It's been nearly 115 years since a stand of stately tulip trees was planted to grace the lovely walkway and lawns leading to the New York Botanical Garden's Mertz Library in the Bronx.
They joined a so-called mother tulip tree, which may be more than 100 years older, on the former grounds of the Lorillard family mansion, where the 250-acre botanical garden was created in 1891 as a buffer against urban development progressing north from Manhattan.
Much has changed since then in this oft-maligned borough of New York, and most of its grand estates are gone. Several friends — one a Bronx native— expressed surprise when I told them I'd be visiting their old stamping grounds this summer.
Though it will probably never be as hip as Manhattan or Brooklyn, the Bronx is undergoing something of a revival and is the fastest-growing borough in New York — its population is up 5.1% since 2010.
"I'd contend that the Bronx is as rich with history and culture as any city," said Anthony Ramirez, a 38-year-old Bronx entrepreneur and activist. "Unfortunately, some people still think of the Bronx of the 1970s and '80s, when there was a crack epidemic and landlords were burning their buildings for the insurance. Those days are gone."
For the visitor, there's plenty to see and experience. Besides the botanical garden, which is filled with 20 installations by glassworks artist Dale Chihuly through Oct. 29, the city's northernmost borough is also home to the 265-acre Bronx Zoo, to say nothing of the 400-acre Woodlawn Cemetery, where jazz musician Duke Ellington, "Moby-Dick" author Herman Melville and suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton are buried. All totaled, more than a quarter of the Bronx has been preserved in open space.
New York Botanical Garden
My morning at the botanical garden started with a 20-minute ride from Grand Central Station in Manhattan. Within minutes of stepping off the train, I was standing in front of the Mertz Library fountain, where water tumbled over a blue Chihuly glass sculpture.
The 100-foot-tall tulip trees provided shade for my tour group as our guide, the aptly named Todd Forrest, who heads the garden's horticultural programs, told us that the former Lorillard estate is now home to more than 1 million plants from all over the world.
Moreover, he said, it's a National Historic Landmark, the largest botanical garden in the United States and a treasured cultural institution that ranks with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art as an essential part of New York City's cultural landscape.
Forrest first led us through the library, which is the largest botanical research facility of its kind in the Americas, past Chihuly drawings and glass sculpture displays. Then it was on to the soaring Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a stunning white Victorian greenhouse inspired by Palm House in England's Royal Botanic Gardens.
Though there are more than than four dozen individual gardens on the grounds, Forrest said it is the wild heart of the park-like institution that he enjoys the most. It's there, on the banks of Bronx River, that the Lorillards built a tobacco snuff processing mill in 1840. The building was restored in 2010 to the tune of $10.5 million and is now a popular spot for weddings.
"If you've gotten that deep into the garden by the old mill dam, you'll likely have walked through all the peacefully tended and manicured landscapes, by the Victorian-era conservatory and through the perennial gardens," he said.
"In a sense, you'll have worked your way back in time and left the city behind, but for the distant and filtered sounds of airplanes, sirens and honking horns. No matter if it is the middle of winter or summer, the forest is magical."
The next day I headed for bucolic Woodlawn Cemetery on Webster Avenue, which opened during the Civil War and is the resting spot for more than 300,000 of the dearly departed.
Although most of the graves are modest, including markers of famed New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who served from 1934 to 1945, and composer Irving Berlin, it is the 1,300 sometimes garish mausoleums that attract many to the cemetery, guide Susan Olsen said. Some are the size of not-so-small houses, built by the wealthy and ostentatious of their day.
The remains of a dozen who perished when the Titanic went down in 1912 are interred at Woodlawn. Among them is Isidor Straus, who co-owned Macy's department store and died with his wife, Ida, in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. Their family's large mausoleum resembles a Egyptian funeral barge. Sadly, Ida's body was never recovered from the sea.
"We wanted to create a community space and reintroduce the Bronx to Bronxites who don't know the history of the borough and show the rest of the world what a cool place this is, one well worth visiting," Anthony Ramirez said of the 800-square-foot beer hall, which seats about 60 during the day and more after the other vendors close. The hall serves locally sourced food and a score of beers, all from New York state.
For a taste of Arthur Avenue's Italian roots, I took a stroll with Danielle Oteri, whose great-grandparents moved from near Naples, Italy, in the late 1800s and opened a dried fish store on the avenue. When her Uncle John took over, it became a butcher shop.
She grew up in the suburbs 20 minutes north of the old neighborhood, but frequently returned for family meals and other gatherings. Today, the family shop butcher shop, which we visited, is called Vincent's Meat Market and sells organic meat procured from family farms.
Other stops on the walk included Calandra's Cheese, where we sampled imported Italian fare, including a Parmesan/gouda blend and a sheep's milk cheese infused with black truffles.
Then there was Cosenza's Fish Market, where we sampled oysters from the sidewalk raw bar, and the Egidio Pastry Shop, which opened in 1912 and is the oldest pastry store in Little Italy. Carmela Lucciola, the proprietor, still uses Don Pascuale Egidio's original recipes, preserved in his handwriting, Oteri explained.
"I love those places," said Oteri, who also leads food tours in Italy. "Some of them have been in the same family for three generations or more."
Lunch called, so we stopped at the Arthur Avenue Fiasco restaurant, where I had a yummy marinara pizza with tomato sauce, basil, extra virgin olive oil and Parmigiana cheese. When I asked if I could get it served deep-dish style like I'd enjoyed in Chicago, my lunch companion, born and raised in the Bronx, scoffed and said, "Are you kiddin' me? This is New Yawk. Deep dish is not pizza."
I wasn't entirely done with the Bronx after my meal, however. Later that night I returned to the New York Botanical Garden, where the Chihuly glass sculptures were spectacularly lighted. Musicians played at various spots and dancers tumbled and pranced on the walkways and grass.
The garden truly is, as Forrest told me on my arrival a few days earlier, a magical place.
If you go
New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx, N.Y.; (718) 817-8700. Admission is $20 for adults on weekdays, $25 for adults on weekends and holidays. Closed Mondays. NYBG is 20 minutes from Midtown Manhattan on Metro-North Railroad, which runs from Grand Central Terminal to the Botanic Garden stop. See www.nybg.org/visit
TO LEARN MORE