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All Photos by Nathan Kensinger

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Port Morris Waterfront Emerges From Years of Neglect

What it takes to create an accessible coastline

For many decades, the residents of the South Bronx have been cut off from the waters that surround them, their shoreline hidden away behind a tangled web of highways, bridges, truck depots and train lines. Along the coast of Port Morris, which borders the Bronx Kill, razor wire fences and guard booths block public access to the waterfront, which is lined by warehouses, power plants, and sanitation facilities. "We have to actually leave this neighborhood and go somewhere else to be by the water, even though we are encircled by it," said Mychal Johnson, a Bronx community activist who lives in Mott Haven. "You look at our community in that area, and it’s like it’s been forgotten about."

As winter comes to an end, the long forgotten waterfront of Port Morris is finally emerging from these years of neglect. This past November, the Randall’s Island Connector opened to the public, creating a street-level link between the South Bronx and the island’s spacious recreation facilities, an event which spurred visits from Forgotten NY, Streets Blog and the Times. At the same time, the New York Restoration Project began working to fund the first phases of the Haven Project, an initiative to rehabilitate a large swath of the Port Morris and Mott Haven coastline. "In that part of the South Bronx, there are no legal waterfront recreational sites," said Deborah Marton, the executive director of the NYRP. "When we started to think about developing this project, the neighborhood presented itself as a place where there really was a desperate need."

The first phase of the Haven Project will focus on a burned-out pier at the end of East 132nd Street, situated between a Con Edison yard and a waste management facility. It may sound like an unlikely beginning, but the NYRP believes this site will win over visitors with its sweeping vistas of the upper East River, from North Brother Island to Astoria and the Manhattan skyline. "If we can build a pier park—just a pier to walk out on—everyone in New York City is going to want to visit it, because the views are going to be incredible. It’s really going to be unparalleled," said Marton. "People are going to be blown away by that."

Though it has been fenced off for several decades, the pier and a long stretch of waterfront nearby were actually a popular recreation area for more than a century. "We always envisioned that pier being replaced," said Johnson, the co-founder of South Bronx Unite. "In the earlier 1900s, that used to be a destination for the community. A floating barge used to be there for a pool." Even before that, the Stuyvesant Yacht Club was founded here in 1890, inside a beached ferry on the Port Morris shoreline, while fishermen have been drawn to this coastline since at least the early 1800s, when the area was known as Stony Point. "It’s always been used as an ad hoc fishing place, even though you now have to go underneath a barbed wire fence."

A walk along the shoreline of Port Morris today reveals an industrial landscape that will be a challenge to reshape. North of 132nd Street, where the old Port Morris gantries are slowly rusting away, the NYRP and other groups have proposed creating an open public space, although the city has not made an official plan. Directly to the south of the old pier, a narrow footpath navigates along a strip of shoreline squeezed between a chain link fence and the rocky coast. The trail meanders all the way down to the Bronx Kill, and the NYRP is proposing that it be transformed into a resilient public esplanade, replacing the raggedy piles of riprap with an official walkway. Along the Bronx Kill, to the west of the Randall’s Island Connector, the shoreline is completely inaccessible from the Bronx side, cut off by freight trains, parking lots and a new Fresh Direct facility. And on the coast of the Harlem River, the Oak Point Link has cut off most waterfront access.

Despite these difficulties, if even a small portion of the Haven Project is completed, and some section of the Port Morris coastline returned to public access, it would radically improve the South Bronx landscape. "Though the borough of the Bronx has some of the largest green spaces in all of New York City because of Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Park, our community has the least amount of green space," said Johnson, whose group South Bronx Unite will be leading its annual Environmental Justice Waterfront Bike Tour this Saturday, looking at how the power plants, waste transfer facilities, and truck companies of Port Morris directly affect residents’ health. "We have some of the highest rates of asthma, obesity and diabetes in the city….This community has been shouldering the burden for a lot of years," said Johnson. "There should be a balance. A physical balance. An environmental balance, weighting the scale with more green space."

Despite a serious lack of green space, new residential towers are being constructed throughout Port Morris and Mott Haven. "We are seeing an inundation of development in our community," said Johnson. "There are about 11 residential developments—five affordable and six hotels—hitting Mott Haven and Port Morris." This 12-story complex, Bruckner by the Bridge, sits adjacent to the exit ramps of the Willis Avenue Bridge, and began accepting tenants in 2011.

Pulaski Park, one of the few recreational spaces in Port Morris, is also situated adjacent to the Willis Avenue Bridge ramps. Its utilitarian concrete-covered basketball courts and exercise areas face a constant flow of truck traffic. "We give credit to the highways that encircle our neighborhood and to all the industrial facilities for our community having an asthma rate that is eight times the national average," said Johnson.

Adjacent to Pulaski Park, on the other side of the Willis Avenue Bridge ramps, sits one of the many underutilized open spaces in the neighborhood. This open field was once home to a trucking company and is littered with abandoned trucks, trailers, and used tires.

