In 1981, the year Steve and I left New York, they made a movie about the place we grew up: Fort Apache, the Bronx. It was a violent cop drama. The South Bronx wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t where we wanted to be.
Fast forward to now. My husband and I emerge from the subway at Third Avenue and 138th Street to meet Lloyd Ultan, the septuagenarian borough historian and go-to guy for all things Bronx. We are excited to be back.
I’ve asked Lloyd, an author of the forthcoming book “The Bronx: The Ultimate Guide to New York City’s Beautiful Borough,” to show us around this part of “SoBro” because of its little-known connections to the city we’ve lived in for 30 years: Washington, D.C.
I already feel a quirky geographical connection to a couple of famous Bronx-born Washingtonians. As a girl, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor lived at 940 Kelly St., a few doors down from future Secretary of State Colin Powell, at 952. Before either of them, though, my grandparents, father, aunt and uncles lived a few blocks down, at 851 Kelly, now a park.
The Bronx made all of us. But it also “made” two all-but-forgotten Founding Fathers and some of the most iconic structures in our nation’s capital.
Lloyd begins our journey in the heart of gritty, industrial Mott Haven, the place where the Bronx began. Standing in the shadow of the Major Deegan Expressway, we stop at a complex of red brick buildings on the west side of Third Avenue near the Harlem River and look up at a ghostly sign: “J. L. Mott Iron Works.” Jordan L. Mott, inventor of the coalburning stove, established a foundry here in 1828, giving the area his name and launching one of America’s earliest industrial parks.
Before World War I, German immigrants made the Bronx the piano manufacturing capital of the United States. The old Estey Piano company, housed in the landmark Clocktower building, is now home to artists’ studios.
The South Bronx may be, based on the 2010 Census, the poorest congressional district in the nation, but on Bruckner Boulevard, along a well-established Antiques Row, signs of gentrification are everywhere. A freshly painted mural on a new gallery advertises an exhibit of 1970s and ’80s Bronx graffiti artists.
Across the street, scaffolding envelops a former furniture store being turned into market-rate apartments. The building sits on the site where the first European settler, Jonas Bronck, built his farmhouse in 1639. The only New York City borough attached to the mainland is named for the Swedish sea captain. I know that because I wrote a paper about him in third grade.
Still, we’re not here to learn about local history, so we head off to St. Ann’s Episcopal Church. The oldest existing church in the Bronx, built in 1841, the simple fieldstone building is set back from the street on a hillside, “a forgotten ‘country churchyard’ in the heart of the sprawling city,” as the Landmarks Preservation Commission put it.
Interred here are two Founding Fathers whose signatures can be seen behind glass at the National Archives.
Lewis Morris III, a delegate to the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence but later was unable to persuade the leaders of the new nation to make his family’s Bronx estate, called Morrisania, its new capital.
As a representative from Pennsylvania to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, his younger half-brother, Gouverneur Morris, wrote the preamble of the Constitution. Those immortal words, “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union,” were his.
The church is closed so we can’t see a bronze plaque in the sanctuary listing all the distinguished Morris kin interred here, so we head up St. Anns Avenue.
“It should be right over there,” says Lloyd, pointing to a scruffy vacant lot surrounded by a chain-link fence with a graffiti-covered “No Dumping” sign on it.
From 1893 until 1945, this was the home and studio of the famed Piccirilli brothers. It was here that the Italian immigrant stone carvers worked 28 blocks of Georgia marble into Daniel Chester French’s colossal statue in the Lincoln Memorial. Attilio Piccirilli, the eldest and most gifted of the six brothers, did Lincoln’s head and hands himself.
Piccirilli Brothers was the largest artist studio in the country and its work was so renowned that presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson visited and were treated to Italian meals.
Although most of their iconic commissions, such as the New York Public Library lions and the pediment over the New York Stock Exchange, were local, Washingtonians pass Piccirilli carvings all the time.
The Dupont Circle Fountain, designed by French, was executed in white marble by the Piccirilli brothers. The Columbus Memorial Fountain that greets travelers outside Union Station was carved by them. So was the Apotheosis of Democracy pediment over the entrance to the House of Representatives on the U.S. Capitol East Front.
“They were some great chiselers,” Lloyd quips. Then, turning serious, he recounts how the studio sat abandoned until the 1960s when, as the Bronx began to burn, it too went up in flames.
