Tag Archives: Manhattan

Is the High Bridge redundant?

The High Bridge is indeed pretty high.

It soars 138 feet above the Harlem River, with a length of 1,450 feet. But how often have you seen a low bridge? Really? Perhaps the bridge skipped across by the three billy goats gruff.

Or the Bow Bridge enjoyed by rowers in Central Park.

In any case, when this High Bridge first went up over the Harlem River in 1848 it duplicated nothing. It was a blast of the new.

Remnants of that time exist when you walk its length between the Bronx and Manhattan today.

Small details, relics of an earlier time. An original gate house.

A decorative detail. A doodad, if you want to get technical.

The High Bridge, an engineering marvel, brought the miracle of fresh drinking water by gravity from upstate New York to New York City in the form of the Old Croton Aqueduct, with a source that originated 41miles north in Westchester County.

It took an incredibly brief five years to construct the Aqueduct, which was largely the painstaking work of expert stonemasons specifically brought over to the U.S.  from Southern Italy.

Fear of disease, especially cholera, drove city planners to import pure water. When it gushed forth in the island’s first decorative fountain in City Hall Park on October 14, 1842,  the people celebrated.

“On opening day in 1842, President John Tyler was on hand to witness the plume from the Croton-fed City Hall fountain surge 50 feet high,” read the article in The New York Times

Author Lydia Maria Child exclaimed: “Oh, who that has not been shut up in the great prison-cell of a city, and made to drink of its brackish springs, can estimate the blessings of the Croton Aqueduct? Clean, sweet, abundant, water!” It even inspired a song, the “Croton Jubilee Quick Step.”

The new High Bridge, designed by John B. Jervis, had 15 Roman-style masonry arches. When completed, it was the longest bridge in America.

Earlier, the site had been farmland, owned by such settlers as the Morris family, remaining undeveloped until bought by New York City in order to install the bridge. It is the city’s oldest.

The bridge itself immediately proved a destination for strollers.

Much like the Reservoir at 42nd street, also fed by the Old Croton Aqueduct – now occupied by the Research Library and Bryant Park –  where the uppertens liked to promenade.

You can still see a chunk of the Reservoir’s granite if you search it out in the Library’s substrata.

For a century, the High Bridge existed as a tourist attraction. In 1899, Jesse Lynch Williams of Scribner’s Magazine wrote: “There is a different feeling in the air up along this best-known end of the city’s water-front. The small, unimportant looking winding river, long distance views, wooded hills, green terraces, and even the great solid masonry of High Bridge…help to make you feel the spirit of freedom and outdoors and relaxation. This is the tired city’s playground.” Restaurants and beer gardens sprang up on both banks.

In 1927, the architecture of the bridge changed, when engineers replaced five of its arches with a single steel span that would allow larger vessels to use the waterway.

A few decades after the bridge went up, a hexagonal water tower was constructed as the city expanded northwards and the Aqueduct’s gravity-based system proved not strong enough to deliver water to the higher elevations, especially as flush toilets came into use. The tower contained a 47,000-gallon iron tank. One contemporary critic has called it “more picturesque than beautiful.” Okay, if you say so. It still stands proud over Washington Heights, though its reservoir has been reduced to a swimming pool.

I want to take you higher: Sly and the Family Stone. If you’re feeling blue, this is not the place to go to resolve your life by suicide. A preventive fence takes the High Bridge even higher.

 At the Washington Heights terminus, a chunk of rock finds itself displayed.

Is it Manhattan schist or is it Manhattan gneiss? Does it matter? One is schist as gneiss as the other, has Gil likes to remind me.

When you walk the neighborhood streets you can see how the rock was blasted away to make for sidewalks.

Water flow to the city via the Aqueduct ceased in 1958. The bridge closed in 1970, partly due to incidents of pedestrians throwing over sticks, stones and bricks that seriously injured passengers on Circle Line tour boats making their way up the river. Highways came to dominate the old majestic view. In 1972 the bridge and water tower went on the National Register of Historic Places, but the site continued to atrophy.

Restored in the past decade at a cost of 61 million dollars – it originally cost 950,000 to build – the High Bridge has been a park since 1937 and is now managed by the NYC Parks Department.

Landscaped areas on either side of the bridge afford the customary parks accoutrements, places for chess or checkers, depending on your skill level.

The neighborhood, its once-bucolic nature hard to fathom today, still sports some distinctions.

Plenty of yucca.

If you need some Bronx-style sustenance at the eastern end of your High Bridge promenade.


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My own personal cherry tree

may not be the biggest or the buffest, but it is the best because I see it outside my office window every day.

It grows outside the municipal building in our village. I’ve been looking forward to the moment it blooms.

The cherry trees are not the only ones to boast the perfection of spring – window box planters down the street are filled with blooms so perfect they look like they’re not even real.

Why is it that trees that weep make us happy? Weeping willows, weeping beeches. I know that it is the pendulant cherry trees which I like the best.

In Branch Brook Park, in Newark, New Jersey, 5,200 white and pink trees burst into bloom at approximately the same time in April. That’s more than they have in D.C., and quite a bit closer to home, so we thought we’d go for a look. First, fortify with a “belly buster” hot dog from JJ’s food truck, the finest New Jersey has to offer in that department.

Clouds of blossoms appear everywhere you look. The park received its first cherry trees, called sakura in Japan, as a gift in 1927.

Branch Brook is an urban park. Roads cut through it, creating an interesting counterpoint between the natural, graceful trees and the hard-edged automotive energy. Reminds me of Central Park in Manhattan, probably because the hills and dales and automotive conduits were designed by Olmsted Brothers, the successors to Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius behind Central Park’s greenscapes.

Picnics under every tree. The Japanese call the practice of imbibing under a blooming sakura hanam, and the tradition goes back centuries, to the Heian period (794–1185).

Part of the modern tradition, posing for pictures.

Quilts of dandelions dot the lawns.

If you look closely, what I consider perhaps the cherry tree’s best feature: Its lenticel-scored bark. That’s how it breathes.

Cherry trees are not universally cherished.

I knew that protesters had chained themselves to cherry trees in a park on the lower east side, on Manhattan’s East River, so I went to have a look. NYC is shoring up the edge of the island to make it more flood-resistant, to the tune of $1.4 billion, and the sakuras, among others, would have to go. This conflict has to do with what needs to be taken away to achieve the city’s goal. Protesters are having none of it.

Taking the footbridge over the FDR to Corlears Hook Park,  I saw the classic sneakers hung over a wire –a practice whose meaning has been disputed. Gang activity, loss of virginity, mere hijinks?

In this case, it did not indicate anything positive. Everything had been bulldozed, everything was gone.

Early Saturday morning, a pair of protesters were charged with criminal trespass and obstructing governmental administration. The city plans to cut down 1,000 trees for the project. The irony of cutting down trees to fight climate change was not lost on protesters. It’s a tough call, certainly.

Back home, my own personal tree, the weeping sakura, though small, stood tall.

I felt fortunate that it wasn’t going anyplace anytime soon.

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Spring, season of music and madness,

is here. And magic. Trees are still budding out, but in planters on the street flowers bloom.

At Hekate, a “sober bar” on Manhattan’s lower east side, there is a little of all three.

The music is the band Maputi, with Nora Balaban on the mbira, Banning Eyre on guitar and Rima Fand playing violin. Traditional Zimbabwean rhythms, lulling, hypnotic. Trance music.

The magic, served up by a witchy wench of a bartender, consists of elixirs designed to elevate your mood.

I find The Healer refreshing enough to quaff in one gulp: Apothekary’s Blue Me Away, lemonade, seltzer and lavender simple syrup. Don’t try this at home. Or if you do, make sure you invite me over.

The madness? That would come at 1 pm, 7 days a week, when the wannabe druids “gather to listen to the trees” at Corlears Hook Park on the East River. “They are smarter than us! They have been here longer!”

But is that really so crazy? I’d like to join the assembly with a Healer in a thermos and Maputi rocking my earbuds.

Spring. It’s here.

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Kissing and strolling

once went hand in hand on Manhattan, especially on bridges. For a long time iIt was even considered especially good manners for a gentleman to kiss a lady while on a bridge. (“What happened on the bridge stays on the bridge”)

Reverend Mr. Burnaby, quoted in New York’s Morning Chronicle on April 19, 1803, said, “it is the etiquette for every gentleman in company with a lady to salute his fair companion when upon it.”

There were multiple Kissing Bridges because there were dozens of springs and brooks all over Manhattan that people and coaches and horses and carts had to cross.

At one point in our city’s history, ladies could expect to fetch up a kiss at the bridge at 32nd Street just west of Fifth Avenue,at 33rd Street and Lexington Avenue over Kip’s Run, 54th Street and First Avenue, and 50th Street and Second Avenue.

The custom stretched back before the American Revolution judging by an advertisement in the Weekly Museum in 1797, looking for a tenant for the season of a 10-acre lot “through which the Kissing bridge brook runs.”

The well-researched Hidden Waters of New York City, by Sergei Kadinsky, tells us that in an earlier century, even, kissing bridges were common, over bodies of water that had names like Old Wreck Book, Sunfish Pond and De Voor’s Mill Stream.

Does anyone else have a “comfort century” the way people now keep “comfort animals”? Mine would be the seventeen century.

I think you can tell how verdant and stream-flushed Manhattan might have been in those days if you look at what’s called The Castello Plan, a famous copy of the first street map of the island, drawn in 1660. As the city grew more developed, it seemed, kissing on bridges grew less important. Perhaps with more buildings, people found more private places to smooch.

Let’s think. What bridges are there now in and around Manhattan? You can visit the many bow bridges of Central Park, over one hundred, every one of which was designed by Calvert Vaux. Walkers throng the Brooklyn Bridge, which the last time I was there seemed weighed down by the padlocks that were hung as amorous tributes, with the key thrown into the drink a gesture toward the infinity of the couple’s love, but since cut off by the City). There’s Brooklyn, George Washington, and more, and a little farther up out of town, where I live, the Tap. Each of these could be repurposed as a kissing bridge, if we only had the romantic will.

Let’s try.

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