What streets of mountain steps are these, stretching tall to the aluminum-sided fortresses of the Bronx; heights from which a sleepy Sunday neighborhood huddles for warmth; where strangers pass by below, with a careless glance up the pedestrian ramparts, to us, visitors from snaking express lines. Mute breezes make tears flow. The camera clicks this world into digital view, and we must descend, to roam, up and down asphalt precipices, one tenement block to the next.
The wide trench of the Metro North commuter line, this steel-and-concrete river through urban frontier, cuts in front of us. Down, over there, there is a pedestrian walkway to cross, but a series of sudden sounds pierce the calm: a woman, up an anonymous flight, in a building of greater greater-New York anonymity, screams and preaches, curses and accuses, her feminine voice bellowing. There is nothing to record of her words, but her yelling sounds, and we cross to E 183 Street.
In sight is Arthur Avenue, famous Italian-American strip. But on the corner, at 187 Street, a squat old woman, in raspy tone, recounts personal histories at length into a handheld recorder. Something of growing; something obsessive about the 1970s. Beyond her, Arthur Avenue pompously provides a neighborhood transition: things are neat, painted, orderly, quiet, for sale. There’s a Zagat rating in a few windows. On a building wall we see street art that fascinates us for the novelty of its symbols. On a red shield, a fearless, black, two-headed eagle, comically punctuated by the portrait of a man in a tuxedo. All this beside a commanding picture of Christ with a fiery heart. Farther down the avenue a majority of restaurants and bodegas bear the double-headed eagle insignia. And here’s how we discover that it’s tied to Albania: beside a double-headed eagle, a shop’s banner reads “DARDANIA (European Mini Market) Albania, foods, CD’s, DVD, VHS.” So Italian Arthur Ave has gone Albanian. Then that’s what we’ll eat; we step into Gurra Café. We order the combination plate, with three different kinds of sausages and a bowl of warm goat cheese for dipping. Albanian music videos, esoteric impersonations of American pop Hip Hop, bump and bump. The waiter treats us with such deference I almost feel guilty. With toothpicks in our teeth, we hit the street. An old Fiat mysteriously guards an Italian business. Pedestrians eye it cautiously.
Wandering proves bouts of neighborhood bleakness. Like its unpredictable topography—here steep, there a gradual climb—the area’s streets can on one stretch be neat, clipped, and facades carefully painted, and around the next corner a whole floor’s windows could be smashed out, the bars blocking them twisted in spasms. Down one of these warped blocks, a statue of the Virgin Mary blesses a green front yard; folk-art canvases adorn the porch next door. Two pleasant properties on a barbed-wire stretch. All expectations dashed, thrown aside, irrelevant: In Belmont, we exert a prejudicial attitude that faces contradictions on every block. What we thought was not; and what we see is always new.
Then there’s Dorothea Place, of granite-brick pavement, a haven side alley with grander homes. And dead end at the top of a cobble-stoned hill. A man wanders into a home, his shoulders hunched, not a look to us who trespass. For Dorothea Place’s stone paving is a resident’s treasure, and we are strangers on a strange mountain.
A cramped arboretum comes up on the left. There’s a sign: “Fordham-Bedford Lot Busters Community Garden.” Here narrow paths wind through autumn colors, a speck in the concrete Bronx maze.
“Hello,” a woman says. She is old; the leathery skin on her face tight and proud.
We ask about the garden.
“It’s community-owned; this can’t be shut down by the city,” she says.
The woman teaches arts and crafts to neighborhood kids, in the gazebo over there. Right now she is working on a drawing of these trees during high autumn, “so I don’t begin to forget the colors,” she says.
She points out a 150-year-old willow. She says of it, “In the summer it stretches out to the sun, and covers this whole garden. Now it’s cold. It sags like that all winter.”
Down the commercial strip of E Fordham Rd to the Grand Concourse. Stores here sell everything at every price all the time to everybody. The streets teem with hurrying weekend shoppers. Barber shops are full; jean stores blast music on boom boxes; pizza parlors are packed like rush-hour subways; traffic roars; the Metro North chugs in its trench; street vendors shout; the smoke of burning hot dogs fills the air; the elevated 4 line rumbles, and that’s the train we take through the Bronx, over the Harlem River, through Manhattan, south, south, to another of these United Boroughs.