View Full Version : The Bronx River's Restoration

July 18th, 2003, 06:01 AM
July 18, 2003

In City Thrum, Splash of a Paddle


The Parks Department's Adrian Benepe on the Bronx River.

This is the Bronx?

Can't be. A babbling, crystalline stream. Long-necked egrets spearing the rushing waters for fish. Red-winged blackbirds gliding from tree-lined bank to tree-lined bank.

O.K., maybe there is still a well-rusted tire hub in the muddy bottom here and a plastic bottle snared in a low-hanging branch there. But the Bronx River, the city's only true freshwater river, has been restored for a good portion of its eight-mile course through the borough to something closer to what it was before urbanization turned it into a trough for collecting abandoned cars and tires.

To examine how the river looks after recent years of cleanup, an armada of four canoes carrying this son of the Bronx and New York City's parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, pushed off the other day from a slender park north of Gun Hill Road in the Williamsbridge neighborhood. Depending on your point of view, the expedition resembled either Lewis and Clark or Martin and Lewis.

As the river flows through the North Bronx, with famed Art Deco apartment houses and fussed-over row houses concealed by curtains of shrubs and trees, paddling downstream seems like canoeing in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts or even the lush tropics. As Mr. Benepe suggested, a hippopotamus would not have seemed out of place.

The southernmost part, though, is still lined with scrap yards and warehouses and the only things tropical are some of the fruits at the Hunts Point produce market. Still, the ugly car carcasses are gone and five new parks are being carved out, one from a former concrete plant.

Certainly, the launching had all the earmarks of a whitewater adventure. Mr. Benepe, in Bermuda shorts and a baseball cap, and his aides doused themselves with suntan lotion and mosquito repellent. They zipped their wallets and BlackBerrys into dry plastic bags. They donned life jackets. They had me sign a waiver releasing the Parks Department from liability in case of injury or death.

Angela Randall, a canoe guide, provided instructions on how to grip a paddle and change seats in a canoe, forgetting perhaps that even those who grew up on the Grand Concourse sometimes went to summer camp.

"I'm sure you guys will be fine," she said.

Now Son of the Bronx was worried.

We took our seats in the canoe, with me up front, Mr. Benepe steering at the rear, and Linda Cox, the Parks Department's Bronx River administrator, sitting between us on the canoe bottom.

"What is it that Lewis and Clark shouted when they launched their expedition: `Westward Ho?' " Mr. Benepe inquired as we pushed off.

On our left we could see where logs and branches were being used to shore up the muddy banks. Ms. Cox pointed out the profusion of Japanese knotweed, a lush shrub with large leaves. It looked charming. But Mr. Benepe said it was a plant with sharp elbows that pushed other greenery out and was not as sturdy at preventing erosion.

Behind the screen of knotweed, the hum of Bronx River Parkway traffic could be heard, but otherwise the canoeists felt they were on a meandering country brook.

"Can we hear the theme from `African Queen,' " Mr. Benepe said. "We're 25 feet from the Bronx River Parkway, but visually it looks like we're on a small river in Connecticut or something more jungly."

Sure enough, Mr. Benepe spied an egret, which spread its broad white wings and took off. A few hundred yards along, a flock of ducklings — brown was the most specific classification the Bronx taught its children — waddled off into the bushes.

The slim river is shallow up north, sometimes only inches deep, and with an experienced journalist leading the way we twice got stuck in the mud. The parks commissioner had to back us out. He also advised me that I was holding the paddle like, well, a son of the Bronx. Then came the first of many bridges. The vegetation grew denser, the shadows darker, more menacing.

"I think some of the missing weapons of mass destruction are here," Mr. Benepe said.

Stuck in the water was a tire hub that seemed to meld into the river bottom's natural topography. A few minnows swam out of a rusted can. But otherwise the river was almost pristine.

Humans ahoy! Workers in brown rubberized bodysuits from the Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of 65 community groups, government agencies and businesses, were yanking out clumps of the much-maligned knotweed and replanting more native vegetation. Standing in knee-high water, Treenan Sturman, the crew leader, said the workers were also narrowing the channel to make the current swifter.

The city has spent a good share of $60 million from various government sources doing such cultivation as well as hauling away 70 stolen or abandoned cars, 30,000 tires and the flotsam and jetsam of several generations of not-so-benign neglect. For years, many residents thought of the river as a cesspool and had no idea how splendidly long it is. (Twenty-three miles long, it originates near the Kensico Dam in Westchester County and flows south into the East River.) In 1971, Michael T. Kaufman and Librado Romero, a reporter and photographer from The New York Times, went down the river in a rubber raft and Mr. Kaufman wrote afterward that the "face of the river has been scarred with shopping carts, hulks of cars, washing machines, mattresses, bicycles and the jagged flotsam of affluence."

