The Bronx

By Dr. G. Hermalyn |  CEO, The Bronx County Historical Society           Prof. Lloyd Ultan | The Bronx Borough Historian

Northernmost borough of New York City, encompasses 42 square miles (109) square kilometers) 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 1980’s, its bridges, highways, and railroads were more heavily traveled than those of any other part of the United States. There are 13 colleges and universities in the borough; Fordham University, the Maritime College of the State University of New York, three branches of the City University of New York (Lehman College, Bronx Community College, and Hostos Community College), 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 25 percent of the area is parkland (more than any other borough); this includes The Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden, which is the site of the last remnant of a hemlock forest that once covered the city and contains such artifacts as the earliest known petrograph in the area, a turtle drawn by Weckquasgeek Indians, Algonquin speakers who inhabited the land thousands of years before European exploration.

  1. From 1609 to the 1890’s

Henry Hudson, probably the first European to see the shoreline, in 1609 sought cover 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 (1614).   The mainland was settled in 1639 by Jonas Bronck, a Swedish sea captain from the Netherlands, who eventually built a farmstead at what became 132nd street and Lincoln Avenue; a small group of Dutch, German, and Danish 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 war between the Dutch and the Weckquasgeeks. 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), and Thomas Cornell, a colonist from Rhode Island, built a farm in what became Clason Point. In 1655, both settlements were destroyed during another conflict between the Dutch and the Weckquasgeeks.   Most of the eastern half of the area 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 at 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.

It was the first town without a property qualification for suffrage: settlers 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 Church on Westchester Avenue organized the first parish in 1693. That same year, Frederick Philipse, a wealthy merchant of New York City, obtained from Governor Benjamin Fletcher, the hereditary right to build and operate a toll bridge (the Kings Bridge) across 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 compose of two small towns and all or part 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 including part of the present Westchester County was the town of Eastchester; to the northeast and including 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, then absorbed by Westchester in 1755): and to the northwest and including much of the present Westchester County was the manor of Philipsburgh, owned by the Philpse family. The first Catholics moved to the area in 1744, the first Jewish settlers 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. He planned subsequently 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, when 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 and Hessians, 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 subjected 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 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.

In the early nineteenth century the chief means of livelihood in lower Westchester County were growing wheat and raising livestock; between 1800 and 1830 the population rose from 1755 to 3023. Severe famine in Ireland and the growth of industry and commerce in the city drew thousands of Irish to The Bronx as laborers. There was a brief period of industrial growth during the War of 1812, when paint, glass, pottery, and bleaching factories opened in West Farms. Many Irish immigrants were employed in the construction of 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. The first railroad tracks were laid over these lands, and rural 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 waterways in The Bronx by industrialists and financiers, among them Richard M. Hoe, William E. Dodge, and Collis P. Huntington. As the railroad was 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 and Beebe ironworks at 149th Street and Brook Avenue produced the dome for the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Johnson Iron Foundry on Spuyten Duyvil Creek made munitions during the Civil War and the Spanish -American War. Many Irish 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 buried, 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 municipal 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; known as the Annexed District, they were 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 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 ever 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, 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 1899, displayed and bred 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.

  1. From the 1890’s to the 1900’s

By the 1890’s there was strong support in parts of Eastchester, Pelham, and the village of Wakefield for consolidating with New York City the area east of the Bronx River, along with Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. 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 placed under the jurisdiction of the commissioner of street improvements (the office eventually became the model for that of the borough president).

After consolidation 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. 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. Others helped build Jerome Park Reservoir, and some bought farms in the rural northeastern Bronx. In 1894 the first subway connecting The Bronx to Manhattan was built under 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, Yugoslavians, Armenians, were among those who made the move, but the largest group were Jews from central and eastern Europe. In 1912 the state legislature established the County of The Bronx as the 62nd and last county in New York State, effective 1 January 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, and in that process trolley lines 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 elevated line, which reached its northern terminus at Gun Hill Road in 1920. In 1923 Yankee Stadium was opened at 161st Street and River Avenue as the home of the New York Yankees, who 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 149th Street and Third Avenue, an area known as the Hub that also had movie palaces and vaudeville theaters. Alexander’s opened a department store there in 1928, and a branch on Fordham Road in 1938, which 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 immediately 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 were projected across the ceiling by machine.

The onset of the Depression 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 apartment buildings there has five or six stories with wide entrance courtyards bordered by grass and shrubs. About 49 percent of the inhabitants were Jews, most of whom worked in Manhattan. By 1934 housing in The Bronx had many more amenities that 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 mechanical refrigeration. The largest housing development of the time, Parkchester, was undertaken by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Completed in 1942, it housed 40,000 residents and boasted parks, playgrounds, sculptures, convenience stores, and movie theaters. 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 has the highest number of graduates who had gone on to receive 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-American and Puerto Rican, 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 often 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 1960’s and early 1970’s 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 several apartments converted to cooperatives and condominium units, permitting more residents of the southern Bronx to own their homes.

After Flynn’s death in 1953, Charles A. Buckley succeeded him as the Democratic leader of Bronx County and gained federal funds for the construction in the 1950’s and 1960’s of housing and a network of highways linking The Bronx with the rest of the city, among them the Major Deegan Expressway, and the Bruckner Expressway. As commuting by automobile became more convenient, high-rise apartment buildings were erected in southern and eastern neighborhoods along with new roads, including Soundview, Castle Hill, Spuyten Duyvil, and Riverdale. Co-op City, complex of 15,372 units built in the northeastern Bronx between 1968 and 1970, housed 60,000 persons 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 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 (1965) and later to U.S. Congress; Robert Garcia was elected to Congress in 1978; Fernando Ferrer was elected borough president in 1987; Jose Serrano succeeded Garcia in 1990. In 1974 the campus of New York University at University Heights was taken over by Bronx Community College. In the late 1970’s condominiums were being 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 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 1980’s and 1990’s 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. The Fulton Fish Market moved to Hunts Point on 2007. In 2009 the Metro-Hutchinson office complex was completed, making it one of the largest in the city, and a new Yankee Stadium, erected across the street from the original on the north side of 161st Street, opened in 2009.

