Born to Study the Bronx

Monday, August 02, 2010

Here's a way to get to know your city: Ask the borough historian. All this summer, we've been catching up with the five men in charge of preserving and studying New York neighborhoods. This week, WNYC's Kathleen Horan takes us to the Bronx.


Bronx historian Lloyd Ultan says he basically came out of the womb wondering about the past. "Even as a toddler, I was always asking what happened before I was born, and when I was old enough to get a library card from the New York Public Library, the first book I ever took out was a history book!"


In the time since he checked out his first book, he's written nine of his own about the Bronx. He's surrounded by them sitting at his desk at the Bronx Historical Society. He looks formal in his white buttoned-down shirt and tie. The-72-year-old's most distinctive feature is his wild grey eyebrows hovering over his glasses. They raise higher when he considers all the information New Yorkers have yet to learn:


"Most people don't know that the statue of Lincoln and the Lincoln memorial was actually sculpted in the Bronx by Italian immigrants who assembled it in place in Washington, D.C."


"Most people don't know the American bison, the buffalo, was saved from extinction in the Bronx in the zoo."


"Most people don't know that puffed wheat and puffed rice were developed in the Bronx in the New York Botanical Garden..."


It appears that Ultan could keep reciting this list without the help of notes...for hours. When he does have the occasional question, he simply walks down the creaky halls of the office and starts digging.


He says he's found there are still too many people with misconceptions about his borough. "They think that the Bronx is filled with people who live a very feral life, they're ready to pounce on any unwary person and bop 'em on the head and rob them and make all sorts of mayhem. This is, of course, a complete canard that has been perpetuated ever since 1977, when Jimmy Carter walked the plains of Charlotte Street and there were block after block of rubble."


Ultan teaches at Lehman College and Fairleigh Dickinson University in addition to performing his duties as the official borough historian.


Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer says that he's never met anyone with Lloyd's grasp and appreciation of Bronx history, which is why he didn't consider anyone else for the job when he appointed him. That was 14 years ago (Ultan has been reappointed twice), making him the longest serving borough historian of the pack.


Ultan continues to publish -- but he doesn't use the Internet for research. "My problem is that the state of the Internet hasn't reached the stage I want it to," he says.


Neither has cell phone technology or email...although he's made an exception to answer listener questions online this week.

Bronx County Historical Society—Valentine-Varian House
Kathleen Horan/WNYC

Bronx County Historical Society—Valentine-Varian House

Tavern in the Bronx
Kathleen Horan/WNYC

Tavern in the Bronx

Kathleen Horan/WNYC

Employees of the Tallapoosa-Inn, part of Pelham Bay Park. Made from a cracked glass negative

Kathleen Horan/WNYC

A Bronx road under construction, at the turn of the century

The granite statue of a typical Union soldier in, which was bought by a local Bronx businessman, which can be found at the Bronx Historical Society
Kathleen Horan/WNYC

The granite statue of a typical Union soldier in, which was bought by a local Bronx businessman, which can be found at the Bronx Historical Society

Bronx Home News archives on microfilm
Kathleen Horan/WNYC

Bronx Home News archives on microfilm

Mission statement for Bronx Home News
Kathleen Horan

Mission statement for Bronx Home News

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Comments [9]

Our Gal Sunday from The Bay State

I agree, Susan -- the Kate Simon books are wonderful. On another topic, I'm soooo glad to see that many folks remember The Bronx Home News! I was quite young when it stopped arriving and, unfortunately, I never followed it in the New York Post 'cuz my folks were N. Y. Daily Mirror fans. I haven't googled that yet; it'll be interesting to learn its history. Does anyone remember their Beautiful Baby contests? Silly stuff, but such cute photos. :-)

Jun. 01 2012 11:28 PM
Bronx Historian from The Bronx Historical Society

Robin Whyatt - The executive director of The Bronx Historical Society, Dr. Gary Hermalyn, has a special interest in the saving of the American buffalo at The Bronx Zoo. If you don't mind, would you kindly replay to this address:

Thank you.

Nov. 16 2010 11:09 AM
Grace Conforti from Green Brook, New Jersey

My family moved from the South Bronx to Throgg's Neck in the late 20's. I love hearing their description of what it looked like then, but am more interested in earlier history. Where can I learn more about the Native Americans in this area? I think there was a fire circle/settlement on the shore at the end of Tremont Avenue.

Aug. 06 2010 10:54 AM
alekandr pugachev from Queens

Where does the name Jamaica in Queens come from?

This is not a question for the historian, but why is it so hard to find information on the other boroughs you have covered? I can't always listen, but I can check back.

Aug. 06 2010 09:50 AM
Eddie from my rooftop garden

First, can you recommend any good books specifically about the history of the NY Botanical Gardens? I heard someone mention there was a really good new one, but I can't find it. For some reason the title had something about the British Empire or Great Britain or...???

I hope I don't sound too ignorant by asking this, but did the NY Botanical Garden start out as a kind of "resort" for the wealthy or was it always like a public park? Or did it start out even before that as a place for scientists to study plants? Why does it have a museum if it's a garden?

Aug. 05 2010 07:44 PM
susan from bronx, ny

Non-Fiction: Memoir
two wonderful books written by a Bronx author about her growing up in the Borough.

Bronx Primitive
Portraits in a Childhood

Written by: Kate Simon

Published By: Harper and Row Publishers

also wrote ''A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence'' (1986).

Aug. 04 2010 03:20 PM
Robin Whyatt

I would like to learn more about how the American Buffalo was saved from extinction at the Bronx Zoo. I believe my grandfather, Fairfield Osborn, who was head of the Zoo at that time, was responsible for this project but I don't know much about it. Nonetheless, I remember as a very young child being driven into a herd of Buffalo in Wyoming by a wildlife biologist who was working with my grandfather to save the buffalo. It was a terrifying and exilarating experience and I would love to learn more about this whole effort.

Aug. 03 2010 11:27 AM

What area of the Bronx would you say is the most unappreciated yet safe to visit?

Aug. 03 2010 09:43 AM
Mary Shefford from New Jersey

Where does the name Throggs Neck come from ??

Aug. 02 2010 01:05 PM

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