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Hooray for the High Bridge

eye on the news

Hooray for the High Bridge

A civic restoration project that deserves to be celebrated June 22, 2015
Photo by Jim Henderson

The High Bridge—the long-closed bridge linking the Bronx neighborhood of the same name with Washington Heights in Manhattan—reopened on June 9 after a $61 million renovation by the city. The restored High Bridge, New York City’s oldest standing span, not only has great views and a high-quality path connecting two largely minority neighborhoods, it also serves a social purpose; kids from the Bronx will now have easy access to the High Bridge Pool in Manhattan.

The histories of great cities are replete with stories of Herculean efforts to supply them with clean water. New York is no exception. Originally dependent on surface and groundwater supplies, early New Yorkers dealt with water that was insufficient in quantity and frequently polluted. Diseases were common. An 1832 cholera outbreak, followed by a lack of water to fight the Great Fire of 1835, prompted the city to take action: it built the original Croton Aqueduct system, including the High Bridge, to carry clean water 41 miles into the city.

Completed in 1848 and constructed as a series of masonry arches in the form of a Roman aqueduct, the High Bridge is, in effect, a pre-industrial artifact. While it was in use, water flowed across the bridge not in an open trough, but in twin, three-foot, cast-iron pipes. The top was a pedestrian walkway. After it was decommissioned as an aqueduct in 1917, the city planned to demolish the bridge to improve navigation. Protesters wanted it preserved, so the city replaced the spans over the Harlem River with a steel arch section in 1928. The arch span replacement was built for what was basically an obsolete bridge, making the High Bridge an early historic-preservation success, if only a partial one.

In the mid-twentieth century, the walkway attracted crowds, often just for a see-and-be-seen pleasure stroll. “New Yorkers from either side would put on their Sunday best and parade from one borough to another. It was far more than an aqueduct, it was the center of a social world,” Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver noted at the reopening. But the High Bridge and its social life fell into decline, along with much of New York City, as the century progressed. The structure decayed, and there were reports of people throwing stones at passing ships from the walkway. The Parks Department isn’t sure when it was closed or why, but by 1970 the High Bridge was off-limits to pedestrians.

Over the years, various groups called for the High Bridge’s restoration. In 2006, the Bloomberg administration took up the task in earnest as one of eight major regional parks investments in the PlaNYC initiative. This included a commitment of $50 million in city money toward the $61 million total project cost. While Mayor de Blasio treats his predecessor as He Who Shall Not Be Named—and failed to attend the bridge opening—the High Bridge restoration was in fact a good handoff of the baton.

The restoration—including masonry repairs such as tuckpointing—was complicated by needing to be performed on a bridge spanning two freeways, a river, and an active Metro-North rail line. The faded and peeling lead-based paint had to be removed. While before-and-after photos show a sharp contrast in appearance, the bridge was actually repainted the same color as the original. “We sent the paint chips off to the lab for matching,” says the Parks Department’s Ellen Macnow.

The bridge path includes original, restored brickwork dating to the 1860s at either end, with the center section filled in with matching replicas. About 75 percent of the pre-existing metal railing was restored. A new safety screen similar to those on many freeway overpasses will prevent anyone from throwing objects off the bridge, including themselves. The walkway features benches for sitting, but no landscaping. This is an unfortunate oversight. Crossing the High Bridge on foot is not at all unpleasant, but the lack of greenery or flowers creates an experience that is not as good as it could be, especially in contrast with the parks on either side.

Nevertheless, the High Bridge is a delightful place to visit. Light breezes in the river valley keep temperatures pleasantly low and make for a perfect summertime spot to sit, enjoy the views, and watch boats on the river. Winter will likely be less pleasant. While obviously still a novelty, the High Bridge is attracting plenty of visitors who reflect the area’s diversity. And the High Bridge Pool isn’t even open yet.

It’s worth asking whether, with its $61 million price tag, the High Bridge project was really needed. Strictly speaking, the answer is: No. The structure was in no danger of falling down. And, just a half mile to the north, the Washington Bridge provides a functional, if unpleasant, pedestrian crossing over the Harlem River. Yet, the High Bridge is an important part of New York history and deserves its loving restoration. Spending serious money on outlying neighborhoods that are mostly minority and heavily poor to give their residents a humane environment instead of a minimalistic one shows that New York does care about all its citizens. Great cities don’t just do great things in a sanitized downtown Green Zone for visitors. They create greatness in their workaday neighborhoods, too, with projects that speak not merely to the pragmatic, but to the human spirit. The High Bridge restoration again shows what great commercial success allows a city to do for its citizens.

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