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Core of the Big Apple

The Bronx may not seem an obvious tourist draw but, finds Christopher Beanland, the New York borough has soul, green spaces - and the Yankees

 

Graffiti art hangs in front of me. To my left are some thought-provoking installations using sound and video - old televisions and speakers litter the floor. In the next gallery I can see photography highlight-ing the history of New York's grittier streets. A giant mural looks down from the ceiling in the huge white-walled gallery. But this isn't the Museum Of Modern Art in smart Midtown Manhattan - this is the Bronx.

The Bronx Museum of The Arts is 40 years old but - having originally occupied the Bronx County Courthouse - it is now housed in an airy, super-modern building shaped like an accordion and clearly inspired by Frank Gehry's disregard for right angles and squares. It was built by internationally acclaimed architects Arquitectonica - who also designed Cyberport in Pok Fu Lam and Festival Walk, Kowloon Tong. You thought the Bronx was all about burnt-out buildings? Not any more.

Attitudes towards New York's least well-known (and perhaps least loved) "boro" have been shaped by violent movies such as The Warriors (1979) and by images of gang culture. But the truth is that the Bronx is in the midst of a surprising transformation: new buildings, new houses, new parks and new businesses are turning some of America's poorest neighbourhoods from no-go zones into must-visit places. Crime is down, people are moving back. Hope is in the air.

I leave the museum and stroll down Grand Concourse - a 6½ kilometre thoroughfare built to ape Paris' Champs Elysee and connect Manhattan with new suburbs to the north. An address on this wide, tree-lined boulevard was the height of gentility in the first half of the 20th century. The art deco apartment buildings that have survived from that period ooze American glamour and optimism; they revel in capitalist chic.

The rot began to set in after the second world war, when New York's megalomaniacal "master builder" Robert Moses carved six-lane highways through the Bronx - creating noise and pollution. Property prices slumped, the middle classes moved out and the Bronx became a byword for urban deprivation. In the 1970s, landlords paid local children to set light to their own properties for US$100 a pop and the Bronx burned - along with the dreams of the youngsters who lived here.

Among the chaos, hip hop culture was born - thanks in part to Bronx resident Afrika Bambaataa, now seen as the godfather of rap music. The Bronx Museum tells this tale in an exhibition featuring photographs of teenage boys wearing Adidas and gold chains.

At Hunt's Point, a former dumping ground has been transformed into a beautiful park, where water laps against the lawns. The Bronx River, which flows through here and once ran a dirty effluent brown, has been cleaned.

Not far from Hunt's Point is Ferry Point - another former riverside wilderness undergoing a transformation. The city has built another waterfront park here but what's in the pipeline for the other part of this former landfill site underlines the Bronx's changed fortunes: a public golf course costing just shy of US$100 million is under construction - and, on completion, its manicured greens will be overseen by none other than Donald Trump, and his Trump National and International Golf Clubs. The rich folk will be coming back to the Bronx once more.

A golf course may not necessarily be what the Bronx needs - with a round costing US$125, it's not likely that many locals in what remains the city's poorest borough will be putting here. But the development shows how much things have changed.

Now tourists are being wooed. The Marriott is to open a luxury hotel in the Bronx - the first in the borough's history. And the Zagat guide recommends 33 restaurants, including much-lauded Italian Patricia's, in its latest edition. The borough even had its own restaurant week in November: Savor the Bronx.

But the question remains: if you're visiting a city in which you haven't a hope of seeing and doing everything worthwhile, even in the well-trodden districts - why make the trip to the Bronx?

Above all, you'll be sampling a place with soul; one that's changing constantly.

Granted, some things will never change here, and a good thing, too: The Bronx Zoo is one of the area's top attractions and one of the largest city zoos in the world. And there are many other green spaces here; Van Cortlandt Park is a huge rolling expanse of fields and forest while the New York Botanical Garden boasts 50 gorgeous gardens.

What excites me most, though, is seeing the South Bronx home of the legendary New York Yankees baseball team. A small memorial and open-air museum on 161st Street tells the story of Babe Ruth, the legendary Yankees hitter of the 1920s. Sadly the team's grand ol' home, built in 1923, has been pulled down - its modern replacement, Yankee Stadium, stands across the street from where the old one was. If no game is being played when you visit, you can still take a stadium tour or eat in a restaurant overlooking the field.

Feeling peckish, I decide to do what any self-respecting baseball fan would - grab a slice of pizza. At Bronx Lala Pizza I pay a measly US$2.50 for a monster-sized slab oozing with cheese and pepperoni.

"Where's that accent from?" asks the server. I tell him - it's a long way from New York. "I've come further," he counters. "From Egypt."

I am reminded of just what an international melting pot the Bronx is. It's considered to be the most ethnically diverse part of the entire United States, being home to African-Americans, Mexicans, people from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico; others descended from Italians, Albanians, Nigerians, Indians. And, here, two Egyptian guys running one of the boro's best little pizzerias.

"Do you like it here?" I ask.

"Not really," he laughs. Not the answer I was hoping for - but one that qualifies him as a Bronxian, perhaps; people here are tough, down to earth and honest.

The Bronx might not have the razzle-dazzle of Manhattan, but it's a part of New York that rewards the schlep north. It's a real place, packed with real people.

And it's definitely on the up.

 

 

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