Nearly 165 years after opening to citywide fanfare, the High Bridge is one step closer to regaining its former prominence—though not, some say, its former beauty. In a public hearing on April 5, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) considered an application to rehabilitate and reopen the city’s oldest existing bridge, which was built in 1848 to extend the Old Croton Aqueduct across the Harlem River. Following its construction, the High Bridge quickly became a popular attraction for New York City residents who thronged to promenade across its scenic span. The bridge was celebrated for decades as a vital link between the Bronx and Manhattan and a picturesque symbol of the aqueduct’s role in bringing water to the city. Although declared a city landmark in 1970, the bridge was closed to the public soon afterward and currently lies in disrepair behind locked doors and barbed wire.
The rehabilitation design stems from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s 2006 announcement that the High Bridge would reopen as part of the PlaNYC initiative. At the LPC hearing, members of the design team offered a history of the structure as the context for their proposal. As Meisha Hunter, a senior preservationist at Li/Saltzman Architects, emphasized, “This bridge has been inextricably linked with a history of modification and change,” most notably the 1928 replacement of five of its masonry arches with a single steel arch to facilitate navigation of the Harlem River. It will also join two other recent and well-received elevated walkways in the area—New York’s High Line and Walkway Over Hudson in Poughkeepsie.
Plans for the new project, due for completion in 2013, include a physical restoration and the installation of access ramps, viewing platforms, and lighting. For many community members, the major point of contention is an eight-foot cable mesh fence that would run the bridge’s span. The design team defended the fence as necessary for public safety and crime prevention, primarily by preventing people from jumping or throwing objects from the bridge. However, opponents believe this addition would be unnecessarily tall, and fear it would overwhelm the bridge’s historic appearance and spoil its river views.
Several community representatives attending the hearing spoke against this element of the design, which Ebenezer Smith, district manager of Community Board 12, declared “insulting.” Rather than preventing misconduct, he said, the fence would alienate tourists by inadvertently suggesting the presence of criminal activity.
Charlotte Fahn, a member of Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct (FOCA), agreed. “The best way to have security on this bridge is to draw more people,” noting that the best way to draw more people “is to have great unimpeded views,” she testified.
While several commissioners expressed similar concerns, the general consensus of the LPC was that the fence’s potential reversibility makes up for any perceived shortcomings, and the priority should be reopening the bridge as soon as possible. Ultimately, the LPC approved the plans with a vote of seven to one.
For Robert Kornfeld, an architect who testified on behalf of FOCA and the Historic Districts Council for the High Bridge plans, the hearing was bittersweet. “We’re a hundred percent for this project. No one’s trying to bog it down,” he said, but he was “surprised” that the LPC was not willing to consider tweaking the fence design for the sake of preserving the views that once drew crowds to the bridge. “After all the work we’ve done to advocate, it’d really be a shame to see it desecrated in order to make it accessible.”