Tuesday, October 6, 2009


October 1, 2009

"A tree museum?" I laughed into the phone one day last April. "Are you going to charge the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em?"
"Of course not," the young woman said, sounding half offended. "It's free. It's an art project along the Grand Concourse this summer. We're marking a hundred trees with medallions on the sidewalk that identify the tree and give a phone extension. When people stop at one, they'll call the extension from their cell phones and get a one-minute narration. Would you like to do one on bees?"
Some time later, I got a call from the woman's boss, an Irish artist named Katie Holten, who conceived the installation and named it the Tree Museum.
"I'm trying to get Joni Mitchell to come to our grand opening in June," she told me, "but it doesn't look like she'll make it."
She'd have loved it.
The Tree Museum is part of a year-long celebration of the centennial of the Grand Concourse, a five-mile thoroughfare running from the base of the Bronx at 138th Street northeast to the Mosholu Parkway. Today it's a heavy traffic corridor, speckled with stop lights annoying to drivers and meaningless to pedestrians. I've driven up and down it for years, heedless of its history and its charms. It took the Tree Museum to make me walk the length of it over two warm autumn days last week, strolling past kids playing handball against apartment-house walls, Dominicans doing dominoes on folding tables, bodegas blaring Latin music — and pausing at the medallions, calling the extensions, and contemplating the sights described in the narrations. As with any good indoor exhibit, this museum-without- walls opens your eyes to things you'd never noticed before.
Katie Holten designed the audio guide to represent a cross- section of the Concourse community. She tracked down historians, architects, geologists, environmentalists, urban farmers, hip-hop artists, poets, musicians, elderly reminiscers and teenage gardeners to contribute. There's even some kid telling the world why he hates the Yankees (stop #94). Many of the trees (there are 24 species represented) are just convenient spots for hearing about other features of the neighborhood.
For my own talk (#42), I stuck to the tree theme, choosing a copse of little-leaf lindens shading a tiny park at 170th Street, about a mile northwest of my beehives, noting that lindens are a major nectar source in May and June, attracting clouds of bees and yielding a distinctive light and minty honey.
While narrations like my own were sometimes interesting, it was those on history and architecture that kept me walking and dialing.
The northernmost tree (#100, a cottonwood), for example, stands in an attentively-kept garden which in the 1980's neighbors planted on the site of an abandoned gas station. They named it for Louis Risse, an Alsatian immigrant and urban planner who in 1890 proposed a "Grand Boulevard and Concourse" as New York City's Champs-Élysées. When it opened in 1909, it was indeed grand: a 60-yard-wide, tree-shaded, unpaved promenade with lanes for carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians, slicing through farmland and village, providing Manhattanites direct access to the wilds of Van Cortlandt Park to the west and the exotic animals and plants at the zoo and botanical garden in Bronx Park to the east.
When the Jerome Avenue elevated train opened parallel to the Concourse in 1917 (##74-76, 80), the farms and orchards were quickly bought up by developers, and soon thousands of families, mostly Jews and Italians escaping the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side, moved in to sparkling new apartments along the route.
From the 1920's through the 1950's, the Concourse was the place to be, and many of the talks at the trees describe the monumental edifices dating from that era. Ruth and his Yankees built their house a few blocks west in 1923 (#21, narrated by Bernie Williams), and the elegant Concourse Plaza Hotel went up the same year (#23). The opulent Loew's Paradise Theatre made its debut in 1929 (#69). Many of the apartment buildings were magnificent specimens of Art Deco design (#97, narrated by architect Daniel Libeskind). Jewish congregations erected massive stone synagogues (#58). Banks built their temples to mammon (#74). The Bronx County Courthouse (#20) and the Central Post Office (#7), striking examples of moderne architecture adorned with social-realist art, were constructed by the WPA during the early years of the Depression.
In the 1960's, things began to slide, a history not often mentioned at the trees. As the city razed slums in Manhattan, thousands of people were forced to relocate. Poor Blacks and Puerto Ricans poured into the Bronx; long-time residents grew frightened and fled. By the mid-1970's, the Bronx was burning, the Concourse Hotel and many once-elegant apartment buildings were abandoned and taken over by squatters and crack-cookers. The Paradise Theatre was boarded up — there may even have been plans to pave the Paradise and put up a parking lot.
You don't know what you've got till it's almost gone ....
In the 1990's, after 30 years of decline and devastation, the Grand Concourse, like the Bronx as a whole, began turning around. Historic buildings, including the Paradise, have been saved and restored; dark and dangerous parks are now illuminated and manicured; and the boulevard itself is being renewed with classic lighting and thick plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers in the medians.
And oh yes, Joni: The big yellow taxis, whose drivers fearfully used to refuse fares from Manhattan into the Bronx, are starting to ply the Concourse again.
The Tree Museum installation will be open till October 12, when the medallions will be pried from the sidewalk and the phone line shut down. I think Katie Holten's idea is so stimulating and informative that it should survive in some permanent fashion, perhaps with markers in front of historic sites and an audio guide — a walking museum of the Grand Concourse.

For more information on the Tree Museum, visit the website, www.treemuseum.org. For a map of the stops, click on "What" and "Visitors Guide." For the audio guide, call 718-408-2501 and choose an extension.

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