Hall of Fame for Great Americans

In my opinion, what isn’t in the Hall of Fame is as interesting as what is actually there.  The Hall of Fame has sculptures of historical figures, each with a plaque describing or perhaps quoting the personage. That’s all there is: no audio tour, no QR Reader, no pamphlets. To learn more about why each individual is in the Hall of Fame, you either need a guide or a smartphone that might find the Bronx Community College’s fifteen-year-old Hall of Fame website.  One has to wonder how did visitors approach the site when it first opened? Did visitors pause at each monument and contemplate every figure?

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The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was opened in 1900, inspired by King Ludwig I of Bavaria’s Walhalla in Germany. It’s located inside the campus of Bronx Community College in University Heights, which belonged to New York University until 1974.  The Hall of Fame should be understood as a monument of and for the elite. I think Greg Young of the Bowery Boys website describes it well: “With America flush with Gilded Age wealth, the Hall of Fame was intended to be an American pantheon, a modern response to the god-filled marble hallways of Europe….you are thrown back into a mix of turn-of-the-century scholarly aesthetic and the belief of equating the American movement with ancient Roman and Greek forefathers.”

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How were figures selected to be in the Hall of Fame? For decades, when the site was more widely known, the Hall of Fame had a complicated selection process involving letter writing campaigns and a panel of voters representing every state.  Universities and organizations actively campaigned to have their local heroes or recently deceased leaders included in the Hall of Fame.

gw carver

The Hall of Fame’s demographics, as you might expect, heavily skews towards upper-class white men and women with ancestry from Western Europe.  There are no Native Americans here. Booker T. Washington (pictured above) was the first African-American chosen and he was only elected in 1945. David Farragut is the lone Hispanic figure. I doubt there is any figure here whose family immigrated to the United States after 1880.

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James Russell Lowell, (1819-1891) poet, diplomat and the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

The most controversial inductees to the Hall of Fame from a contemporary perspective were Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, generals for the Confederate States of America. Lee was inducted in 1923 and Jackson in 1957, due to a campaign led by the Charlotte, North Carolina chapter of the United Daughters of Confederacy.  Not coincidentally, the fifties was a time when many Confederate monuments were erected in the South as a hostile response to the Civil Rights movement. It’s remarkable that at the same time when many African-Americans were moving from places like Charlotte to the Bronx because of political, economic and educational discrimination, Stonewall Jackson was being honored in this liberal borough.

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In 2017, Lee and Jackson’s sculptures were taken down as part of a national movement of removing monuments associated with the Confederate States and white supremacy.  I think removing these statues was appropriate, but the issue of who should remain in the Hall of Fame is complex.  If being considered racist by 21st century standards is a reason to be removed from the Hall of Fame, half of the sculptures would have to be removed. Now that Lee and Jackson are gone, I think the Hall of Fame should be left alone. Adding a sculpture for Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks will not make the place less stodgy or more equal. If it was up to me, I would expand the Hall of Fame and make the current part a section of a larger public space with contemporary art installations in ‘dialogue’ with the original sculptures and what they represent.

Grand Concourse, Grand Synagogues (1)

“Hope of Israel is our spiritual home for praying, for talking to G-d, a house for study and learning.  It also serves our community educationally, culturally and socially and throughout the year.  Very often we welcome guests from the local courts, from other parts of the city, even out of towners. Some are mourners, some have Yahrzeit (prayers in memory of a parent), still others who visit the sick at neighborhood hospitals and ask for special get-well prayers for their recovery. Believe it or not, people bring their family to watch the ball game at Yankee Stadium, and at the same time take time out to catch Maariv (evening) services at our shul. Now you can see for yourself why we must try hard to keep our synagogue alive.” -Bernard Kesten, Hope of Israel bulletin, 1983.

hopeEvery few months, I make a silent pilgrimage to Walton Avenue so that I can walk past the Hope of Israel synagogue, which closed in 2006.  Looking at the synagogue from the vantage point of the Bronx Supreme Court House, I see the continued decay of the building. A broken window. Graffiti tags.  Accumulations of garbage. Often as I pass it is evening and I wish that it was still open for Ma’ariv services or that I could turn back the clock twenty years so that I could visit my late relatives at their apartment on the Grand Concourse.  Other passersby notice the synagogue too.  They take pictures of it and ask their own questions on social media: Why did the synagogue, like hundreds of others in the Bronx, cease to function as a place of Jewish worship? What’s going to happen to the abandoned building? Why was the synagogue called Hope of Israel in the first place?

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Bernard Kesten (1900-1997), my great-uncle and active member of Hope of Israel in the eighties and nineties.

I would like to preserve and share the narratives of those who attended Hope of Israel and similar synagogues in the Concourse, Fleetwood, and Mount Eden neighborhoods. To do so, my research focuses on the growth and decline of these synagogues, memories of synagogues’ congregants and the sermons of their Rabbis.  Together, these memories reveal the different perspectives Jews in the Bronx had in regards to their Jewish identity and religious observance and are part of a larger story of urban development, neglect, decay, and renewal.

In upcoming posts, I’ll blog about the history of various synagogues and shteiblach (small congregations) including Adath Jeshurun, Chabad of the South Bronx, David Center of the Bronx, Congregation Judah Halevi, Knesseth Israel, Mount Eden Jewish Center, Nusach Sfard of the Bronx, Sephardic Jewish Center, Shearith Israel, Tifereth Beth Jacob, Temple Adath Israel and Young Israel of the Concourse. I also will include the histories of the churches serving African-Americans and Hispanic residents of the South Bronx who acquired many of these former synagogues and worship in them to this day.

While the future of the building on 843 Walton Avenue remains unclear, it is clear that its history is of some cultural importance because of its prominent location.  Although it is not landmarked and not likely to be, Hope of Israel is a microcosm of the Concourse neighborhood’s history. I hope to preserve an echo of the voice of its former congregants and their Kehillah (community) online.

Big Bronx Deli

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An installation on the Bruckner Expressway, Big Bronx Deli (2009, vernacular) is an iconoclastic yet poignant deconstruction of the neoliberal, post-modern megacity and compels the viewer to contemplate the geospatial hegemony of language and consumer culture. Note how the fading red, white and blue letters evoke the elusiveness of the American dream, chased by paradigms of capitalism such as LaVar ‘Big Baller’ Ball, Michael Bloomberg, and Marina Abramovic. But what is being served to the patrons of Big Bronx Deli? The missing upper section of the sign is open to blue skies.