Almost 400 Years of Black History in a New York City Park
Let’s keep it real. From Zora Neale Hurston’s Eatonville Florida to Harlem NY’ s Marcus Garvey Park and vanished Senaca Village within Central Park, who writes the history of places helps shape their development and their accessibility to citizens and audiences. Let all with the capacity and access take the glorious burden of writing about the lands they trod. Here’s my latest essay on a park set to open/ re-open on the Bronx River this fall. Find more at Bronx River Sankofa.
Location: This central Bronx park bisected by the Bronx River has entrances at E. 174th Street, E. 177th street and by the Sheridan Expressway just north of the intersection of Westchester and Whitlock Avenues.
Today’s public park occupies a site formerly used for a world’s fair and subsequent amusement park. Built in conjunction with the Sheridan Expressway beginning 1958, this green space retains the name of a former local rival to historic Coney Island in Brooklyn. Many layers of history can be investigated here by wondering how this place has evolved since Native Americans walked the shores of the Bronx River on their own terms 350 years ago.
Two branches of the Mohegan Indians thrived on opposing sides of the Bronx River which they called Aquehung or “River of High Bluffs.” This river valley, which remained partly wild well into the 1800s, included massive ancient American chestnut and Tulip trees. The original course of the river was winding, free of dams and flowed higher and perhaps faster than it does today. Dams, sewers and the paving of most of its watershed have severely reduced its liquid volume.
The attraction of beaver fur brought European traders in the early 1600s at a time when Africans were know to accompany some trappers in the region. A wealthy Swede, Jonas Bronck, “purchased” 500 acres from the Mohegans in 1639 partly fronting on the Bronx and East rivers although his house was in the area now called Port Morris. Soon, Dutch colonists followed by greater numbers of English settlers in this heretofore pristine blue-green world arrived. Mills began to sprout up along “Bronck’s River.” By the mid-1800s as many as 11 mills were processing paper, flour, pottery, cotton, rugs, barrels, lumber, grains (wheat, millet, corn & barley), gun powder and tobacco, powered by water from the stream.
In his 1817 poem “Bronx,” Joseph Rodman Drake described “rocks” and “clefts” full of “loose ivy dangling” and “sumach of the liveliest green.” The water was considered so “pure and wholesome” that during the 1820s and 1830s the New York City Board of Alderman debated ways to tap into it to supply the growing city with drinking water. In 1898, when all four boroughs surrounding Manhattan island were consolidated into New York City, the Bronx was chosen for the name of the borough after the Bronx River. It was then common in America to name places after their prominent natural features.
This section of the Bronx River south of the man-made dam at River Park by the Bronx Zoo and beginning by Drew Gardens at Tremont Avenue is an estuary where fresh water from Westchester springs from the north combines with salt water from the East River to the south. Before European farm settlement, damming and subsequent industrialization, this river section included part of an extensive salt marsh with pockets of woods.
This area began to urbanize, like much of the West Bronx, only after the Third Avenue el came through in the 1890s and subways followed even nearer by the 1910s after the annexation of this part of Lower Westchester into New York City (1874) and the establishment of Bronx Park (1888). Whereas, the population of the Bronx in 1900 was 200,000, the Bronx had 730,000 residents by 1920. The Bronx then contained more residents than Cleveland, Ohio, the seventh largest urban population in the United States. Farming gave way to speculative real estate development as NYC’s urban fabric expanded northward and westward. The Wilson family farm had long been abandoned at this site leaving a stone mansion later re-purposed into a club.
The famous Astor family, whose wealth originated in fur trading before expanding in real estate, owned the land where Starlight Park rests today before a world’s fair was begun there in 1918 called the Bronx International Exposition. Yes, they meant the world although Congress would not give it official backing; Japan and Brazil requested pavilions. Large and varied entertainments would be enjoyed there in coming years within the New York Coliseum from a rodeo to the circus. Outside, there was a roller coaster, exotic ethnic foods, marching bands and a Bronx River-fed salt water swimming pool with mechanically – produced waves. Sadly, the pool reflected the times as a white’s only amenity. Various publications including the Bronx Home News edition of April 2, 1919 help us understand that this pool was one of at least three segregated pools, including at a Clason’s Point private club and a short-lived Bronxdale Avenue private pool, in the Bronx through the 1960s.
Financial hardship for this international fair which opened during the summer before World War 1 (July 28, 1914 – November 11, 1918) came to a close sealed its doom in mid-1919. Starlight Park, an amusement park without the ambitions of exhibiting world industrial and cultural production, replaced it on the model of a modest Coney Island. A celebration of live music and electric lights at night illuminated this popular entertainment until the Great Depression followed by the announcement of the Sheridan Expressway signaled its end by 1939. The site was occupied by military materials and personnel during World War 2.
The Sheridan Expressway took almost two decades to design, finance and break ground. This limited access road honors Arthur V. Sheridan (1888 – 1952), who was the Bronx Borough President James Lyon’s engineer and was a loyal supporter of Arterial Coordinator Robert Moses (1888 – 1981). Much was destroyed to create it including thousands of apartments, many industrial businesses and a swimming pool next to the Whitlock Avenue train station, however the site was trnsformed into a public park. That original park included a pair of grass baseball fields, two asphalt fields, eight handball courts, and five checker tables. Construction of the expressway began in 1958, and although the 1.2 mile strip was completed, it suffered the inadequacies of many other highways at the time in that its shoulders were too narrow and its acceleration/ deceleration lanes too short. Four years and $9.5 million dollars later the highway was renovated and reopened. Robert Moses then designed a 4-mile, 60-million-dollar northern extension intended to connect the Sheridan Expressway with the New England Thruway.
