The following was originally published over at Hidden Waters Blog, a companion blog to the amazing Hidden Waters of NYC book by Sergey Kadinsky, and reprinted with permission.
As the island of Manhattan is nearly entirely ringed by a series of connected parks, the other four boroughs are also experiencing the opening of their shorelines to the public. Dozens of post-millennial parks lines the water’s edge providing resiliency against storm surges, open space for the public, and restored habitats.
On the Bronx side of the Harlem River sandwiched between the stream, a railway, and a highway is Bridge Park, the newest link in what will be a series of parks running from Kingsbridge to Mott Haven on a formerly industrial shoreline. At this park, one gets dramatic views from underneath three arch bridges linking the Bronx to upper Manhattan.
Where it Lies
On the official Parks GIS map, Bridge Park occupies a thin sliver of land on the Harlem River, 7 acres in total, opposite Manhattan’s Highbridge Park, where I previously reported on its reservoir-turned-pool. The hydra tentacles on this map are ramps connecting Cross-Bronx Expressway to Major Deegan Expressway and Harlem River Drive. With so much urbanization here, the ramps were tightly coiled on the cliffs lining Harlem River.
Touring the Park
At the southern entrance to the park is the oldest standing bridge connecting Manhattan to the mainland. Completed in 1848, the bridge carried the city’s drinking water in a Roman-style aqueduct reminiscent of the Pont du Gard in France. Between 1923 and 1927, five of the original 16 arches were removed in favor of a steel arch in order to improve navigation on the Harlem River. Eugene de Salignac was on scene to document the transformation. The walkway atop High Bridge functions as the uptown version of the celebrated High Line, albeit with less crowding. This section of the park has not yet been developed, appearing like an urban wasteland while plans are made to give it a more naturalistic scene.
Further south from High Bridge, looking down from the walkwayis Highbridge Facility, a rail yard serving the Metro North railroad. Its presence impedes the possibility of a continuous shoreline walkway between Bridge Park and Mill Pond Park a mile to the south.
Metro North blogger Emile Moser tells the story of this rail yard. I suppose there is space along the water’s edge for a public walkway here, but it would be quite slim here. The rail yard has its own employees-only station, which is good for workers on site as the nearest subway and public train stations are nearly a mile away.
The road along the river is Exterior Street, a generic name that also appears near the former Bronx Terminal Market and beneath University Heights Bridge. Its name denotes the closest street to the waterfront, similar to the role given to Marginal Street, which appears in different places on the edges of Manhattan. The arch in the foreground is Alexander Hamilton Bridge, which carries Interstate 95 (Cross Bronx Expressway). Behind it is the more historic Washington Bridge.
Not to be confused with the nearby George Washington Bridge, named after the same individual. Its twin 510-foot spans were completed in late 1889, the same year as Eiffel Tower. Both were regarded at the time as engineering marvels with great views from the top.
In 1913 Ashcan artist Ernest Lawson traveled uptown to paint Washington Bridge in Spring Night, looking towards Manhattan. Together with High Bridge, it was a popular destination for New Yorkers, who could watch regatta races in the river below, and horses racing on the Harlem River Speedway.
The Canadian-born artist lived for a time in Washington Heights across the river. He also painted the High Bridge from many angles. In the above 1912 painting of this bridge, we see the Harlem River line and the site of Bridge Park. Lawson also has a famous painting of Brooklyn Bridge, Queensboro Bridge, Washington Bridge in winter,
Bridge Park of 1889
In the park is a stone abutment with stairs to nowhere that appears as an architectural folly. In reality it was built alongside Washington Bridge as a pedestrian walkway connecting the water’s edge to the neighborhood above.
The industrialization of the shoreline and additional rail tracks here resulted in the removal of this bridge. The only way to access Bridge Park today is either through Fordham Road at its northern entrance, or Depot Place a mile to the south. The cliff, railroad, and Major Deegan Expressway conspire to separate the park from the neighborhood.
Looking at the 1921 G. W. Bromley atlas of the Bronx, we see Bridge Park paralleling Washnigton Bridge, with the pedestrian walkway, and paths riding to Undercliff Avenue. Next to High Bridge is a zigzagging set of stairs that are still in use today.
A 1902 scene of Bridge Park from the Municipal Archives shows the slope alongside the bridge with its trimmed lawn and the footbridge above the tracks with its stone abutment. Industry had not yet arrived to the park site, which was a wetland at the time.
