Equal parts walking-encyclopedia and old-time jokester, historian Lloyd Ultan is on a mission to change your perceptions of his beloved borough.
Lloyd Ultan does not use email. He doesn’t own a cellphone. He doesn’t eat in restaurants, drive a car, or even have a driver’s license, for that matter. “I have the longest chauffeur-driven limousine on the highway: it’s called the bus!“ he says with a roaring laugh.
Truth be told, Ultan would have little use for a vehicle, as he rarely leaves the borough where he has lived for all of his seven-and-a-half decades. Ultan is an author, researcher, and the Borough Historian of the Bronx, an official position appointed by the Borough President, and one he has held since 1996.
“By state law, I am paid a six-figure salary,” Ultan says. “Unfortunately, by the same state law, all six figures are zero!” he adds, erupting into another fit of laughter. In each of the five boroughs, the post of official historian is an unpaid but highly respected position. Instead, Ultan pays his bills by teaching and writing books.
I first met Ultan on a Saturday afternoon in early October. He had promised to take me on an extensive walking tour of the South Bronx, an area that he thinks is given short shrift by most historians. His slight stoop, snow-white eyebrows, wrinkled face and thick glass spectacles made him look all of his 74 years and I wondered if he was strong enough for a walk that could take well over an hour.
But as Ultan dove right into borough history—“Mott Haven gets its name from a fellow by the name of Jordan L. Mott, an iron founder…”—his sharp voice sliced through my apprehensions about his health. Clear-cut words tumbled out of his mouth as he spoke non-stop about the Bronx, and it quickly became clear if anyone was going to have trouble keeping up that day, it would be me.
As borough historian, Ultan’s job is to make sure New Yorkers are familiar with the Bronx and its rich history. He preserves and compiles original records. He writes books and articles about the Bronx. He gives lectures and leads historic walks in the Bronx. Ultan eats, sleeps, and breathes the Bronx, and there’s nothing else he would rather do.
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“Even as a toddler, I was always asking people who were older than I was what happened before I was born,” recalls Ultan, who has held a lifelong fascination with history. “The very first book that I ever took out of the public library was a history book.”
“The earliest memory in my life is of seeing FDR,” he continues, in remarkable detail for a man describing something that took place seventy-two years ago. “This was on October 28, 1940, between four and 4:30 p.m. at the intersection of 165th Street and Grand Concourse, which was just around the corner from my house. My mother took me there. I was just under three years old. As we were standing there, a woman in a printed dress, with black hair and a pageboy haircut, turned her head to the left and clapped her hands like a seal.
“I looked in the direction she was seeing. In the back seat of an open-top automobile was FDR. I turned to my mom and said, ‘President Roosevelt is here!’ That was my earliest memory,” Ultan exclaims with an animated wave of his hand.
He continues: “When I was 11, I saw Harry Truman at the Grand Concourse. In the ’60s, I saw JFK here.” All of these highlights took place in the Bronx, of course. Presidential activities—not to mention scores of other newsworthy events —that occur outside of the borough are of far less interest to Ultan.
Having grown up near Yankee Stadium, Ultan studied history as an undergraduate at Hunter College, and as a graduate student at Columbia University. After finishing his studies, in 1964 he accepted a faculty position teaching history at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University. He continued to live in the Bronx the entire time, and his interest in borough history bloomed when he discovered that the Bronx Historical Society hosted public lectures. “These were free—and that was the right price for me!” he remembers with a chuckle.
“When I finished my graduate work, I saw that I knew a lot about the history of the city and the state of New York, but I knew absolutely nothing about the history of the place that I was born in,” Ultan goes on. He began devouring the Bronx’s history. He looked up old newspapers and documents, and started to bring his newly learned history skills to bear upon his birthplace.
In 1979, Ultan was sitting in the Bronx County Historical Society building when someone walked up to him and declared, ”You’re just the man I’m looking for!” The man was a representative of the Arlington Press, and tracked Ultan down because the company had wanted Ultan to write a book called “Story of the Bronx: 27 wonderful neighborhoods.” Ultan had never met the man before, and he found the proposed title a bit long-winded. But he soon signed the contract and started working on his first book, which he ultimately convinced the publishers to christen “The Beautiful Bronx: 1920 – 1950.”
