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One of NYC’s underground rivers may soon be brought back to life

Daylighting Tibbetts Brook would mark the symbolic end of centuries of industrial pollution and neglect

Up in the Bronx, a quiet brook flows through Van Cortlandt Park, passing peacefully underneath highways, through golfing greens, and alongside a decommissioned railroad line. Its narrow flow is home to ducks and swans, and its banks are lined with wetlands and forests. The creek ends in a manmade lake that dates back to the 1600s, where it suddenly and violently disappears, dropping out of sight into a century-old storm drain.

This is the Tibbetts Brook, which may soon become the first underground river in New York City to be restored and brought back to life.

Although it flows almost four miles from its headwaters in Yonkers down to its vanishing point in Van Cortlandt Lake, the last underground mile of Tibbetts Brook routes all of its freshwater into the New York City sewer system, sending up to five million gallons a day into an overloaded processing plant on Wards Island. This unnecessary rerouting has helped to increase flooding in the neighborhoods south of Van Cortlandt Park, where businesses and streets are inundated more often. Step by step, however, the restoration of Tibbetts Brook is moving towards a reality, as part of a process called “daylighting,” where buried rivers are uncovered and routed aboveground once again.

The NYC Parks Departments has included the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook in its master plan for Van Cortlandt Park, while the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park and the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality have started a broad coalition of local groups that support the project. And this October, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer and Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. hosted a public rally demanding that a vital piece of the daylighting proposal be sold to the city.

In order for the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook to succeed, the city must first purchase a mile-long section of the old Putnam Railroad, which is owned by CSX Transportation. This section of the former train line is sandwiched on a narrow stip of land between Broadway and the Major Deegan Expressway, and has been abandoned for decades. Opened in 1881, the Putnam Railroad ceased passenger service in 1958, and as freight trains slowly vanished in the 1980s, it became an overgrown wilderness.

The NYC Parks Department has been negotiating to buy this property for years in order to reroute Tibbetts Brook from Van Cortlandt Park to the Harlem River, but it has currently reached an impasse in their talks with CSX, which recently “walked away from a deal with the city” to sell the land, according to Riverdale Press. If their plans eventually succeed, the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook would almost double the length of the stream in New York City, removing billions of gallons of water from the sewer system and marking a symbolic end to centuries of industrial pollution and neglect.

The plan for daylighting Tibbetts Brook would unfold in three phases, according to Christina Taylor, the executive director of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. Phase one would not actually bring the waterway above ground, but would instead reroute its flow away from the sewer system via underground pipes, as part of an $18 million wetlands restoration project inside Van Cortlandt Park. “The challenge within the park is that they don’t want to take out any trees, so there is limited space,” explains Taylor. “Phase two is the true daylighting.”

In phase two, the brook would emerge above ground outside the park, near Van Cortlandt Park South, and would flow along a newly designed route on the CSX property all the way down to 230th Street. “For years, they have been advocating for this property to not only be daylit, but to do a bike path, to be part of the Putnam Greenway,” notes Taylor. “We are actually working on getting funding to do a feasibility study so that we can have engineers come and look at the property.”

In phase three, the newly rerouted Tibbetts Brook would again go below ground in order to bypass the Metro-North Railroad tracks at the edge of the Harlem River. “Once you hit 230th Street, you do get to active railroads,” says Taylor. “So at that point, it would have to get piped underground, and our idea is that it would get piped directly into the Harlem River, and never connect to the city sewer system.”

While none of these phases would actually restore the historic path of Tibbetts Brook, which is located further west in Kingsbridge, they would all help alleviate some of the worst flooding in the area. A well-designed water management system here could help reroute two billion gallons of freshwater annually from the city’s overtaxed sewer system, while also channeling away hundreds of millions of gallons of rainwater.

Even if the old Putnam Railroad is not turned in to the new Tibbetts Brook, it is already well on its way to becoming an unofficial waterway. Situated at a low point in the neighborhood, the CSX property regularly floods during rainstorms and is covered over with standing water in several sections, which are slowly becoming “accidental urban wetlands.”

