Bronx Contours: A Photo Essay

Anderson Avenue at Shakespeare Avenue
Anderson Avenue at Shakespeare Avenue

Walking in New York can at times feel a little too smooth: the rationality of the grid and subtle grade changes conspire to hide the natural terrain beneath all that asphalt and concrete. That’s not the case in the Bronx, the city’s mainland toehold, where topography is at play like nowhere else in this archipelago metropolis. Moving east from the Hudson River, you’ll hit ridges and valleys, sudden disruptions in the grid curving upward to gradually gain altitude, and even the abandonment of pavement where inclines become too steep and streets turn to steps.

The built city has responded to, rather than combatted, the Bronx’s undulations of schist, marble, and gneiss. Here, topography structures life. An incline might mark a boundary, like the towering wall along Riverdale Avenue that separates its namesake neighborhood from Kingsbridge — a divide that further embodies the longstanding socioeconomic topography of affluent heights and middle-class valleys. Elsewhere the prominence of institutions and rises intertwine: great Americans are immortalized at the Bronx Community College in University Heights, and the James J. Peters VA Medical Center peaks at Kingsbridge Road and Sedgwick Avenue just to the north. The Concourse owes a chunk of its grandness to its path along a ridge; go a block to either side in some places, and you’ll face a vista and a sizable drop. And it is from these outlooks that the implications of manufactured landscapes — notably, the canyon of the Cross Bronx Expressway — become especially visible.

It was with this conspicuous role of the Bronx’s topography in mind that we approached Kris Graves, a New York-based photographer whose work explores permanence and ephemerality, memory, and the inevitability of change in both the natural and built environment. Graves travels often, and his portfolio places cityscapes of Chinese megalopolises in conversation with pristine landscapes from the far reaches of Iceland and intimate spaces of small-town Montana. “When thinking of landscapes, I try to focus on the volatile — land that is ever changing,” Graves explains. “New developments alter the physical and mental landscape of the city, constantly renewing and reimagining topography and usage.” Graves spent eight years documenting development and identity of place here in New York as well. Last month, he put 20 miles on his Nike Air Max 90s capturing how topography is manifested in the West Bronx, from Yankee Stadium to Riverdale. Take a look at the city’s great north through his lens. –J.T.

Kris Graves creates photographs of landscapes and people to preserve memory. The images’ stillness cause the viewer to acknowledge the inevitability of change and the passage of time. These views will never be exactly as they were at their precise recorded moment. Graves suspends his belief and knowledge of this change, not to document a moment or state, but rather to sustain it. Graves has a BFA from SUNY Purchase College and currently works as studio manager and photographer for the Guggenheim Museum. He has won the Juror’s Selection for Center Forward at The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has exhibited widely across the United States. Graves has published four books of his photographs and operates a limited edition publishing company called Kris Graves Projects.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Joseph Heathcott June 3, 2015

Really, really fabulous work! The Bronx is heaving! Love it.

Joseph Heathcott
The New School

Jean Gardner June 3, 2015

The Earth shaping human habitation, as it should — rather than our bull-dozing, leveling and misaligning it as a resource to be exploited. It is our home, –our only home!

Gideon Fink Shapiro June 4, 2015

Well done, and great concept for this photo essay. Particularly the wedge-shaped sites created along the sloping switchbacks, and the boulders protruding from the pavements.

Richard Stein June 5, 2015

Thank you for this wonderful photo essay. It’s a great surprise to see how great a gritty urban landscape can look.

I’m a lifelong resident of the northwest Bronx and it’s remarkable to me how little has changed in some of the areas you photographed.

The granite outcropping you captured near Fieldston School was a favorite place for the kids who grew up across the street in the 1950s to be daredevils. We climbed up as high as we could and then jumped and rolled on the pavement below.

Just out of the picture of of the 238th Street step street near Irwin Ave. was the house champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson built for his mother. He used to give rides to kids from all over the neighborhood in his purple Cadillac.

Tita May 24, 2017

To Richard Stein: i loved climbing on those rocks near Fieldsto in the 80’s

BronxAce July 10, 2017

LOVE IT!! It’s so much like it was when Mom, Sis and I used to walk thru the Bronx, transistor radio in hand, listening to the Yankees games.

pschase March 16, 2018

Always loved the BX for the hills and terrain, as a skateboarder growing up in NYC. Great article

Nick December 2, 2018

Very interesting post and I am going to check these places out when I next come to NYC.

I would be very grateful if someone could please tell me the location of the steps shown at 3:29 and onwards of this classic BDP video:

Many thanks!

Eno Bull June 20, 2019

I’ve seen a handful of these places a million times, never captured so beautifully though. I loved your photo essay!

Eno Bull Photography

Sherida Paulsen July 11, 2023

Wonderful photo essay! The rock outcroppings and stair streets are major characters in our Bronx urban streetscapes. It reinforces the need to consider topography when drawing zoning maps and considering zoning modifications that assume that the city is make up of flat surfaces. Anyone walking throughout the city can attest to the need to consider more than a 1500 foot radius to determine walkable neighborhoods.
Thank you!

Carolyn Monastra July 16, 2023

A beautiful, informative photo essay by a talented photographer with a keen eye for revealing beauty through juxtapositions and detail. Bravo Kris!

Dean Schilling February 22, 2024

Elevation change, views, enclosure, landscape and earth all contribute to provide interest and a heightened memory of place. Stairs and such also provide good exercise!