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As High Bridge Reopens, a Neglected Park Remains in Its Shadow

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Several projects in Highbridge Park, including the reopening of the High Bridge, are helping reclaim a long-neglected landscape on the Harlem River. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits Highbridge Park. Several of these photos will be included in a new exhibit about the High Bridge, opening on July 1st at Poe Park in the Bronx.

Earlier this June, after a lengthy $61.8 million renovation process, the High Bridge reopened to the public for the first time in over 40 years, finally leaving the list of abandoned New York City Landmarks. Since its unveiling, thousands of visitors have walked across this refurbished span, enjoying views of the Harlem River and visiting the Bronx and Manhattan halves of Highbridge Park, now reunited after a long separation. The "glorious" restoration of the High Bridge has rightfully been hailed as a major step forward in the ongoing rebirth of the Harlem River and is one of the largest projects to be completed along this shoreline, which now hosts a jigsaw puzzle of unconnected new parkland, green spaces, and playgrounds. While the ribbon-cutting at the High Bridge has brought public attention to this lesser-known corner of the city, it remains to be seen what lasting impact the bridge will have on its immediate surroundings. 

Despite years of effort, Highbridge Park, in the shadow of the High Bridge, remains one of the most unmanageable and neglected large parks in the city, with both its Bronx and Manhattan sections suffering from decades of disrepair. In a damning 1994 critique of the park, the Times wrote, "High Bridge Park has long been an example of the trials of maintaining a park that is tremendously important to its neighborhood but a long way, physically and economically, from City Hall," and cited drug use, homelessness, and illegal dumping as several of the park's biggest problems. Twenty-one years later, Highbridge is still struggling with these same issues, and some southern sections of the park, beneath the newly opened bridge, appear to have been abandoned by the city, populated by elaborate homeless camps, communal dumps, broken lampposts, and crumbling, fenced-off staircases. However, a series of relatively recent interventions, including an extensive reforestation project and new skatepark, have slowly helped reclaim segments of this 119-acre wilderness.


 

One of the best ways to view Highbridge Park's ongoing return to life is to walk away from the bridge and get on your hands and knees in the dirt. "Highbridge Park is the frontier… it's the wild west," said Tony Lewis, while standing in a small creek flowing through a verdant forest in the far northern reaches of this three-mile-long park. Every day for the past seven years, Lewis has been working to bring this woodland back to life, supervising a small forestry crew to clear away invasive plant species and shepherd in a healthy ecological balance. "You would have to know what was here before, to appreciate what is here now. This was just covered in vines," said Lewis. "Highbridge was basically left alone….It's a park with a lot of potential, but it needs a lot of help."

Lewis is on a first-name basis with many of the trees across a broad swath of the Manhattan side of Highbridge Park, which he helps to manage as a Natural Areas Supervisor for the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), a group that has worked in the park since 1997. The NYRP now maintains the northern half of the park, with permission from the Parks Department, and its activities include cleaning up debris, planting flower gardens, and reintroducing native species into the forest ecosystem. "It's seriously a very diverse forest," Lewis said. "We now have oaks, elms, beeches, birches, sweetgum, dogwoods, sassafras, elderberry, virginia rose, swamp rose, sugar maple, spicebush, viburnum, Jack-in-the-pulpit, pokeweed, white snakeroot. Once you clear an area up some, things return." Alongside plant life, raccoons, possums, and a family of groundhogs have also recently made their home in the northern woods, which are teeming with life. "There used to be a time when you would walk along this trail and you wouldn't hear a birdsong. Now, there is always birdsong." 

The return of a healthy forest has led to an increase in human visitors as well. Although many staircases and paths remain closed to the public, it is now common to see joggers, picnickers, and parents with baby strollers wandering the once-empty cliffside paths along the northern sections of the park, taking in the dramatic views over the Harlem River. In 1996, "only the most intrepid or foolhardy visitors dared to explore Highbridge," according to a Times article about the NYRP's renewal efforts. Today, however, "people come through with their families," according to Lewis. "Just getting rid of the vines opened up the sight lines. People feel a lot safer." Other visitors to the park have been drawn in by the pool and playgrounds at the top of the cliffs, as well as a large new skate park under the Hamilton Bridge, which opened in 2014, and a mountain bike trail system, which was the first of its kind in the city when it opened in 2007. Meanwhile, the reopening of the High Bridge has also begun to lure in new visitors, ready to explore the park's natural areas. "It's attracting us," said Margo Moss, a tour guide who was scouting out a hiking route from Fort Tryon Park to Highbridge Park for an upcoming group excursion. "The idea is to not go through any city streets. We are going to Swindler Cove, then we will backtrack up to the High Bridge."