“The soil that is underneath there currently is so compacted that when it does rain, it just sits on top, and it doesn’t drain very well,” says Taylor. “The Broadway sewer, with all the water from the lake, is pretty much at capacity all the time. So when it rains, it’s just way too much, and there is just no place for that stormwater to go. And that’s when you get flooding.”

Street floods have become a regular occurrence in Kingsbridge and Marble Hill, and are inundating local businesses along Broadway, adjacent to the CSX property. This past September, a flash flood submerged Astral Fitness, located on Broadway near West 230th Street, leaving its weights and workout equipment underwater. One block away, at West 231st Street, the floodwaters rose approximately six feet high on the old train line, swamping several other businesses.

“We had a flood over here that killed us,” says Jacob Selechnik, a Bronx landlord whose offices are located underneath a parking lot on Broadway, just three feet above the trackbed. “It was like waist high inside the business. We had to replace everything. For about a whole week, we couldn’t come into the office. This was the first time this happened to us.”

As the city continues its negotiations with CSX, their plans to turn the old Putnam Railroad into a green space are by no means a given. “We wanted to buy the whole strip for $5 million,” says Selechnik, who had hoped to turn the tracks into a mile-long parking lot for shoppers at the various malls that have sprung up along its length. CSX declined his offer, but he remains skeptical of plans to turn the railway into a public space. “Who would want to bike there? I don’t know. It’s scary back there.”

Ever since the High Line opened, there have been numerous proposals to transform New York City’s abandoned train lines into public parks and green spaces. Nearby in the Bronx, a Lowline-style park has been proposed for the neglected Port Morris Branch, while in Staten Island, a nonprofit has proposed building a North Shore High Line along the overgrown tracks of the North Shore Branch. And in Queens, community members have proposed a Ranch On Rails for the decommissioned Montauk Cutoff, and the QueensWay along the rotting tracks of the Rockaway Beach Branch.

Of all of these projects, the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook along the old Putnam Railroad could be the most viable, even though it would take many years and many millions of dollars to complete. “The Parks Department fully supports this project. The next steps are that we need Parks funding to purchase this land. And we need DEP to put daylighting in as one possible solution in their long term plan for the Harlem River,” says Taylor, who remains optimistic for the future of the project. “I’ll be happy if it happens within 10 years.”

As Tibbetts Brook flows through Van Cortlandt Park, it passes underneath the Henry Hudson Parkway and the Mosholu Parkway, on a course that runs parallel to a northern section of the old Putnam Railroad.

The waters of Tibbetts Brook fill Van Cortlandt Lake, which was created in 1699 by the Van Cortlandt family by damming the brook with an earthen barrier. The lake was used to power grist and saw mills, according to a NYC Parks Department history.

At the southwest corner of the lake, the freshwater flow of Tibbetts Brook is routed down into a storm drain that leads to the Broadway sewer, where it mixes in with raw sewage and stormwater. “On a dry day, four to five million gallons of water from Van Cortlandt Lake goes into the Broadway sewer,” says Taylor.

The old earthen dam on the lake was replaced in 1903 by a new stone dam, as part of a Parks Department cleanup. This newer dam has a pipe installed inside, allowing the lake to be drained. A constant flow of water from the lake drips out of this barrier and into an adjoining wetlands.

The dam is overtopped frequently, when the storm drain is blocked by debris and the lake fills beyond capacity. This causes the brook’s water to pour down into the wetlands. “That has happened three times this year. It actually causes a lot of damage. It ends up being like a waterfall going through,” says Taylor. “It’s becoming more regular, with the heavier storms we’ve been getting.”

A boardwalk has been constructed through the wetlands south of Van Cortlandt Lake. This area of the park will be part of phase one of the Tibbetts Brook daylighting, which includes an $18 million wetlands restoration project.

