High Bridge

No roads lead to High Bridge and no one is allowed to cross. The first bridge to connect two New York boroughs, the first to span the Harlem River and open up the great island of Manhattan should be celebrated and pedestrian-choked but it isn’t. The credit often goes to the Brooklyn Bridge, a more fashionable and tourist-friendly link between better neighborhoods.

High Bridge is a mere three blocks from my apartment on 170th street.  My building is inhabited by kind people who smile and hold the inner door open for me when I struggle to get my bike through the obstacle course of the entry.  But I think there’s a drug dealer who lives on the third floor, boys smoke pot in the hallway, and Maria in the front apartment insists on throwing rice out of her window every morning to feed the pigeons.

As I open the heavy metal door to set out for the bridge, I am greeted by a sea of churning grey feathers. A few of the pigeons flutter away in annoyance as I pass them heading east towards the river.

Ironically, High Bridge was not built for people but for water. In the early 1830’s, New York was ravaged first by a cholera epidemic and then by The Great Fire of 1835. Both tragedies revealed the inadequacy of the contaminated wells and cisterns that had supplied the city’s water for centuries. It was decided that the best solution would be to obtain water from the Croton River in what is now Westchester County.  Between 1837 and 1848, a Roman-style aqueduct was built ensuring a steady flow of water by sloping 13 inches every mile for the 41-mile journey to the city.  The aqueduct’s designers decided that a high bridge crossing into Manhattan would enable boats to continue down the Harlem River. It was the first aqueduct system of its kind to ever be built in the United States.

I wanted to go to High Bridge to watch the sun rise. But as I walked up Audubon and into High Bridge Park, the pavement was wet and the sky was inauspiciously overcast. I continued over a gently sloping incline to the rear of a massive fenced-in swimming pool built where there used to be a reservoir. At the top of the hill I pause to look out over the Bronx across the river and on the bridges crisscrossing it to the south. To my left, a stone octagonal tower, almost a lighthouse, rises 185 feet tall. It once contained a 47,000-gallon tank to store water from the aqueduct. The tower used to be open to the public until someone set it on fire. No trace of fire remains but a thick padlock adorns its steel door.

A Parks and Rec sign hovering above two flights of wooden steps reads “High Bridge Access Path” and as I totter down the steep wooden steps I have a fluttering optimistic hope that the bridge will be open. A new-looking paved path at the bottom of the stairs leads directly to a small open courtyard and the bridge. Someone has pulled the leafy debris of fall off of the hillside to my left to uncover a fringe of verdant green grass. The slope to my right, between me and the river, has received no such attention and languishes in a tangle of fallen branches and a brown blanket of dead leaves.

I can see the bridge from here—its original arches and the steel one installed in 1927. The High Bridge was decommissioned in 1917 with the rise of the New Croton Aqueduct, which still empties into a reservoir in The Bronx. In the 20’s, the city wanted to tear down the crumbling bridge but was convinced to instead replace the five arches above the river with a single steel arch. I wonder why it was painted such a sickly light green color. The bridge itself looks beautiful and empty and tragic in the morning light. There is an eerie disconnect of sound; traffic rushing below on FDR Drive gives the impression of violent rapids but the Harlem River is a torpid flow of grey-green water. A team of rowers cuts through the small murky waves on their way downstream.

The dampness of the morning brings out the smell of earth, the smell of spring and dirt and wet leaves. A cool breeze comes off the water swaying the naked branches of surrounding trees. There is an otherworldliness to this place populated by green moss and grass and grey stone. I’m alone and the tower looms above me.

I make my way along the path hopscotch-ing around the earthworms that have crawled onto the pavement like tiny naked snakes. From here I can see that the entrance to the bridge is blocked by an ominous black metal wall. The bridge has been closed to any kind of foot traffic since the 1970 when a hoodlum threw a rock from the bridge onto a passenger ferry below.

I walk down the three steps and across the lower courtyard anyway. It is paved with beautiful slate pavers that must be original. I want to see if there is any way I could get around the wall, over it or under it. No chance. The black barrier is roughly 12 feet high, made of welded steel sheets topped with razor wire. Not the kind of razor wire ringing the tops of parking lot fences, but the intense kind. The kind, I imagine, that is used for penitentiaries and internment camps. An assortment of blue and grey plastic bags have artfully shredded themselves on the rings of razor wire and flap in the breeze like tiny ethereal banners. The metal wall curves out away from the railing at either end to prevent potential interlopers such as myself from crawling onto the stone ledge and climbing around the wall. It looks sinister, as though it was meant to keep out something more dangerous than delinquents and writers.

A heavy metal chain and padlock secure the doors. I put my eye up to the chink the chain passed through like Alice looking through a keyhole into Wonderland. Very strange. I see the path of the bridge as it extends across the river, extending 1,450 feet to The Bronx. The bridge is paved with red bricks in a herringbone pattern. Moss and small tufts of grass grow in the in-between spaces like green geometric veins.

The path is wide enough for a single lane of car traffic. Metal lampposts that have lost their glass globes run along both sides of the bridge like copper torches. The wrought iron railing would certainly not meet code today. It would barely come up to my hip. I remember an article I read once about the Golden Gate Bridge and suicide jumpers—apparently most suicides are spur-of-the moment and the simple act of installing a taller barrier on the Golden Gate caused enough inconvenience that it significantly reduced suicide rates.

I turn and walk back to the path, hearing the rush of the automobile traffic that has since superseded water in the city’s need for flow. If nothing is allowed to cross, is a bridge still a bridge? I sum up my findings: an empty tower and an unusable bridge made to bring water over water to an island surrounded by water. All seem like follies. Like vestiges of something underappreciated. If they can’t be used, studied, explored, what good is keeping them?

This place has no obvious function, no utility. Yet I feel that it is important, that the act of coming to the bridge at sunrise should reveal something to me.  This place has no explicit purpose. This isn’t the New York of taxis and parties and office buildings. This isn’t the New York of Maria and the pigeons. The bridge standing like a memorial to some unwanted past, the tangle of trees, the solitude, all contribute to a feeling of unreality. But maybe it is just my imagination.

Just last week, the Landmarks Preservation Commission green lighted a renovation that will open the bridge back up to bikers and pedestrians. The plans show wheelchair ramps and industrial steel railings surmounted by an 8’ chain-link suicide fence. It does not look beautiful or mysterious. The people in the renderings look like they are going places. Construction should begin by the end of the year.

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