nw3 to nyc

Observations on moving my family across the Atlantic

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Busts in the Bronx

The weather’s calmed down a bit so J and I have been off on our New York adventures. Today that involved a trip north on the 4 train way up into the Bronx to Burnside Avenue. Not quite like the Upper East Side, that’s for sure, but home to a little known treasure hidden in the vast grounds of the Bronx Community College, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

I couldn’t quite believe how this could be in an obscure bit of the Bronx, but over 100 years ago the Chancellor of New York University decided to build a monument to mark the great men of America. This involved building a kind of 630 foot open air collonade. Basically an arc of columns under a patterned roof and between each column sits the bust of a famous American.


I loved the phrase written into the iron gates as you enter the collonade:

“Enter with joy that those within have lived.”

For me, many of the names were obscure but maybe for Americans they would know them instantly.

The statesmen section included many Presidents: Washington, Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln. Benjamin Franklin stands proud too – we like him because he invented the lightning rod, which I thought was pretty cool. There’s Alexander Graham Bell and Edgar Allan Poe, a new favourite since my visit to the Morgan Library last year. And of the 100-ish busts there are ten women and I’m sorry to say I hadn’t heard of any of them. They seemed to be mostly in education and in the anti slavery movement. And I think Franklin D Roosevelt, President until 1945 is the newest one of the lot and his bust is distinctive because it’s literally just his head, unlike all the others which included their shoulders.

I liked it. I thought it was a really peaceful, thoughtful place. I think in winter you can see right across to the Cloisters and possibly the Hudson River, but there were too many trees full of leaves to tell either way. I don’t know that it gets many visitors, we were the only ones in the hour I spent there. J enjoyed checking out the beards, he has a thing about them for some reason.

It might be worth the trip for anyone interested in US history, but I would recommend dressing down and not looking too much like a tourist, it’s just not that kind of place. Check out the photos below, apologies they are a bit dark, but the light was not in my favour, but you get the idea.

Entrance to the collonade

Entrance to the collonade













Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln













Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe









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Discovering Gramsci in the Bronx

I’m not sure how well known Antonio Gramsci is to most people. I came across him because I studied politics at university and I’ve been interested in left wing history for a long time. I was intrigued to read about a German artist called Thomas Hirschhorn who had been inspired by Gramsci and built a temporary monument to him in the Bronx. Gramsci has been dead since 1937, he was a Sardinian-born communist, intellectual and revolutionary that spent the last ten years or so of his life in prison. From there he wrote his prison note books, which are heavily referenced in Hirschhorn’s work.

There are lots of websites telling you about the project and I would encourage a visit to the Gramsci Monument website to find out more. What I wanted to record here was its impact on me.

I have seen a lot of art over the years, some is dull, some stimulates and some leaves a lasting impression. But seeing Hirschhorn’s work in the Bronx has really provoked an unusual response in me. Essentially it’s a badly constructed temporary structure, made of balsa wood, nails and a lot of duct tape. It’s a series of small rickety buildings with signs scrawn in marker pen and sheets covered in painted on quotes from Gramsci’s work.

The first picture here is what you see when you arrive; the second is inside the first main structure and is most like visiting a museum, filled with artefacts and a video on a loop in Italian; and the third is an example of the sheets covered in quotes from Gramsci that are draped around the structures and in some places from the actual apartment buildings that surround the monument.

Gramsci 1Gramsci 4Gramsci 3








I don’t mind admitting I was nervous about going to the Bronx: the structure is in the middle of a housing project in South Bronx, a run down area and not on the usual tourist trail. I took my two children with me: we were the only visitors. I felt like we were intruding. Nobody took any notice of us. The structures have been put up by the local residents, are used by them and they will be the ones to take them down. There is a real sense that this is meant to be here, it’s not intruding, it’s not been imposed on the locals, it’s like a visiting time machine and soon it will be gone.

I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to an artist and an exhibition of their own work. But here I spoke to Hirschhorn (photographed below), who was busy creating tomorrow’s Gramsci Monument Newspaper, which is published every day and contains a mixture of Gramsci quotes, extracts from left wing literature and local flavour, including ‘resident of the day’ on the back cover.

Gramsci 2 Gramsci 5








I asked him whether the Gramsci Monument had met his expectations and what it’s legacy would be for the residents. He was very intense, almost bemused by my questions. He said the legacy was the memory, that the local people will remember this experience and take that with them. He said the newspaper and the radio station that they created would be taken on by the local  Community Centre and for him, none of this was meant to be permanent, and that is the joy.

Reading about Gramsci, looking at pictures of him, artefacts from a museum in Italy, of his slippers and comb from prison, in a balsa wood rickety shack, listening to R&B or whatever booming in the background, in the South Bronx. Now that’s an NYC experience I won’t forget.

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I don’t think we’re in Manhattan any more

There are five boroughs in New York, with Manhattan being the most well known. Staten Island suffered horribly in the Hurricane and is often forgotten as the island off the bottom of Manhattan. The Bronx is at the other end of Manhattan and whilst I have discovered there is a zoo and a botanical garden there (to be visited on warmer days) it still makes me think of scary New York of the 70s. Ed Koch, Mayor between 1978 and 1990 died recently and was credited with transformation of the Bronx and other run down parts of New York. This leaves Queens and Brooklyn. The latter is of course well known because the Beckhams called their eldest son after the borough – it’s certainly up and coming now, with Park Slope known as the nappy valley of New York.  I visited the Transit Museum today and got my first glance at Brooklyn. I only saw the civic parts around city hall and the MTA (transport authority) but it was a world apart from Manhattan. Lower built and more interesting to look at than the high rises of the Upper East Side. And as for Queens, well, I wouldn’t go there again unless there was a good reason. We went to Astoria, which is across the East River from the Upper East Side of Manhattan and it is pretty unloved and run down. The Museum of the Moving Image has been there for 20 years but it hasn’t led to any regeneration in the neighbourhood a la Tate Modern in London. The museum is great, hosting a computer games through the ages exhibit (or excuse for middle aged men to play with computer games dating back to their teens) and it did make me laugh to see the Wizard of Oz as part of the permanent exhibition, when the first thoughts I had when we emerged from the subway were “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto”.