Nearly 150 years ago, the grounds of Parkchester in the Bronx served as a shelter for New York City’s homeless children. It was a place where kids could learn a trade and get a second chance. Today, Parkchester is enjoying its own second chance, a revitalization befitting of a place that once served as a model of planned community living.
Comprised of 112 residential buildings spread out over 129 acres, Parkchester today is home to more than 40,000 residents occupying some 8,000 condo and rental units. The community is also home to dozens of retail shops, restaurants and even a multiplex movie theatre.
The Early Days
In the early years of the 20th century, the tract of land bordered by East Tremont Avenue to the north, McGraw Avenue to the south, White Plains Road to the West and Purdy Street and Olmstead Avenue to the east served as the home of a Catholic protectory. Homeless kids, children in trouble with the law and young people whose parents could not afford to feed or clothe them found refuge on its grounds. They learned how to bake or do carpentry or sew, useful skills that would provide them with careers later. “They even had a uniformed band that would play throughout the city,” says Lloyd Ultan, Bronx Borough historian.
The Parkchester came into being through a fluke of legislation. In the 1930s, the New York State government temporarily amended its insurance code, providing a window of opportunity for life insurance companies to invest in rental housing projects. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company leapt at the chance to develop planned communities, the first of which was Parkchester.
The enormous complex—which at the time it was built was the largest housing complex in America—took its name from the communities that bordered it: Park Versailles and Westchester, which was the oldest continuously inhabited area of the Bronx, first settled in 1654. Construction on Parkchester began in 1938 and was completed in 1942, just after the United States entered World War II. The community was designed to be a middle-class city of its own, with shops including the first satellite Macy’s store, which is still there today. “Most new construction at that time was for the wealthy,” Ultan says. “Met Life built Parkchester as an experiment in housing for the middle class.”