HIGHBRIDGE HEIGHTS, Bronx

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The western Bronx consists of a chain of high hills and valleys arrayed on the eastern banks of the Harlem River, heavily urbanized now, but formerly home to wealthy estates and thickly wooded meadows where you wouldn’t be surprised to hear ‘tally-ho’ as the hounds pursued hapless foxes, and horse-drawn carriages traveled the rare cobblestoned pathways. Highbridge Heights, today’s featured neighborhood (roughly bordered by the Harlem River, Jerome Avenue, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway) was in large part once the Marcher estate. The lord and lady of the property maintained a formal garden dedicated to the works of Shakespeare and displayed busts of the Bard himself and some of his best-known characters. The heavy hand of modernity eventually encroached, and the property was sold off. Only Shakespeare Avenue is a current reminder of the Marcher estate and its garden.

Fortunately, though, there are plenty of remaining interesting tidbits in this hilly Bronx enclave that would eventually fall into the shadows of Yankee Stadia I and II…

WAYFARING MAP: HIGHBRIDGE HEIGHTS

 

Old Yankee Stadium, on the west side of River Avenue south of East 161st Street, has undergone a slow and torturous death since it was officially closed following the 2008 season. The week this page was written in March 2010, the last bits of the upper deck were demolished.

The Stadium was constructed throughout 1922 and opened in time for the 1923 season. Babe Ruth beat his former team, the Red Sox, with a home run on opening day of that year; the Yankees would famously win 26 World Series while playing in this building.

 

Babe Ruth Plaza, on the north side of West 161st along the New Yankee Stadium, was relocated from its former slot at 161st and the Grand Concourse, with that entire space now dedicated the Ruth’s teammate from 1925-1934, Lou Gehrig.

The late, great Bronx historian John McNamara recalled the construction of Yankee Stadium well and remembers the occasion in McNamara’s Old Bronx:

The first knowledge [I] had of the Stadium was in its construction period (1922) when a watchman would periodically send [me] to a River Avenue speakeasy for a can of beer. The watchman, an elderly native of Highbridgeville, was of Irish stock and could pray in Gaelic — a minor accomplishment he passed on to this writer …

The second memory was holding Babe Ruth’s coat! This momentous occasion occurred after a game, and the players’ exit was lined with baseball fans, eager to see their heroes. Babe Ruth hurried out to the curb where a small roadster was parked, in readiness. It was a brisk fall day and the Babe was wearing a raccoon coat, then so popular in the ’20s, but when he attempted to get into the sports car, he was too bulky to fit in. He straightaway shrugged off the coat and looked around.

“Here, kid, hold this a minute,” he said to this writer, who was standing in awe and hero worship. The Babe then seated himself in the car, and reached for his coat with a nonchalant “Thanks, kiddo” and drove off.

That sounds exactly like the Babe I’ve read about.

 

For a variety of reasons, some practical, some political, the demolition of the Old Yankee Stadium has been dragged out to an extremely slow process; by contrast, Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows was done away with over a couple of months. A mini-city has been constructed in the south Bronx, with a new parking garage and Metro-North station also going up, along with the new park. A portion of John Mullaly Park on the north side of East 161st, was eliminated to make way form the new place, and so far, the ballfields that served the southwest Bronx have yet to be replaced — much to the consternation of area residents.

The ballfields will eventually be relocated in Heritage Park, which is scheduled to be built on the Old Yankee Stadium site. It seems that the process should be sped up from the current sluggish pace.

 

Macomb’s Dam Park, between the bridge approach road and Jerome Avenue north of East 161st, is named for the nearby Macomb’s Dam Bridge that connects Highbridge Heights with West 155th Street in Washington Heights. The park itself opened in 1899 and, in the past, contained an Olympic-style track; three-time Finnish gold medalist HannesKohlesmainen trained here in preparation for the 1912 Olympics.

The park’s distinctive fountain was installed in 1910 and moved to its present position in 1936. It was given a restoration in 2006 and 2007.

