Exploring the Bronx River

January 28, 2013 § 6 Comments

The Bronx River, as seen upstream from the Tremont Avenue Bridge

The Bronx River, as seen upstream from the Tremont Avenue Bridge

A couple weeks ago, I got a chance to bicycle a few miles of the Bronx River. It’s not unlike the Los Angeles River: a very urban, relatively industrialized freshwater river, in the process of making a dramatic comeback – with new parks and bike paths along its degraded banks. 

(Thanks to folks at the Bronx River Alliance for giving me a lot of background that informs this post – hopefully I got nearly all of my facts straight.)

The Bronx River is unique among New York City’s rivers, most of which are actually tidal salt-water estuaries. The Hudson River, the Harlem River, and East River seem to look and act more like the ocean – especially for a west coast transplant like me. The Bronx is the only borough in New York City that’s actually attached to the mainland of the United States, so the Bronx River there is the only freshwater river in New York City. The Bronx River does have tidal influence, though. (Also note that there are plenty of riverfront parkway, greenway, and bike and walk trail projects along various waterways here – from the Hudson River to the Gowanus Canal – but I’ll save those for other future blog posts.)

The Bronx River runs about 23 miles from Westchester through Yonkers, with about 8 miles in the Bronx, which is a borough of the city of New York. I didn’t explore the entire river, just a roughly 2-mile stretch near its mouth. Also, I was there one overcast winter day (the kind of days when we hard-core creek freaks have places more or less to ourselves) – so I am looking forward to seeing how the river changes through the seasons (hint: I am gonna bet that it gets a lot greener than these images) and how people use these sites during warmer seasons.

I’ll show and describe what I saw, starting at Concrete Plant Park, moving upstream to River Park, at the edge of the Bronx Zoo.

Concrete Plant Park is located on the west bank of the Bronx River between the Bruckner Expressway and Westchester Avenue. Similar to downtown L.A. portions of the L.A. River, the park is really hemmed-in by infrastructure. There’s the Bruckner Expressway, basically a freeway with sidewalks, impossible to cross on foot or bike. Immediately to the west of the park are multiple active heavy rail tracks, with additional elevated subway (is it still called a subway when it’s elevated?) tracks running above Westchester Avenue immediately north of the park. Just west of the tracks runs the Sheridan Expressway – another big freeway. It’s a lot of infrastructure, cutting off neighborhoods from the river, and making for an unwelcoming environment for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Nonetheless, there are folks out there biking and walking.

Concrete Plant Park on the Bronx River

Concrete Plant Park on the Bronx River

Concrete Plant Park is a reuse of a former industrial site. Similar to  Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord and Wenk Associates’ Northside Park (a former sanitation plant on Denver’s Platte River) and many other sites, the park design leaves some remnants of its former use, as, you guessed it, a concrete plant. Though I haven’t spent a lot of time in sites like these (and I am sure it can be done badly), I think that these sorts of urban-hybrid sites are interesting. They retain and show off some layers of history and usage, while providing green space and river access.

Remaining former concrete plant structures visuall dominate Concrete Plant Park

Preserved concrete plant structures visually dominate the Bronx River’s Concrete Plant Park

In the center of the park, fenced off but very visible, is a series of former concrete plant structures. They’re all painted a rusty red. They’re visually pretty cool – a sort of post-industrial Stonehenge. Kind of vestigal, a bit old and odd. Surrounding them are grassy park areas, bike/walk/skate trails, benches, tables, and a relatively-natural rocky riverfront, with a boat access ramp.

There were plenty of ducks hanging out in the river, along the rocky natural area.

Unfortunately access to this park is difficult. As I alluded to above, the ends of the bikeway/walkway take folks to heavily trafficked roads both up- and downstream. The Bronx River Alliance and NYC DOT are in the process of making some improvements to the road-crossings (expected to be implemented Summer 2013), but, for now, getting up and down the greenway, from site to site, can be a bit daunting.

The Bronx River at Starlight Park

The Bronx River at Starlight Park

The next park upstream is called Starlight Park (not officially open yet – but appears pretty much complete.) The park extends from just upstream of Westchester Avenue to 177th Street, including an area under the Cross Bronx Expressway. It’s a relatively linear area sandwiched between rail tracks and expressways. It’s actually somewhat difficult to find. I could see it, but had to circle around to find where the entrances were.

