My Trip to Kingsbridge Road

I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.
– Isaac Newton

A brave man dies once, a coward a thousand times.
-African Proverb

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.
-Albert Camus

A Chance Encounter with William A. Weber
In early February of this year, I was having a brutal day in the markets and, as I often do on such occasions, I stepped outside for a moment to get some fresh air and collect my thoughts.  Within moments along came an old man with a walker and a kind disposition.  I had noticed him around before, but we had never exchanged more than a friendly smile and a quick hello.  I am not always the most talkative person in the world when I don’t know someone (particularly if I am in a bad mood); however, for some reason I felt compelled to spark a conversation with this old man and he was more than happy to oblige.

I realized pretty quickly that I had come across someone special.  From the moment he started talking there was a light that shone from his eyes and an energy that radiated from his being that was simply unmistakable.  His name is William Weber, and as he described it, “I am 93 years young.”  He told me a little about his life.  He started off by telling me how he has worked at the University of Colorado at Boulder since 1946.  It was also in 1946 that he founded the University’s Herbarium.  Rather quickly, our conversation progressed into his background.  Like me he was born in New York City.  The only difference is he was born exactly 60 years before me, in 1918.  He told me about his days in The Kingsbridge Road section of the Bronx.  He then mentioned that he has been trying to find someone to take pictures of all the childhood places of his youth.  Coincidentally, I was set to travel to NYC the following week and so I volunteered to make the trip and take the photos for him.

My Trip to Kingsbridge Road
The first step was to get a list of the destinations.  He emailed me them rather quickly, and I must admit, I was a bit overwhelmed.  The list was longer than I thought, but the first item on the list immediately drew me in.  It was Edgar Allen Poe’s cottage, which William wrote “was a favorite place for me to visit, because of the raven that sat on the mantelpiece.”

As for me, I grew up in Midtown Manhattan.  My parents still live in the apartment I grew up in.  I went to high school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, which is a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in the northern section of the borough, nothing like what you would imagine an area of New York City to look like.  Let’s just say my familiarity with Kingsbridge Road was limited.

The Sunday afternoon that I decided to take the subway ride to Kingsbridge Road was cool and clear.  I debated whether or not it would be a good idea to bring my Nixon D90 SLR camera or not.  In the end, I decided to take it and if I felt unsafe I would just leave it in the carrying bag and take the pictures with my iPhone.  The subway ride felt pretty normal at first.  It was the same train you would take to go to Yankee Stadium.  However, as the stations passed by the crowd started to change as did the entire energy in the cars.  Gone were the last of the yuppies with the carefree looks on their faces.  In came the serious faces, the faces of people with serious problems.  People that have to scramble each and every day of their lives to survive.  The clothing was generally worn and cheap and the conversations I overheard were cryptic and heavy.

Once I got off the train I attempted to orient myself in what seemed like a strange land despite it being the city of my birth.  I quickly realized it would not be a great idea to take out my large camera and wear it around my neck everywhere.  This isn’t a popular tourist destination.  Once I was able to get my bearings, I started walking over to the Edgar Allen Poe cottage.  It was right along the Grand Concourse, which is a major thoroughfare.  I really started to grasp that the area I was in wasn’t as safe as the areas I normally frequent when I noticed the door was locked.  A few moments after ringing the bell a timid, gentle British man opened up the door and rushed me in.  He locked it back up behind me.  This was about 2pm.

The cottage tour was fun but I had places to go.  This is where things started getting a little tricky.  To get to the apartment he grew up in, the public school that he attended and the homes of relatives he wanted me to photo, I had to go into the heart of some neighborhoods rather than just hang around on near the main road.  Here, the streets weren’t crowded at all.  More importantly, there was a general heaviness that permeated the air.  In the neighborhoods I normally frequent, whether here in Colorado or in NYC, there is a general vibrancy to everyday life that emanates from the surroundings.  There was none of that apparent here.  People seemed beaten down and hopeless.  It was palpable and very depressing.  One other thing that stood out was the fact that there seemed to be brand new cars everywhere.  It seemed completely out of place with everything else I witnessed in the environment.  At first I wondered whether it was related to illicit activities, but I have since realized it is probably just a manifestation of all the subprime auto loans going around.

The rest of my journey went off without a hitch.  I was able to find and photograph pretty much every place he requested.  As it got later in the day, I recall really wanting to get out of there as soon as possible.  Particularly as the sun starting to grow lower on the horizon.  I felt really awful about what I had witnessed.  It wasn’t the material aspects of the neighborhood that affected me.  It was the depressed energy of the community.  It felt very third world.  It was extremely sad.

As I waited on the subway platform for my train home, I remember it seemed to take forever for it to arrive.  Once I got on and started back home I recall a huge sigh of relief.  What really got me though was exiting the subway station at Grand Central Station.  Walking out into the street with the gleaming Chrysler building shooting skyward made me feel a massive sense of wealth as well as modernity’s inescapable presence.  The contrast absolutely blew my mind, yet the place I had just been was only ten miles away and in the same city.  The city of my birth.  The city of William Weber’s birth.

Take the Journey for Yourself
I had considered writing about this journey several months ago, but I clearly never got around to it.  The reason that I decided to finally write about it was because I had the idea to recommend others take the same trip.  I know that many of my readers live in and around the NYC area, and so I request that you consider taking the time to retrace my steps one weekend.  I think you will find the thoughts and feelings that you experience on such a trip to be well worth it even if they aren’t the same as mine.

Furthermore, I wouldn’t dismiss taking the trip just because you have visited many “poorer” places.  So have I.  I have travelled extensively in Central and South America and my brother was in the Peace Corps in Guatemala.  When I visited him I stayed in his tiny village for a bit.  The key thing is that this is right in your backyard.  It’s a few hours.  Give it a shot.

I also would ask that those that do take the trip post their experiences in the comments section or send me an email.  I’d love to hear them.

So without further ado, here is the William Weber tour, in the words of the man himself:

My birthplace. When I was small, there was a hemlock forest in back of it. The Grand Concourse was the first street to the west. 2789 VALENTINE Ave. The apartment house where I was born, is on the west side of the street. 

Across the street from 2789 a small private house is sandwiched in between apartment houses. There is still a small garden plot in front which when I saw it some years ago, is now painted  red. One day when I was playing with Helen Wack, she accidentally pushed me off the stoop and I fell on my head on the concrete border. I got a depressed fracture which is still visible on my left forehead

The Edgar Allen Poe Cottage was a favorite place for me to visit, because of the raven that sat on the mantelpiece. It was or is at the junction of Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse.

P. S. 46   was a few blocks south of my home. I believe it was on Briggs Avenue which parallels Valentine.

My aunt’s house was a private house with a front porch, at 2665 Briggs Avenue. Josie was my favorite aunt, and I spent a lot of time devouring the magazines of natural history on the bookshelves of her living room

My father was a pharmacist. He worked at Atkins Drug Store, which was on 199th Street and Valentine. It had become a Latino food store when I last saw it.

Finally, here is a great story on William from a local paper that discusses how they have named the Herbarium after him.

Peace and Wisdom,
Mike

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11 thoughts on “My Trip to Kingsbridge Road

    • Several people have requested this. The reason I haven’t so far is because I want people that are planning on taking the trip to be able to do so without and images already in their heads. I may change my mind. Will think on it. Thanks

  1. A bit OT but wow, Mike you write really well. When reading your passage above I really felt like I was right there beside you. I hope to be able to read a work of yours in book form some day. 😀

  2. Today I just happened to be driving around the neighborhood in which I was raised. What a strange coincidence that I would return home to see Mike’s post about his trip to NYC.