 

The most distinctive building in the shadow of the New Yankee Stadium and overlooking Macomb’s Dam Park is the 1901-1902American Female Guardian Society and Home for the Friendless, and current Highbridge Woodycrest Center, 936 Woodycrest Avenue. It was constructed to house abandoned and needy children by then-prominent architect William B. Tuthill in limestone, brick and terracotta. It now serves as a long-term health care facility.

Directly across the street at 939 Woodycrest is the 8-story Noonan Towers. Since we’ll see the more well-known Noonan Plaza a bit later, we can imagine that the same Noonan was involved in the development of both residential buildings.

 

The H.W. Wilson Company, a bibliography, general interest, and periodical index publisher that has been in business for over a century, has its headquarters on Sedgwick Avenue just north of its fork in the road with University Avenue. Its distinctive “lighthouse” was constructed in 1929. The lighthouse, shown positioned on a book, is meant to symbolize “guidance to those seeking their way through the maze of books and periodicals, without which they would be lost.” Seen here from Ogden Avenue and West 162nd Street.

 

The park on West 162nd between Woodycrest and Anderson has been pretty much abandoned by the NYC Parks Department — it is now weed-strewn with splintering benches and rusting rubbish cans. A local notable is remembered on a wall.

 

At the crosswalk marking the former intersection of 162nd and Jerome is hidden a last remnant of the old 9th Avenue El: the platform of the Anderson-Jerome station. The el once crossed the Harlem River on a bridge, then tunneled under Highbridge Heights, emerging just west of here; it was then carried on an elevated structure to join the Woodlawn elevated on River Avenue. The station platform remains intact behind the blue concrete wall.

 

East 162nd Street between Jerome and River Avenues was demapped to make way for the New Yankee Stadium, but the Department of Transportation still diligently marks it. And, since it’s on the west side of Jerome, it should be marked West 162nd, anyway.

NYCSubway.org’s page on the 9th Avenue El, which includes a trip through the tunnel below Highbridge Heights.

 

Park Plaza

 

Park Plaza, 1005 Jerome Avenue opposite John Mullaly Park, may be the Bronx’ most famed apartment complex not located on the Grand Concourse. The massive Art Deco building was designed by architects Horace “Harry” Ginsbern (interiors) and Marvin Fine (exteriors) and constructed between 1929-1931, at about the apotheosis of Deco-ism, at least in the States. In the early 1930s, polychrome terra cotta was in vogue, and Park Plaza does it better than just about anywhere else. Ginsbern was known as “the genius of the Bronx” as he designed no less than 137 apartment buildings in the borough.

 

Two of the stylized birds that appear between the 2nd and 3rd floors.

Designer Fine’s taste in gargoyling was eclectic — besides the standard-issue pondering long-eared beast, of the type seen on Notre Dame in Paris, there are also frogs and squirrels.

The most frequently used terra cotta polychrome motif depicts a fountain flanked by flamingos and the sun rising behind Bronx apartment buildings.

I used to think that the image shown at left was a stylized version of High Bridge, but Constance Rosenblum explains inĀ Boulevard of Dreams that it actually depicts an architect presenting a model of his new building to the Parthenon for approval. I’d have to think that High Bridge was not far from Marvin Fine’s consciousness when dreaming this up, though.

 

I originally complained about the fact that while some bike lanes in Manhattan and Brooklyn are getting the super-deluxe treatment with separated lanes, painted paths, special stoplights, etc., this one on Jerome Avenue has a battered green sign, and that’s it. However, Mike “Satanslaundromat” Epstein informs me that there are separate genuses and species of bike paths: “paths” which are separated, “lanes” which get separate street markings, and “routes” which get the green signs only. Here is a Bronx bike map.

 

John Mullaly Park, which at present runs from East 164th north to just past East 166th between Jerome and River Avenues, was truncated at its southern end to make way for the New Yankee Stadium. The park house has a colorful rendering of the Bronx flag:

The Bronx borough flag was adopted in 1912. It is described as the Dutch colonial flag (the Prinsenvlag of orange, white, and blue horizontal stripes), with the addition of the Bronck family arms encircled by a laurel wreath denoting honor and fame. The shield shows the face of the sun with rays displayed rising from the sea, signifying peace, liberty, and commerce. The crest is an eagle with its wings “displayed” (actually expanded) on a hemisphere facing eastward, representing “the hope of the New World while not forgetting the Old.” The motto is “Ne cede malis,” meaning “Yield not to evil.” CRW Flags

 

Nothing is more emblematic of the high ridge Highbridge Heights sits on than the Escher-ian, helter-skelter staircase known as the Jerome Slope that takes foot traffic up to the Heights.

 

View from the summit of East 165th, with the Woodlawn el over River Avenue in back of Mullaly Park

 

A Lesson In Perspective

 

In the Bronx it’s common to go from the sublime to the not so sublime in a very very short interval. The Jerome Slope staircase leaves you on this rutted path with rusted lampposts, and as you pass you notice the scrawled wisdom that communicates what some Bronx residents think of the local constabulary.

 

The local signs go unheeded. Of course, perhaps the signs regarding dogs are being heeded, and the crap may not be that of canines.

The path empties out onto Anderson Avenue, which along with Woodycrest, Nelson, Ogden and Summit Avenue, are the main north-south roues of Highbridge Heights. Ogden Avenue is the most heavily trafficked and the main shopping route. I traveled west to Woodycrest, where there were some architectural oddities and antiquities to inspect.

 

I wonder what the history is behind this dormered stone building on West 167th east of Woodycrest. R

 

1182 Woodycrest is a survivor from the late 1870s.

 

Church, Woodycrest Avenue between West 167-West 168th. The cornerstone is dated 1926 — this is just before the era when Art Deco and Moderne streamlining began to influence ecclesiastical architecture.

 

Noonan Plaza, West 168th from Nelson west to Ogden, another Horace Ginsbern creation second only to his Park Plaza in neighborhood apartment complexes. This group of buildings also echoes Mayan ornamentation, as did Park Plaza. When it was opened it was among the grandest residential residences in the borough:

Noonan Plaza was “so elegant that its doormen were attired in uniforms, adorned with small capes … Residents lucky enough to occupy apartments that overlooked the fifteen-thousand square foot interior garden were treated to a spectacular tableau; a waterfall splashing into a pool that was home to swans, goldfish, and water lilies … crisscrossed by a series of Japanese style bridges. Amenities inside included mothproof storage closets, Electrolux refrigerators, and an elevator roomy enough to accommodate wheelchairs for the elderly. Bathrooms featured built-in-tubs, colored tile walls, and hampers — all luxuries in their day.” Constance Rosenblum, Boulevard of Dreams

By 1975, according to Rosenblum, things had changed dramatically at the Noonan:

More and more welfare families were shuttled into the building where swans once swam amid water lilies in the courtyard pool, to be followed by squatters, vandals and drug dealers. The landlord who had owned the complex for less than five years abandoned the place, leaving behind 327 housing code violations… “Noonan Plaza is being torn apart,” wrote Donald Sullivan and Brian Danforth of Hunter College in their account of the decline. “Elevators, doors, windows, tiled ceilings, and garden furnishings have been brutally damaged…whole skylights have been taken off the roof and thrown to the ground below, sending broken glass in every direction, in order to sell the brass framing as scrap metal.”

You hope that equilibrium has been reached at the Noonan.

 

Union Reformed Church of Highbridge, now the Emanuel Presbyterian Church, was constructed at Ogden and Merriam Avenues, north of West 168th, in 1888. Its forbidding presence is somehow augmented by the decay the exterior has fallen into.

Across the street is the nearly equally venerable PS 11, originally Grammar School No. 91. Two additions were made in 1905 and, seen at the far left on the above right photo, in 1930. A 1911 map of the block shows the church and the school, and nothing much else. You need bars on the windows in schools these days.

 

Ogden Avenue has retained many of the lengthy double-masted lampposts it received in the early 1960s — they seem to be decreasing elsewhere. At the NW corner of Ogden and West 169th is the Mosaic Success Garden. Merriam Avenue apartment buildings are arrayed atop a rock escarpment.

 

The Mosaic Success Garden is named for the Alianza Mosaic Beacon Center of P.S. 11, the community center that oversees the gardens maintenance. Success Gardens are a project of the Parks Council in collaboration with local non-profit, community, and volunteer organizations. Other Success Gardens are located in East New York, Brooklyn and Harlem, Manhattan.

