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When you walk through the streets of Melrose, you’ll be hard-pressed to find signs of the urban decay most of the world thinks of when they hear the words “South Bronx.”
Founded in the 1850s and largely settled by German immigrants fleeing the ever-more-crowded conditions on the Lower East Side, the Village of Melrose was carved out of farmland belonging to the descendants of U.S. Constitution preamble author Gouverneur Morris. By the time the Bronx was fully annexed to New York City in 1895 — three years before Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island joined the party — Melrose had already grown into an important gateway to the borough, connected to Manhattan by several bridges and rail lines. Once the subway was extended into the Bronx, in the early twentieth century, office buildings (and even an opera house) began sprouting along 149th Street, a nexus which would become known as the Hub, the Times Square of the Bronx.
The golden years lasted for decades, as Italian and Irish immigrants, and eventually African Americans and Puerto Ricans, settled in. But then things began to change: Federal redlining rules, following the National Housing Act of 1934, led banks to refuse to provide loans to any property owners once a person of color moved in on a block. The result was white flight, as homeowners unable to obtain mortgages for necessary upkeep abandoned their properties, some even committing arson to collect insurance and cut their losses.
By the end of the 1970s, the Bronx had lost over 300,000 residents during the decade, and Melrose was filled with abandoned buildings and rubble-strewn lots. But life continued: Community gardens created by residents overtook vacant space, and the stage was set for one of the nation’s most successful examples of urban renewal. Today, little vacant land is left, and what remains is slated for development. More than 5,000 new units of housing have been constructed since 2000, much of it affordable to low-income residents, and streets once vacant for blocks on end are now tree-lined strips of townhouses. Melrose is now home to 25,000 residents, up from just 3,000 in 1980, among them Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Mexicans, West Africans, and Dominicans.
Old Bronx Borough Courthouse
Completed in 1914, the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse is where the Bronx was born as the 62nd and last county of New York State. (Before then, the borough was part of New York County, along with Manhattan.) The four-story Beaux-Arts building is an imposing structure at 161st Street and Third Avenue, with a statue of Lady Justice holding her sword but absent the traditional blindfold. (Locals like to joke that in the Bronx, justice isn’t blind.) It later found fame as the location of the first part of the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping trial. But with the exponential population growth in the Bronx, which added one million residents between 1900 and 1930 owing to the newly expanded subway and elevated lines into the borough, the small courthouse was already obsolete by the time it was built, and was eventually replaced by the much larger Bronx County Courthouse, just outside Melrose on the Grand Concourse at 161st Street. Closed in 1977, the old courthouse sat empty until Mayor Giuliani had the property auctioned to developers — twice, most recently to Henry Weinstein and Benjamin Klein for $300,000 in 1998. While Weinstein works on restoring the exterior, the structure has been used for a three-month residency for the art organization No Longer Empty, and is now being considered as a possible site for a hip-hop museum. 513 East 161st Street
Delicioso Coco Helado
Across from the Bronx Borough Courthouse is the home base of Delicioso Coco Helado, the maker of traditional Latin American icies, or “coquitos” as they’re known locally. Although there are several different companies that make and sell these treats, Delicioso Coco is truly an institution that gives back to its community. Two years ago founder and owner Alfredo Thiebaud died in a freak accident with a gate at the site, but his family continues to run the business with the passion of their late patriarch. Best secret: You can score a half-gallon of your favorite flavor for just five bucks and take it home with you. 849 St. Ann’s Avenue
Youngland Children’s Department Store
The shopping district known as the Hub — named for the six-pointed intersection where East 149th Street, Third Avenue, and Willis and Melrose Avenues all converge — is the city’s busiest intersection outside of Times Square, with over 200,000 pedestrians traveling through each day. Once known as Vaudeville North, for its many theaters and its opera house (now a luxury boutique hotel) where George Burns and the Marx Brothers performed, the area transformed into the premier shopping center of the borough. Today, most of the old department stores — Sachs, McCrorey’s Five and Dime, Alexander’s — are ghosts, but Youngland Children’s Department Store survives, with its unmissable pastel exterior and mural by local graffiti artist King Bee that depicts families and children riding the subway to the Hub. It’s been in business for more than sixty years and is one of the places parents flock to purchase affordable children’s toys, clothes, and school uniforms. 2922 Third Avenue
The Bronx Documentary Center
Founded in 2011 in the area’s last remaining Victorian mansion, the Bronx Documentary Center quickly became an epicenter for documentary journalism and photography. Featuring world-class exhibitions of photography and multimedia that connect the Bronx to the world, the space has become a critically important haven for many photographers of color. The center is home to the Bronx Photo League and the Bronx Junior Photo League, where kids from sixth to twelfth grades learn photography, journalism, and storytelling. It’s also inspiring to see so many volunteers from Melrose and the Bronx at large take ownership of the space and help it to run smoothly. 614 Courtlandt Avenue
One of the area’s most popular dining destinations is Xochimilco, a family-run and -operated Mexican restaurant that is both a gathering place for the local Mexican population and a popular destination for many area residents and workers. Its food is phenomenal — try the carnitas tacos, or the vegetarian ones made with pumpkin blossoms — and you’re treated as if you’re walking into someone’s home for a meal where everything’s made from scratch. The Mata family opened the restaurant after moving to the Bronx from Xochimilco, a borough of Mexico City, three decades ago, and lives just one block over — something relatively common in Melrose. 653 Melrose Avenue
Bronx General Post Office
Once the main post office for the Bronx, the Melrose location is a work of art, from its exterior to its interior lobby graced with thirteen Ben Shahn murals that depict the American worker. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing,” they were painted by Works Progress Administration artists in the 1930s and intended to encourage civic pride (and promote support for FDR’s New Deal). When the post office was sold three years ago to developer Youngwoo & Associates, locals successfully fought to obtain landmark status for the lobby and the murals. Earlier this year, preservationists completed the arduous process of restoring these important works of art; once the old building is reopened later this year as a Chelsea Market–type space with offices on the upper floors and a rooftop restaurant, an even wider audience will be able to enjoy the murals. 558 Grand Concourse
The DreamYard Project
On the border of Melrose and Morrisania, the DreamYard Project brings together families, schools, and youths for diverse programming options that give local children the tools for, and a voice in, their journey toward higher ed. The Project exemplifies the importance of the arts, especially in underserved areas where such school programs have been severely cut back — or eliminated completely.
1085 Washington Avenue
Kim’s Fish Market
In business for over 35 years, Kim’s has adapted to the changing neighborhood. Either purchase your fresh catch and cook it at home, as patrons have for years, or, now, make your selection and have it steamed or fried with a side of vegetables (or french fries, since that’s what you really want anyway). It’s the best of both worlds, and a model for continued thriving. 555 Morris Avenue
Centro Cultural Rincón Criollo
One day in the mid-Seventies, fed-up Melrose resident José Manuel “Chema” Soto began to clean up the garbage that the city had allowed to collect in one particular lot he frequently walked by. By the end of the day fifty other residents had joined him, and eventually they turned the plot into a thriving community garden. Since relocated to Brook Avenue and E. 157th Street, Rincón Criollo — known locally as “La Casita de Chema,” for the small wooden house at its center — is one of the borough’s most important centers of Puerto Rican culture, and hosts live traditional bomba y plena music on weekends. Chema passed away unexpectedly in 2015, leaving a huge void, but his legacy continues throughout the seventeen community gardens that call Melrose their home — one of the highest concentrations of such spaces in the city. Although they all have varying hours of operation, if you pass one by and see someone, feel free to visit, as the garden-keepers love to share their space and histories. Brook Avenue at East 157th Street