I am a former resident of the Beautiful Bronx, and to me the streets of the Bronx are a never-ending Opera. On the sidewalks of Fordham Road, the Grand Concourse, Crotona Park, Belmont, Mount Hope, Mosholu Parkway, Valentine Avenue, Burnside, Tremont, Bedford Park — such color in the names alone! — you can enjoy song and dance (hip-hop, mambo, salsa, merengue and more, bleating forth from apartments and stores and street boom-boxes and sometimes even live on street corners), share in innumerable passing personal dramas, smell the frying aromas of a hundred cultures, and taste in your footsteps the echoes of former generations who came to this part of the United States from far away, as a first port of embarkation on their voyage to the American Dream.
On my recent visit to New York City, I had the pleasure of staying in the newly renovated Bronx Opera House Hotel, on East 149th Street near Third Avenue. Once home to an historic vaudeville and motion picture theater, the exterior has been gloriously preserved while the interior has been re-created as a charming, boutique hotel (24-hour coffee machine on the mezzanine level). I am no fan of gentrification, yet the mere establishment of a tastefully-appointed hotel in the commerical Bronx district known as “The Hub” is reason to cheer, to celebrate the rising economic fortunes of a borough long battered by crime, arson and unfairly bad reputation.
Last Tuesday morning I walked from the Opera House Hotel west to the Grand Concourse and 149th Street, where sits the Bronx Borough Post Office marvelously adorned within by large murals by American portraitist Ben Shahn, celebrating the working-man of the mid-1930s. From there I walked north on “Da Kon-kowse” to 161st Street, past aging Art Deco apartment houses of splendid ornamental detail, to the Mussolini-esque Bronx County Courthouse and fortress-like faux Yankee Stadium replica (the real one having been criminally razed a few years ago in search of mega-profits), past Franz Sigel Park with its statue of Heinrich Heine’s “Die Lorelei.” It was a glorious, breezy, puffy cloud and blue sky New York day. Along the way I passed many friendly scenes of greetings and re-connections. “Yo, girl! howz it go? Howz yo Mami?” A teenaged music student with a violin case strapped to her back flashed high-fives with her classmate. Garbage-men at work, riding shotgun on the back of loud smelly trucks, waved to the superintendents of tenements holding their fresh first sips of joe in blue paper cups sporting New York City’s unofficial motto “We are Happy to Serve You.” Street peddlers laden with cheap cell phones and illegal T-shirts and African incense sticks filled the air with their cries: “Yo baby chekitout chekitout chekitout chekitout NOW.” A show of flash, of bravado, of humanity, of neighbors and lives shared in tight quarters and close experience, of the vivid dance we call Life. I love it all, this Opera of the Bronx.