THE BRONX: A Historical Sketch
The Bronx is the northernmost borough of New York City, encompasses 42 square miles and is the only section of New York City that belongs to the North American mainland. Undulating hills and valleys mark the western half; east of the Bronx River the land slopes gently toward Long Island Sound. The borough has a population of about 1.4 million (federal census estimate of 2014), and by the late 1980s, its bridges, highways, and railroads were more heavily traveled than those of any other part of the United States. There are 14 colleges and universities inthe borough; Fordham University, the Maritime College of the State University of New York, four branches of the City University of New York (Lehman College, Bronx Community College, Hostos Community College and CUNY on the Grand Concourse), the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, the College of Mount St. Vincent, Manhattan College, Mercy College, the College of New Rochelle, Monroe College, Metropolitan College of New York and Boriqua College. About 24 percent of the area is parkland (more than any other borough). The Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden are both in Bronx Park, which is the site of the last remnant of a hemlock forest that once covered the city and contains artifacts by Weckquasgeek Indians, Algonquin speakers who inhabited the land years before European contact.
Colonial Bronx to the 19th Century
Henry Hudson, probably the first European to see the shoreline, sought cover in 1609 from a storm for his vessel the Halve Maen in Spuyten Duyvil Creek. The eastern shore was described by Adriaen Block, the first European to navigate the East River in 1614. The mainland was settled by Jonas Bronck, a Swedish sea captain who once resided in the Netherlands, and then built a farmstead in 1639 at what became East 132nd Street and Lincoln Avenue; a small group of Dutch, German, and Danish indentured servants settled with him. In 1642, a peace treaty ending war between the Dutch and the Weckquasgeeks was negotiated in Bronck’s home. During the same year two settlements were established by colonists from Rhode Island: one by Anne Hutchinson near the river that was later named for her, another by John Throckmorton in what is now Throgs Neck; both settlements were destroyed in a Weckquasgeeks attack. Bronck’s servants scattered after his death in 1643. In 1646, a patroonship was formed by Adriaen van der Donck in an area that now includes Riverdale and part of Westchester County (he was given an enormous land grant in return for attracting 50 families to it). At the same time Thomas Cornell, a colonist from Rhode Island, built a farm in what became Clason Point. In 1655, both settlements were destroyed during a conflict between the Dutch and all the tribes in the southern part of New Netherland. Most of the eastern half of the modern Bronx was bought in 1654 by Thomas Pell of Connecticut, who invited 16 families to form the village of Westchester near what is now Westchester Square. Between 1683 and 1714, Westchester was the seat of Westchester County (which included the area of the future Bronx until the second half of the nineteenth century) and as a chartered borough was the only town in the colony with an elected mayor and an electorate that had the right to vote without property qualifications.
Settlers also chose a representative to the provincial assembly and had their own municipal court. Horses, cattle, sheep, and wheat were the main agricultural products, and a cottage industry in cloth making thrived. A semiannual fair was held to promote manufacturing and commerce. St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Westchester Avenue was organized as the first parish in 1693. That same year, Frederick Philipse, a wealthy merchant of New York City, obtained the hereditary right from Governor Benjamin Fletcher to build and to operate a toll bridge (the King’s Bridge) that spanned Spuyten Duyvil Creek to Manhattan.
During English rule, most inhabitants were English, of English descent, or Dutch. Anglicanism was the religion sanctioned by colonial law, but Presbyterians, Quakers, and members of the Dutch Reformed Church were in the majority. The first blacks, slaves from the West Indies, soon made up 10 to 15 percent of the population; in most households there were one or two who worked as farmhands or housemaids. In 1698, the first free black was recorded. Indians left the area soon after 1700. At this time, The Bronx was composed of two small towns and all or part composed of four huge manors (feudal grants allowing the proprietor exclusive rights to build grain mills and establish courts to try tenants). Lying entirely within the present Bronx was the town of Westchester; to the north and encompassing part of the present Westchester County was the town of Eastchester; to the northeast and another part of the present Westchester County was the manor of Pelham, owned by the Pell family; to the southwest was the manor of the Morris family, Morrisania; in most of the western section was the manor of Fordham, settled in 1671 by John Archer. Later owned by the Dutch Reformed Church of New York City, and then absorbed by the town of Westchester in 1755. Encompassing much of the present Westchester County was the manor of Philipsburgh, owned by the Philpse family. The first Catholic moved to the area in 1744, the first Jewish settler about ten years later. The King’s Bridge fell into disuse, and the toll was eliminated in 1759, after a parallel bridge, the Farmers’ Free Bridge, was built by farmers under the leadership of Benjamin Palmer. Subsequently he planned to build a city to rival New York City. Hoping to lure the commercial traffic of Long Island Sound, he formed a consortium to buy an island in Pelham Manor that he named City Island, but the project failed.
The area experienced constant conflict during the American Revolution. Fortifications erected by General George Washington to protect the Harlem River valley proved ineffective. On 12 October 1776, British troops outflanked the Continental army by landing at Throgs Neck. During the battle of Pell’s Point in today’s Pelham Bay Park on 18 October about 750 men led by Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, Massachusetts, stayed the march of 4,000 British enabling Washington to evacuate his army to White Plains. For much of the rest of the war, The Bronx remained in British hands and was subject to raids by rebels that caused widespread destruction.
In November 1783, Washington and Governor George Clinton began a march from the Van Cortlandt mansion (now in Van Cortlandt Park) to take possession of New York City from the departing British. A recommendation in 1783 by Lewis Morris, a signer of The Declaration of Independence, that Morrisania be the capital of the United States was rejected. But during an epidemic of yellow fever in Philadelphia in October 1797, President John Adams governed from the farmhouse of his daughter and son-in-law in what was then the southern part of Eastchester. Gouverneur Morris, half brother of Lewis Morris, and penman of The United States Constitution, was instrumental in establishing the Erie Canal.
In the early nineteenth century the chief means of livelihood in lower Westchester County was growing wheat and raising livestock; between 1800 and 1830 the population rose from 1,755 to 3,023. There was a brief period of industrial growth during the War of 1812 when paint, glass, pottery, and bleaching factories opened in West Farms. Severe famine in Ireland and the growth of industry and commerce in the city drew thousands of Irish to The Bronx as laborers. Many Irish immigrants were employed in the construction of the High Bridge over the Harlem River (1837-48), the New York and Harlem Railroad (1841), the first railroad in the area, and the Croton Aqueduct (1842); the Irish also worked in the first iron foundry and industrial village at Mott Haven (1841), developed by Jordan L. Mott. After the building of the Erie Canal, New York City was inundated with wheat from the Midwest whose fertile lands yielded fruits, vegetables, and dairy products for sale in the city. Rural railroad stations eventually became the centers of new villages such as Melrose, Morrisania, Tremont, Fordham, Williamsbridge, Wakefield, Highbridge, Morris Heights, Kingsbridge, and Riverdale. The campus of St. John’s College (later Fordham University) was built near a station in 1841. Increasing numbers of New Yorkers chose to live in the country and work in the city. Summer homes were built along shorelines in The Bronx by industrialists and financiers, among them Richard M. Hoe, William E. Dodge, and Collis P. Huntington. As the railroads were extended, the center of population shifted west from the area east of The Bronx River, and the towns of West Farms (1846) and Morrisania (1855) were established.
Economic opportunity in the United States and a failed revolution in Germany in 1848 led thousands of Germans to move to The Bronx. Many settled in Melrose and Morrisania and became shopkeepers, brewers, and saloon owners. They also organized choral societies, Turnvereine (athletic clubs), and social clubs such as the Tallapoosa Club and the Schnorer Club, which became social centers for business leaders. In 1863, the Janes, Fowler, Kirtland & Company’s foundry at East 149th Street and Brook Avenue produced the dome for the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The Johnson Iron Foundry on Spuyten Duyvil Creek made munitions during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War. Many immigrants settled near the new factories and in areas where construction work could be found.
Developments intended largely for wealthy residents of Manhattan and other sections included Woodlawn Cemetery (1863), where they were interred, and the Jerome Park Racetrack (1866), where the Belmont Stakes was first run.
