“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words ebb and flow in my mind at two points on my pilgrimage to Wards Island Bridge on 103rd Street and the Harlem River. First, as I exit the train station on Lexington Avenue and see a woman in her 50s dressed from head to toe as a mint-green, fabric and foam, Statue of Liberty passing out flyers to the passersby of Spanish Harlem. I realize that this is the exact color the neighbors whose windows face the 1951 vertical lift bridge are looking for when they try to describe the faded turquoise concrete structure. And later, as I stand on the Manhattan side, with the East River Housing Projects behind me, the Ward’s Island bridge before me (closed for construction) and the Manhattan Psychiatric Center directly in front, on the Ward’s Island side. If bridges are meant to provide connections and means of access to other places and new vantage points, the Ward’s Island Bridge is a cruel, cynical joke.
The eleven-foot-wide pedestrian bridge was designed by Othmar Hermann Ammann in 1951, has 12 spans, and was built to serve the residents of the 100s as a passageway to Ward’s and Randall islands’ parks and athletic facilities. The middle section of the bridge lifts to allow clearance for boats and vessel ships traveling along the eastern waters of Manhattan. But, before this jolly green giant got situated on the riverbanks, though, there had been predecessors to the bridge and to the island.
Two private businessmen by the names of Philip Milledolar and Bartholomew Ward financed the building of a wooden drawbridge in 1807 that would connect what was then referred to as Great Barn Island and the island of Manhattan. Theirs was a cotton business and the bridge helped transport their goods to the urban market. The bridge stood proudly until 1821 when a powerful storm destroyed it. 130 years later, with the cotton manufacturers and the wooden drawbridge long gone, the Ward’s Island Bridge was erected, painted, and used as an elevated pathway to the new Robert Moses-developed Ward’s Island Park.
It is impossible to look at the bridge without also seeing the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, built in 1848, and located parallel to 125th Street on Ward’s Island. This hospital was the first reception area for arriving immigrants before the “doorways” were shifted to Ellis Island in 1892. There is no view of the Statue of Liberty from this island. In fact there is hardly any structure or building of hope or inspiration at this section of the Harlem River. The Ward’s Island bridge, as friendly as its emerald post-and-lintel design first appears, resembles an element from a Super Mario Bros. video game, complete with the potentially comical rising horizontal plane of the central lift. The two look-out stations situated on the two main vertical beams of the bridge are rounded, glassed-in floating offices. Rather than beacons or symbols of safe maritime journeys, these two suspended bungalows are panopticons with no views.
To the northwest are the hi-rise apartment towers of the Upper East Side, all of which turn a cold shoulder to the bridge and to rest of the island north of 96th Street. This silent treatment from El Barrio’s neighbors somehow comes as no surprise. They have long been overlooked. To the southeast, across the river, is the aforementioned Psychiatric hospital with its tan Escher-like tangled cluster of tall towers. The hospital is not ominous. It just seems quietly inevitable. The East River Housing Project, that anyone wishing to arrive at Ward’s Island Bridge, must traverse, is a labyrinth of brick, mortar, basketball courts, and an acrid taste of jaded despair. The walk from the subway on Lexington Avenue and 103rd Street the four avenues to the waterfront and the East River Greenway almost seems designed to impede and obstruct access to the river. The serpentine path designated between the many identical buildings, bare playgrounds, and basketball courts is daunting and makes me doubt whether I will ever get out of the projects. The apartment towers extend and dizzyingly multiply as I snake my way between them. The path to the bridge also requires at least five sharp turns on the zig-zagging ramp that climbs in place to reach the height of the bridge walkway. What a tease. This is how hamsters on wheels must feel. What greets me up top, 12 feet above FDR Drive, is a chain link fence barring passage across. Exasperated and downtrodden, I look out at the bleak view and start hatching schemes for an alternate route back to midtown. Looking down, I see an ubiquitous green highway sign that announces the Metropolitan Museum of Art in reflective white letters just 2 exits south.. Is there a way for me to climb down there and walk over to the Met? No. Not without a car. And not before untangling myself out of the metal grated ramp and brick housing complex of 103rd Street.
Walking back to the train, defeated, I begin to feel claustrophobic about the visual equivalencies I notice. Ward’s Island Bridge, which looked welcoming and egalitarian with its protected walkway on Google Images, is really just oversized playground equipment. The same kind I pass–metal slides, enamel painted ladders and swings the exact color of the bridge now behind me –as I crawl my way out.
Ward’s Island Bridge, even after construction will be completed, will not conjoin, enfold, or lead its pedestrians anywhere hopeful. It is a two-sided arrow that points to one or the other inevitability: institutionalized poverty, marginalization, and isolation or mental and psychic collapse. Emma Lazarus’ tired, poor, and yearning masses have lived on either side of Ward’s Island Bridge for decades and sadly, they’re not going anywhere. No lamp is lit for them to cross.