By the early twenty-first century the population of The Bronx was increasing, the ethnic breakdown being about a third African-American, a third Latin American, and a third Asian and white.

Musicologists maintain that this ongoing cultural diffusion led to the popularity of hip-hop music and break dancing, which originated in The Bronx in the 1970’s. 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 1950’s 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 over crowded with new immigrant students. The Bronx was back.

Bronx History Population Chart

PUBLICATIONS OF THE BRONX COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY PRESS 

Life in The Bronx Series

The Birth of The Bronx: 1609-1900. (Lloyd Ultan & Gary Hermalyn)

The Bronx in the Innocent Years: 1890-1925. (Lloyd Ultan & Gary Hermalyn)

The Beautiful Bronx: 1920-1950. (Lloyd Ultan)

The Bronx It Was Only Yesterday: 1935-1965. (Lloyd Ultan & Gary Hermalyn)

 

The History of The Bronx Project

The Bronx in the Frontier Era: From The Beginning to 1696. (Lloyd Ultan)

Legacy of the Revolution: The Valentine-Varian House. (Lloyd Ulan)

The Northern Borough: A History of The Bronx. (Lloyd Ultan)

The Bronx: Then and Now. (Kathleen A. McAuley & Gary Hermalyn)

Theatres of The Bronx. (Michael Miller)

 

New York City Series

Morris High School and the Creation of the New York City Public High School System. (Gary Hermalyn)

The Greater New York Centennial. (Elizabeth Beirne)

New York City at the Turn of the Century. (Elizabeth Beirne)

Tunneling To The Future. (Peter Derrick)

The Centennial of The Bronx; Commemorative Issue. (Peter Derrick & Gary Hermalyn)

New York City: A Short History. (George Lankevich)

A History of The Riverdale Yacht Club. (Ruben P. Mendez)

By the El: Third Avenue and Its El at Mid-Century. (Lawrence Stelter)

Yankee Stadium: 1923-2008 Images of Baseball. (Gary Hermalyn & Anthony Greene)

 

New York State Series

The Hudson River. (Elizabeth Beirne)

The Erie Canal, America’s First Great Work of Civil Engineering. (Douglas Lazarus, Gary Hermalyn, & G.   Koeppel)

 

Roots of the Republic Series

Presidents of the United States. (Lloyd Ultan)

The First House of Representatives and The Bill of Rights. (George Lankevich)

The First Senate of The Unite States. (Richard Streb)

Chief Justices of The U.S. Supreme Court. (George Lankevich)

The Signers of the Constitution of the United States. (Bro. Edward Quinn)

The Signers of the Declaration of Independence. (Bro. Edward Quinn)

 

Edgar Allan Poe Series

Poems and Tales of Edgar Allan Poe at Fordham. (Elizabeth Beirne)

Edgar Allan Poe Workbook. (Kathleen A. McAuley & Anthony C. Greene)

 

Streets of the City Series

History in Asphalt: The Origin of Bronx Street & Place Names Encyclopedia.   (John McNamara)

McNamara’s Old Bronx. (John McNamara)

History of Morris Park Racecourse. (Nicholas DiBrino)

Landmarks of The Bronx. (Gary Hermalyn & Robert Kornfeld)

Bronx Views: Post Cards of The Bronx. (Gary Hermalyn & Thomas X. Casey)

The New Parks Beyond The Harlem. (John Mullaly)

 

Of Special Interest

The Bronx Cookbook. (Peter Derrick & Gary Hermalyn, Editors)

 

Research Library & Archives

The Bronx in Print. (Gary Hermalyn, Laura Tosi & Narciso Rodriguez)

Elected Public Officials of The Bronx Since 1898. (Laura Tosi & Gary Hermalyn)

Genealogy of The Bronx. (Gary Hermalyn & Laura Tosi)

Publications of the Bronx County Historical Society Since 1955. (Gary Hermalyn)

Guide to The Bronx County Historical Society Media Collection. (Laura Tosi & Gary Hermalyn)

Guide to The Bronx County Historical Society Audio Collection. (Gary Hermalyn & Laura Tosi)

Index to the Atlas Collection of The Bronx County Historical Society 1868-1969. (Laura Tosi & Gary Hermalyn)

Guide to Microfilm/Microfiche Collection of The Bronx County Historical Society. (Laura Tosi & Gary Hermalyn)

A Guide to Collections of the Bronx County Archives. (Dorthea Sartain & Peter Derrick)

Newspaper Titles of The Bronx. (Dominick Caldiero, Mark Sgambettera, Laura Tosi, & Gary Hermalyn)

Index to the Sheet Map Collection of The Bronx County Historical Society (Laura Tosi, Mark Sgambettera, & Gary Hermalyn)

Ethnic Groups in The Bronx: a Selected Bibliography. (Elizabeth Nico, Laura Tosi & Gary Hermalyn)

Education and Culture in The Bronx: A Research Guide. (Elizabeth Nico, Catherine Pellicano, Laura Tosi & Gary Hermalyn)