This second proposal met with great community opposition because of the excessive traffic and pollution it would bring to the Baychester and Pelham neighborhoods, in addition to disrupting the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden. The project was slated for completion in 1972, and although Governor Nelson Rockefeller (1908-1979) initially supported the extension, nearly a decade of protests from civic and community leaders forced him to reconsider. In 1971 he reluctantly terminated the project, as well as many other projects designed to run highways through New York City.
In 1974, local residents and the Bronx borough police chief Anthony Bouza became fed up with the dismal conditions of the Bronx River. They formed Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc. (BXRR), with Ruth Anderberg, a long time progressive Catholic activist from Massachusetts, as its first director. Bronx River Restoration succeeded in removing a plethora of debris, including refrigerators, tires, and even a wine press along the shoreline in the 180th Street/ West Farms area and less exotic finds by Gun Hill Road. They also created summer job and year-round environmental literacy programs and events with lasting monuments like Bronx River Art Center (begun 1978) and West Farms Rapids park (originally Restoration Park) in 1980.
Local activists like Jorge Santiago of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality and Alexie Torres – Fleming of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (YMPJ) continued to play a dynamic role in rehabilitating the Bronx River. Santiago raised the river’s profile at the NYC DEP and NYS Attorney General’s Office to address illegal dumping. His efforts have yielded millions of dollars in river development through Attorney General office restitution grants. YMPJ’s deep engagement with local youth to envision the future of their river has yielded dozens of educational programs, guided the National Guard in removing car bodies, and helped realize the former BXRR’s three- decade long campaign to rebuild and improve Starlight Park and transform a Concrete Plant a few block to the south into public park land. Other innovations include the boat house YMPJ proposed which has since been designed by Kiss + Cathcart architects as River House which is slated to house the Bronx River Alliance. Some contemporary Bronx River boosters first discovered this site in the 80s like Mel Rodriguez who has since founded Bike the Bronx and David Shuffler who became the Executive Director at YMPJ in 2010 after more than a decade as a program participant, worker and subsequent board chairman.
In 2001, the Bronx River Alliance was created to build on the 27-year history of restoration work started by Bronx River Restoration Project, Inc. in 1974; strengthened in 1996 with the Bronx Riverkeeper program developed in partnership with City of New York/Parks & Recreation and Con Edison; and fortified in 1997 with the formation of the Bronx River Working Group. The Bronx River Working Group, coordinated by Partnerships for Parks and Waterways & Trailways, expanded the effort to include over 60 community groups, government agencies, schools and businesses with federal grants and technical support in the form of the Urban Resources Partnership during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Congressman Jose Serrano, Bronx Boro President Fernando Ferrer, and many others were also energized to imporve local public open spaces. Waterways and Trailways is an alliance of NY Partnerships for Parks, Appalachian Mountain Club and the National Park Service for the purpose of facilitating partnership-oriented community conservation projects in the parks, waterways and trails of the greater New York area.
Starlight Park had its soil remediated by 2006 and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) broke ground for park development in 2010 with support from Governor David A. Patterson. This $17 million dollar extension to the Bronx River Greenway will make it easier to walk, run and cycle the Bronx River Greenway first envisioned in 1978 with BXRR’s preliminary Bronx River Restoration Master Plan. The new park extends just under one mile from E. 177th St. to E. 174th St. on the east side of the Bronx River to E. 172nd Street on the west side of the Bronx River.
The renovation includes a soccer field, a basketball court, picnic areas, playgrounds for younger and older children, a spray shower for play, a multi-use path for cyclists and pedestrians, floating docks for canoeing and boating and at least two new pedestrian bridges over the Bronx River as well as a new entrance at 177th street at street level. A new boat launch is available just south of the old industrial 173rd Street stone weir marking the end of dredging for this former manufacturing and coal transportation corridor. Look for it at low tide!
This project has been awarded Evergreen certification under the NYSDOT GreenLITES program for the many environmentally friendly aspects of the park. GreenLITES, or Green Leadership in Transportation Environmental Sustainability, is a nationally recognized program that measures the level of enhancement a transportation project makes to the environment. The GreenLITES program has four levels of certification, with Evergreen being the highest. Some of the features that led to this recognition include:
Rain gardens and storm water retention basins that will capture and filter 95 percent of the park runoff before it enters the Bronx River;
The use of recycled materials in park construction, such as recycled glass pellets in place of gravel in the construction of its rain gardens as well as recycling of Second Avenue Subway rock excavations beneath some walkways;
The creation and restoration of two acres of wetlands, both along the river and in the park interior;
The planting of 1.75 acres of wildflowers, more than 3,500 shrubs, nearly 200 trees and 2,000 vines, and more than 30,000 wetland grasses and other plants;
The removal of invasive plant species, dumped material and debris in order to allow for the naturalization of the area, and
The preservation of a catenary cable structure built as part of the historic New York, Westchester and Boston Railway in the early 20th century.
Dedicated to Nilka Martell, photojournalist at the Bronx Free Press and founder of G.I.V.E. (Getting Involved Virginia Avenue Efforts), winner of Citizen’s Committee awards and more.
Submitted by Morgan Powell, a landscape designer, who edits Bronx River Sankofa on You Tube and Facebook. Here’s his first of three blogs sharing his passion for New York’s Bronx River and its African American heritage. Written September 2, 2012/ updated September 18, 2012 based on the following sources: John McNamara (various writings), Dr. Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society , the Bronx River Alliance, Parks and Recreation of the City of New York Historical Sign program, the New York State Department of Transportation, numerous interviews and the unpublished manuscript, Starlight in the Bronx: from world’s fair to amusement park 1918-1946 by Ronald O. Roth written in cooperation with the Bronx County Historical Society (1990).