    I grew up in a small town in Northern Wisconsin. Upon my return, I was amazed to see the economic devastation. Here are some brief observations I made that show people are struggling. Besides the obvious changes to the town (70-90 percent of the businesses on main street are closed, and the last of the manufacturing jobs are gone because Polaris ATV’s closed their plant) the subtle signs go as follows…

    1) I noticed a huge increase in “redneck auctions.” This is a technical term used by scholars to describe blue collar people who sell things in their yard usually with a cardboard sign i.e.) boats, lawnmowers, furniture ect… People are desperate and are doing and selling anything they can to make it.

    2) Huge number of foreclosed homes. Nuff said about that one.

    3) We now have a dollar store and a thrift store in town. Both are new additions to the town.

    4) I noticed a huge number of signs posted in yards offering different types of services for odd jobs. This displays the undeniable fact that many people are desperately looking for ways to earn an income.

    5) I was delayed at a gas station because the patron ahead of me was arguing with the clerk over a 50 cent price difference over a pack of Marb Reds.

    6) People in the bar were bitching about high gas prices. Nobody had a clue what QE means, but they were sure angry about four dollar gas.

    7) More and more houses were heating their homes with wood boilers.

    8) Police department has been cut from three officers down to one.

    9) Paid football coaching staff has also been downsized.

    10) More vehicles with improvised repairs i.e. plastic windows or taped bumpers.

    I could go on and on. The bottom line is America is no longer a republic, it is a banana republic.

    • I was born in Milwaukee, grew up in Crown Height in the big BK. I lived for a whole year literally around the corner from Poe’s cottage, right above Kingsbridge a block west of the Concourse. This was before I lived with my boys for two years at the St. Anns housing projects. My street was full of trash with an inordinate number of attending rats, friendly drug dealers, and working people. Your neighbors looked for you and vice versa. That’s where I joined the New York State Guard at the Kingsbridge Armory for another 6 yrs of service after my 20 1/2 Army retirement, and often spent 12-18 hrs straight working there. You got to serve somebody.

  3. Your description of New York sounds eerily like that of Ayn Rand’s description of same city in Atlas Shrugged. For that matter, also her description of its inhabitants during the final days.

  4. HI MIke,

    I drove through this neighborhood recently on my way home from work. I lived in the Bronx as a little girl (I was born in 1955 and moved out of the Bronx in 1965) and walked all over this neighborhood frequently with my grandmother, since Fordham road was one of her favorite places to shop. I peeked in the windows of the Poe cottage every time I could convince my grandma to take a few minutes to walk over to it, since I also loved Poe as a child.

    As an adult I went back to the Bronx for medical school and I used to have my car fixed at the Chevy dealer in this neighborhood. When I taught in Riverdale, I would sometimes drive through the neighborhood you mention on my way to visit my old neighborhood near Pelham Bay Park.

    You have made me think because on my recent drive through the neighborhood I didn’t get the same vibe you did at all. Certainly the stores have become more garish and the population more diverse in the years since I was a little girl. But the people looked pretty much the same as people always have in busy neighborhoods in the Bronx. The Bronx has never had the outward charm or vibrancy of Manhattan, but honestly no one looked downtrodden to me. I couldn’t wait to get out of the neighborhood because I never liked it and I still don’t, but I didn’t feel unsafe. I always have thought of the Bronx as a missed opportunity. With the Hudson River, the Long Island Sound, the hills, the zoo, and the parks, it ought to be an earthly paradise- but it just isn’t somehow.

    My husband and I wonder if it’s because I was in the car that my impressions were so different from yours. Also I have seen that neighborhood for so long that its lack of charm is no surprise to me. But I have wanted to visit Poe Cottage for a while- it was always locked when I was a little girl and I never got a tour. I just finished reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym so it would be a good time to go. I will let you know what we think. If you ever get back there you should really visit the Bronx Botanical Gardens- one of the most beautiful places in the city.

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