As we leave the block, Steve looks up to see that the master carvers haven’t been completely forgotten. There, just below the 142nd Street sign, is one for “Piccirilli Place.”
Our last stop is a spot just above 149th Street where an AutoZone store, a Burger King and a juvenile detention center now occupy the site of the Janes, Fowler, Kirtland & Company foundry. A more unlikely birthplace for one of America’s most important symbols and recognizable landmarks would be hard to find.
In 1860, the foundry won the contract to finish casting a new iron dome for the U.S. Capitol in Washington. It promised to do it for 7 cents a pound, “complete and put up.” Work continued through the Civil War, with 8,909,200 pounds of ribs, columns and other ironwork taken on flatbed railcars to the East River, where they were loaded on ships and transported to Washington.
The original ironwork, now undergoing a $60 million repair, cost taxpayers $623,644, or about $9 million in 2015 dollars. Bronx iron also holds up the Senate and House chambers, the Treasury Building, the Patent Office and the General Post Office.
Lloyd is ready to head home so, after thanking him for traipsing around in the cold with us, Steve and I stop in at Mexicozina Taqueria for homemade chorizo tacos and Oaxaca quesadillas. Mexicans are the fastest-growing Latino group in New York, and many, like Puerto Ricans and Dominicans before them, have moved to the Bronx.
Pocketing the piece of Canel’s Mexican gum that comes with our check, we head south to the pier at the end of 138th Street where the Capitol Dome sections were loaded. It’s now a marine heating oil terminal with signs warning visitors to keep out. No problem. We’re ready to fuel up on some Puerto Rican moonshine.
Recent changes in state liquor laws have spawned a boom in small-batch booze, and not just in artisanal-minded Brooklyn. Walking down a slightly scary abandoned street, we come to the Port Morris Distillery. A knock on the door brings out the cheery owner, Ralph Barbosa and, suddenly, we’re in old San Juan. Pastel walls. Salsa music. And a tasting room serving his uncle “Tio” Rafael’s Pitorro, distilled from a mix of brown sugar and New York state fruit.
“If a moonshiner doesn’t take a shot with you, that means it’s no good,” says Barbosa, just before taking a swig of his own shine.
We finish the evening with a beer chaser at the nearby Bronx Brewery, which opened in October. The Bronx once had seven breweries, but this is only the second sudsmaker (Gun Hill Brewing was the first) to open since the Kennedy administration.
It’s a cozy place on a cold winter’s evening. Tasting room manager Andreas Handrinos is looking forward to spring, when the 5,000-square-foot back yard opens with live music and food trucks. A new pedestrian and bicycle connector to nearby Randall’s Island also should liven things up.
For now, mostly locals stop by, including workers from the huge Bronx Print Center, which puts out the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.
We strike up a conversation with Mike McBride, an electrician there. He asks what brings us back to our old borough. I rattle off all the Bronx-D.C. connections we’ve discovered and throw in that the inventor of the rotary printing press, Richard March Hoe, also was a Bronx boy.
“You’re blowing me away,” McBride says.
He didn’t know any of this. Then again, when we lived here, neither did we.
Opera House Hotel
436 East 149th St.
Former theater once hosted Harry Houdini and the Marx Brothers. First boutique hotel in the Bronx. Rooms from $109.
2296 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
Close by, in Manhattan. Rooms from $159.
444 East 149th Street
Authentic, home-cooked Mexican eatery with multiple South Bronx locations. Tacos start at $2.75, entrees from $8.
129 Alexander Ave.
Asian fusion sources sushi from nearby New Fulton Fish market. Entrees from $14.
Mott Haven Bar and Grill
1 Bruckner Blvd.
Pioneering eatery recently reopened with new name after repairs following Hurricane Sandy. Entrees start at $13.50.
St. Ann’s Episcopal Church
295 St. Anns Ave.
The Bronx’s oldest church, built in 1841 by members of the Morris family. Resting place of Lewis and Gouverneur Morris. Open daily. Free.
The Bronx Brewery
856 E 136th St.
Tasting room open Wednesday-Friday, 3-9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday,12-8 p.m. 5,000-sq.-ft. back yard opens this spring.
Port Morris Distillery
780 East 133rd St.
Free tours. Tasting room open Wed-Thur, 3-8 p.m.; Fri, 3-12 a.m.; Sat, 12-6 p.m.
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