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High Bridge on Cusp of Major Renovation; The City’s Oldest Bridge, Closed for 40 Years, Will Reopen in 2012

February 5, 2009

High BridgeHours before sunrise on the last day of June in 1897, a lone figure could be seen perched atop the High Bridge. Patrick Cook, 35, wanted to test out his flying machine that he believed would “startle the world,” according to The New York Times.

One could say he achieved his goal that very morning, shocking the world, or at least the city, after his parachute caught on one of the bridge’s arches and left him hanging by his left foot for hours over the Harlem River before being retrieved and arrested for jumping off the bridge.  

In subsequent years, many others would follow suit, plunging 138 feet into the river’s cold waters whether for fun, fame, or more morbid pursuits.  

Quenching the City’s Thirst

Before the High Bridge became the launch pad for eccentric inventors and daredevils, it was an important link in the Old Croton Aqueduct, which carried fresh water from the Croton River in Westchester County to a reservoir in Manhattan.

Built in 1848, it’s the city’s oldest standing bridge. While its water carrying duties were cut short in 1955 when the aqueduct was discontinued, it lived on as a popular walkway for tourists and residents alike, until it was closed around 1970.

Jesslyn Moser, a spokesperson for the Parks Department, speculated that the bridge was shuttered after youths threw stones and debris off it, injuring several people on Circle Line boats below. There had also been reports of criminal activity on or around the bridge, which connects High Bridge Park in Washington Heights to High Bridge Park in the Bronx, on 170th Street.

After a 40-year hibernation, the bridge is expected to reopen in 2012. Work will begin next winter. To prevent a reoccurrence of criminal activity and vandalism, 12 full-time staff members will be appointed to monitor the bridge and a high fence will be installed on the bridge to prevent material from being thrown over the side, according to the Parks Department.  

Over the years, there have been several attempts to reopen the High Bridge, but it wasn’t until 2005 when Congressman Jose E. Serrano provided $5 million in funding that the ball got rolling, said the Parks Department’s Ellen Macnow, the High Bridge Project coordinator. 

“When I obtained initial funding for the restoration of the High Bridge back in 2005, like many in the community, I envisioned a renovation that would enrich our neighborhood with a new pedestrian and bike route to upper Manhattan,” said Serrano in an e-mail. “We all look forward to the day when we can safely enjoy this historical treasure again.” 

After a $2.5 million structural inspection, completed in 2006 by the New York City Department of Transportation, $60 million more came from Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 as part of PlaNYC, a long-term plan to make New York greener and more environmentally friendly. There is an additional $7.2 million in federal transportation grant funds.  

Several independently funded off-bridge projects have already been completed. On the Bronx side, the one-acre High Bridge Park was renovated in 2002. And in 2007, the Parks Department and the Department of Environmental Protection jointly funded the restoration of the park’s gatehouse.   

Connecting Two Boroughs

Once restored, the High Bridge will be open for year round pedestrian and bicycle use, giving Bronxites easy access to an outdoor swimming pool, baseball fields, and basketball courts on the Manhattan side of the river. No cars will be allowed.

High Bridge Water Tower

Macnow said the bridge’s resurrection has received an overwhelmingly positive response from the community, especially those who used to walk and bike across it as children and teenagers. 

Earlene Wilkerson has lived in the Highbridge community for 25 years and remembers that when the High Bridge first closed, children continued to use it, jumping over a wire fence in order to access the park in Manhattan. 

Today, the entrance is secured by a high wooden gate lined with barbed wire and bolted with a padlock.

“Most of the children want to use the resources on the other side,” said local resident Jose Gonzalez, 34, who is in the process of creating a documentary about the Highbridge neighborhood. “They have to take the bus instead of walking across the bridge.” 

For Gonzalez, the reopening will not only give Bronxites access to amenities on the other side of the river, but reunite two communities. “I’m pretty excited,” he said. “I have a lot of friends on the Manhattan side. The connection we had between the two boroughs – we lost it when they closed the bridge.” 

Antonia Diaz, 97, who moved to Highbridge in 1965 and who walked across the bridge when it was still open, summed up her feelings about the reopening with brief but punctuated words. “I’m all for it,” she said.  

By REBECCA CHAO

Comments

3 Responses to “High Bridge on Cusp of Major Renovation; The City’s Oldest Bridge, Closed for 40 Years, Will Reopen in 2012”

  1. ez al on February 11th, 2009 1:07 pm

    great story!

  2. Danny S. on March 10th, 2009 4:03 pm

    In 2007, they said the bridge would reopen in 2009. Well, it’s 2009, and the reopening is apparently further in the future now (three years away, in 2012) than it was then. What gives?

  3. Have Your Say on the Future of the High Bridge : Mount Hope Monitor on June 7th, 2010 12:49 pm

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