At the Kingsbridge Road station, four stops from its terminus, the train stands shiny and largely depopulated beneath an enormous tin-plated façade reminiscent of an Uzbek madrassah. It is the eastern wall of the Kingsbridge Armory—a Bronx goliath and Jerome Avenue landmark that, when built in 1917, featured the largest column-free interior in the world. The massive space has been empty since 1994, when the National Guard pulled out of the four-block fortress.
It’s a handsome structure—one with all the defensive fripperies an architectural historian could wish for. Its “parapets are crenellated, though nobody is expected to shoot between the crenelles,” wrote one fan early last century. “The cornices are machicolated, though nobody expects to pour hot lead from the machicoulis.” The vast, vaulted drill hall was covered with a new roof five years ago, much to the appreciation of the pigeons who regularly use its western end for sunbathing.
For a long time, an endless series of security guards sat at the entrance of the armory, watching over its cavernous emptiness. Then walkie-talkies and movie trucks filled the grounds and filmed an addled but buff Will Smith chasing after his dog. Months later, thousands watched that scene in darkened theaters and shouted out, “Oh no! Don’t you go in there!” But he did—and had a close encounter with drug-resistant zombies.
The papers say there will be consumerism in the armory before too long. A Circuit City. A sports complex. A “mixed-use zone,” featuring “an inviting park-like perimeter, a movie theater or cultural venue, and reduced-rent space for community organizations.” Community boon or boondoggle, is what locals wonder, not in so many words. As long as it doesn’t plague us at sundown. We have the semi-regular gang incidents for that.
The stations along the IRT’s Jerome Avenue line opened the same year as the armory. A half-century earlier, Jerome Avenue was little more than a tree-lined plank road following a creek bed north toward Van Cortlandt Park. But then the city decided to pave the thoroughfare and name it after a little-known alderman. Instead, a local society matron beat them to it. Kate Hall Jerome figured her husband, a financier and organizer of the Belmont Stakes horse race, was the better choice for the honor and, at significant personal expense, posted the road with her own bronze street signs. The alderman remained in obscurity.
From Jerome Avenue, Kingsbridge Road climbs east to the sepia-toned former grandeur of the Grand Concourse, like a dime-store-nail-salon-Dunkin-Donut valley in a terraced residential landscape. On the side streets, stolid clapboard houses hold their own against the quiet recessed entryways of multi-story apartments. The graffiti is scrubbed soft. Boys put away their homemade skate ramps at dusk and greet elderly neighbors with deference.
On a steep stretch of Minerva Place, a two-story white house shoulders the road at an angle. Switchback cement stairs lead to its doors high above the street. The lot next door is vacant, sort of. Locals wash their cars under a natural stone outcrop, atop which sit two wooden coops. Silhouetted against a pocket of bright sky, the pigeons have pretenses of prime real estate.
A mustachioed man sitting on the top of the cement steps offers to let them out. The stairway wall conceals him up to his chin. “I got 400 of them,” says the disembodied head. “But I can only let half out at a time.”
There’s a house at the corner of Kingsbridge Road and Grand Concourse that knows more about tenacity and too-beating hearts than any other in this neighborhood.
He disappears into the open front door, leaving a mean Doberman lolling in the shade of the porch. In a moment, the rapid beat of wings tattoos the open sky of Minerva Place’s bend, as 10 and then 20 pigeons take wing and circle the block. There is still a line of birds waiting their turn at the coop door. They have feathers of soft tan, like the sweater of an old lady sitting in the sunshine. But the man shuts the gate, clucks his tongue and walks back through the house to the front gate. He shields his eyes against the sun to watch the last of his uncaged birds settle against the chimneypots, and then excuses himself. He has a lot of work to do. He locks the gate but not the front door and heads south to Kingsbridge Road. The Doberman, and the loosed pigeons, stay put.