The idea for restoring the city's freshwater river was born in 1997 at a meeting of officials from the Parks Department and the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program. The idea was to get neighborhoods involved in a partnership with government to pay attention to the river in a way that had been done with parks like Central Park.

"The Bronx River flows through many neighborhoods the way the Mississippi flows through the many states of the central United States," Mr. Benepe said.

After more than a mile or so from the launching point, the river runs into the New York Botanical Garden, past trees that were saplings when Europeans first came to these shores. An old sycamore and luxuriant willows drooped over the water. The river splits in two around an island, and trapped at the bend was an artifact that proved we were still in the Bronx: a basketball.

Still, the river here is mostly free of garbage — the Botanical Garden gathers river trash once a week. Ms. Cox noted that Dr. Joseph W. Rachlin, director of Lehman College's Laboratory for Marine and Estuarine Research, has been finding such reassuring evidence of the river's recovering health as sea anemone — a species sensitive to pollution — in the tidal southern part.

Canoe trips are run at least once a month on weekends by the alliance and periodically by urban park rangers. Ms. Cox warned that, with several waterfalls that come up suddenly, the river was not suited for spontaneous expeditions.

"You can hurt yourself badly," she said.

Within minutes we spotted a sign that warned us of a waterfall. We had to portage our canoes. Conveniently enough we happened to be near the Botanical Garden's Snuff Mill, once a congenial lunch spot. So, logically enough, we had lunch.

Canoeists are able to resume boating just below the mill. But with time running short, Mr. Benepe was eager to show off changes in the southern part of the river, so we did what any hardy outdoorsmen would do when facing a dilemma: we drove, carrying the canoes aboard a trailer.

We hugged a few miles of the river as it runs underneath the Cross-Bronx and Bruckner Expressways, and ended up at the abandoned Transit-Mix concrete plant. The driver, Brian M. Aucoin, a conservation specialist with the alliance, pointed out spots where in 2000, Gov. George E. Pataki sent in the National Guard, and workers with amphibious equipment extracted 25 cars and 10,000 tires in five days.

Had we chosen to canoe we would have been able to pass through a field of grazing bison as the river runs through the Bronx Zoo or gazed at three of the river's waterfalls. Ms. Cox showed off these sights a few days later on foot, noting how close the bucolic river is to an otherwise citified landscape.

"The difference in 15 feet is striking," she said.

There are plans to create a sizable park out of the Transit-Mix concrete plant, leaving the rusty silos as Calderesque art. On July 26, a 20-mile bike ride along the river sponsored by the alliance will start at the concrete plant. Still the banks of the river here are lined with factories and warehouses.

"When you travel along the Bronx River, it illustrates emphatically the difference between the North Bronx and the South Bronx," Ms. Cox said.

As we put the canoes back into the water to finish our expedition, a pounding rainstorm began. The river is half a football field wide here and deep, and, even in the rain, paddling felt effortless. Possibly that's because on this leg, I was in the middle seat.

In a scrap-metal yard, we glimpsed a crane — a mechanical one with jaws of steel — that was gobbling up cars and dropping them onto a barge. We paddled less than half a mile, not just because of the rain, but because the commissioner wanted to stop at a second riverside park-to-be just north of the Hunts Point market at Lafayette Avenue.

Two willow trees had been planted in the otherwise gritty landscape, an echo of those we had seen in the river's northern stretch and perhaps a foretaste of the rustic restoration that is to come even on this part of the river.

A dump on the river's southern part.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

July 18th, 2003, 06:03 AM
Virtual Tour (http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_your_park/virtual_tour/bronx_river_vt/bronx_river_vt_flash_test/bronx_river_vt_ft.html)

July 18th, 2003, 10:38 AM
Nice. *More parks = good. *"White water rafting" NYC style - we really do have it all!

July 18th, 2003, 09:44 PM





July 19th, 2003, 12:18 PM

Hunts Point Riverside Park (http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_about/parks_divisions/capital/pd_proj_month_jul_03.html)

July 19th, 2003, 12:50 PM
Hunts Point:




July 20th, 2003, 12:25 PM
We Need More Water Dependent Facilities in NY Waterways!

Joseph Berger implied in "In City Thrum, Splash of a Paddle," (July 18th, New York Times) that the scrap yards and warehouses along the lower part of the Bronx River were negative aspects of this section of the waterfront.

Water dependent industries that reuse waste products are both profitable and environmentally friendly. Cans that hold our food to the cars we drive may contain steel or iron from Bronx Metal Recycling or other major scrap yards. This means less is dumped in landfills or burned in incinerators.

Transporting goods by barges also decreases the amount of truck traffic that tears up our roads and pollutes our air. In addition, Bronx Metals Recycling also provides valuable blue collar employment in blighted Hunts Point.

Next time one implies that such industries are negative waterfront developments, perhaps they should be reminded of these above mentioned facts.


July 20th, 2003, 12:41 PM
Marinas on the Bronx River?

