My dad was an only child, born in Detroit, raised in the Bronx. His memories, I’ve sometimes suspected, are spun from ’50s postcards of New York City—the light streaming into old Penn Station, a date at the Loew’s Paradise Theater, getting brass-knuckled off the Concourse by a band of thugs.
He tells me, from time to time, of places where he once lived, but I can never find them. He describes to me the Grand Concourse when it was still grand, the local delicatessen, and nights spent listening to the Yankees on a radio he’d hide beneath his pillow.
He has also told me of a place called Parkchester. Scratching his sun-spotted scalp, he recalled—the way old men fondly do—his mother holding his hand as they walked into a neighborhood different from all the others. “It was new. It didn’t feel like New York anymore. It felt like I was in another city.... It was a nice place to live, you know.” He paused. “I would have liked to live there.” The childish twinkle in his eye faded, and he winced at the thought of how many decades have passed since then.
Parkchester was no ordinary project. Built between 1939 and 1942, this model housing development was brought to fruition by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Like Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan, the housing was intended for middle-income renters and offers certain amenities conspicuously absent in low-income developments. The ground floors are occupied by colorful retail spaces. Starbucks, Macy’s, even a movie theater—The American—are part of the complex.
To get there, I crossed the Third Avenue Bridge and reached the Bronx. This path led into industrial Mott Haven, where an unlikely collection of specialty auto shops and antique stores had taken root. The neon marquee for the Bruckner Bar and Grill seemed lifted from trendier terrain, but it added a glimmer of hope to an otherwise shadowy district beneath the expressway.
From Mott Haven, I made my way into Morrisania, then through Foxhurst to Crotona Park. For a place once synonymous with urban decay, Bronx neighborhoods have wonderfully ironic names recalling the time when the borough was a patchwork of farms and villages. I don’t imagine people fashion themselves “Morrisanians” the way Manhattanites or Brooklynites now cling to their enclaves, but it has a nice ring to it.
From afar, the towers of Parkchester bore little resemblance to the quaint idyll I had conjured through my father’s memory. The entire complex resembled an austere project, and I was forced to wonder whether or not there had been another Parkchester there before. But as I neared the cluster of brick towers, I saw a curious statue protruding from the side of one of the buildings, portraying a woman with an umbrella, another playing a lute while thrusting her hips, and a parachuter.
Down certain streets, I could see the other city—the apartments crowded together, the infrastructure, the clutter, and the noise. I was in Parkchester now and surely would not leave.
As the sun grew dim, however, I felt like an intruder. Kids were coming home from school, people carried groceries.
I documented the assortment of small statues placed here and there—playful human monuments unlike anything I’d ever seen in a project. I imagined the kids directing each other to meet at the black bear statue, or behind the theatre where a terracotta hula girl was playing Honolulu ballads on her ukulele.
Leaving the green inner courtyard between the towers, an Egyptian-looking man motioned to me to snap his picture. He walked to a central post between the archways, smiled, struck his best pharaoh’s pose, and darted off before I had a chance to capture the moment.
Walking away from Parkchester, I came upon the highways, the canyons of tenements, and the rubble. My dad once lived here, I thought, and remembered a picture I’d seen of him standing in front of an old apartment building as a boy. That place was gone now. But Parkchester would never crumble.