Vol. 16, No. 18 Sept. 11 - 24, 2003



     
 

University Heights: 'Bronx in Microcosm'

By ROBERT WADDELL

With this issue, the Norwood News officially begins to cover University Heights. We thought we'd provide our readers with a brief history of the neighborhood to mark the occasion. - Ed.

Professor Lloyd Ultan looked down at a map of University Heights at the Bronx County Historical Society headquarters. To Ultan, the borough's official historian, University Heights is brimming with history.

There was no actual founding date of University Heights, but subtle changes leading to the creation of a community that includes Aqueduct, and Devoe parks, St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, Jimmy's Bronx Café and the Veterans Hospital. 

In the 1660s, Dutch settler John Archer bought a tract of land, which in today's geography would go north from Highbridge to West 238th Street and from the Harlem River to the Bronx River. He built houses along the river and Spuyten Duyvil. The water on the river was shallow, and before a bridge was built residents would ford at low tide. The Saxon word for village was ham, so the village where one forded across the river became known as Fordham. 

Archer incurred large debts and the land came under the Dutch Reform Church. The church would later sell the land to individual apple and wheat farmers in 1755.

During the American Revolution, the upper part of the Harlem River was of strategic importance. The Continental Army built eight forts controlling the heights above the northern part of the river. Fort Number 5 stood where the Veterans Hospital is today. And Fort Number 8 stood on the future campus of Bronx Community College. 

The British overran the forts. The Tories would steal cattle to feed British troops and were called cowboys. According to Ultan, the word was invented in the Bronx. 

In June of 1781, George Washington and his troops cleared the area of Hessians and Tories for a short period. But it wasn't until 1783 before the British evacuated the Bronx.

By the mid-19th century, University Heights had changed from rural farmland to a suburban area. In 1857, upper middle class immigrants built homes on the ridge overlooking the Harlem River Valley; three of these homes still stand on the campus of Bronx Community College.

In 1866, Leonard W. Jerome, a flamboyant stock speculator, built a racetrack on the land now occupied by the Jerome Park Reservoir, the Kingsbridge Armory and Lehman College. Jerome needed to build a road to get rich patrons from New York City to the Bronx. He convinced local municipalities like Morrisania and West Farms to issue bonds to pay for Central Avenue, now called Jerome Avenue. 

On his death in 1890, one of Jerome's daughters placed signs on street corners along Central Avenue and overnight the street became Jerome Avenue. Another of Jerome's daughters, Jenny, married the second son of the Duke of Marlborough, Lord Randolph Churchill. Their son, Winston Churchill, was prime minister of England during World War II.

During the 1890s, construction began on New York University's uptown campus, which would later become Bronx Community College. The architect Stanford White built a retaining wall so that buildings wouldn't slide down the cliff into the Harlem River. The retaining wall would include a colonnade for educational purposes, the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. 

"This is America's pantheon," said Ralph Rourke, director of the Hall of Fame. "In 
architecture and spirit, the Hall of Fame radiates the intellectual accomplishments of a century."

(Trivia note: In the 1939 classic film, "The Wizard of Oz," after Dorothy has killed the Wicked Witch of the East and is celebrated by the Munchkins, several of the little people sing, "You'll be a bust, you'll be a bust, you'll be a bust in the Hall of Fame," referringto the Bronx landmark.) 

During the construction of the uptown NYU campus, Aqueduct Avenue became University Avenue. And the area to the north and east became known as University Heights. 

By the 20th century, African Americans, Irish, Jewish, Puerto Rican and Vietnamese immigrants moved into the area. In 1977, Dr. Rosylin Yalow of the Veterans Hospital won the Nobel Prize for medicine in her work in cancer research. 

With its deep history, its overall stability, and its nurturing of immigrants for all over the world, Ultan says University Heights shares much with the rest of the borough. 

"In this area you call University Heights, in many instances, it's the epitome of the history of the Bronx in microcosm," Ultan said.

Ed. note: Shortly after this article was written, Ralph Rourke, director of the Hall of Fame, passed away at age 80. An obituary will appear in our next issue.

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