While Highbridge Park has come a long way from its nadir in the 1980s, when a city-organized cleanup removed 250 tons of debris, including "dozens of abandoned cars, hundreds of tires, refrigerators, several dead dogs and a human body," it still has a long way to go before it is fully functional. "More than anything, Highbridge needs local people who are interested in taking care of the park," said Lewis, and as part of its mission, the NYRP is actively seeking volunteers to engage in a hands-on approach to reclaiming the wilderness. Every weekend, they host a cleanup event to remove invasive species, including mugwort, wild violets, porcelain berry, Japanese knotweed, and Asiatic dayflower, and during a recent session, a diverse handful of volunteers worked alongside the forestry crew, removing bushels of weeds in the hot summer sun. "You can see that Highbridge is a beautiful park, but it needs a lot of work," Lewis said to the volunteers. "We are planting with an eye to the future."

The High Bridge reopened to the public in early June after a lengthy restoration process, after being closed to the public for over 40 years. It now hosts hundreds of visitors a day. 

Despite the restoration above, very little has changed underneath the bridge, at its Manhattan foot. A homeless camp has been located in the rocky anchorage here since at least 2008, looking out at the underside of the Harlem River Drive viaduct.

This southern section of Highbridge Park, hidden under the viaduct, is mainly used as a dumping ground and a graffiti gallery, and hosts several elaborate campsites, complete with fire pits, chairs, and ladders.

The remains of an entire household were left behind here in the shadow of the High Bridge, including books, letters, doors, clothes, a computer, and a television. Dumping has been a problem in the park for over 20 years.

The viaduct and surrounding hills, seen here in 2009, are part a section of Highbridge Park that appears to have been abandoned by the city. It is now in worse condition than it was seven years ago, when it was largely fenced off.

In 2008, these sections of the park north of the viaduct and underneath the Alexander Hamilton Bridge were also a desolate no-mans-land, with crumbling brickwork, broken railings, and flooded dirt roads.

In 2009, this area was ripped apart for renovations, to repair the difficult-to-access area beneath an overhead maze of highway ramps, exits, and bridges.

Today, a skate park has been built beneath the overpasses. Opened in 2014, it has become a popular destination for neighborhood skaters, bikers, and observers to congregate.

"I've been skating here since last summer," said local resident G.J. Miller. "I definitely think it's enhanced the skating scene here. Now there's skate shops popping up along the streets."

Below the skate park, a recently repaired staircase leads down to the Harlem River, between the Hamilton and Washington bridges. Despite being renovated, these steps remain covered in used condoms, syringes, and empty dime bags, just as they were seven years ago.

The steps lead down to another abandoned area of the park, south of the Washington Bridge, with broken benches, cracked pathways, and homeless camps. This lamppost has remained in the same derelict condition since at least 2008, like dozens throughout the park.

An overgrown, vine-covered staircase, leading down to the Harlem River Drive, has also been left abandoned here since at least 2008.

By contrast, many of the trails in the northern section of the park have been cleared of debris and invasive species by the New York Restoration Project. "Just last year, the Parks Department gave us control over this whole area," said Tony Lewis, who helps maintain the park area north of the Washington Bridge.

"I enjoy the work. From 8 to 4, this is my life. Nothing else matters. Nothing else exists," said Lewis, while surveying part of the woodlands he has helped restore. "I'm going to try and bring back as much of the forest as I can in the next 10 years, before I retire."

Volunteers are invited to join the NYRP forestry crew every Sunday to clear invasive weeds and vines. "This is not easy work," said Lewis. "Working with the forest crew is a lot like being in the old west."

Some of the invasive species in the park include garlic mustard, mile-a-minute weed and Japanese knotweed, which tend to choke out other plant species, reducing the biodiversity of the park.

On the Bronx side of the High Bridge, the Parks Department has cleared the overgrowth on the southern slope next to the bridge, though the northern slope remains largely overgrown with thickets of knotweed. 

Upon crossing the High Bridge, a small terraced plaza greets visitors to Highbridge Park in the Bronx. Many locals, however, prefer to use the narrow sidewalks outside the park for grilling and congregating. 

A broken staircase lined with destroyed and severed lampposts leads down from the High Bridge to the community below, near the Harlem River. With a police barricade at one end, it is not clear if the steps are open to the public. 

The staircase looks out onto rubble and debris, which are also visible from the High Bridge. Overgrown empty lots dominate the steep slopes of this neighborhood, immediately adjacent to the Bronx side of Highbridge Park.

Footpaths leading away from the staircase are laced with used syringes, broken bottles and other debris. The hillside is covered in a sparse forest hiding old stone ruins.

An empty campsite in the woods, not far from the Bronx side of the High Bridge, hidden in the foliage. 


 
Unfinished bike trails lead from the High Bridge down to the community below, through an area with no sidewalk access. Community activists are seeking to reclaim a section of the waterfront near here, which is currently used by the Parks Department for construction equipment.

At the bottom of the hill and across the train tracks lies the recently opened Bridge Park, a relatively pristine new space on the Harlem River in the Bronx. Visitors here can look across to an unmaintained section of Highbridge Park in Manhattan, between the Washington and Hamilton bridges.

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· High Bridge coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]