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Exploring Inwood’s wild shoreline, now threatened by rezoning

The recent rezoning of Inwood, one of Manhattan’s “last affordable neighborhoods,” has the potential to dramatically reshape the neighborhood

Out on the northern edge of Manhattan, where the Harlem River flows past the coast of Inwood, a wild shoreline thrives. The waterfront here is home to a diverse array of small businesses, ungoverned activities, and informal community spaces, all of which are scattered throughout an industrial landscape of bus depots, gas stations, and wholesale food markets.

Pop-up car washes operate along dead-end streets. Homemade ceviche is sold from the back of a van next to the train yard. Fruit vendors straddle the sidewalk outside sleek new nightclubs. Sound system battlers test their massive speakers in a no man’s land, between a parking lot and an unsanctioned green space. Narrow footpaths line the shore, leading to elaborate fishing platforms that have been carefully handcrafted above the crumbling bulkheads, amid an array of wild-growing trees, shrubs, and flowers.

Located along the eastern coast of Inwood, these unique sections of waterfront are mostly cut off from the residential areas further inland. They are separated from the community by the elevated tracks of the 1 train, and by the constant flow of traffic along 10th Avenue below the tracks. In their isolation, they represent some of the last unregulated and undeveloped places on the island of Manhattan.

And like most of the industrial waterfront of New York City, they will soon be gone.

Earlier this month, after years of discussion and numerous community protests, the City Council passed a rezoning plan that will impact 59 blocks of Inwood. This is the first rezoning in the community since 1961, and it will predominantly affect two large swaths of land east of 10th Avenue, where the low-scale landscape of one- and two- story warehouses can now be replaced by commercial developments and residential towers soaring up to 30 stories tall. In the years to come, the secluded coastline here will be transformed from a hidden oasis into a more formalized public space, open to the masses.

It is a wonder that this stretch of Manhattan’s waterfront has remained untouched for so long. Back in 2009, this same section of the Harlem River was in much the same condition, with the coastline between 201st and 220th streets housing an array of hidden beaches, pocket parks, fishing holes, crumbling piers, and forgotten inlets. Most of these spaces have only become more expansive in the ensuing years, with trees growing unchecked behind chain-link fences, intrepid fishermen staking out new turf, and local residents reclaiming areas like Inwood’s North Cove, to create informal parklands.

Many of these unique spaces could disappear or be remade as part of the city’s plan to remake Inwood’s landscape. The rezoning is just one part of a larger Inwood NYC Action Plan, which promises to invest $200 million into transforming the neighborhood and opening up access to the Harlem River. As part of this investment, the city council has stated it will “improve priority intersections along 10th Avenue” with better pedestrian crossings, and build two new waterfront parks—the North Cove Park and the Sherman Creek Malecón—as part of the city’s goal to “reclaim the waterfront for the public.”

This goal raises several questions, including who the waterfront is being reclaimed from, who it is being given to, and what it will cost for the existing community. Local residents have already reclaimed large sections of the waterfront for themselves, without government assistance. What will become of their informal parklands, fishing holes, and green spaces? And what will happen to the many small businesses near the waterfront, which can now be torn down as-of-right to make way for private development?

Much of Inwood’s waterfront along the Harlem River sits on city land that was not included in the rezoning, and will remain cut off from the public. At the heart of Inwood’s coast sits the 207th Street Yard, an enormous MTA train yard that essentially acts as a 12-block-long wall between the community and its waterfront.

Just to the north of this facility, the city operates four blocks of massive municipal complexes. These include a collection of salt sheds and parking lots run by the Department of Sanitation, and the Kingsbridge Bus Depot, which serves as a maintenance and storage facility for up to 242 buses. These city-owned properties, untouched by the rezoning, stretch from 207th to 218th streets, creating a huge barricade between the public and the waterfront.

The inland blocks of Inwood, between 10th Avenue and the Harlem River, are home to a wide variety of grocery stores, restaurants, auto body shops, churches, and schools. It is too early to predict what exactly will happen to these small businesses and community centers, but one of the rezoning’s major goals is to help to finance and build an array of new commercial developments and residential towers on both public and private land. If the city’s recent rezonings are any indication, the remnants of the old neighborhood could disappear quickly.

This past March, the city passed a similar plan for 92 blocks around Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, which houses a similar landscape of low warehouses, churches, restaurants, and auto body shops. The first of Jerome Avenue’s small businesses are now being readied for demolition to make way for a 15-story tower.

In Inwood, a similarly rapid displacement may be on the way, leaving local residents fearful of the impact on rents and businesses in what has been called “Manhattan’s Last Affordable Neighborhood.”

The changes coming to Inwood’s waterfront are part of a much larger and ongoing series of rezonings and redevelopments that have taken place throughout the five boroughs over the past decade, as New York City’s rough edges are ironed out and replaced with generic glass towers. The chop shops of Willet’s Point have been razed, the wild forests of Hunter’s Point South have been bulldozed, Columbia University’s erasure of Manhattanville is almost complete, the post-industrial playgrounds along the coastline of Greenpoint and Williamsburg have been destroyed, and the last vestiges of historic industry along the Gowanus Canal are quickly disappearing.

In many of these neighborhoods, rezoning has been used like a sledgehammer, crushing the existing community into dust, and opening up the landscape for new, unrelated residential towers. Critics have described the city’s widespread use of rezoning as a systemically racist practice that has increased segregation in New York City, and the residents of Inwood have compared their rezoning to an “ethnic cleansing.” As the new waterfront rises, serving thousands of new residents, what will happen to community in Inwood that already exists?

