Highbridge Play Center
|Location||Upper Manhattan, New York City|
|Area||119 acres (48 ha)|
|Operated by||NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation|
Highbridge Park is located in Washington Heights on the banks of the Harlem River near the northernmost tip of the New York City borough of Manhattan, between 155th Street and Dyckman Street. The park is operated by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. The City maintains the southern half of the park, while the northern half is maintained by the non-profit New York Restoration Project.
Prominent in the park are the Manhattan end of the restored High Bridge, which was re-opened in June 2015, the High Bridge Water Tower, and the Highbridge Play Center.
Highbridge Park derives its name from New York City’s oldest standing bridge, the High Bridge (1848), which was built to carry the Old Croton Aqueduct over the Harlem River. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, the area was sparsely populated with scattered farms and private estates. During the American Revolution, General George Washington used the Morris-Jumel Mansion, adjacent to the southern end of the park near Edgecombe Avenue and West 160th Street, as his headquarters in September and October 1776.
In the 1890s, the City of New York built a racetrack for horses, the Harlem River Speedway, along the riverbank of the park.
The cliffside area from West 181st Street to Dyckman Street was acquired in 1902, and the parcel including Fort George Hill was acquired in 1928. In 1934 the Department of Parks obtained the majestic Highbridge Tower and the site of old High Bridge Reservoir.
By the early years of the 20th century, upper-middle class New Yorkers would promenade along the wide boardwalks in top hats and bustles. The park provided access to the Harlem River and places for horseback riding and other outdoor sports. By the 1920s dirt and other materials from the build-up of the new Washington Heights neighborhood threatened to ruin the nascent park; a harbinger of bad times to befall the park.
In 1940, Robert Moses turned portions of the Speedway into the Harlem River Drive, a 6-lane highway from the Manhattan end of the Triborough Bridge at 125th Street, to the tunnels under Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge. New fences blocked public recreational access to the riverfront. It was this series of actions, according to Parks & Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe, that "ruined" the park. The 1200–foot–long, 116-foot-tall High Bridge walkway was closed to regular public use around 1970.
As New York City was beset with serious financial problems in the 1970s, the park's neglect accelerated. Huge sections of the park, set aside as natural areas, had been taken over by homeless people who built permanent shacks made of sheet metal and steel pipes driven into the earth. Prostitutes, drug dealers and drug users frequented the park. By the mid-1980s, Highbridge had become so degraded that during a manual cleanup in 1986, 250 tons of garbage and 25 auto wrecks were removed, but garbage again began to fill the park within a matter of days. In recent years, as the economy of northern Manhattan has improved, the condition of park has also gotten better, and it is no longer a haven for petty crime and other illegal activities. The New York Restoration Project, chaired by Bette Midler, has been working since 1999 to restore the park.
On May 19, 2007, the first legal mountain bike trails and dirt jumps in New York City were opened in Highbridge Park. New York City Mountain Bike Association, working with NYC Parks & Recreation, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), worked to design and install the trails; the opening weekend featured a festival and cross-country mountain bike race.
Around 2010, the waterfront Speedway was rehabilitated and reopened as the Harlem River portion of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway.
As of late 2011, despite the efforts of both the New York Restoration Project and the City Parks Department, the infrastructure of the park had decayed significantly. A citizen-driven restoration movement culminated in a grant from the Bloomberg administration to repair the bridge and make some other improvements. The restored bridge was reopened on June 9, 2015.
Highbridge Park was awarded a major grant of $30 million by the City of New York in August 2016, to be used for further improvements and restoration work.
High Bridge Water Tower
The High Bridge Water Tower, located in the park between West 173rd and 174th Streets, was built in 1866–1872 to help meet the increasing demands on the city's water system. The 200-foot-tall octagonal tower was designed by John B. Jervis in a mixture of Romanesque Revival and neo-Grec styles, and was accompanied by a 7-acre reservoir. The High Bridge system was inaugurated in 1872, and reached its full capacity by 1875. With the opening of the Croton Aqueduct, the High Bridge system became less relied upon; during World War I it was taken out of service when sabotage was feared. In 1949 the tower was disconnected from the system, and a carillon, donated by the Altman Foundation, was installed in 1958. The tower's cupola was damaged by an arson fire in 1984. The tower and cupola were rehabilitated and restored in 1989–1990.
Highbridge Play Center
The Highbridge Play Center, located on Amsterdam Avenue between West 172nd and West 174th Streets, was built in 1934-36 in the Art Moderne style, during the Fiorello LaGuardia administration. The supervising architect was Aymar Embury II, and the landscape architect was Gilmore D. Clarke, among others. It was built on the site of the reservoir which had formerly served the High Bridge Water Tower, and features a very large swimming pool.
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- "Parks Even the Parks Dept. Won't Claim", The New York Times, by Timothy Williams. Published July 6, 2005.
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