Would the Parks Department also encourage public marinas to develop along the Bronx River? If there is a market for these facilities for small powered or non-powered pleasure boats in that area, I would strongly encourage it! It would be a nice addition to the parkland developing around it.

Dredging the channel would not be a problem either, since the Bronx River is a Federally maintained channel from the mouth to the weir/dam north of the Westchester Avenue fixed bridge. Hence boats would then have enough depth to proceed safely up the river.

July 31st, 2003, 12:43 PM
Near the Bronx Zoo:

James Estrin

August 22nd, 2003, 12:24 AM
The Bronx River Snuff Mill Gorge

Within the 250 acre NY Botanical Garden is a 50 acre stand of original forest. One of the trailheads into the forest:

New York City's oldest house?
Trailmarker info: The cave was formed by glacial ice that moved and tipped these rock slabs. When the site was excavated, pottery shards and arrowheads were found inside consistent with a tribe called the Siwanoy that hunted in this area before the arrival of Columbus.

Bronx River enters the gorge. The signs warn canoists of the waterfall ahead. At one time, the river flowed SW along the Webster Ave lowland. *A few million years ago, movement along the Mosholu fault may have blocked the river and formed a lake north of the Mosholu Parkway. Eventually, the river cut a path directly south. There is still evidence of the ancient riverbed - the Metro North ROW.

The waterfall is actually the remnant of a dam built by the Lorillard family. After the Revolutionary War, the city planned to use the river as a source of water by damming it and creating a reservoir. When the Croton system was chosen, the door was opened for industry to move in. The Lorillards settled here in 1792.

They built the dam to increase the water pressure needed to power the snuff mill. The dam caused serious environmental damage upriver, but there were no waterway laws in those days.

High above the river. The cliffs on the west bank are nearly vertical.

The east bank was once the same, but the rock was cut back to construct the mill road.

The snuff mill. The Lorillards used mill stones to crush tobacco into a fine powder, mixed it with crushed vanilla beans, tamarind, rose fragrance, and other secret ingredients (LOL) to manufacture snuff. In the early 19th century, snuffing (?) surpassed pipe smoking in popularity. The Lorillards got rich.

Terrace on the river side of the mill.

The river passes under a roadway in the NYBG on its way to the Bronx Zoo.
The Lorillards were by no means environmentalists, but since they weren't farmers, the forest was not cleared and survives today. They had a large stable of horses, and some of the forest trails were riding paths that they built. They also had extensive rose gardens, not for beauty, but for the snuff. An ironic precursor to the NYBG.

1792 - Lorillard family moves to the Bronx.
1800 - 2nd mill is constructed out of clapboard.
1840 - Business is booming, and the mill that survives today is built.
1884 - Lorillard family sells all the land and buildings to NYC
1891 - NYC gives land for the NYBG
c1900 - dam is cut to its present size, lowering the river.
1915 - Parks Dept transfers snuff mill tothe NYBG.
1976 - Snuff mill is designated a national historic landmark. Actually, the entire NYBG is a national landmark.

At the southern border of NYBG. We are about 1 mile from the Grand Concourse.

August 22nd, 2003, 06:52 AM
Wonderful. How do you know all this?

August 22nd, 2003, 08:46 AM
Most of the info comes from trailmarkers - supplemented by a few Google searches. I did research the geology of the river, and found a very dry, highly technical paper - reading it gave me a headache.


I found one statement strangely hilarious:

This is a first-order drainage anomaly.

August 22nd, 2003, 11:48 AM
I love this stuff. Very cool, Zippy, another interesting post. So, does the water in the river look clean? It does from the photos, but is there litter and slime up close?

August 22nd, 2003, 02:04 PM
The entire NYBG may be the most litter-free public outdoor space in all of NYC.

The river water is extremely clean in the area of the gorge. At other places, where movement is slow, the water is - let's say organic, but no different than a ravine in the Catskills.

The only maintenance done here involves the safety of the trails. The forest is allowed to evolve naturally.

August 24th, 2003, 09:03 AM
From NY1, the New-Yorker of the week:

Rocking The Boat Helps Students Learn About Themselves And The Environment
AUGUST 22ND, 2003


In the concrete jungle, we found an oasis. This week's New Yorker of the Week has found a way to use the environment to pave the way for a better future for teenagers.

Adam Green says he’s not just building boats, he's helping to build kids one piece at a time.

“This is something that can make them stand out in their own minds and make them feel really special,” he says.

Green didn't know when he started a volunteer boat building project in college it would lead to his life's passion. But eight years later, he's still going strong with Rocking the Boat, a non-profit boat building program for teenagers with a far greater goal.

“Knowing that they can solve problems, knowing that things happen and we can deal with them,” says Green. “We can’t deal with everything in our lives, but certainly when you're working with wood on a boat you can talk things out, look at the problems and resolve them. I think that kind of problem solving, as deep as you can imagine, is a really, really powerful part of this.”

More than 20 kids work together in Green’s shop in the Bronx for a semester or for the summer, learning everything from sanding to steam-bending to sawing. They start the course by traveling into the woods for their own lumber, and then begin building the traditional wooden boat from scratch.

Edmanuel Roman has been with the program for three years, and says it was Green who helped him realize his dream of being a carpenter.

“He puts me into harder stuff, he challenges me, and I actually like that about him,” says Roman.

The kids all seem to agree that the process is incredible, but they all say that the greatest reward of all is seeing the boat finished and actually being able to use it.

“Just to see you worked on a project and see a final project, it's a great feeling. It’s undescribable. And it gives us youth something to do. I'm really proud of what I'm doing,” said Meliza Pena.

“When we go from scratch like that, then it’s like you started from the very beginning on my own, and I used my skills and the help of others to make this,” says Elliyaas Carter.

Rocking the Boat doesn't stop there. They've partnered up with five environmental groups to research, get water samples, and physically revitalize and purify the Bronx River. The Parks Department has now even invested in Rocking the Boat, funding them to do some of their research.

So whether they're in the shop or on the water, the students learn their impact on the community is limitless.

“It's using a real medium to teach students,” says Green. “In the shop it's wood and tools in the process of making a real wooden boat that really works, and on the water it’s taking those real boats and really using them.”

“I feel like I can achieve anything,” says Pena. “If you put your mind to it you can.”

So, for giving these kids a chance to build a better future, Adam Green is our New Yorker of the Week.

For more information on Rocking the Boat, or to donate, please call (718) 466-5799, or visit www.rockingtheboat.org .

January 3rd, 2004, 09:12 PM
January 4, 2004


The Sweet Scent of the Bronx. But What Would Martha Think?


A hint of lavender from an unlikely source.

Before long, women across America will associate the Bronx River with the fresh scent of their underwear.

Or that's the hope at the Bronx River Art Center. Inside a four-story former warehouse in West Farms that serves as the group's home, students and staff members of the nonprofit group have been producing sachets and eye pillows in fabrics adorned with pristine Bronx River scenes.

The center will soon begin pitching the products, filled with a lavender, chamomile and spearmint blend, to specialty stores and botanical garden gift shops across the country. And where will the fragrant herbs come from? Eventually, from a plot of land on the banks of the Bronx River. (Ordering information is available at www.bronxriverart.org .)

The river, which has undergone a renaissance in recent years, flows mostly unobtrusively under East Tremont Avenue outside the art center. But from a fourth-floor vantage point, it is suddenly hard to miss, running south toward the truck-clogged Cross Bronx Expressway and roughly parallel with the 2 and 5 elevated trains.

It is the river's proximity that the art center is trying to take advantage of.

"One of the things we teach our kids is the extraordinary relationship right here in our backyard," said Gail Nathan, the executive director. "How do you make sense of this natural resource running right through the middle of the Bronx?"

Ms. Nathan and the staff developed the sachet idea in 2001, when they applied for a $10,000 grant from the Bronx Council on the Arts to begin the project. Staff members and students photographed the river, choosing about eight images from each season to use in the product design.

For now, the sachets and eye pillows are being stuffed with herbs from a Cape Cod distributor. But this spring, lavender, chamomile and spearmint will be planted in a community garden next to the river and right across the street from the center.

The project was a good fit for the center because its photography classes could produce the images and the market for high-end female pampering items looked promising, Ms. Nathan said. And because many local women have worked in garment factories, the area has good seamstresses.

Then there was the nostalgia. "The interesting thing is how many people grew up in the Bronx and have fond memories," said Ms. Nathan, who was raised at 149th Street and the Grand Concourse. "The irony is its history of just being devastated. A very large segment of that population is affluent people who left in the 1960's and never looked back, except in pain. They don't know that it's turned around."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

March 15th, 2004, 01:40 PM
Getting to the River (http://www.gothamgazette.com/community/17/majorissues/87)

March 28th, 2004, 07:24 PM
The Bronx River Alliance Invites You to the
"Amazing Bronx River Flotilla"
Saturday, April 24, 2004
The Flotilla, coordinated by the Bronx River Alliance, is a river-wide event that celebrates the kickoff of the paddling season with a community trip along a 6-mile stretch of the river and a celebration at a riverside park. At the finish line, the celebration kicks off at 12:30pm at Concrete Plant Park. The park will host activities for the entire family. There will be live musical performances by both professional musicians and local community groups. Games and prizes will take place all day for children. Free boat rides will be available during the day as well. Additionally, the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition will lead New Yorkers on a walking tour of the Bronx River Greenway ending at the Concrete Plant Park.

Experienced paddlers 18 years or older are invited to float a six-mile stretch
of the river. Space is limited so register now!

Festival -- 12:30pm - 4:30 pm
Come to the Concrete Plant Park (Westchester Avenue & the River)
* Take a boat ride along the river
* Enjoy games and prizes
* Enjoy live musical performances and a DJ
* Learn more about all the exciting work going on along the Bronx River
Bring a blanket, a picnic lunch and come enjoy a day on the Bronx River!
For additional information or to register call the Flotilla Hotline at 718-430-4665

March 28th, 2004, 07:51 PM
The Eastern Boulevard Bridge (http://www.wirednewyork.com/bridges/eastern_blvd/default.htm) carries the Bruckner Expressway (I-278) over the Bronx River.

http://www.wirednewyork.com/bridges/eastern_blvd/eastern_blvd_bridge_27march04.jpg (http://www.wirednewyork.com/bridges/eastern_blvd/default.htm)

The view of The Westchester Avenue Bridge (http://www.wirednewyork.com/bridges/westchester_avenue_bridge/default.htm) from The Eastern Boulevard Bridge (http://www.wirednewyork.com/bridges/eastern_blvd/default.htm).

http://www.wirednewyork.com/bridges/westchester_avenue_bridge/westchester_avenue_bridge_27march04.jpg (http://www.wirednewyork.com/bridges/westchester_avenue_bridge/default.htm)

April 17th, 2004, 03:35 PM
New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com

Zoo gets Riverwalk


Saturday, April 17th, 2004

The Bronx Zoo officially invited the public to take a walk on the mild side yesterday.

With officials snipping a red ribbon across its entrance, the zoo opened its new Mitsubishi Riverwalk, a public pathway just inside the zoo that meanders along next to the Bronx River, offering some ecological education and some definitely bucolic but not necessarily quiet peace.

But even the noise is soothing, coming from two roaring, picturesque waterfalls that spill along the path of the city's only freshwater tributary.

The pathway, festooned with welcome-to-spring yellow daffodils along its boulder-and tree-lined sides, also offers sightings of a wealth of birds and small mammals.

"I saw a goose, a Canada goose!" crowed 8-year-old Amanda Medina, who joined her Class 3G mates from nearby Public School 205 to wave brightly painted handmade cardboard birds dangling from sticks as an entry arch.

Under it passed officials from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoo, and the Mitsubishi International Corporation Foundation, which promotes environmental causes and funded the walkway.

Overhead, a red-tailed hawk circled lazily in the updraft from the falls as an egret posed stoically on the shoreline below a small promenade of benches overlooking the calendar-photo-perfect scene.

The walkway is free to the public entering the zoo at its Bronx River entrance a block or two from Pelham Parkway and White Plains Road. Car parking is available for $7.

The opening ceremony also was an opportunity to reflect on the continuing cleanup of the Bronx River - once a polluted, garbage-strewn dumping ground - which runs for 23 miles from Westchester County down through the Bronx, including the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo and through Hunts Point out into the East River.

Motoatsu Sakurai, chairman of the Mitsubishi Foundation, compared the pollution and environmental damage of the Tokyo he left 25 years ago to the same pollution evident in the once garbage-filled Bronx River.

"Now the air and the water in and around Tokyo and New York are much cleaner," he said.

Stephen Sanderson, Wildlife Conservation Society president and CEO, said, "The Wildlife Conservation Society is committed to saving wildlife and wild lands around the world, and no less in its own backyard.

"We're interested in preserving living landscapes, not only in the Rockies or in the Serengeti, but also in the Bronx, where a river runs through it."

July 24th, 2004, 02:40 AM
July 23, 2004


Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe joined members of the Bronx River Alliance to break ground on a $2.9 million project to reconstruct the Bronx River Forest Floodplain. The project will restore the natural flow of water down the Bronx River, improving the environmental health of the river and native habitat. Funding for the project was allocated by the Mayor, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York State Department of State and the New York State Attorney General.

"This project reaffirms this administration’s commitment to the rebirth of the Bronx River," said Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "The Bronx River Forest Floodplain plays an important role in the ecological stability of the river and its restoration will benefit all New Yorkers."

The Bronx River has been altered dramatically over the past 200 years by human impact and industry. In order to create the Bronx River Parkway, workers "straightened" the Bronx River, building artificial banks and destroying the natural floodplain. Since bends in a river’s flow naturally slow erosion, the Bronx River widened over time as erosion sent silt downstream. The silt choked native plants and new, non-native plants began to thrive, disturbing local wildlife.

This project will reconnect the river to the floodplain. Partially removing sediment deposits on the riverbanks will increase the floodplain's ability to store and filter flood water. Non-native plantings will be removed and replaced with native vegetation that will enhance the river’s natural habitat and stabilize the river’s banks. New pathways and boardwalks will improve access to one of New York City's most valuable natural treasures.

Over $40 million in Federal, State and City funds have been allocated to projects to improve parks and greenways along the Bronx River since 1997. Bronx Park is a segment of the Bronx River Greenway, a multi-use bike and pedestrian path that will run 8 miles between the South Bronx and the Westchester border when completed within the next decade.

Construction of the Bronx River Greenway is a multi-phase project that will include restoration to existing parkland, including improving pathways and public access to parks and the waterfront, as well as transforming underutilized property into new parkland in areas with little open space.

Greenways are bicycle and pedestrian paths that often run through parks and along the waterfront. They improve access to the waterfront, serve as alternative modes of transportation, and provide increased recreational opportunities.

CONTACT: Megan Sheekey/Ashe Reardon (212) 360-1311


July 21st, 2012, 12:24 AM
River of Hope in the Bronx


Slide Show (http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/07/22/arts/design/20120722-BRONX.html?ref=design)
(see article for video)

PERHAPS the most unsung patch of heaven in New York City is a tiny sliver of riverfront parkland tucked between a metal-recycling yard and a giant wholesale produce market, on the far side of a six-lane highway and a pair of active freight train tracks. Hunts Point Riverside Park, a 1.4-acre speck in the South Bronx, opened a few years ago on what had been a filthy, weedy street end.

A garden path now winds from the front gate past rose bushes and flowering butterfly bushes, beyond a sprinkling fountain and shaded benches under a flowered trellis, to a pier on the Bronx River. Save for a couple of brick apartment towers rising over the treetops, the view is green across the river. Herons and egrets silently roam the riverbank. The other afternoon teenagers from Rocking the Boat, a neighborhood organization that teaches boatbuilding, sailing and environmental restoration, were lugging rowboats to the muddy shore and launching themselves into the river. Jason Feldman, in tie and shirt sleeves, having trekked from his office at a heat exchange plant up the block, was on his way out of the park, after eating lunch at one of the wooden picnic tables.

“I come here all the time,” he said. “It’s incredible, no?”

Yes, it is.

For years one of the most blighted, abused waterways in the country, the southern end of the Bronx River has been slowly coming back and with it the shoreline that meanders through the South Bronx. Next year, barring further delays, what looks to be an innovative work of green architecture, by the Brooklyn firm Kiss & Cathcart, is slated to open in Starlight Park, a green stretch upriver from Hunts Point Riverside. This summer at the mouth of the river another street-end pocket park, Hunts Point Landing, is opening between a Sanitation Department depot and a food processing plant.

The New York waterfront is changing perhaps more than any other part of the city. For centuries the interests of big money and industry shaped it. These days, notwithstanding dogged efforts by the Economic Development Corporation to kindle business along the waterfronts of Sunset Park in Brooklyn and on Staten Island, the city’s old industrial waterfront is in many places giving way to parks and luxury apartment towers where money still talks, like along the Hudson.

But compared with headline-making projects in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the unexpected renaissance under way along the south end of the Bronx River flies largely below the radar. Park by park a patchwork of green spaces has been taking shape, the consequence of decades of grinding, grass-roots, community-driven efforts. For the environmentalists, educators, politicians, architects and landscape designers involved, the idea has not just been to revitalize a befouled waterway and create new public spaces. It has been to invest Bronx residents, for generations alienated from the water, in the beauty and upkeep of their local river.

The transformation has involved an alphabet soup of public entities and local organizations like Rocking the Boat, Sustainable South Bronx, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Partnership for Parks and the Bronx River Alliance. The Bloomberg administration has made the project a special priority. The South Bronx illustrates how government, although it can be obstructionist and infuriating, is also indispensable to urban improvement. Different federal administrations have mandated cooperation by often competing agencies. Dozens of community groups have subordinated their own pet interests to cleaning the river and creating parks.

The results aren’t complete or perfect, far from it. The new parks are still piecemeal and disconnected, plagued by good intentions, half-measures and bureaucratic foul-ups. Boat launches don’t work; green spaces aren’t always kept clean; sites are created without adequate programming. Progress is painfully slow.

Still, what’s happened, under the circumstances, is hardly short of miraculous.

The long-term goal? The recovery of a great waterway and its neighborhoods. More specifically, a greenbelt along the Bronx River as it winds south from the Bronx Zoo, under the bright blue Westchester Avenue bridge, beneath the clamorous Bruckner Expressway, past scrap-metal yards and recycling plants, warehouses and sewage overflow drains.

Industry isn’t going away, and it can’t if New York’s economy is to thrive. But the city needs industry to coexist with a healthy citizenry, and the South Bronx, with a population as large as Boston’s, belongs to the poorest congressional district in the nation, suffering from high asthma and obesity rates and a lack of recreation space.

Hunts Point, where the river widens and spills into the confluence of the Long Island Sound and the East River, remains a gritty industrial peninsula, home to several thousand people, and to the vast wholesale food market. A prison barge hugs the shore. From Barretto Point Park (http://www.nycgovparks.org/facility/pools/floating-pool), one of the most ambitious of the recent parks — with the famous floating pool designed by the architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld as well as a beach and playgrounds on a former brownfield beside a sewage treatment plant — there’s a sweeping panorama of the Rikers Island prison complex.

