A Literary and Pictorial History of the Borough
Written by: Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger
Published By: Rivergate Books
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Growing up in The Bronx , I have a natural attachment to the area. Every street seems to hold some sort of memory of the past for me. Over the years, the Bronx has undergone some major changes. Often times it seemed that the changes The Bronx went through were changes for the worst. A great deal of media coverage has been spent on the bad things that happen in The Bronx, the positive changes brushed aside for the more negative side of things. Very few people that I have spoken with – folks who cringe when I say that I am from The Bronx – truly know anything about the rich and fascinating history of the borough. They only know what they hear – the destruction and turmoil that plagued the area in the 1970s and 1980s are first and foremost in their minds. They know very little about the efforts for reconstruction of The Bronx. They know little about the artists, poets, actors and others who grew to greatness in the Bronx.
Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of the Borough by Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan and poet and author Barbara Unger presents a different sort of view of The Bronx from past to present. They don’t sugar-coat things – both positive and negative history is included to give an accurate portrayal of the borough’s history. One might look at this book and think that it is just another community history book. They would be wrong. Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of the Borough is different in that the authors illustrate the area’s history through excerpts of literature from the area’s accomplished authors. Accenting these excerpts are photographs of the area, some from dates as old as the 1700s.
The book tells of The Bronx’s beginnings as a rural area, a somewhat suburb to the greater city of Manhattan. It tells how city crowding and industry leant to The Bronx becoming more populated and thus less rural. As the book continues, we learn of the effects of modernization on what was mostly farms and wooded areas. We learn about the man-made beach known today as Orchard Beach and of the trolley rides that took people there. We learn of the building of Yankee Stadium. We learn of the rich culture and architecture of the past and present. We also learn about the darker days of The Bronx which most attribute to the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway and the drug problem that seemed to grow during the time of the Vietnam War. We’re even clued in on how an area known simply as Bronx, New York, became known as “The Bronx” to all that lived there.
What makes this book so interesting is that most of the story is told by the authors of the day. Excerpts from Edgar Allen Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Leon Trotsky, Kate Simon, Washington Irving, James Baldwin, Sholem Aleichem, Mark Twain, Clifford Odetts, Herman Wouk and more serve to illustrate the history of the area and the growing changes brought on by modernization. For someone who grew up in the area, these excerpts are intriguing. Many of these authors lived in The Bronx, unbeknownst to me and many other fellow Bronxites. Also intriguing are the photographs of the neighborhoods, particularly the older shots of neighborhoods I grew up in. It’s amazing to discover the changes that those particular neighborhoods underwent over the years. People would barely recognize areas such as Pelham Bay Park, Fordham, the Bronx River, Kingsbridge, Mosholu and other areas depicted in pictures and paintings dating back to the 17th century.
Any person who has ever lived in The Bronx should make certain that Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of the Borough by Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger is in a prominent place in their bookcase or on their coffee table. Better yet, they should lend this book out to all those who know nothing of the area but what they see on the television or read in the papers. Finally, a book that perfectly describes The Bronx in all of its beauty and rich culture with a balancing mix of the more seedy occurrences of the times. No sugar-coating; no bashing - just a true description of an area rich in history. A definite must read!