However, it's now the model of a modern zoo, with many of the animals in habitat areas and the zoo has an extensive breeding programme and education mission.
It's big - set in more than 100 hectares and straddling the Bronx River. Despite being in the middle of the blighted urban landscape of the Bronx, the zoo is an oasis of leafy calm and temperate shade. Except, of course, for plagues of schoolchildren.
We entered at the Asia Gate, where there are camel rides and attractions. The zoo markets heavily, as it must. so there are video presentations, photo booths and green-screen photo shoots, shops and an enormous mark-up on food and drink.
A short walk to a range, where the deer, antelope and peacocks play.
The peacocks were all showing off and were displaying their fine feathers to the antelopes. I didn't see any pea-hens nearby, so perhaps they were celebrating their diversity.
A little way along was a separate habitat with a couple of sleepy lions. Lions sleep up to 21 hours a day, so this is about as lively as we saw them.
The peahens and some peachicks were hanging out with the Ibexs, ducks and the baboons.
The zoo is quite prominent in tiger conservation efforts, and has a breeding programme. There are quite a few tigers to be seen, and today they were having a swim.
The external habitats were paced so that one led to the other - in turns we saw bison, zebras, flamingos, penguins, hyenas and african hunting dogs; all part of specific conservation efforts. Inside, there were extensive collections of birds and mongooses and even a surprisingly large aardvark.
Quite a few of the "interior" bird exhibits were set up like dioramas, with multiple species in a condign group and not even behind glass or fencing. There is an emphasis on trying to re-establish songbird species in New York as part of the rehabilitation of the Bronx River ecosystem.
One sign of the times is the old Zebra cages - complete with carvings and statuary - are now administration offices while the zebras are now in a habitat and running around. We were not allowed to see the zoo staff in their cubicles.
The Bronx is probably less of a godawful slum than it used to be, but the area around the train station is run down by comparison with Manhattan. There were some interesting two-storey wooden houses along East 180th Street. Many cars had a rubber protection over the rear bumper, perhaps just for parking.
The subway pops out of tunnels some distance north of Manhattan, and the train stations are open to the air.
On the way back, a woman entered the train and started evangelising loudly and without pause. She was ignored and people averted their eyes until she finally got out at a stop to ironic cheers. We've had a couple of minor irritations on the subway - one guy was hectoring in Spanish without taking a breath, and a couple of black youths had a little scuffle until dragged apart by their group. A woman commented that "something happens every day on the subway" but I haven't really been bothered.