And yet.

The clash of industry and nature is also one of those peculiarly urban, weirdly beautiful, hypnotic vistas, and it makes the passage upriver more magical, as the factories and concertina wire give way to weedy bluffs.

Centuries ago the Mohicans called the river “Aquehung,” the River of High Bluffs, a refuge that lured poets from Manhattan. Then the snuff factories and paper mills arrived, followed by the New York Central Railroad. By the turn of the last century the Bronx River had already become an open sewer, prompting renewal efforts that galvanized around a parkway to cordon off the northern end of the watershed between Westchester and the Bronx Zoo.

I hopped a No. 5 train recently with Morgan Powell, a local historian and landscape designer, to check out a little of that northern stretch of the river in the Bronx, and we visited Rosewood Playground, a W.P.A. site refurbished about a decade ago and also the attractive new entrance to Shoelace Park, designed by Donna Walcavage, with its redbud trees, switch grasses and other native plantings. From a dock nearby, the water ran clear over a pebble bed, barely deep enough to float a paper boat.

The river’s southern end had to wait until the 1970s, when the Bronx was burning, before anybody started talking seriously about ecological restoration and green space. A local police commander, Anthony Bouza, joined forces with a secretary at Fordham University, Ruth Anderberg, to make restoration a cause. The commander lived in Westchester and was struck while commuting each day by how the river was “a bucolic, sylvan, beautiful place” up north, he once recalled, but “in the South Bronx it was a yellow sewer” and “a symptom of America’s attitudes toward the underclass, a powerful, physical metaphor.” Anderberg agreed, quit her job and started the Bronx River Restoration Project.

By 1980 the project had published the area’s first greenway plan, which in many respects mapped what, all these years later, is slowly coming to pass. By the late ‘80s proposals circulated for bike paths. José E. Serrano, a state assemblyman who became the district’s congressman in 1990, took up the recuperation of the river as a crusade. So did the city parks commissioner Henry J. Stern, and his successor, Adrian Benepe. The Bronx River Restoration Project gave way to the Bronx River Working Group, which became the Bronx River Alliance (http://www.bronxriver.org/).

The ecological movement, urban restoration in Europe and a new generation of bike-riding urbanists moved the issue into the mainstream. As Dart Westphal, former chairman of the Bronx River Alliance, put it the other day: “Over time all the talk about bikes and parks and improving the urban environment gradually became more than talk. It became cool.”

Mr. Benepe estimated when we toured the area recently that some $100 million of the roughly $700 million spent on Bronx parks by the city under the Bloomberg administration had gone to the river and new riverside parks, although the city comptroller’s office is investigating whether Bronx parks also received the $200 million promised years ago by the city’s Environmental Protection Department in return for a much-criticized, mind-bogglingly-costly water filtration plant being built in Van Cortlandt Park. Meanwhile money has come in from Yonkers, White Plains, Scarsdale and Greenburgh in legal settlements for polluting the river, and state money has poured into projects like Starlight Park.

All that said, the pint-size Hunts Point Riverside Park cost just $3.3 million; Barretto Point Park, with its floating pool, its pier and beach, fields and playgrounds, cost $7 million; Concrete Plant Park, (http://www.nycgovparks.org/park-features/concrete-plant-park/planyc)where I saw lovers necking and old men fishing in the river, cost $11.4 million, most of which went to removing 32,000 tons of contaminated soil.
Big improvements don’t all carry scary price tags.
Concrete Plant Park, designed by Jim Mituzas, a veteran landscape architect with the Parks Department, occupies a narrow 1,900-foot length of riverfront hemmed in by the Bruckner Boulevard, Westchester Avenue and a fence separating the park from Amtrak rails: the Acela thunders by every hour or so. From the din of 12-lane traffic the entrance to the park off the Bruckner opens suddenly onto a hillside of native plantings capering down to the river. Mr. Mituzas salvaged remnants of the defunct concrete plant to make the ruin a kind of sculptural centerpiece. The park opened in 2009. The budget was tight, and the place lacks enough trees for shade and to block off the train tracks, but it’s a respite for residents, picnickers and fishermen, a link in the emerging chain of green spaces between Hunts Point Riverside and the prospective Starlight Park.

Starlight, which still needs to overcome frustrating delays in negotiations between Amtrak and the state Transportation Department over constructing a pedestrian bridge near the tracks, promises to be much used, with soccer and softball fields, playgrounds and a new headquarters for the Bronx River Alliance in the Kiss & Cathcart building. The site was one of the most contaminated in New York, because of a former coal gasification plant. Con Ed paid for cleanup, and the big pity is that the city last month declined to tear down the Sheridan Expressway, which severs the park from its neighborhood.