By this time, it was generally assumed that towns on the mainland would be annexed by New York City as it expanded northward. In 1868, Mott Haven, in Morrisania, numbered its streets to have them conform to those of the city, and the following year, the New York City parks department was given control of the bridges over the Harlem River and the streets leading to them. In 1874, the towns of Morrisania, West Farms, and Kingsbridge (all of which lay west of The Bronx River) were annexed to the city. The area known as the Annexed District, was placed under the jurisdiction of the parks department and became the city’s 23rd and 24th wards. The journalist John Mullaly organized a movement urging the city to buy huge tracts of land and set them aside for parks while land in The Bronx was still cheap. In 1888 a commission purchased what later became Van Cortlandt, Crotona, Claremont, St. Mary’s, Bronx, and Pelham Bay parks and the Mosholu, Pelham, and Crotona parkways. In 1888 the Third Avenue elevated line was extended to 132nd Street, precipitating the most rapid growth that The Bronx had yet seen.
Beginning in 1890, a Commissioner of Street Improvements was elected in response to complaints by inhabitants of the Annexed District that the parks department did not repair or build roads. Under the direction of the commissioner (and later of the borough president) the Grand Concourse was designed and built. Modeled after the Champs-Elysees in Paris, this wide avenue was lined with trees and had an innovative design based on the use of underpasses at major street crossings. The Belmont Stakes was moved east of the Bronx River in 1890 to the Morris Park Racecourse, where it remained until moving again to Belmont Park in Nassau County in 1905. In the northern section of Bronx Park, the New York Botanical Garden opened in 1891 and soon became known worldwide. The Bronx Zoo, in the southern section, opened in 1899, displaying and breeding many species. The American Bison Society used a herd at the zoo to help restock western ranges. During the late nineteenth century, New York University opened a campus in University Heights. The principal buildings were designed by Stanford White and included a colonnade that became the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, the first hall of fame in the world.
Consolidation of New York City into the 20th Century
By the 1890s, there was strong support in parts of Eastchester, Pelham, and the village of Wakefield – the area east of the Bronx River – for consolidating with New York City. Most people assumed that high real estate values in Manhattan would cover the public debt already incurred by towns and pay for further public improvements being planned, such as a sewer system in Wakefield. In a nonbinding referendum in 1894, consolidation was favored by voters in New York City and its outlying areas but was defeated overwhelmingly in the city of Mt. Vernon and by one vote in the town of Westchester.
The state legislature defeated a bill inspired by the referendum but in 1895 passed another bill annexing to the city the area east of the Bronx River, parts of the towns of Pelham and Eastchester, the village of Wakefield, and the town of Westchester, which because of its central location was included despite its negative vote in 1894.
The newly annexed area became part of the 24th ward and was known as The Great North Side to the Annexed District and was placed under the jurisdiction of the Commissioner of Street Improvements. This office eventually became the model for that of the borough president.
Morris High School, the first public high school in The Bronx, opened in 1897. Many of the Italian immigrants who moved to the city at the turn of the twentieth century settled in The Bronx. Often near the factories in Melrose, or in Belmont, where they found work in the building trades or in landscaping the nearby New York Botanical Garden and The Bronx Zoo. Other Italians helped build Jerome Park Reservoir, and some bought farms in the rural northeastern Bronx. In 1906, the first subway connecting The Bronx to Manhattan was built under East 149th Street, providing cheap rapid transit that along with the Third Avenue elevated line, enabled hundreds of thousands of residents during the first third of the twentieth century to leave tenements in Manhattan for spacious new apartments in The Bronx. Irish, Italians, Serbians, Croatians and Armenians, were among those who made the move, but the largest group were Jews from central and Eastern Europe. After the City’s consolidation with Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island in 1898, the 23rd and 24th wards became the borough of The Bronx named after the Bronx River that coursed through its center) which with Manhattan remained part of New York County (the other boroughs were already separate counties). But the journey from The Bronx to the courts in southern Manhattan was so long that the inhabitants of The Bronx soon petitioned for county designation. In 1912, the state legislature established the County of Bronx as the 62nd and last county in New York State, effective January 1, 1914.