A natural rock outcropping more than 20 feet high and 100 feet long dominates the landscape of this garden. When the garden was first opened, a solar-powered waterfall flowed over the rock face into the pond below. The pond, landscaped with water plants and stocked with an ever-growing number of goldfish, continues to function as a science and ecology laboratory for students from the local school district. NYC Parks

 

 

In a recent FNY page we’ve seen West 110th, the street with three names, but University Avenue, which runs from Sedgwick Avenue near Macombs Dam Park all the way to Jerome Park Reservoir, has also had three names at one time or another; it started as Lind Avenue in the 1860s, switched to University Avenue in 1917, in honor of the New York University campus it ran past (now occupied by Bronx Community College and containing the little-trafficked Hall of Fame). The street was further named for Martin Luther King, Jr. in November 1988.

Quiet and unassuming here at West 168th Street, University Avenue gains several traffic lanes a few blocks north of here at Edward L. Grant Highway and the Washington Bridge approach; University Avenue is once again subdued in its final few blocks near the reservoir.

Unless you are a daredevil urban explorer like some of my friends, it has been impossible to walk on High Bridge (the third bridge built to span the Harlem River, following Kings Bridge and Macomb’s Dam, since 1960, when hooligans throwing objects off the bridge prompted the City to close it. (A high cyclone fence would have done the trick, but whatever.) Plans do call for it to be rehabilitated and reopened, but no one has any money for such a thing in 2010.

In the above photos, note the arched roadway on the Manhattan side. It’s part of a very old carriageway known as the Harlem River Driveway, since refitted for auto traffic; it preceded the Harlem River Drive by several decades, and you’d have to think its arches are echoic of the ones that span High Bridge across the Harlem.

 

Despite the highly publicized efforts of Bette Midler to revive Manhattan’s Highbridge Park, it largely remains a weed-strewn, wrecked ruin, and while a walk along University Avenue south of theBronx’ Highbridge Park reveals that the neighbors use the stretch as a dumping ground, the park itself was spiffed up nicely in 2001 by the Parks Department, with new benches and chess tables, and historic markers providing the history behind the historic bridge that it surrounds.

 

The park also overlooks the nearby Alexander Hamilton Bridge (foreground) and Washington Bridge (background). The towers of the George Washington Bridge are also visible from here.

The old Carmelite Monastery adjacent to Highbridge Park at University and West 170th is now home to Samaritan Village, a drug rehab center. It was cinstructed in 1940 and still bears signs of its later period Moderne look, with stylized renderings of Saint Teresa and Saint John. The AIA Guide to New York City (2000) says the view from the riverside of this building is much better, but it won’t be available until or unless the High Bridge is reopened.

 

The Guide mentions 1411 University as a simple clapboard house, but whatever charm it once had has been clapped under a thick layer of siding.

 

The Aim High Stop Violence mural is among the Bronx’ biggest; University and Merriam Avenues.

 

The mighty Cross-Bronx Expressway, bruited through Bronx’ midsection by Robert Moses, connects the George Washington Bridge via the Trans-Manhattan Expressway east to the Throgs Neck Bridge, funneling traffic to Queens and Long Island. The expressway uses the 555-foot long Alexander Hamilton Bridge (coincidentally the Washington Monument in DC is 555′ 5/8″ tall). The bridge is also a conduit for US Route 1 and Interstate 95 as they make their way south along the eastern seaboard. Along with the last completed section of the Cross-Bronx Expressway it opened January 15, 1963.

 

The Washington Bridge just to its north connects the intersection of University Avenue and Edward L. Grant Highway (originally Boscobel Avenue) with West 181st Street in Washington Heights. The Alexander Hamilton Bridge was constructed when the Washington was deemed structurally unable to bear the traffic the cross-Bronx Expressway would carry. The steel arch bridge was opened to pedestrian traffic in 1888 and vehicular (carriages and wagons, at the time) in 1889. (This is not the mighty 1931 George Washington span connecting Washington Heights with Fort Lee, NJ designed by Othmar Ammann.)

3/28/10





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