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On Staten Island, community activists push for a High Line-style park

Community members argue that the abandoned North Shore Branch of the Staten Island Railway is rife for a reinvention

Out on the North Shore of Staten Island, an abandoned train line is slowly rotting away. Its coastal tracks have collapsed into the water, its elevated stations are covered in vines and rust, and homeless camps have taken over its flooded cuts. Unused for over 25 years, much of its route has slowly become a verdant forest, laced with narrow footpaths, hidden vistas, and thickets of poison ivy.

This is the North Shore Branch of the Staten Island Railway, which stopped transporting passengers back in 1953. Its original route, dating back to 1886, ran almost seven miles from St. George to Port Ivory along the Kill Van Kull, but in recent decades, it has largely become a no man’s land, visited only by intrepid fishermen, graffiti artists, or urban explorers.

However, a recent design competition has brought new attention to the old railway, where a local group hopes to create a High Line-style park along an elevated section of the tracks.

Ever since the last freight trains rolled along the North Shore Branch in 1989, community groups and government agencies have been imagining different ways to bring the rail line back to life. The right of way is currently owned by the city and managed by the NYCEDC, and in 2012, the tracks were the subject of an in-depth study by the MTA looking at how to reactivate the line for light rail or a bus rapid transit (BRT) route. In 2015, the MTA secured $5 million of additional funds to complete further environmental and design research for the BRT idea, but their progress has been too slow for some local organizations.

This past February, the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation (SIEDC), an independent nonprofit group, launched their own proposal for a section of the tracks, with a design competition offering a $10,000 prize to the best idea for a North Shore High Line.

“We are not of the belief that the MTA is ever really going to use the elevated portion of the right of way,” says Steven Grillo, a vice president at the SIEDC. “This is an environmental justice issue for us, this is a community issue for us…. We are looking at the importance of creating open space and adaptive reuse, in an area that has the lowest access to parks of any part of Staten Island.”

The SIEDC’s competition focused on a half-mile stretch of the abandoned Port Richmond–Tower Hill viaduct, an imposing mile-long structure built in the 1930s, which elevates the unused North Shore train line above the homes of Port Richmond. The competition received 15 proposals for the viaduct, which were revealed at the end of April during the SIEDC’s annual business meeting.

Ideas ranged from creating an above-ground farmers market to emergency shelters for flooding, rainwater recapture projects, solar panel arrays, and glow-in-the-dark bike lanes. All of the proposals will be exhibited in Port Richmond this month during a public voting period, and a final winner will be announced in June.

Walking along the elevated section of the old North Shore Branch today, it is easy to imagine the viaduct being transformed into a public promenade. Rising from a gentle slope just west of Heritage Park, the tracks pass through a lush forest that looks out over several forgotten beaches and inlets along the Kill Van Kull, before moving aboveground through the archaic infrastructure of the Port Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant and over the hidden waters of Bodine Creek.

After crossing above the busy traffic of Richmond Terrace, the train line passes through the ruins of two abandoned train stations, where trees and shrubs obscure empty passenger platforms. This section of the viaduct offers expansive views of the Bayonne Bridge and the homes of historic Port Richmond, with the tracks traveling above backyards and over quiet residential streets. After less than a mile, the tracks begin a gradual descent back to ground level, near a new residential community being constructed west of Nicholas Avenue, before sinking into an open-cut trench beneath the streets.

Along the entire viaduct, a wide variety of flowers, vines and other plants have taken root, providing a varied landscape that already resembles a park. “If you didn’t have to abide by modern health and safety rules, if you went up there with a weed wacker, you could have a park in a day,” says Grillo. “We didn’t know what to expect when we got up there. It’s really in great shape, considering that it is 100 years old, and has been abandoned for half a century.”

The NYCEDC remains open to both the MTA’s and the SIEDC’s ideas for how to reactivate the North Shore Branch. “As outlined in our recent Transportation Improvement Strategy, the MTA is currently analyzing the North Shore Right of Way for a bus rapid transit system, which could help address transportation concerns in the area,” reads a statement from Ryan Birchmeier, a spokesperson at the NYCEDC. “That being said, we are always open to hearing interesting ideas on how to activate public property and would be receptive to discussing with SIEDC.”