With the influx of population in the first third of the century, the economy of The Bronx grew rapidly. The Third Avenue elevated line was gradually extended northward, along with the new subway lines and trolley lines that were connected to it, forming a rapid transit system that provided access from lower Manhattan to expanses of undeveloped land. Many apartment buildings and commercial buildings were soon erected along the corridor of the rapid transit lines, which reached their northern terminus by 1920. In 1923, Yankee Stadium was opened at East 161st Street and River Avenue as the home of the New York Yankees. The team became known as the “Bronx Bombers” because of the large number of home runs hit in the following decades by such players as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Reggie Jackson. Eventually the stadium was also used for football games, championship boxing matches, and religious gatherings. Grocery stores, restaurants, vegetable and fruit markets, tailors, and hardware stores became common in neighborhood shopping districts.
Inhabitants throughout the borough shopped in department stores and boutiques at East 149th Street and Third Avenue, an area known as the Hub that also had movie palaces, vaudeville theaters and The Bronx Opera House.. Alexander’s opened a department store there in 1928, and a branch on Fordham Road in 1934, that soon had more sales per square foot than any department store in the nation. Eventually, a section of Fordham Road eclipsed the Hub as the main shopping district. In 1929, Loew’s theater syndicate built the Paradise Theatre for $4 million on the Grand Concourse just south of Fordham Road; it had 4,000 seats and a Baroque décor that included a ceiling painted dark blue to suggest a nighttime sky, small light bulbs that resembled stars, and simulated clouds that floated across the ceiling by a projection machine.
The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930’s ended the period of tremendous growth that had begun in 1888, but privately financed apartment buildings continued to be constructed (most in the predominant Art Deco style of the time). This was especially true of the Grand Concourse area, which became a symbol of social and economic success. Many elevated apartment buildings there had five or six stories with wide entrance courtyards bordered by grass and shrubs. About 49 percent of the inhabitants of the borough were Jews; most of whom worked in Manhattan. By 1934, housing in The Bronx had many more amenities then that of the other boroughs. Almost 99 percent of residences had private bathrooms, about 95 percent central heating, more than 97 percent hot water, and more than 48 percent had electric refrigerators. The largest housing development of the time, Parkchester, was constructed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Completed in 1942, it housed 40,000 residents and boasted parks, playgrounds, sculptures, convenience stores, and a movie theater. Edward J. Flynn, the Democratic leader of Bronx County and an early supporter of the New Deal, secured public funds to repair the streets and build the county jail and the central post office, as well as neighborhood parks. The borough became known for its colleges and universities and its growing number of public high schools, among them the Bronx High School of Science for gifted students which still has the highest number of graduates who have received doctorates than any high school in the country. The first important meetings of the United Nations Security Council were held at Hunter College in The Bronx (later renamed Lehman College).
After World War II, new housing was built, and the makeup of the population changed. Construction ranged from luxury apartment buildings in Riverdale to public housing in the southern Bronx. Longtime residents and former members of the armed services left older housing in the southern neighborhoods of Hunts Point, Morrisania, and Mott Haven to move to privately built housing in the northern Bronx, to other boroughs, or to the suburbs. About 170,000 persons displaced by slum clearing in Manhattan, mostly African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, moved to Hunts Point and Morrisania, as well as to Melrose, Tremont, and Highbridge. In 1950, social workers reported enduring poverty in a section of the southern Bronx.
Systematic rent control was introduced during World War II to prevent rents from skyrocketing as empty apartments became scarce. It soon prevented some landlords from paying for repairs to their aging buildings. Buildings were set afire, sometimes by unscrupulous landlords hoping to collect insurance or by unscrupulous tenants taking advantage of the city’s policy that burned-out tenants should be given priority for public housing and receive money for new furnishings.
A period of rampant arson in the late 1960s and early 1970s ended only after this policy was changed and a limit was imposed on insurance payments for reconstructing burned-out apartment buildings. From that time, one-family houses and row houses were built, hundreds of apartment buildings restored, and apartments converted to cooperatives and condominium units, permitting more residents of The Bronx to own their homes.
