At one time, the High Bridge was known far and wide. Built in 1848 in the style
of a Roman aqueduct, it carried water across the Harlem River. It was the most
visible symbol of the city’s first water system, an engineering masterpiece
that supplied abundant, clean water to a population previously dependent on fouled
wells and subject to the twin scourges of disease and fire. Today, however, most
New Yorkers have never heard of the High Bridge. Connecting Washington Heights Heights to the Bronx neighborhood of High Bridge, north of Yankee Stadium, it has been closed for decades, a forgotten historical footnote and a missing link between two communities
So it is fitting that the bridge, which helped New York City prosper into the
20th century, should play a role in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blueprint
for making the city sustainable into the 21st. One of the specific environmental
and infrastructure goals of
PlaNYC 2030 (and one that doesn’t need the approval of the state legislature)
is reopening the bridge. The city has allocated $60 million for the project,
in addition to an expected $12 million in federal funding. When complete, the
reopened High Bridge will be an asset not only for the neighborhoods at both
ends of the structure but for the entire city.
The Rise And Fall Of The High Bridge
With its 100-foot-high stone arches crossing
from cliff to cliff over the Harlem River Valley, the High Bridge quickly became
a popular attraction. The pipes
were decked over, and a walkway was added. People flocked to what was then
the countryside to spend the day along the river and promenade across the bridge
dressed in their finest clothes. A tourist industry sprung up with a ferry
beer gardens and inns. Boathouses, marinas and rowing clubs lined the river.
The city eventually expanded up both sides of the Harlem River, but parks were
created where the bridge landed. The Manhattan side features the 116-acre
which has a swimming pool on the site of an old reservoir and a recreation center.
In the Bronx, a one-acre park of the same name overlooks the bridge and the wooded
hillside across the river. When the water pipes were taken out of service in
1958, then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had the bridge itself transferred
to the parks department.
The neighborhoods around the bridge declined and sometime around 1970, the city
closed the High Bridge because of safety and maintenance concerns. (There is
no evidence, however, to support the story that it was closed because kids threw
rocks onto the Circle Line.) No one seems to have noted the date that a parks
employee padlocked the gates for good.
Keeping The Dream Alive
Practically from the moment the bridge closed, Bronx and
Upper Manhattan residents started trying to get back their river crossing.
Around the city and within the
parks department, too, people worked to promote the idea of reopening the bridge.
Ellen Macnow, coordinator of interagency planning at the parks department, has
been one of the bridge’s most persistent advocates. “It happens to
be, when you see it, a really fabulous place,” she said. “It reeks
of history.” Macnow said that the effort to reopen the bridge first got
traction with the 1993
City Greenway Plan, a proposed 350-mile network of pedestrian and bicycle trails
that included the High Bridge.
Discussions between the parks department and the Department of Environmental
Protection, which owns the now defunct water pipes inside the bridge, eventually
led to a study by the Department of Transportation to determine the cost of restoring
the bridge. Word spread, and more groups became involved. In 2001, the parks
and environmental agencies and a number of nonprofit organizations working to improve the parks and trails in the area, including
New York Restoration Project,
Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct,
and the City Parks Foundation formed the
High Bridge Coalition.
A key to the effort was getting the residents of the two neighborhoods involved.
In 2003, Partnerships for Parks,
a joint program of the City Parks Foundation and the parks department, chose
Bridge area as one of its Catalyst for Neighborhood Parks
sites. This effort, focusing on neighborhoods with problematic parks, provides
private funding for activities and events that in turn build community involvement
in the parks and so help them attract additional public and private resources.
Joseph Sanchez, the Highbridge project coordinator, grew up in Washington Heights
and recalls that, even as a child, he saw the potential and beauty in the local
parks, “as ugly and dirty as they were.” To get people into the
parks, he organized hikes, clean-ups and other activities, and brought in community
groups to run sports and education programs. He also spread the word about the
High Bridge and urged residents to join the effort to reopen it. “We began
to hear stories from residents about how they once used the bridge, how they
still want to use it,” said Macnow. Community members joined the coalition
and began pushing to get the bridge restored.
In November 2006, the parks department announced that it would take the first
steps toward opening the bridge, with a $5 million allocation of federal transportation
money from U.S. Representative JosĂ© Serrano and $1.5 million in city funding.
But before the project was included in PlaNYC, coalition members thought it would
take years to complete the repairs. “We are on our way to reopening the
bridge much faster than we had ever thought,” said David Rivel, executive
director of the City Parks Foundation. “It really just captured the imagination.”
restoration will include repairing the bridge’s patterned brick walkway,
its remaining stone arches and the steel span that replaced four of the stone arches in 1928 to allow boats to navigate the full width of the river. The bridge will also be
safer than it was in its heyday with wheelchair ramps and higher fencing.
Future For The Harlem River
Opening the High Bridge will bring multiple benefits.
To begin with, it will make Highbridge Park, with its enormous pool and improved
more accessible to residents of the High Bridge neighborhood in the Bronx,
who have few nearby recreational options. Even now, many Bronx kids climb
bridge’s locked fences to get to the Manhattan side.
The bridge could also become the focal point of a revival of the Harlem River
as a recreational destination, said Drew Becher, executive director of the New
York Restoration Project, a private-public partnership founded in 1995 by Bette
Midler to reclaim neglected parks in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. “It
will make people look down and see what a great Harlem River Valley we have,” he
New York Restoration Project has contributed to the resurgence of boating on
the river through its Peter Jay
the first new community boathouse in New York City almost a 100 years. The organization
recently planted 200 of an eventual 3,000 cherry trees along the river, which,
they hope, will rival Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossoms in the spring.
Reopening the bridge also will promote the greenest and healthiest way to get
around the city. It will become a vital link in city’s partially completed
system of bike and pedestrian trails, including greenways being built on both
sides of the Harlem River. It will also fill a gap in the Old Croton Aqueduct
Trail, the 41-mile trail following the route of the city’s first water
And not least, the High Bridge is a unique recreational space in itself, a place
that belongs only to pedestrians and cyclists, with magnificent views of the
river and the cityscape. “A stroll on the bridge is just such an incredible
thing,” said Joseph Sanchez. “You feel like you’re in the middle
of the world.”
Anne Schwartz, in charge of the parks topic page since its inception in 1999, is a journalist who specializes in environmental issues.Â
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