An MTA spokesperson confirmed this, telling Curbed that “the elevated portion of the line has always been a key part of the plan; it has been and will be included in the Environmental Impact Study that we will be starting soon.”

In the meantime, projects inspired by the High Line are now being proposed for abandoned transit infrastructure all around New York City. In the Bronx, a Lowline-style park has been proposed for the derelict Port Morris Branch, and in Queens, the MTA has sought creative proposals for the decommissioned Montauk Cutoff, while community members have been working to create the Queensway along the overgrown tracks of the Rockaway Beach Branch. As these projects have evolved, the people involved with them have begun to organize and connect with each other.

“There are all these groups that want to do these types of projects,” says Grillo, who has met with representatives from the High Line and the Queensway to discuss the Port Richmond viaduct. “Why can’t we set aside funding or create some kind of program to help them do this? Because there could be a half dozen of these great urban reclamation parks across the city, if there were a better support network… There needs to be a holistic view by the city to consider opportunities for this abandoned infrastructure—and innovative uses.”

In the meantime, the old North Shore Branch continues to slowly erode, creating a haven for the other species that call New York home.

At the western end of the unused sections of the North Shore Branch, the tracks are sunk down into an open-cut trench below the city streets. The train line here has been badly flooded. “A lot of the line is actually in the water now, after Sandy,” says Grillo.

The train line here travels beneath several city streets, where the overpasses are used as homeless camps, dumping grounds, and local hangouts covered in decades of graffiti.

Sofas, chairs, and other pieces of furniture are scattered amongst the debris, creating the feeling of a sunken clubhouse. Footpaths travel along the tracks and into overgrown sections of the trench.

Further east, the Port Richmond–Tower Hill viaduct begins to carry the tracks aboveground. Opened in 1937, this mile-long viaduct helped eliminate eight different grade crossings in Port Richmond, where trains once ran at street level, snarling traffic.

At Nicholas Avenue, near the western end of the viaduct, the tracks begin to run above the streets and into the residential neighborhood. This is where the proposed North Shore High Line would begin.

The tracks travel east from Nicholas Avenue along a densely overgrown embankment, with a well-established walking path blazed down the middle, a sign of numerous visitors.

The overgrowth around the train line begins to open up at the old Tower Hill train station, where a passenger platform is still intact, despite being last used over 60 years ago.

The views from the viaduct’s two abandoned train stations look out to the Bayonne Bridge and into the homes and gardens of Port Richmond.

Evidence of previous human visitors are apparent all along the viaduct, even as it passes close by local homes. Empty bottles, abandoned shoes, and lost toys line the tracks.

Looking out over the quiet community, the idea of an elevated bus route here seems challenging. “Why would you want a bus or a train running past your house?” says Grillo. “You would much rather want a park.”

The viaduct does certainly appear to be wide enough for at least one MTA bus, and is already a flat surface, although the antiquated station platforms would block the bus route.

At the old Port Richmond train station, the bones of the old platform are still in good shape. “There are still incredible skeletons in this city of unused infrastructure, whether big warehouses or rail lines or abandoned docks and waterfront,” says Grillo.

“Now we are seeing a comeback; we are seeing repurposing in places like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Hunts Point.” The old station entrances would be natural entry points for either a park or a bus stop, though elevators would also need to be installed to make the tracks ADA compliant.

The SIEDC’s plans for the viaduct do not include its eastern end, where it runs for a third of a mile through parking lots and a sewage treatment plant, before returning to street level.

The old infrastructure of the Port Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant, which was opened in 1953. The Department of Environmental Protection recently invested $30 million into an enormous new solar array and other green energy upgrades here.

As the viaduct reaches its eastern end, past the sewage plant, it descends into an overgrown thicket, which at first appears impenetrable. A dense forest has grown over the tracks here.

The tracks here are completely obscured by poison ivy and other vines, and are lined by narrow footpaths most likely made by deer and other local fauna.

There are no signs of human habitation along this isolated section of the tracks, which is located just a few yards away from the Kill Van Kull.

As the tracks descend, they pass by several hidden beaches and polluted inlets, which could potentially be rehabilitated and reclaimed by the city if a park were built here.

The tracks next pass by Heritage Park, which opened in 2014 at the site of the old Blissenbach Marina. As one of the few waterfront parks along the North Shore, this would be a natural entry point to an elevated greenway.

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. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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