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