A trolley tour of historic gems in 'undiscovered' borough’

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Two friends from Long Island, M.J. Maione and Jackie Martin, have been driving through the Bronx for three decades, but never saw the borough beyond the Major Deegan or I-95 – until they embarked on a tour of the Bronx’s history and famed mansions on a recent fall day.

“We were trying to do something different to get us away from our home surroundings and educates us and… we just get a chance to enjoy the day,” Ms. Martin said.

The two women joined six other people on the trolley tour of “Mansions & Cottages: Historic Homes & Gardens of The Bronx,” offered by the Bronx Tourism Council. Leaving from the courthouse on the Grand Concourse, visitors traveled to see Wave Hill, Van Cortlandt Mansion – the oldest standing house in the borough – writer Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage, where he lived the last three years of his life, Valentine-Varian House, the oldest remaining farmhouse in the Bronx, and the Bartow-Pell Mansion, an estate and garden in Pelham Bay Park area.

The trolley also rolled past the former home of John F. Kennedy, who lived in Riverdale for part of his childhood, along the Grand Concourse, which was designed to invoke the feel of the Champs-Elysee in Paris, and past the Jerome Park Reservoir, which was a racetrack in the 1860s. For lunch, tourists ate on Arthur Avenue, known as the Little Italy of the Bronx.

“There are hidden jewels, and I haven’t been to some of them. And this tour is going to bring me to some of them,” said Anne Larsen, a native New Yorker who now lives upstate and spends part of the year on City Island.

Her favorite part of the tour was seeing the cottage of Mr. Poe. “It was quite affecting to see that building and to see the simplicity of it and to think of him dealing with things that humans deal with, the loss of his wife. The idea of him walking on High Bridge and thinking and writing his poems there – I’m never going to forget that when I read his poems or hear his poems,” Ms. Larsen said. “[The tour] made it really alive… That’s living, breathing Bronx.”

Ms. Martin agreed: “I thoroughly enjoyed it. I saw spots in the Bronx and heard about history in the Bronx that I didn’t know even existed,” she said at the end of the day.

“Before that, they were all names to me like Grand Concourse, Pelham Parkway. I didn’t really know the historical significance of anything. Mosholu, the Parkway, Gun Hill. I’ve heard about all these places on the radio when traffic is jammed up, but I had no idea there was so much history and so many fascinating places to see and so much to learn about.”

Her friend, Ms. Maione, added, as the group rode on the trolley back to the Grand Concourse at the end of the tour: “I really feel like it’s a hidden treasure that I didn’t know existed. It was just an eye-opener.”

Angel Hernandez, a program director at the Bronx County Historical Society and the tour guide, said the Bronx is “still the undiscovered borough in New York City.”

“There’s a lot of history here and there’s a lot of things out-of-towners and out-of-boroughers, as I like to call them, don’t know,” he said. “People are now discovering the Bronx and what we’re doing. We want to use the trolley and bring them around.”

What was Mr. Hernandez’s favorite home? The Bronx native said it was Van Cortlandt Mansion. “Van Cortlandt Mansion has a very special place because it’s the very first historic house that I ever visited. It’s the oldest house standing in the Bronx, built in 1748 and it’s the first historic house museum ever in New York City. One of my favorite subjects in history was the American Revolution. So, when I found out that George Washington, as general, commanded his army at one time from the mansion, that it made it more appropriate. It became one of my favorites.”

The tour, which the tourism council’s executive director Olga Luz Tirado called “a snapshot” of the Bronx, serves as an introduction to the area. “There is this misconception of the Bronx being this place that it was 30 years ago, but it’s totally changed,” she said.

While the tour features the highlights of the Bronx, it also packs in additional information about the borough, as the trolley travels through the streets. And, it has a purpose. “We want you to come back. That’s why we have some much stuff in the trolley tour,” Ms. Tirado said. “We have a food and farmers tour. We have a breweries tour. We have all these other things. It’s pretty cool.”

As he stood on the lawn at Wave Hill, overlooking the Hudson River, Mr. Hernandez added: “My hope is to bring people beyond Yankee Stadium, beyond their usual attractions in the Bronx and explore the rest of the borough.”

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The next Mansions & Cottages tour takes place on Saturday, Oct. 22 at 10 a.m. A ticket is $50 and includes lunch. For more information or to learn about other Bronx tours, visit www.ilovethebronx.com.

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