Magazine Preview: Take the 6 to Pelham Bay
Written by Bwog Staff
The 6 train emerges from beneath East 139th street, rising in languid arcs above the Bronx. It crosses over the Bronx River and the newly completed and still-manicured Concrete Plant Park, a renovated abandoned cement factory. A pair of children shriek with Disney-inspired delight at the announcement of “Castle Hill,” and an older man patiently clasps his collapsible bicycle. The train proceeds northeast until it reaches its final destination: Pelham Bay Park, the massive green space that draws both the kids and the bikers.
Pelham Bay Park is perhaps best known to outsiders for lending its name to John Godey’s 1974 novel The Taking of Pelham 123, the story of a subway train that leaves Pelham Bay Station at 1:23 pm and is hijacked beneath Midtown.
But today, the pace of a police thriller seems incongruous with Pelham Bay’s tranquility. An expansive, middle-class neighborhood, its residential streets betray its physical and ideological distance from Manhattan’s tumultuous density. Brick colonials and two-story Tudors add a suburban touch and house the neighborhood’s mix of elderly couples and new families. In recent years, the once predominantly Jewish and Italian-American area has become more diverse with the influx of Hispanic, black and Eastern European families.
While a third of Pelham’s population commutes roughly half an hour into the city to work in service, construction, or maintenance industries, a stroll through Pelham hints at the peaceful seclusion of a true suburb. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the streets were empty except for one elderly German woman hoping to find customers interested in contents of her bulging garage.
The unique feature distinguishing Pelham Bay from both the inner city and further-flung suburbs is the park itself. It is the city’s largest park property at more than 2,700 acres and covers more than three times the area of Central Park. But from the neighborhood, it’s easy to miss that expanse of green lying just beyond I-95. A small Parks Service office is the only hint of the undiscovered acres of woodland that line the Bronx’s edge.
Defining the neighborhood almost as much as the Park is I-95, which cuts a wide swath through Pelham Bay to carry hundreds of thousands of cars in and out of the city each day. The 6-lane thoroughfare courses a level down from the street, dividing the subway station and the edge of the neighborhood from the park. Above, the elevated subway line straddles Westchester Avenue, a main artery of the neighborhood lined with local businesses.
Pelham’s subdued character makes it seem all the more cloistered when one realizes its proximity to Co-op City, a cooperative housing development for some 50,000 New Yorkers. Rising as many as 30 stories high, the physically imposing development contains three shopping centers, six schools, a power plant, and a firehouse. Its homogeneous concrete form dominates I-95 and the skyline alike, reinforcing Co-Op City’s self-contained autonomy.
Despite urban planning’s oft-sterile feel, Pelham preserves its character. The neighborhood is well-worn and characterized by generations of New Yorkers, not by a development committee. Shingled roofs are visible walking down Pelham’s quiet avenues, not high-rises, and on the overpass that leads back to the station, neither the monolithic eyesores nor the rush of traffic detract from the satisfaction of the vista stretching out to the Sound.
Illustration by Liz Lee