The downstream access point is at the end of a small street (north off Westchester near Whitlock Avenue)  that looks and behaves like an on-ramp to the Sheridan Expressway. (Though the street is called Edgewater, Google maps just calls it “Sheridan Expressway.”)

Canada geese in the Bronx River

Canada geese in the Bronx River

I was happy to see plenty of Canada geese taking advantage of the river in Starlight Park.

The park includes a large soccer field, tot lot, grassy areas, and a bike/walk path. Downstream of 174th Street (an access point for the park) the park and bike path are on the west bank, and just upstream of 174th, via a bike-ped bridge, the path crosses to the east bank.

The north end of the park and bike path are right at the entrance/exit for the Sheridan Expressway, so, again, a car-centric area, not friendly for walking and bicycling.

West Farms Bronx River Park: fenced off, under construction

West Farms Bronx River Park: fenced off, under construction. Sign at the end of 179th Street.

Continuing upstream, another park appeared to be at an early stage of construction. West Farms Bronx River Park is on the west bank of the river from Tremont Avenue to 180th Street. It’s a short block from the West Farms Square NYC Subway station. I couldn’t see much of the park site, due to construction fencing and adjacent large buildings, but it appears to be a fairly narrow linear park with a bike path.

Above 180th Street, the Bronx River becomes a bit more natural in the area along the Bronx Zoo. Just south of the zoo, at the the corner of 180th Street and Boston Road is River Park, which has a pleasant area to sit and watch and listen to the river.

View downstream at River Park, including the 180th Street Bridge over the Bronx River

View downstream at River Park, including the 180th Street Bridge over the Bronx River

The 180th Street Bridge is a good-looking fairly small-scale historic bridge. I spotted a solitary Great blue heron hanging out under the bridge, and some ducks navigating the river, too.

View upstream at River Park - of Bronx River dam/spillway at the edge of the Bronx Zoo

View upstream at River Park – of Bronx River dam/spillway at the edge of the Bronx Zoo

At River Park there is a dam (or maybe a spillway? or weir? my apologies for not researching all the details on what I saw that day) that creates a large ponding area along the Bronx Zoo.

That’s as far upstream as I got this month.

There’s lots more to explore on the Bronx River – about twenty more miles upstream. It’s worth visiting and exploring today, on foot or bike or boat, and it appears that there will be even more parks and paths opening in the near future, too.

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§ 6 Responses to Exploring the Bronx River

  • Elaine says:

    And they’re working towards daylighting the Saw Mill River in Yonkers, just north of The Bronx.

  • Mike Letteriello says:

    When I heard a long time ago that along the Bronx river there still were some natural areas in an urban New York setting, it was hard to believe.
    Thanks for illuminating this.

    By the way, can you imagine the toxic stuff dumped into this waterway by industry before there was some environmental awareness? In the late nineteenth and some of the twentieth century, for example? I shudder to think of it.

  • What a nice example of rediscovering a hidden-away urban river.

    Lost urban rivers, as someone just posted here, were often culverted and buried to manage flooding and sanitise the city from watercourses contaminated by sewage and toxins. While many in NYC now flow to sewage works instead of the sea, a great many are waiting to be rediscovered and even “daylighted” (removing the culvert, re-opening them, unburying them, however you choose to call it).

    It is also probably not quite true that this is NYC’s only freshwater “river” – at least, there are a great many smaller spring-fed creeks and streams buried beneath Manhattan Island – some even cropping up in people’s basements!

    I strongly recommend people check out this website hunting them all down by Steve Duncan: http://watercourses.typepad.com/. Also, the Manhatta Project is a cool interactive map that recreate’s what this area used to look like prior to human settlement – see all the springs, creeks and wetlands now dried up or buried beneath the city: http://welikia.org/explore/mannahatta-map/.

    If you are interested in this sort of thing, then you can find out more at http://www.facebook.com/DaylightingUrbanRivers, or follow me on Twitter @LostUrbanRivers.

  • Gil Gaudia says:

    I lived a few blocks from the river when I was a kid–Hunts Point–and on summer evenings we used to play in the huge sand piles of the concrete plant after the workers had gone home. My wife and her friends used to walk along the “spillway” and cross the river just below the Bronx Park Lake, and when we were “going steady” we would rent a rowboat and row on the lake on hot summer nights. We called the Bronx River “the creek.”

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