South of the wetlands is an overgrown stretch of the Old Putnam Trail, which follows the route of the Putnam Railroad line. The trail here is in a low point, and the ground is muddy and covered with standing water. If the dam on Van Cortlandt Lake were to burst, some part of Tibbetts Brook would course through this gully.

In this low area, the Old Putnam Trail already resembles a brook. The path is flooded over as it travels along the old railroad cut out towards the southern end of Van Cortlandt Park.

Beneath a bridge under Van Cortlandt Park South, a steady stream of water flows. This is where phase two of the Tibbetts Brook daylighting would begin, bringing the creek to the surface here and routing it south along the CSX property.

Leaving Van Cortlandt Park, the landscape continues to resemble a brook. “The CSX property is a low point, so it’s naturally where the water is going to want to go,” says Taylor. “It is finding its own path, and its own path happens to be pretty much in the direction we want to send it in anyways.”

The property here has not been maintained by CSX, and has been left to become an “accidental urban wetland,” complete with phragmites and tall marsh grasses.

Looking south from Van Cortlandt Park South, the mile-long CSX property is hemmed in by the Major Deegan Expressway, along “a strip of land that is about 25 to 75 feet wide, depending on where you are,” according to Taylor.

South of West 238th Street, the old Putnam Railroad was cleaned up by CSX in 2017, and its freshly cleared trackbed passes by a series of new shops and storage facilities that have been built at its edge. This strip is Riverdale Crossing, home to a Petco, Buffalo Wild Wings, and BJ’s.

Further south, at West 236th Street, a new CubeSmart storage facility has been built close to the edge of the old rail line. A bike path here would pass behind a series of anonymous big-box developments.

To the south of West 236th Street, the cleaned up CSX property is sandwiched between a parking lot and the Major Deegan Expressway. Access to a greenway here would be relatively simple, since only a low bulkhead separates the asphalt from the trackbed.

South of West 234th Street, the tracks become less accessible and more overgrown. “Before the cleanup, there was just lots of garbage,” says Taylor. “There were still old railroad cars there, and it was just overgrown with weeds. And there were also a few homeless encampments there.”

Between West 233rd and 231st streets, the only access point to the old railway is via the steps down to Rental Masters, the headquarters of Jacob Selechnik. “When there is a heavy rain, the water accumulates here,” says Selechnik. “That’s the whole problem with that strip.”

In September, Selechnik’s offices and storage rooms here were completely flooded, submerging a collection of stoves and refrigerators. “This was a Tsunami. It was like an act of god that wanted to punish us,” says Selechnik. “The water had no place to go.”

On a rainy day, you can watch the water quickly accumulate along the old Putnam Railroad. In this section, south of West 231st Street, the CSX property began to remember a river, with water flowing along the trackbed.

The southern end of the proposed daylighting is at West 230th Street, where the flooding is at its worst. This narrow strip of land is located behind Broadway Plaza, yet another new mall that would cut a greenway off from the neighborhood.

South of West 230th Street, alongside another new CubeSmart storage facility, the last train tracks on the Putnam Railroad emerge. This area is not part of the proposed daylighting or the proposed Putnam Greenway, and is littered with debris and unused train cars.

As the train tracks continue south, below West 225th Street, more and more train cars appear. In this area, the third phase of the Tibbetts Brook daylighting, the creek would again be forced to travel underground.

Heading towards the Harlem River, the tracks pass behind River Plaza, yet another mall, near Broadway. This facility is home to a Target and several other generic chain stores.

The southern terminus of the old Putnam Railroad is marked by the abandoned Kingsbridge Substation, also known as Substation No. 3. It sits on MTA property, adjacent to the Metro-North train tracks.

The rerouting of Tibbetts Brook would end somewhere near here, with the creek passing under the Metro-North tracks and emptying out in the Harlem River, very near to the place where it once naturally flowed. On rainy days, the creek also currently empties out into the Harlem River, after being mixed in with millions of gallons of raw sewage.

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. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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