Summer Fun Day Tripping: The Bronx

You don’t have to be working the phones in Fernando Ferrer’s press office to argue – with a straight face, even – that the Bronx is New York’s most summery borough. This rocky province is home to Yankee Stadium and its languid July afternoons, and to the leafy oases of the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo. Starting on the wide sands of Orchard Beach, Robert Moses’s “Riviera of New York,” you can travel west through two vast, densely wooded parks, Pelham Bay and Van Cortlandt, which contain four municipal golf courses as well as stables for horseback riding, ball fields, and barbecue pits. It’s as close to Club Med as you can get by MetroCard.

But what about the rest of the place? The Bronx is a landmass the size of San Francisco, yet most of us know just these basic guidebook destinations. As for the remainder of the borough, it’s still tainted by twenty-year-old memories of burning tenements on the ten o’clock news. In fact, even in the South Bronx, the Fort Apache days are long over. This summer, it’s worth getting a car and taking the opportunity to see one of the last undiscovered bits of an otherwise Disneyfied city.

One sunny Friday morning, I point my rented Ford Taurus over the Willis Avenue Bridge toward the spot where Tom Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy happened onto his urban nightmare. You might say I’m looking for trouble. Instead, I find an intriguingly cheap Empire-style armoire. In the past five years, Bruckner Boulevard at Alexander Avenue has gone from drug bazaar to an incongruous new Antiques Row, the South Bronx’s own little Lafayette Street. Not far from ABC Carpet and Home’s discount warehouse, a half-dozen shops now bustle in a two-block stretch of low, redbrick walk-ups rising from freshly laid city-financed cobblestone.

After an hour of shopping, I drive up Alexander Avenue, where I find not howling poverty and crack zombies but the sturdy little Mott Haven Historic District of brick townhouses, once the “Irish Fifth Avenue.” Continuing North, I pass through the thriving “Hub” commercial district (imagine multiple 14th Streets intersecting) into the Longwood Historic District, which has entire blocks of some of the most lovingly maintained gabled Victorian townhouses this side of Park Slope.

I decide to head for an extreme antidote to my morning of Bronx grit: City Island. This unlikely fishing village off Pelham Bay Park is the least “New York” place in New York, the Bronx’s unlikely answer to Nantucket, even if it is reachable by the No. 29 bus. City Island balances a B&T Camaro sensibility, as seen in its many stuccoed, Jersey-esque fish emporiums, against a Westport-style seaside preciousness, in evidence at Le Refuge, a charming bed-and-breakfast run by a Norman aesthete and chef, Pierre Saint-Denis.

But this is City Island, and I will not be denied a lobster. Disappointed by the $30 price tag at the fancy-ish Lobster Box, I later learn from a local where I went wrong. “You should have gone to Johnny’s Reef,” she says. I laugh. Johnny’s is a seagull-infested carnival of a greasy spoon at the island’s edge, a sort of Bronx-does-Nathan’s home of triple-fried belly bombs. But this local is serious: “It’s actually got the freshest fish, because of the incredibly high turnover. They’ll steam it with garlic if you want it. And it’s as cheap as fast food.”

After City Island, I wind my way back west along the Pelham Parkway, through Bronx Park and into the Belmont section. Belmont, and its Main Street, Arthur Avenue, is the city’s premier time warp. Old ladies shuffle from market to market outside the huge, baroque Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. Kids in Yankees jerseys play, well, basketball (there must be stickball around here somewhere). Imagine Elizabeth Street before NoLIta was ever a concept.

I would stop in for a cannoli at Egidio but instead head straight for dinner at Dominick’s, to avoid the rush. Dominick’s is the de rigueur stop before a trip to the Stadium. You just sort of tell them what you want, and then they sort of charge you what they want. With its atmosphere of old-world insularity, Dominick’s is as close as I’ll ever get to one of those off-limits men’s clubs on Mulberry Street where the shades are always drawn.

Afterward, I get back in the car and hurry west, because no perfect Bronx day can end without an early-evening trip to Wave Hill, the stunning 28-acre public estate and garden overlooking the Hudson, once inhabited by Arturo Toscanini. The landscaped grounds are celestial and can best be enjoyed during the poet’s hour, before sundown (Friday is the only day they’re open till dusk, however). Mark Twain actually lived here late in life, and in what could only be a testament to Wave Hill’s powers of spiritual sedation, he managed to do so for two years without jotting down some memorably savage snipe about it.

My final stop is just minutes away. An Beal Bacht Cafe is Riverdale’s bustling little Irish coffee house and bar aimed at one of America’s most rapidly expanding ethnic subcultures – the ponytailed, Guinness-pint-rating, Yeats-quoting Hiberno-bohemian postgraduates who trek up on the No. 9 train to find this little photo-plastered emerald tucked away among the Laundromats and newsstands of West 238th Street. Tonight, I’m out of luck. It’s too early to catch a tin-whistle-and-uilleann-pipes jam session. A cup of tea, and I’m off.

As I leave, it strikes me that An Beal Bacht’s sudden popularity is a bit ironic, since it comes at a time when so many young Irish immigrants are ditching Bainbridge Avenue and Woodlawn to return to Dublin, the EC’s improbable new boomtown. These young hopefuls, I guess, are just like their Irish forerunners who settled Highbridge in the twenties, or the newly prosperous Jews of the thirties and forties who made the Concourse their own Art Deco Park Avenue. For all these people, the Bronx was an ideal launching pad, but only that; it was a place you just had to leave after a generation or two. It’s never been clear to me why.

Summer Fun Day Tripping: The Bronx