“At first, nothing came out of me. I couldn’t write anything. But one week before the deadline, it all poured out of me, and I was typing and typing and typing, almost as if an aura was guiding me,” he says, closing his eyes tightly. “I felt like Handel when he composed ‘Messiah’—he said the hand of God had guided him. I knew what it was like.”
Ultan, who today lives near Van Cortlandt Park, has written or co-written nine more books since then, all but one about the Bronx (the other was about the presidents of the United States). These books have titles like “The Bronx in the Innocent Years: 1890 – 1925” and “The Bronx: It was Only Yesterday: 1935 – 1965.’”
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When it comes to anything Bronx-related, there may be no one more knowledgable than Ultan. On my walk with him, he pointed out what he calls “the sacred sign of the Bronx”–the location of the farmhouse belonging to Jonas Bronck, the 17th-century colonialist who gave his name to the borough. He spoke of the Arctic Steel Company that used to make file cabinets in a “ghastly green color.” At one point, Ultan walked up to a door on Alexander Avenue with the number 260 painted on it, and said that the 1863 house used to be the residence of the builder Edward Willis, who gave his name to Willis Avenue and the bridge spanning the Harlem River.
“Before people had phonographs, before you had sound movies, before you had radio, you had to buy a piano if you wanted home entertainment,” he told me, explaining how the Bronx was once a center of piano manufacturing in America. Over the course of our ninety-minute walk, Ultan rarely veered off the subject of Bronx history for even a minute; he briefly spoke about the bus he takes to go home, but quickly turned the conversation around to the history of the John Holder Mitchell houses, a public housing project named for a reformer who became the mayor of the city of Monroe, an hour north of here in Orange County.
“Sometimes he talks about the weather, sometimes he talks about the Yankees, but he can’t speak of these other things for more than two to three minutes,” says Angel Hernandez, an educator at the Bronx County Historical Society. “He can’t help himself—he always goes back to talking about the Bronx’s history. He’s a walking encyclopedia.”
Ultan’s office at the Bronx County Historical Society, a one-story, grey-brick residential building on Bainbridge Avenue in the Norwood neighborhood, is a doorless room. His work table is flanked by brown wooden chairs, and surrounded on three sides by wooden bookshelves. When I visited, stacks of books sat on his table beside his thick eyeglasses. A lampshade’s yellow light cast its glow around the room, but no computing devices were in sight. Ultan sat behind the table in a formal grey suit and coat, his cream-white shirtsleeves peeking out of his blazer’s sleeves, fringed by his wrist watch’s metal-strap. A smile was spread across his face.
“You look dapper today,” I tell him.
“When I was a baby, I was in a diaper,” Ultan replies without missing a beat. His peculiar brand of humor often bursts forth in the middle of conversations. (“Columbus Day sale? But I don’t want to buy Columbus Day!”…“That is a philosophical dog. Ask him how life is, and he’ll tell you ‘rough, rough.’”) “I do have a strange sense of humor,” he admits.
Ultan repeated the six-figure salary joke the second time I met him, and Hernandez smiled when I mentioned this to him, telling me, “I sometimes finish his jokes for him!”
As a result, Ultan’s friends and colleagues have devised a scale system to rate his jokes by the number of groans they trigger. “If it’s a good joke, I’ll keep it,” Ultan said in defense of his comedic repetition.
Despite the lack of digital gadgetry in his life, Ultan did try email briefly—he liked the idea of saving on stamps—but found that “it anchored me to my desk.” He doesn’t use the Internet at all—he gave that a chance too, in its early days, but found it underwhelming. “At that time, it was very basic,” he recalled. “Just stuff I’d find in an encyclopedia. Detailed information about the Bronx was just not on the Internet. Now there is more information. But even now the material about the Bronx falls into two categories—stuff that is wrong, and [stuff written by] me!” His grin widened in a rare instance of immodesty.
“I don’t use a cellphone because I don’t see why I should be available on demand for everyone,” Ultan continued. “I have a landline if they want to reach me. I have an answering machine. But I need my quiet time, and time to think.”