After Flynn’s death in 1953, Charles A. Buckley succeeded him as the Democratic leader of Bronx County. He gained federal funds for the construction in the 1950s and 1960s for housing and a network of highways and bridges linking The Bronx with the rest of the city, among them the Major Deegan Expressway, the Bruckner Expressway and the Cross Bronx Expressway. As commuting by automobile became more convenient, high-rise apartment buildings were erected along with new roads in southern and eastern neighborhoods, including Soundview, Castle Hill, Spuyten Duyvil, and Riverdale. Co-op City, a complex of 15,372 units built in the northeastern Bronx between 1968 and 1970, housed 60,000 people and was one of the largest housing developments in the world. The distribution of products to the metropolitan area and the rest of the East Coast became easier for industries occupying new industrial parks in The Bronx, such as those along Bathgate and Zerega avenues, and for fruit and vegetable dealers in the Hunts Point Food Market (opened in 1965). Puerto Ricans accounted for a growing share of the population (20 percent in 1970) and became more active in politics: Herman Badillo was the first Puerto Rican to be elected to the borough presidency in 1965 and later to the U.S. Congress; Robert Garcia was elected to Congress in 1978. Jose Serrano succeeded Garcia in 1990. Fernando Ferrer was elected borough president in 1987; Adolfo Carrion, Jr. in 2002; then Ruben Diaz, Jr. in 2009. In 1974, the campus of New York University at University Heights was taken over by CUNY’s Bronx Community College.
In the late 1970s, condominiums were built on City Island and elsewhere along Long Island Sound, whereas the southern Bronx had by then become known nationally as a symbol of urban blight. In 1977, The Bronx became a national symbol of urban crisis when President Jimmy Carter walked on the rubble of destroyed apartment houses and sportscaster Howard Cosell announced that “The Bronx is burning” during a nationally televised World Series game at Yankee Stadium.
During the 1980s and 1990s cooperation between grassroots neighborhood organizations, and local government spurred a massive rebuilding of formerly devastated neighborhoods.
Much of the new housing consisted of privately owned one, two, and three-family homes and apartment buildings. The Fulton Fish Market moved to Hunts Point in 2007. In 2004, the Hutchinson Metro Center office complex was opened, making it one of the largest in the city, then the new Yankee Stadium, erected across the street from the original on the north side of East 161st Street, opened in 2009. The New York Yankees promptly won the 2009 World Series.
By the early twenty first century the population of The Bronx was increasing. The ethnic breakdown was about a third African-American, a third Latino, and a third Asian and white.
The Bronx’s cultural institutions such as The Bronx Zoo, the New York Botanical Garden, The Bronx County Historical Society, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, Wave Hill, and The New York Public Library continued to expand their services and buildings to the people of The Bronx, creating a nucleus around which strong communities could develop and be sustained.
Musicologists maintain that this ongoing cultural diffusion led to the popularity of hip-hop music and break dancing, which originated in The Bronx in 1973. By 2000 Puerto Ricans accounted for a quarter of the population, though the number of Koreans, Vietnamese, Jamaicans, Greeks, and Russians was also growing. Albanians settled in Belmont, Cambodians in Fordham. Co-op City remained a successful development, luxury apartments built in Riverdale in the 1950s became cooperatives, and the housing stock continued to include the world’s largest concentration of Art Deco-style buildings. Entrepreneurs formed new businesses, and the borough’s public schools became overcrowded with new immigrant students. With new schools, new housing, new businesses, The Bronx continues to develop and expand.
Dr. G. Hermalyn Prof. Lloyd Ultan
CEO, The Bronx County Historical Society The Bronx Borough Historian
Presented in The Encyclopedia of New York City, 1st and 2nd editions
Population of The Bronx & New York City 1900-2000
Bronx Total – New York City
1900 200,507 3,437,202
1910 430,890 4,766,883
1920 732,016 5,620,048
1930 1,265,258 6,930,446
1940 1,394,711 7,454,995
1950 1,451,277 7,891,957
1960 1,424,815 7,781,984
1970 1,471,701 7,894,862
1980 1,168,972 7,071,639
1990 1,203,789 7,322,564
2000 1,332,650 8,008,278
2010 1,385,108 8,175,133
Note: From 1874 to 1895 New York City consisted of Manhattan and the Annexed District (parts of present day Bronx).
Source: United States Bureau of the Census