A closer 1902 view of the original Bridge Park shows the footbridge connecting to a dock on the shore. The dock would be removed and the wetland on either side will be filled with rubble in 1927. The arch running above land will later have the Major Deegan Expressway running under it, with ramps on the slope connecting to Cross Bronx Expressway and Washington Bridge. The hilltops will have towering apartments. The only items present today from this bucolic scene are Washington Bridge and the stone abutment.
In 1934 photographer Percy Loomis Sperr had a view of Washington Bridge. On the water’s edge are coal docks. This view would be unrecognizable today. In 1955, Major Deegan Expressway was completed on the Bronx side of Harlem River, eliminating Commerce Avenue. In 1963, the Cross Bronx Expressway eliminated W. 171st Street here, and the two green medians of Undercliff Place and Boscobel Place. A tangle of ramps connect the two highways, leaving only the small waterfront portion of the original Bridge Park. Today’s waterfront park includes that original parcel within it.
At the park’s northern end, the greenery continues as Roberto Clemente State Park. In 1973 this park was constructed together with River Park Towers, a self-contained community designed with an appearance identical to Waterside Plaza on Manhattan’s Kips Bay. The Morris Heights station provides residents with a quick commute to Grand Central. The park opened at a time when national and state parks were seeking to connect with urban residents by opening up new parks within cities.
The master plan for Bridge Park seeks to reconnect its visitors with the water and revive the rowing tradition on Harlem river in the same way that the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse at Swindler Cove does on the opposite shore. also included in this plan is a demonstration garden, greenhouse, pebble beach, and lawns. As with other post-millennial waterfront Parks, the design by Starr Whitehouse with Perkins + Will has resiliency in mind with the frequency of storm water inundation.
Roberto Clemente State Park
Continuing north along the water’s edge, the appearance of Roberto Clemente State Parkis in stark contrast to Bridge Park with its concrete seawall promenade. It isn’t the only waterfront state park built next to a city park. In Queens, Gantry Plaza State Parkcomplements Hunters Point South Park. In Brooklyn, East River State Park borders on Bushwick Inlet Park. In Manhattan, the privately-managed Hudson River Park extends to Riverside Park South, and Riverbank State Park is enveloped by Riverside Park. On the opposite shore of Harlem River is Fort George Hill, part of Highbridge Park whose summit had a fort used in the Revolutionary War.
The namesake of this state park was a popular Pittsburgh Pirate right fielder who died in a 1972 plane crash en route to Nicaragua, seeking to deliver aid to the earthquake-stricken country. His body was never recovered.
The design of the parkresembles that of Riverbank State Park with its simple modernism and too much concrete. It was a time of economic belt-tightening. Initially named Harlem River State Park, it was renamed for Clemente a year after its opening as the city’s first state park.
After suffering damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, the state redesigned the park for resiliency. It its vision for the park, the firm Mathews Nielsen (MNLA)peeled back the wide waterfront concrete plaza, preserving the seawall and filling in the void with a constructed wetland.
The intertidal marsh’s appearance changes with the level of the water, lending a naturalistic touch to an otherwise active recreation park better known for its ball courts and Olympic size outdoor pool. Hunters Point South in Queens also has an intertidal marsh that mitigates storm surge damage and serves as a wildlife habitat. To the north of Roberto Clemente State Park, the train tracks come too close to the water’s edge to allow for public access. But one can imagine a walkway from here to Fordham Landing and then further north to the future course of the daylighted Tibbetts Brook.
This would create a continuous to path along the east bank of Harlem River connecting to Manhattan’s East River Esplanade to its south, and the South County Trailway to its north, effectively more than 50 miles of nearly uninterrupted bike and pedestrian road.
What will Bridge Park and Fordham Landing look like when completed? The Nov. 2017 Design and Planning for Flood Resiliency Guidelines for NYC Parks offer the clues with visuals of existing post-millennial waterfront parks.
Sergey Kadinsky is the author of Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs (2016, Countryman Press) and the webmaster of Hidden Waters Blog.
About the Author
He is a licensed tour guide who paid his way through college atop the double-decker Gray Line buses.
Kadinsky is a contributor to Forgotten New York, a local history website. His articles on the city’s history appeared in New York Post, New York Daily News, and Queens Chronicle, among other publications.