The oldest river crossing in New York City is now the newest. The 1848 High Bridge that spans the Harlem River and links upper Manhattan to The Bronx has recently emerged from a multi-year, $61.8 million renovation. It re-opened to the public on June 9th. Whether the initial enthusiasm of using this restored public space can reenergize a neighborhood will take years to find out, however, for the moment this project is bringing tourists and residents to an area that was previously known only to locals and intrepid urban explorers. Will it spur new economic activity to an ungentrified area? Is that indeed what is wanted or needed? Questions to be answered later.
For the moment however, the opening of the High Bridge inspires reflection upon its past rather than shines a light on its future. With an arched design inspired by Roman aqueducts, the High Bridge was part of the Croton Aqueduct system that brought fresh water from Westchester County, north of the city to Manhattan. A pedestrian walkway was added above the water pipes not quite 20 years after the bridge’s opening, creating in some people’s eyes the City’s first “High Line.” At the time, it was a generator of social and economic activity, a focus that attracted people as well as artists and photographers. Hotels and restaurants sprouted up around it. Around the turn of the 20th century, the waterfront was an active recreational area and ferries plied the shores.
The area’s recreational allure diminished over time, a result of pollution and changing tastes and times. The construction of roads and public housing further isolated the neighborhood. By the time the bridge closed for safety reasons about 45 years ago, it was the locals, not the general public who noticed.
Today the High Bridge is used by those who live in the neighborhood and need a quick way to walk to either borough and by curiosity-seekers like myself who read about its reopening. Its claim to fame as a destination for the time being is the unusual perspective of the river and shoreline not easily seen otherwise. For me, one of the most striking things was the view of the Robert Moses-inspired ramps that loop through the Bronx. But the walkway is still so new, that there are no vendors yet to dispense cold drinks or ice cream.
The High Bridge connects a New York City park divided by the river around West 173rd Streets. Both sides have been neglected. Home to a public pool and playing fields on the Manhattan side, High Bridge Park has been an over-grown dumping ground and homeless encampment that is now being slowly reforested and reclaimed by Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and local volunteers who work with the parks department. It is also being integrated into a waterfront bikeway.
The High Bridge was part of one of the major engineering feats of the 19th century, the Croton Aqueduct system. Water coursed through iron pipes surrounded by masonry from the Old Croton Dam in Westchester County, 41 miles north of the City to a reservoir located where the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond in Central Park currently are and then to a distribution reservoir where the main branch of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park now stand. The gravity-feed aqueduct opened in 1842 and was used until 1955.
A 200 foot high water tower stands guard at the entrance to the High Bridge from the Manhattan side. It was built in 1872 to equalize water pressure from the aqueduct and contained a 47,000 gallon water tank. When no longer needed by 1949, a seven acre reservoir was replaced by the park and pool. Although it has been restored, there are rumors about the tower’s being refurbished in order to be accessible to the public. It is a New York City landmark as well as listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A few days after my visit to the High Bridge, I overheard two women on the subway talk about their visit. “What’s to point?” one asked the other. “You just go over the bridge and then you go back.” “Yes, but it’s really nice that it’s there,” said the other.
Maybe for the time being, that’s a good thing.
Except as noted, all photos by Carol Berens