Ultan’s routine revolves around his writing and reading. “On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I teach in the first half of the day. Then I get home and I don’t go out. I read a lot. I get work done. I write my book,” he says.
He was beaming practically the entire time I spoke with him, frequently erupting into laughter when his jokes dropped into the conversation.
“He’s not changed at all since I’ve first known him,” says Carol Zakaluk, a curator who has invited Ultan to speak several times during exhibitions by landscape architecture and urban design students at City College. “The same jacket, the same appearance, and of course, the same permanent grin on his face—he still looks exactly the same even today.” I met Zakaluk in her home in the Bertine Block neighborhood later on, and she pulled out a photograph album of Ultan and others in 2001. “…And he still has the same jokes! Oh Lloyd!” she said with a smile.
Ultan has never been married. “I did think of getting married, but I didn’t find the right girl,” he says. “So I went home and cried!” Cue a guffaw.
“You had your books,” I suggest tentatively, to which he picks up a copy of “The Beautiful Bronx” and plants a kiss on its cover.
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Upstairs from Ultan’s office at the Historical Society is one that belongs to Hernandez, his 34-year-old colleague. A bespectacled, chubby man with a French beard, Hernandez was dressed in a black sweater and jeans on the late November day I met him. His office’s walls are covered with faded color maps, black-and-white photographs, and a framed image of the Declaration of Independence.
Like Ultan, Hernandez has always had an obsession with the place he was born, even when he lived far away. He moved to California as a child, but continued to read fanatically about the Bronx and its history, and decided to return for college.
In the fall of 2009, Hernandez was studying history and sociology at Lehman College. When the school offered a course called “History Of The Bronx,’” Hernandez was quick to sign up, even though these classes were scheduled on Sundays.
Ultan, of course, was the teacher. He was impressed by Hernandez’s interest in and knowledge of the Bronx’s history. Ultan still remembers being impressed by Hernandez’s knowledge of Leonard Jerome, the namesake of Jerome Avenue and grandfather of Winston Churchill.
Hernandez volunteered to help Ultan with administrative tasks at the Historical Society, and when a paid educator postion opened up Ultan made clear that he wanted Hernandez for the job—no matter that Hernandez was just out of college and did not have much work experience.
Forever grateful, Hernandez continues to return the favor. “I take care of him. I print out emails for him. I get him home sometimes,” Hernandez says. “If someone tries to act colorful or messes around with him, I’m there to take care. I look out for him like I’d do for a grandpa.”
Hernandez has taken on many of the Bronx Historical Society’s responsibilities over the last couple of years. He’s led historic walks. He’s spoken to the media on behalf of the society. He does most of the society’s online research, and manages its Facebook page. Ultan doesn’t hide the fact that he is grooming Hernandez as his successor. “Maybe he’ll even make jokes like I do!” he says.
But Hernandez doesn’t expect the position to necessarily open up anytime soon. Ultan considered retiring from teaching and researching when he turned 65, but just couldn’t do it. “I do know that I can’t go to the beach and lie down. I stay a good ten minutes, and then I get antsy. So I said as long as I have the stamina, I will continue to work,” he says.
To be sure, Ultan has managed to fit in vacations over the years. “I’ve gone to Europe, I’ve gone to Mexico, I’ve gone to the Dominican Republic, I’ve gone to Canada,” he notes. “But I don’t go to the resorts. I go take a look at the historic sites. Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Asia, nor to Africa or South America. But who knows if I’ll ever do that because of my busy schedule.”
Ultan’s grin narrowed to the point of almost disappearing only once during our conversation, as he explained that he’s been “having trouble with my feet.” He continues to lead historical walks but experiences pain anytime he’s standing. “I hope this is temporary,” he says, this momentary reminder of mortality drying up his smile. But, as always, it is only a fleeting moment before he bursts out laughing: “Otherwise I’ll have to walk with my hands!”
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Shamanth Rao is a writer and a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the travel editor for Mint Lounge, the partner newspaper of The Wall Street Journal in India. He curates the travel writing project Wndrlist.
Luisa Conlon is a freelance filmmaker living and working in Brooklyn. She received a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2011 and is an active member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective.