PAWNIT. DREAMLAND PLUS. PAPPAS PIZZERIA. COLONY FRIED CHICKEN.
Acute and obtuse intersections, a convergence of maze-land streets with too much hubris to run straight and perpendicular, where the Prospect 2/5 train screeches overhead, over this disconcerting web of bi-ways that run through Mr. Bronck’s asphalted land.
At this hot urban confluence of people and the things that move them, my friend meets me. He has run a race through and around the Bronx zoo, and he looks like he’s run a race with the sun beating down on him, and the combination of this look and the impact it must inevitably have on his spirit now, makes him say, “You sure you don’t want to hop that train a bit farther south? Be closer to Manhattan?” “No. Let’s walk.” “Where are we, anyway?” “I don’t know. You told me to get off the train. So I got off.” He’d told me on a cell call to get off the train where I was. I was on the elevated 2/5, the doors opened, so I left, and came down here. “Well,” he says. “Let’s go then.”
E160 Street and Union Avenue lead us to the extensive McKinley Houses, a semi-autonomous-looking city of beige brick giants and hundreds of neatly stacked little windows, a NYCHA housing outfit. The beige and tan monoliths reach in exasperation over the bare tree boughs to the unseasonably hellish sun. The bricks sizzle. They seem to relish it. We begin to sizzle. We do not relish it.
Chicken bones and smudges of dog shit on the sidewalk lead the way north. Some struggling trees hide the pavement from unwanted sun, but the sweat begins to pour.
"Let me tell ya, the Bronx zoo was fun."
"You could see the gorillas playing with each other. Obviously playing. You know, we're basically gorillas, they're basically us. Wild."
"I remember learning that we're also basically bananas, genetically."
To the left, people quietly organize the trash outside neat two-story row houses. To the right, lush weeds reclaim the steep slope of an empty lot. The greenery refreshes, right up to the granite foundation of an old church. Graffiti covers the stones, but the artists have left holes hear and there that reveal the sparkling ingredients of granite. A short, inconsequential building, though stately in its declaration of presence against the street: Unlike the other buildings—the row houses, the apartment blocks—this old church runs far up, close to the sidewalk edge, only a couple of feet shy of standing flush with the grey street. The pointed windows at street level are long-barred, the iron gratings rusty and eaten through by a century of wet springs and humid New York summers. The old wooden door at the street is locked and fixed permanently shut with heavy slabs of unfinished wood. But around the corner we see the functioning entrance to this functioning church. A bucolic, winding path leads through spring orchids and roses up to the open doors of the sanctuary. Respite from Bronck's New-World sun. We take a left.
A group of men are hanging around a stoop. A New York pastime, past present and future. But there's an aggressive weight here, and all eyes turn to me and my exhausted friend. We cross to the other side of the street. Immediately, the guilt.
"Why did we cross?" I say. The sun glares strongest on this side of the street.
"Caution. Prejudice. Both, I guess. And intuition, maybe."
"I don't like that."
"They’re just talking. But we both did it."
"Let's go that way, down the hill across the street."
A precipitous stroll down the street gives way to another verdant, empty lot pockmarked by little piles of bricks, a heap of cinderblocks, and a lone, lean, tawny, leafless tree stretching out over some rubble. Facing this lot from across the street stands an extraordinary structure. Its ornate facade and its position at the apex of another steep slope recall a baroque Sicilian cathedral. The church demands respect like its southern Italian relation. It commands the South Bronx from a height. From the sidewalk in front of its doors we look out across a wide valley. Ahead, on the other side of the valley, on the steep slopes corresponding to us, jumbles of prewar apartment blocks rise in lines, great brick hulks rising slightly behind each other to the clime of their slope. Much as the church next to us appears stolen from Sicily’s hilly towns, the rows of buildings across the valley stand like medieval Italian citadels, or rather, an ancient walled city from the Levant: This part of the South Bronx extends forever; it would take a week to walk from one end to the other; this is Nineveh of the Old Testament. And 3rd Avenue snakes through the valley. We take 3rd Avenue to 168, and cross Park Avenue, cross Morris Avenue, end up at Grand Concourse and 165.
We’re now climbing through the potholed roads of Nineveh. The sun strengthens its attack. The sweat, the sweat. I notice a battered architectural treasure that briefly tells of the neighborhood’s history. A single-story church with three elaborately carved entrances. CHURCH OF GOD OF PROPHECY. And above this sign, worked into the concrete of the facade, a set of tablets each with a Jewish star, weather-sanded, worn, but visible, eerily triumphant, and surprisingly unaltered through the conversion of the synagogue to a church. Then, under one of the arches, behind a fluorescent light fixture, in Hebrew: HOUSE OF GOD.
The hill continues. At its height, another grand panorama. The elevated tracks of the 4 train cut across the view. The precipitous path down leads to a large, orderly green park whose trees are spectacles of white and pink blossoms. Farther, across a blue sliver that is the Harlem River, the cliffs and citadels of Washington Heights command the Bronx from Manhattan. We’ve come as far east as we’re willing to go. We descend, sun-beaten, to the park and catch a bus in front of the new Yankee Stadium.
My friend: “I suppose we’re decamping the South Bronx for the known comforts of the South Heights.”
The bus pulls into the street and crosses the 161 Street bridge into Manhattan.