly uncle).

The main living is universally up those 10 stairs, both to the front porch, and then back down into the tiny backyard. This contains kitchen and living space with bedrooms up on a 3rd (here considered 2nd) level. I see this exact floor plan near water (Dunedin, Tarpon, Jersey Shore), where ground floor living space is not allowed.

Another border is staying upstairs, but has been spending time in the basement with me, so there must be an extra room on the 3rd floor. It is obvious that airbnb is significant in the economies of them paying for the home, not uncommon among hosts, but more so here. My hosts here have been extremely open, helpful, and welcoming; like someone in the hospitality industry, rather than showing the indifference or even slight mistrust that is sometimes in the air when the b&b host is thinking they can “take or leave it”.

This is my impression of the houses and area. You can find my impressions of the people in my blog post here

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