But the 7,000-square-foot, one-story Bronx River House (http://www.kisscathcart.com/bronx/overview.html) that Gregory Kiss of Kiss & Cathcart has envisioned to anchor a corner of the park looks auspicious. The building is a simple rectangular masonry block, the architecture coming from the slanting metal mesh fences enclosing the structure and curved along the front to form an entry plaza, linked to a future footbridge over the river. Planted with hardy vines that change colors with the season, the fences will act like a curtain wall, slightly separated from and cladding the building, creating a narrow gap where a microclimate of ferns, mosses and collected rainwater can evolve.

The idea is that the River House should create its own climate zone, have its own smell, be its own natural habitat. Solar panels will generate most of the energy for the building. “ ‘Green’ and ‘sustainable’ are words that have lost their meaning these days,” Mr. Kiss told me the other day. “This project is meant to be what people mean when they say ‘utopian.’ ” We’ll see. In any event Bronx River House introduces a level of architectural ambition that’s new to this end of the South Bronx.

I boarded a boat with Adam Green, the founder of Rocking the Boat, headquartered just next to Hunts Point Riverside Park (http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/huntspointriversidepark/). We motored to Starlight Park, where the river becomes almost wild. Weeping willows hung over the water. Fish darted under the water. An old tire swing dangled from the limb of a tree. Intrepid teenagers clearly used the river here, and anglers fished all along it even when the river was a toxic garbage dump.

Likewise, for years before it became a park Barretto Point was called La Playita by the men who cast nets for crabs from its shore and by local residents who flocked to the tropical trios that were part of the raucous party scene that overtook the surrounding streets each summer. The new parks and waterfront in the South Bronx, in other words, have not so much been imposed on its neighborhoods as they have given architectural permanence and dignity to what the residents already tried to cook up for themselves.

The latest park, Hunts Point Landing, is yet another spot where fishermen for ages cast lines. It used to be the dead end of Farragut Street. The city demapped the street. Signe Nielsen, a landscape architect, designed the site, which occupies barely 100 feet of waterfront. She installed wetlands, bio-filtration pools and reef balls at the water’s edge for oysters and mussels to spawn, and a new pier.

It’s another of the eye-popping changes: a tiny green oasis next to a salt shed in the shadow of the crumbling ruins of a former waste transfer station. How many people will trek to Hunts Point Landing, considering the lack of public transit and programming, remains to be seen. What’s certain, though, is that it’s another piece of the puzzle. Future administrations will need to follow through on the South Bronx Greenway plans, continuing the network of green streets like Hunts Point and Lafayette Avenues that Ms. Nielsen has devised — linking up with Randalls Island and eking out parkland where the food market now hogs the shoreline — if the puzzle is ever to be completed.

It was symbolic last month that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg chose Soundview Park, across from Hunts Point Landing at the mouth of the Bronx River, to celebrate Mr. Benepe, who’s leaving as commissioner to join the Trust for Public Land. City officials used the occasion to break ground on more than $15 million in improvements to that park.

What’s emerging in the Bronx is past and future. A new, more equitable vision for the city in the 21st century. And a river returned, at least partly, to its former glory.


December 8th, 2012, 11:29 PM
NYer Of The Week: Bronx River Alliance Cleans Up A Destroyed Waterway

By: NY1 News

(see article for video)

NY1 has been profiling New Yorkers across the five boroughs who have gone above and beyond to help their neighbors in the wake of Sandy, and this week our tour of the five boroughs takes us to the Bronx, where a conservation team has been working non-stop to restore a precious waterway. NY1's John Schiumo has the story.Though not in the Rockaways or along the east coast of Staten Island, the Bronx River too was a victim of Hurricane Sandy and the Bronx River Alliance has been working to save it.

"There's a lot of people that don't know there is a Bronx River," Alliance member Maurice Samuels said.

"I didn't even know it existed," said Alliance member Penny Matta. "I drove right over it going to high school and didn't realize it was there."

But in the days before the hurricane hit, the members of the Bronx River Alliance were more than aware of the damage that could be done.

"We were still working on the nor'easter that had happened a couple of years ago," Alliance member Elaine Feliciano said. "The damage was already done. Hurricane Sandy was just something totally extra."

Trees were knocked down, docks were displaced and areas of the river flooded.

"I wasn't surprised that we would find a tree or two, but I was surprised to the extent," Matta said. "We had a lot of big trees down on land and by the river."

"There is a lot of litter inside the river," Feliciano said. "Once a blockage happens all this debris just starts to build up."

In the weeks since the storm passed, the Bronx River Alliance team has been tackling one blockage at a time, making the park safe and the water flow.
Their work helps more than just the river.

"The Bronx River is more like a family," Samuels said. "This has a lot to do with giving back to the community. I took it on as a job at first but now its more like a responsibility. I feel like I have to own up to it and I have to keep it that way."

"We do this for the public, we do this for ourselves, we do this for our children," Feliciano said. "We do it for the future."

So, for looking after their river and their community, the members of the Bronx River Alliance are our New Yorkers of the Week.