Closer to the reservoir, the coops are for chickens. Scrabbling among barbed wire and last week’s news, these birds strut and dither like the pigeons of Minerva Place, but they will never know the sky. There will come a full moon, when they will be wrested from their nests by a painted hand holding a sharpened blade, and that will be that. It happens that the drums sometimes become arrhythmic, and the long-practiced orders are broken. It happens that the sacrifice is redirected and human bodies are removed burned or lacerated, their wounds treated and recorded. The EMT and the NYPD then file reports, with or without suppositions of motive and cause of injury. (“The Rites of Santeria?” Capitalized and with a question mark.) The chicken coop may be empty for some time, covered with a white cloth. A railroad spike is driven into the foot of the tree.
There’s a house at the corner of Kingsbridge Road and Grand Concourse that knows more about tenacity and too-beating hearts than any other in this neighborhood. It was picked up and moved at one point to make way for a road that needed to be named for an alderman or, if not, at least needed to plow through old neighborhoods and lowercase histories.
But the house itself—weathered, tiny, and ramshackle—was worthy of saving. For here lived Edgar Allen Poe at the end of his life. Or at least at the end of his wife Virginia’s life, which turned out to be near the same. In this tiny cottage in the Bronx, the great necromancer wrote “Annabelle Lee,” which a young woman named Anwulika recited for me not long ago as evidence of the immense import of this cottage’s being across the street from her high school. “I figured if Edgar Allen Poe’s house could be in the heart of the Bronx, well then I can be anywhere at all in this world.”
That’s what she said, ten years after graduating from PS 246. And then she moved to Minneapolis.
On the day of Anwulika’s departure from New York, a good-looking grandmother named Parker was cleaning up the debris that a mid-June summer storm had left all around Poe’s cottage. She does this daily—cleans up after the night’s junkies, trannies, and skaters. But none of them left the mess of this storm—which took down four trees and threw lightning bolts at three more, including the laden cherry tree that bubbles sap and scratches against the covered-up windows of the cottage.
On the morning after the storm, according to Parker, tree limbs covered the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians into the street; the cottage’s iron fence was split in two, and a freaked-out lady stumbled out of Edgar Allan Poe’s last domicile saying she had feared for her life. “It looked to me like she was that caretaker’s boo,” explained Parker, who is the boss of Poe Park and a sure contender for the Coolest Parks Department Employee in New York City. “But it also looked like she wouldn’t be coming back.”
Parker knows the histories of all the park regulars. She taught many of them to keep their shoes tied, “or else you fall down and break it and they have to cut it off,” she told them back when they believed her, wide-eyed like she was reading a set of supernatural rules. But about Poe, she is vague. “Some say it was opium. Some say reefer. Some say dope.” She’s never gone inside the cottage, though she says she sure would like to.
“I figured if Edgar Allen Poe’s house could be in the heart of the Bronx, well then I can be anywhere at all in this world.”
If there is a spot in Kingsbridge Heights that clings dearly to despair even on a breezy July midday, it is the dilapidated Poe cottage, which is open only by appointment even at the height of summer. The papers have forecasts for this place, too. The imminent and much-needed renovation has as much restorative or damaging potential as a freak lightning storm.
When Parker attacks a clump of debris with her wire broom and dustbin, she sends a small flurry of Poe Park vegetation across the Grand Concourse. It dances with the gutter litter of Kingsbridge Road and collects at the base of the street sign for Jerome Avenue—a standard-issue reflective green marker that long ago replaced the imperative bronze placards mounted by Kate Hall Jerome. Jerome’s daughter, Jenny, would also be an important name-giver in her day, announcing Maker’s Mark, vermouth, and bitters to be a “Manhattan,” and later, christening her newborn son Winston. He, of course, won a Great War and made history, getting a range of Canadian Rockies for a namesake, along with a destroyer and a cigar and a dock in Antwerp. They electrify his statue outside of Parliament in London, to keep the pigeons from embarrassing him too much.
Not so the Kingsbridge Armory—its newly replaced roof remains a beach for birds and its 180,000 empty square feet an eddy of soft feathers.