The abandoned offices, at the far end of the field. "For a community that is really lacking in green space, why leave that sitting there like that, underutilized?" asked Johnson, whose group South Bronx Unite created a Mott Haven/Port Morris Waterfront Plan, which helped inform the Haven Project.

Inside the offices, graffiti and abandoned bathtubs. The tension between heavy industry, residential developments, and transportation infrastructure can be seen throughout Port Morris.

Much of this section of waterfront is cut off from the community by a series of truck depots, including this Flatrate Moving parking lot near Pulaski Park. "South of 149th Street, there is no place for the community to access the waterfront," said Casey Peterson, a special projects manager at the NYRP.

Despite years of protests and lawsuits by community activists, Fresh Direct is now building a trucking hub on top of one of the largest undeveloped areas along the waterfront. "We’ve been fighting it and still are….We could do better things with 30 acres of green space than putting up a warehouse," said Johnson. "It was a green, lush area. Anywhere else, that would have been an urban farm or park."

The Fresh Direct warehouse will join several other trucking hubs along the Bronx Kill, including a Fed Ex facility and a New York Post printing plant. Alongside the CSX train tracks, these facilities completely cut the neighborhood off from this narrow waterway.

The Bronx Kill is almost completely inaccessible from the Bronx, and community members must cross over to Randall’s Island to reach its waters, or paddle down from the Harlem River.

The new Randall’s Island Connector, built underneath a section of the Hell Gate bridge complex, creates a much easier way to access the island and the Bronx Kill. The only other pedestrian connection from the Bronx to the island is a convoluted series of ramps on the Triborough Bridge.

The connector, which cost $6 million, presents a much easier route to the island, though it sometimes is closed down by passing freight trains.

Joggers and bicyclists have already found the connector, despite a lack of significant signage on the Bronx side. The NYRP hopes to highlight the path, as part of the Haven Project.

At low tide, the Bronx Kill can be crossed by foot, underneath the Randall’s Island Connector. At high tide, canoeists ply the waters. "We bring students out there every summer, and people from the community, to canoe the kill," said Johnson. "At high tide, it's six-and-a-half feet, at the deepest."

The final remnants of a longtime homeless camp were supposedly removed from under the bridge in March, though shoes, clothing, and other belongings still remain.

Beyond the connector, the Bronx Kill meets the East River. "Hopefully, we will have the seeds planted for a connective green ribbon along the Bronx Kill, from the Harlem River to the East River," said Johnson. "It could be a bike path, or a running path. It would benefit not just this neighborhood, but the entire city."

On Randall’s Island, a salt marsh habitat is being nurtured where the kill meets the East River, underneath the Amtrak train line that travels on the Hell Gate bridge complex.

On the Bronx side, a narrow pathway travels the shoreline from the kill up the East River, between fenced-off trucking facilities and a rocky, crumbling shoreline. "It’s not an esplanade right now, its just a little walking path beyond the fence line," said Deborah Marton. "But you could actually walk that entire edge and get to the Randall’s Island connector."

Fishermen have plied the waterfront here for hundreds of years. "In the nineteenth century…the use of the Bronx waterfront also was seen for recreation and amusement," according to a Bronx waterfront history written by Lloyd Ultan. "Gouverneur Morris enjoyed casting for fish off Stony Island (now Port Morris)."

"I have photos of families fishing out there. I also have a photo of a couple laying on that huge rock that’s out there, and sunbathing like they were at the beach," said Johnson. "Where else in New York City does a community have to recreate like this? That’s why we are so desperate to create borough equity."

The East 132nd Street pier, which was destroyed by an enormous Con Edison gas line explosion in 1989. The explosion "sent flames more than a hundred feet or more in the sky."

The ruins of the pier were fenced off for many years, but the barricades have since collapsed, and artists have installed two large sculptures here. "It’s in very unsafe condition—no one really should be out on that pier," said Marton.

The dead-end of East 132nd Street is not a welcoming site today, but the NYRP hopes to break ground on a new pier here in 2017. "With the opening of the Randall’s Island Connector, we know that thousands of people will come to the area, and we could use these underutilized spaces to create a mixed industrial and recreational zone in Port Morris," said Marton.

North along the shoreline lie the Port Morris gantries, rusted historic relics that once linked the Bronx to North Brother Island. "That gantry site is really beautiful, and the gantries are amazing," said Marton. The NYRP has proposed turning the gantries into a public space, but "we are not the only ones—the South Bronx Greenway and others have recommended that that be a waterfront open space."

For now, the old gantries—seen here in 2009—are slowly rusting away, but Mychal Johnson remains hopeful for the future. "I think within three to five years, we will see the creation of green space on our peninsula," said Johnson. "We are trying to make sure that our 90,000 people, who have been without access for decades, can feel the benefit of green space creation."

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012.

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