Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Very Highbridge Christmas

By baad lamb

Christmas Day exploration of Highbridge Park, Manhattan

Since my beloved (and newly unemployed) snowbird was spreading his wings for Braindeadlia on the 21st of December, we celebrated Christmas a week early. This left Christmas Day wide open, and like Beau on a snow-day, my feet did their exploration dance, and pointed north. I had been to Highbridge Park five or six years ago during OHNY, specifically to go up in the infrequently open tower, but this very large park stretches 45 blocks along the Harlem River, from Inwood through Washington Heights and down to Sugar Hill in Harlem, and it was time to see some more.

Immediately outside the Dykeman Street station on the 1 train, I turned right and headed for the river. The northern most section of the park was right here, a thin sliver of land along the sidewalk, with some occasional benches. Not more than a few hundred yards, and with a gentile rise to the right, the main path into the park began.

Through the breaks in the trees, I spotted the Swindler Cove Boathouse. This sweet little river gem was the crown jewel of the recent reclamation of this muddy swamp by Bette Midler's NYRP.

Across the river in the Bronx can be seen the University Heights neighborhood and part of Bronx Community College.

As I progressed south and the trail continued to rise, the steep hill to the right held this intriguing stone formation, upright flat rocks holding back the earth in a series of man-made terraces. Later I learned this was done as one of the city's work relief programs in 1932.

The park was still and empty and all mine. As I passed a woman here walking her dog in the opposite direction, she would be the last person I would see until I left the park.

Not every park is as well maintained as the well known, well traveled and well funded parks below 110th street. Here in Highbridge, very few lampposts were intact. If they were still standing, the globes were broken and the copper wire salvaged long ago. Fortunately, nature rises above this adversity and demonstrates adaptive reuse, as seen on the right.


The massive River Park Towers were built in 1975. These two building have an interesting massing that gets broader at the top, and they are cleverly positioned to disguise their bulk. This makes them look slender from one angle and extra wide from another (hope that never happens to me).

Back on the Manhattan shoreline, things are more serene. Sparse traffic on the Harlem River Drive, and there are no walkers, runners or bicyclists to be seen.

The centerpiece of the upper park should be the lovely stone double staircases of Laurel Hill Terrace Overlook, providing a grand entrance and exit to Yeshiva University above. Is this poor cyclops crying from vandalism and neglect, or from the view hogging heft of the brutalist Belfer Hall behind it?


The first bridge to pass over the trail is the Washington Bridge (not the George Washington, which is on the west side), two steel arches separated by stone uprights. This bridge was built in 1888, essentially for pedestrian traffic. Now it handles about 70,000 cars a day.


Further south, another elaborate stone terrace with an inner staircase is named for the site where the second aqueduct crossed the river in 1890 (this time under ground): The New Croton Aqueduct Overlook. The poor terrace above it is in similar condition; what remains of its ornamental iron work is rusting away.

Below, a chunk of highway ramp being removed or repaired, echos the decay found at the overlooks.

Moving on, the "trail" has become a construction site that includes some sort of repairs to the underside of the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, the boring utilitarian structure that feeds the Cross Bronx Expressway across the Harlem River and on to the George Washington Bridge. I am now inches away from the light Christmas Day traffic on the Harlem River Drive. As I duck under the bridge and dodge the drips, the first full sight of the Highbridge comes into view.

The Highbridge is New York's oldest surviving bridge from the mainland, having been built in 1848 as part of the first gravity-fed aqueduct system to bring fresh upstate drinking water onto the island. When it was built, it was the longest bridge in America. The chief engineer of this aqueduct system was a man named John B. Jervis, who had helped build the Erie Canal. Since most of the city's population was still below Canal Street, Jervis put the receiving reservoir in the middle of the island, where Central Park's Great Lawn is today, and the distributing reservoir far "uptown" at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street - now the New York Public Library.

In 1928, to make room for taller and more frequent shipping traffic, five arches over the river were removed, and replaced with a single steel span arch. (Erection alert: rusty metal, rivets, and engineered steel bridge porn below.)

The Highbridge Tower was added to the system in 1872 to supply water to higher elevation northern Manhattan neighborhoods. Water was pumped up to a tank in the top, held until needed and gravity did the rest.

With the large number of highways and connecting ramps converging on the site, there are plenty of below-the-ramps areas to explore. Once again, the cold and the Christmas had these sheltered areas unusually empty.


A casualty of the raging roads overhead, no doubt

A lovely place to sit in better weather, this terrace is just between the tower and the Highbridge. It marks the beginning of the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, which continues south about 14 blocks to 158th Street.

The stairway in the foreground, connecting the Tower terrace with the Bridge was recently restored. I think this was also by Ms. Midler's group, New York Restoration Project. Thanks, Bette!

From the base of the tower looking north, you can put into perspective all the landmarks of the trail, with Park River Towers and Belfer Hall in the background, the Washington and Hamilton bridges closer, and part of the trail beneath the ramps. One third of the park is south of this photo,  and remains to be explored on another day.

Below, peeking through the barrier to the pedestrian surface of the Highbridge. It has been closed since the early 80s I think, but there are desires to open it up again. Only dollars and diligence are needed. Unfortunately, that low, human scaled (possibly original?) wrought iron fence will be the first thing to go.

A final view of the Highbridge from the base of the tower before heading home.


  1. It takes a lot to make me miss NY in the winter and you've done that.

  2. I can't believe I've never even HEARD of this park. The mix of nature and decaying construction is an oddly appealing one, maybe especially so in Winter. Thanks for this, I can't wait to do some exploring. You're also reminding me that I rarely venture to the east side of the island.

  3. It is hard to believe that I live in Inwood but have never been to this park. I had no idea it was this large and this interesting. Thanks.

  4. Tommy, since you live there, you probably already know the magical land of Inwood is full of surprises. One of my favorites is that you can stand on 9th Ave. and be 1/2 block from the East (Harlem) River! Another (more juvenile pleasure) is that Seaman Ave. intersects with Cumming St!

    Patrick, think of it this way, every inch of Highbridge Park is west of 8th Ave., so you're really not going east at all.

    Kitchenbeard-come on home, baby (if only for a quick visit).

  5. Thanks for making this blog, I'm an architecture student in manchester, england, and am currently working on a project based around Highbridge. Unfortunately I can't afford to get over their to see the site first hand, so these pictures and narrative are extremely helpful!! If you're ever over on the bronx side of the bridge please take some photos and post them!! Thanks again, Ric

  6. Ric from Manchester, my shutter-button finger absolutely tingles at the thought of all the abandoned or decaying factory landscapes that (I imagine) would be available to you.
    I will get photos from the Bronx side, and will post them when I do. Unfortunately, rain this weekend will most likely prevent a bike excursion.
    I have a good deal more from the Christmas Day walk, too. If you're looking for something specific, let me know!

  7. The first time I ever heard of this park was back when I was about 10 years old. My oldest sister use to date a b.boy, and him and his boys took us to this I'll spot. They use to call this park (Spider Man Village) I grew up in this park, it was sort of my playground. They use to throw underground parties back in the days inside this park, and they still do. I know this park inside and out. As a matter of fact I filmed a video down there (Top Notch Aristadoe.) But that one video was not enough to show the word what this park got. I need to come back all he way from Hartford CT LOL

  8. For those interesting in more information on the High Bridge, the Highbridge Park, and the surrounding neighborhood see: