Getting lost in the South Bronx is no picnic.
You get what you pay for with those phone apps and my downloadable New York tourist map cost less than a dollar. My cheap app decided the Bronx didn’t count as New York, as if nothing north of Manhattan could be of interest to cheapskates.
So shortly after the D Train crossed the Harlem River my phone’s screen went blank and left me mapless.
According to a ridiculously old-fashioned paper map I last inspected back at my hotel, the Bronx’s Little Italy should have been a few blocks to the north-west. I’d read that their coffee was decent and Al Pacino grew up around there. I looked hopefully at the sky. Finding north-west aint easy when the sun don’t shine.
I kept my breathing steady and my head cool. They said the Bronx was one tough ‘hood, but they said it back in the ‘70s. This was 2012 and I’d already visited the Bronx with no problems. I’d been there twice – once with the New York Yankees and once with Gerry.
I don’t know much about baseball, but people told me a Yankees game was a not-to-be-missed cultural experience. ‘The house that Ruth built’ they called Yankee Stadium, after the Yankees lured Babe across from the Boston Red Socks in 1919. Boston never forgave them.
But when in NYC, do as the New Yorkers do. We rugged up, wrapped blue and white scarves round our necks and climbed to the nose-bleed bleachers high above the arena. We queued for beer and hotdogs, stood for ‘Oh say can you see’, sang along with ‘Take me out to the ball game’ and sympathised with tearful Yankee fans as their team was whipped by the Detroit Tigers. A cultural experience, definitely. Then we all packed into the trains heading back to Manhattan. Yankee Stadium didn’t count as the real Bronx.
I made my next visit in Gerry’s bus. Gerry’s a guide for Real Bronx Tours and he tells a good yarn. His flat nasal drawl is 100% unmistakeable Bronx; never mind that he’s really from Queens. Thanks to Gerry I was well up on my Bronx history.
The Lenape people had the place to themselves until four hundred years ago when a Danish farmer called Jonas Bronck moved in. ‘Bronck’s’ became ‘Bronx’.
Over the following centuries the Dutch came and the British came. So did the Italians and Irish, the Germans and Jews. The Bronx made pianos, the Bronx made clothes and some Bronx kids made good. Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein were Bronx boys.
Then the Bronx fell on hard times. By the 1950s it was a no-go area, even for cops. In the 1970s landlords were torching their own apartment blocks; insurance paid better than unemployed tenants. ‘Nobody cared what happened here, and city hall did nothing,’ said Gerry. ‘It was all too hard.’ Everlast made boxing gloves and punching bags and boasted, ‘Nothing soft comes out of the Bronx.’
Fortunately times change and the Bronx has changed with them. Hip-hop came out of the Bronx. So did Jennifer Lopez. Everlast came out of the Bronx and moved its factories elsewhere, making trendy sneakers as well as boxing gear.
We lounged back in our comfortable leather seats listening to Gerry’s stories as our Real Bronx Tour bus crawled through the traffic of Fordham Street. The windows were tinted so we could see the Bronx but the Bronx couldn’t see us. It was interesting, but insulated.
To get a real feel for the place I needed to go back on foot. So there I was, with my cheap phone app, asking directions from strangers. Shop hoardings advertised tattoo parlours, nail studios, tarot readings, eyebrow threading, Planet Fitness and ‘butt boosting jeans’. Some people I approached backed off suspiciously. ‘No, no. Not know Little Italy. Sorry, senor.’ A majority of Bronx residents are Hispanic these days.
A very large police officer was eyeing me from a corner, baton and handcuffs dangling, pistol at the hip. It couldn’t hurt to ask one more time. A huge toothy grin flashed in my direction. ‘Honey, you walk straight the way youse going, you find youself right there!’ I entered into the spirit of things. ‘Why, thank you, ma’am. I’ll do just that!’
Ten minutes later I was sitting on the terrace of Palomo’s Gelateria and Pasticceria in Bronx’s Little Italy. Coffee from the big brass percolator tasted like real coffee as it washed down a cream-filled cannolo. It went straight to the arteries and it felt real Bronx.
I had my bearings now, and my confidence. A few blocks further on I found the elaborate iron gates I’d been looking for, set in a high stone wall. Cars drove unchallenged through to the car-park and excited families bundled out. At what looked like a ticket office, I stuck my head in the window.
‘Excuse me, is this where I pay?’
‘It’s Wednesday, Sir. Bronx Zoo is free on Wednesdays. You can make a donation if you want.’
The Bronx had been good to me, so I was good to the Bronx. I dug deep and made a generous donation.
The zoo was a delight – acres of leafy park with the Bronx River flowing through it. The Bronx is now the greenest New York borough. The animals have lots of room to play.
I spent some time watching the apes. No apps were required.
THREE OTHER THINGS TO DO IN THE BRONX:
1. New York Botanical Garden – 250 acres of green in the North Bronx, inspired by England’s Kew Gardens. Admission is $10 plus special events and exhibitions. See: nybg.org
2. The Bronx Museum of the Arts is free. See bronxmuseum.org
3. Tours of Yankee Stadium are available on days when there are no games. Adult: $20. See newyork.yankees.mlb.com/nyy/ballpark/stadium_tours_details.jsp
Staying there: The Aloft Harlem hotel is a short subway ride from the Bronx. Doubles from $259 a night. See aloftharlem.com
Further information: Three hour Real Bronx Tours cost $45. See realbronxtours.com
‘Total experience’ tickets to the Bronx Zoo including all rides and exhibits cost $29.95. Entry is by donation only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Tickets for New York Yankees games cost from $20.
For more to see and do in New York, see NYCGo.com
The writer was the guest of Real Bronx Tours and NYC & Co.
First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney.