WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE:
RENEWING A W. HARLEM PARK

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The northern section of Riverside Park, stretching from 145th to 155th Streets on the west side of Manhattan, has much to recommend it. It’s one of the few places on the island of Manhattan where a person can stretch out and put her toes in the river while eyeing beautiful views of the George Washington Bridge and the ancient diabase rock of the New Jersey Palisades. But the park is also isolated from the surrounding West Harlem neighborhood by a series of unusually forbidding obstacles, both natural and manmade.

The eastern half of the park is on a steep incline, at the bottom of which are both Amtrak train tracks and the enormous, partially elevated Henry Hudson Parkway. Local residents can reach the waterfront by crossing Riverside Drive at 148th Street, walking down the limestone steps of another park, continuing over a rickety footbridge near the Amtrak line and through a long and unlit tunnel by the Parkway, and then past a fenced-in basketball court and parking lot.

However, if an alliance of local residents and community groups get their way, this long and treacherous journey will soon change for the better with new efforts to renovate the park and ease waterfront access.

The West Harlem Arts Fund, the Riverside Park Fund, the Community League of the Heights and Community Board 9 have been clamoring for these improvements for years. According to Savona Bailey-McClain, director of the West Harlem Arts Fund, the neighborhood has been cut off from the Hudson River for over 40 years, and thanks in large part to her own efforts, the Environmental Protection Fund of New York State recently awarded a total of $725,000 for the rejuvenation of the park and surrounding neighborhood.

Using these funds, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Transportation will explore and begin to implement the recommendations of a concept plan called “Take Me to the River,” created by landscape architects Bonnie Harken and Donna Walcavage.

First on the list of proposed projects is an “enchanted forest” along the hillside near Riverside Drive, where a well-lit and historic path winding through the trees will replace ad hoc chain-link fencing and dense underbrush. Next in line is streetscaping along Broadway and the 148th and 151st Street gateways. That would include planting trees, explained Bailey-McClain, but hardly end there. “It’s about lighting and circulation,” she said. “It’s about widening the sidewalks, taking care of the trash receptacles, organizing transportation and much more.”

The goal of both projects, of course, is to begin to erase the barrier between this West Harlem neighborhood and the great public resource that is its waterfront. But the traffic over that rickety footbridge goes both ways, and residents are hoping that a more inviting park will encourage park users from other parts of the city to venture into their neighborhood. “To strengthen the link between the economic corridor along Broadway and the waterfront was always our main goal,” said Bonnie Harken. “The waterfront park is extremely popular in the summer months, but we found that visitors almost never visit the neighborhood.”

State Assemblymember Herman Farrell recently earmarked $10 million for a pedestrian bridge accessible to the disabled, stretching over the Parkway from 151st Street to the waterfront. If built, the bridge would help mitigate the layers of highway infrastructure on the northernmost side of the park, clueing visitors in that there’s a bustling neighborhood on the other side.

Meanwhile, the park itself could use some work. Its eastern half is literally crumbling. Just around the corner from the baseball field and right under a highway billboard advertisement for Movado watches, there is a forgotten pile of rusted scrap metal, a foot of black standing water on cracked asphalt, twenty discarded dumpsters and a corrugated metal shed with a caved-in roof.

The “Take Me to the River” concept plan calls for this area to be eventually turned into a basketball court, skate park and community garden. Cacherel Jean-Baptiste, a young resident of the neighborhood who likes to walk his dog in the park, said he had trouble envisioning the concept plan ever becoming a reality. “I’m not sure it’ll work,” he said of plans for the enchanted forest. “It’s not that it’s dangerous, it’s secluded … a good hiding place for drug dealers.”

Nevertheless, Anthony Borrelli, director of land use in the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, said the search for a project manager is already underway and that the necessary feasibility studies are to follow this winter. “I can’t say if all the proposed projects will be funded,” he said, “but we’re beginning to meet with other agencies and will take it one step at a time.”