Thursday, May 3, 2007

Arts & Culture: Taking a Stroll Through Woodlawn Heights


Here on a Monday noon, all is calm—except for these "proper" drunks. Photographed by Bob Lewis.

By Connor Molloy


I went to the northernmost Bronx hoping to find the exact spot where the city meets suburbia
a place where rugged inner city life comes crashing up against the opulent lives of the suburban elite. What I found instead was a predominantly Irish neighborhood called Woodlawn Heights. Woodlawn Heights is a place largely forgotten by its urban neighbors to the south as well as its suburban ones to the north. That is something that seems to sit just fine with the rosy-cheeked people who call this place home.

Exiting at the last stop on the 4 train, one thing struck me immediately. The area was spread out, a foreign concept to people in Manhattan. I tried to find a comparison to my surroundings. The first place that came to mind was Chicago with it's exposed subway and platforms that take you over the highway. There was a strange emptiness to the place. Maybe a clump of cars at a traffic light or a group of people pushing out of a bar, which made me think of St. Louis, Missouri, and Arlington, Virginia. Absent were Manhattan's hordes of people pushing past each other and the never-ending stream of cars threatening to wipe out pedestrians at every intersection. There were apartment buildings, but also homes with driveways, gas stations, trees, and flags
Irish flags, everywhere.

I walked up a hill and found two men sitting on a bench I assumed to be a bus stop, but later learned was simply a bench next to the road. They offered no explanation as to why they were sitting there at 3 p.m. on a weekday. They were the ones who told me about Woodlawn's overwhelmingly Irish heritage and about the neighborhood's borders. The Bronx River Parkway separates Woodlawn on the east from "the minorities," the men said. To the north is Yonkers, to the west is Deacon Parkway, and to the south is the sprawling Woodlawn cemetery, the eternal resting place of such famous New Yorkers as Lionel Hampton and Irving Berlin.

The four borders of Woodlawn might as well have walls built around them, because what you find within is so different from the rest of the city. The Irish seeps into everything
Irish newspapers are on the newsstands, Irish cola is stocked on the shelves, and here and there signs are posted in Ireland's native language, Gaelic. There are pubs everywhere, two a block on the main drags of McLean Parkway and Katonah Avenue. Residents of Woodlawn are always saying hi, unlike the other New Yorkers who are quicker with a "fuck you" than a "how do you do?" If they recognize you as living there they will talk your ear off anytime you pass them.

I met a woman originally from England who had an easygoing job at a video rental store. She told me Woodlawn reminded her of small-town England
no Blockbusters or Rite Aids, just a half dozen corner shops staffed by boys with shaved heads, short sleeves, and tattoos of shamrocks running up and down their arms.

I drank an orange-flavored Irish soda in a cafe adorned with crosses and four leaf clovers. I talked to a woman who had just moved to the United States six months ago and another waitress who had come from Galway two years ago. They enjoy the United States, they told me, but want to end up back in Ireland. "Ireland's my home," said the one from Galway. Clearly, Woodlawn helps ease the pain of being away.

What are the issues in Woodlawn? Not much, I'm told.

One of the waitresses responded to my question distractedly. "People are here to get on with their lives," she said. That seems to be the case. Everywhere I went on the sunny late afternoon people were smiling. Men nursed beers in bar windows and young girls rambled on to each other in an English I could barely understand.

Perhaps the biggest testament to these peoples' genuinely carefree attitude can be seen in their near total lack of carryover regarding the North/South, Protestant/Catholic infighting that is so rampant in Ireland. "There�s none of that here," the girls tell me. "Maybe with some young men if they're proper drunk, but even that's rare."

I�m so glad I went to Woodlawn. It allowed me to come up for air from the incessant hustle and flow that is the norm in Manhattan and West Brooklyn. It is a place I could get lost in, and one I felt more than a little sad leaving. Actually, I did get a bit lost on my walk back to the train. But in a way I think it's better that way. Getting lost in Woodlawn is a lot like staggering home drunk in Dublin. You know any bar you stumble into will greet you with a song and a beer, any stranger you run into will offer you a smile and directions, and any shop you walk into will be staffed by cute South Irish girls with even cuter accents.

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