November 4th 2007:
The Bronx Borough Historian helps me out!
Prior to last Friday, when I thought of historians, I initially thought of men who were stuffy and a bit "holier than thou". And for the price of taking their particular History class, they would impart to me a whole bunch of knowledge that i would use to pass the course exams, but would never use again. Yes, I do realize that is a bad stereotype, and that there are plenty of historians who are not that way, but that was always my first thought.
Well, last Friday came, and that initial perception of historians changed forever.
I had the distinct honor of meeting with Professor Lloyd Ultan who is the Official Bronx Borough Historian, a huge part (even being president at times) of the Bronx County Historical Society over the years, and originator of Bronx Week. He is also one of the nicest, humble, and most passionate people you could ever meet.
I got in touch with the Bronx County Historical Society looking for some historical perspective on the Ducky Boy neighborhood known as Norwood. I grew up there but had never heard that name until years later - For ease of explaining, I will be specifically referring to the area between Fordham Road and Gun Hill Road, and Jerome Ave to around Webster Ave (including part of Bronx Park & the Botanical Gardens).
I contacted the BCHS Chief Archivist, Dr. Peter Derrick, and he was very helpful, and offered me some excellent tips on helping research the Ducky Boys (and other topics). He also put me in touch with Prof. Ultan.
Which brings me to last Friday.
I had spoken to Prof. Ultan on the phone a few days before our interview, so I had a good feeling about it. He was very-good natured on the phone, and was willing to help me with my project. So, we set up an appointment at my old alma mater Lehman College - which also happened to be his alma mater too (altho then it was called Hunter College in the Bronx). He was currently teaching a course there called appropriately "History of the Bronx" and I met him afterwards. I had taken that particular course 20 years earlier with another professor.
I arrived at his office, and he immediately made me feel welcome and comfortable. One thing that I didn't expect was that Prof. Ultan is the "King-of-One-Liners" - and not just the ones that you just politely laugh at, but actually funny and relevant ones that I had never heard before - and off the cuff! I was impressed as there aren't that many people who can pull that off
So we start the interview, and it went great - I got a lot of information about the neighborhood and how the Bronx environment was at the time of the Ducky Boys, and how certain factors helped bring the gang together, while other factors started tearing them apart. Now, as you can imagine if you've been reading my other journal entries, this is the part I say "watch the movie to find out more info!"
But since the conversation drifted into Bronx history NOT directly associated with the Ducky Boys -- I am genuinely interested in the Bronx, and had a friendly and interesting Bronx Historian in front of me, so I was going to take advantage of this opportunity!
Thankfully, Prof. Ultan indulged my questions gracefully, so here's some fun information on the area that I didn't know:
Villa Avenue was settled by workers who came over from Italy to work on the Jerome Park Reservoir. And St Philip Neri church was built with stones that came from that project.
Bronx Park was originally owned by the Botanical Gardens, who released sections of it for public use. I had always thought it was the other way around - that they kept expanding the Gardens and taking over public areas.
Honigs Parkway on Webster Avenue and East 204th was a publicly traded company with shares for sale (Ticker HPKW - no longer around) I had always pictured them to be a small store, and to hear they traded shares on the stock market is shocking. Honigs was always in the background of the Ducky Boys story too.
The Concourse Plaza Hotel on 161st and the Grand Concourse was THE place to stay in the Bronx. Premier events happened there, US Presidents stayed there, the Yankees stayed there... In the early 1970's, someone bought the hotel with the intention of turning it into a welfare hotel. The Concourse residents fought tooth and nail to stop that from happening, and they did - sort of... The person who bought the hotel abandoned the hotel, and it sat empty for most of the 70's until it became the senior housing residence that it still is today... There is a good NY Times article on the history of teh Concourse Plaza Hotel to be found here
Prof Ultan is very passionate about the Bronx. It shows in the way he speaks about it. I would like to share a clip from the interview where he defends the reputation gotten by the Bronx over the years... It covers how the Bronx got its reputation in 1977 thanks to President Carter and Howard Cosell, and then had its image cemented in 1982 with the movie Fort Apache: The Bronx... Some things may have been deserved back then, but 30 years later this is a completely different Bronx as Professor Ultan shows. I hope you enjoy it.
I would like to thank Prof Lloyd Ultan profusely. Also thanks to Dr. Peter Derrick, and the Bronx County Historical Society for getting me in touch with him and the help they've provided.
Well, that was my latest interview blog - It was quite enjoyable and enlightened me on historians and the Bronx. As
always, thank you for reading these blogs and keep those comments
coming in to
A repeat request for my current and ex-Bronxite Readers
also like to put out a request for any old video clips or
pictures from the Bronx -- particularly if it relates to
Gardens & Bronx Park
The Fordham Road to Gun Hill Road section between Webster
& Jerome Avenues.
Anything related to Bronx Gangs of the 1960's
- particularly the Ducky Boys.
the deal: We're poor independent film-makers and really
can't pay you for these clips & photos, but if you contribute
something that I can use in the final product and you are
willing and able to sign the proper release forms, here's
what you will get in return:
Two passes to the premiere of the documentary to be held
A DVD copy of the final Bronx Gangs documentary.
Your name prominently displayed in the credits of the
documentary as a contributor.