At the northern tip of Manhattan near the Broadway Bridge, several blocks of warehouses, parking lots, and auto body shops have been rezoned to allow for new commercial and manufacturing developments.

This section of Inwood’s east coast includes the Broadway Bridge Wash and Lube, on the corner of Broadway and 220th Street. The rezoning will allow for new commercial and manufacturing developments to be built in this area.

The buildings here are mostly low warehouses, like Hans Auto Service on 218th Street, which has been in business for over 40 years. The rezoning will allow for taller structures to take their place.

A large parking lot for Spectrum service vehicles stretches along three blocks of the waterfront here, along Ninth Avenue, cutting off easy access to the waterfront. The City Council has stated that it intends to build affordable housing and a tech incubator and training center at this location.

Behind the parking lot, fishermen have created a system of trails through the wild-growing landscape, leading to several fishing platforms.

The trails here look out over the Harlem River, and are lined with trees, flowers, and shrubs. This section of waterfront has been used as a local fishing spot for at least a decade. The bulkheads along the Harlem River are in bad condition, with the land underneath the bollards completely eroded. Without maintenance by the city, they will soon collapse into the water.

One of the more elaborate fishing spots here is built out on a crumbling pier over the water. It comes complete with landscaped pathways, rolling chairs, a well-used fire pit, and a cooking station stocked with a full spice rack.

Further south, along 216th Street, the streets are hemmed in by the high walls of several city agencies. These municipal buildings are outside of the rezoned area.

The Kingsbridge Bus Depot, where hundreds of buses are stored and repaired. Any new developments in the area will have to contend with intense street traffic caused by buses and sanitation vehicles. The bus depot stretches from 218th to 216th streets, and has effectively cut off a large section of the waterfront from public access.

At the dead-end of 216th Street, a salt shed and Sanitation Department equipment also block the public off from the waterfront.

A private, gated green space has been created behind the bus depot, most likely for bus drivers to take their breaks. It is surrounded by a chain link fence topped with razor wire.

The only other green space in this municipal zone is located at the end of 215th Street, behind a Sanitation Department garage. It comes complete with picnic tables and barbecues, and also appears to mainly be used by city employees.

One of the largest impediments to waterfront access along the Harlem River in Inwood is the 207th Street Yard, where the MTA overhauls many of its subway cars.

The train yard is blocked off from the community by its warehouses and a long concrete wall topped with metal fencing, creating a hard barrier from 215th Street to 207th Street along 10th Avenue.

Community members have carved out small spaces at the edges of the train yard. This ceviche van operates out of a gas station along 207th Street.

At the southeast corner of the train yard, near the intersection of Ninth Avenue and 208th Street, a van packed with speakers was being tuned for a sound system battle planned later in the day. Even at top decibel, the train yard was unaffected.

Inwood’s North Cove, an informal green space maintained by local volunteers, is located at the southern edge of the 207th Street Yard. As part of the rezoning, the city plans to create a more formal park here, next to a new residential tower.

On the southern side of the cove, an elaborate fishing platform has ben built out over the water from driftwood and scrap. Looking out over the University Heights Bridge, this is one of the most impressive hidden fishing spots in New York City.

The fishing platform and an adjacent parking lot have been rezoned as R8, a designation allowing for new residential development which “can range from mid-rise, eight- to ten-story buildings to much taller buildings set back from the street on large zoning lots,” according to zoning regulations from the NYC Department of City Planning.

The rezoning will impact another cluster of small businesses, warehouses, and restaurants in Inwood, from 207th to 201st streets between 10th Avenue and the Harlem River. On 202nd Street, these businesses include Oasis Auto Repair, a Patacon Pisao food truck, Taboga, and Eat @ Sherman Creek. This section of 202nd Street has been rezoned as R7A, which allows for “medium-density apartment house districts.”

A series of popular wholesale food and beverage markets lines Nine Avenue from 207th to 204th streets. After the rezoning, they also can be replaced with new residential towers.

Two large empty parking lots are located along the dead-end streets between 204th and 202nd streets. Unlike the small business blocks nearby, they have not been rezoned for residential development, and will remain zoned for manufacturing.

At the end of this area’s dead-end streets, a series of five waterfront parks has already been built along the Harlem River. Called the Sherman Creek Parks, they have been allowed to deteriorate into in poor condition.

Narrow footpaths along the banks of the Harlem River connect several of these parks. The parks and paths are also used as homeless camps, with mattresses and shopping carts full of belongings.

Created in 2007, these five small parks provide the only official access to the Harlem River in the rezoned area. Despite their poor condition and utilitarian design, they are popular destinations for area residents, who hold parties and barbecues along the waterfront here.

At the end of 202nd Street, a boat ramp and steps provide the only official access to the waters of the Harlem River along this 1.4 mile stretch of shoreline. In recent years, several other waterfront parks have opened up access to the river, albeit in other neighborhoods.

At the southern end of the rezoned area, a small footpath leads out behind a fenced-off Con Edison facility. This stretch of waterfront is a proposed site for a new two-acre park, which would stretch around the waterfront to the end of Academy Street. The waterfront here is currently home to an abandoned pier and a homeless campsite. It has been in this condition for at least a decade.

Just to the south of the newly rezoned waterfront, the New York Restoration Project runs its own version of Sherman Creek Park, looking back on the gated Con Edison facility. The city would do well to take note of this groups approach to the waterfront.

Instead of hard edges, concrete, and promenades, this park presents a much more open and accessible vision of the waterfront, including beaches and wetlands, where visitors can wander down to the water’s edge. It is doubtful that the new construction coming to Inwood will take a similar approach to the waterfront.

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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