Over Walls, Under Fences: Community Access Now

Members of Friends of Brook Park on a canoe trip in the Bronx Kill. Photo by Dirk Ewers

Dirk Ewers took a quick look around as he snuck into the private property that separates Lincoln Avenue from the Harlem River waterfront. His two sons, 16 and 7, were close behind, pulling the family’s canoe on a cart.

“We sneak in there and it’s all bushes and trash and stuff,” said Ewers, 42, of Port Morris.

He and his sons approached the water’s edge where rocks are tied to a fence to prevent erosion.

“That’s where we go in,” he said.

As they placed their boat on the river they glanced across to the Manhattan side where they saw cyclists riding on Harlem River Greenway.

“There are no facilities like that here,” Ewers said.

But that does not stop the Ewers and other South Bronx residents from getting onto the water. While activists like the Harlem River Working Group push for public waterfront access, residents are lobbying for change in their own way –by getting out on the river, using access routes that are not always safe or legal.

“You have to be a daredevil to get to the river.”  — Eve Baron

Because the marshy shore of the Harlem River is bordered by a railroad track and surrounded by industrial and commercial buildings, they are forced to cross busy streets, trespass through privately owned lots and slink around fences to enjoy the river in their own backyard.

Audio: Community Voices

At a neighborhood forum, at an unapproved fishing spot at the end of Lincoln Avenue, over a barbecue in Mill Pond Park — users of the Harlem River speak out on their waterfront. (Produced by Jorteh Senah)

Ewers and his sons often use the makeshift access point on Lincoln Avenue, near a vacant lot behind Oz Moving & Storage Inc. But when they take canoe trips with the youth group of Friends of Brook Park, a community-based environmental group in Mott Haven, they get to the river from a Bronx Kill access point on Randall’s Island. The Bronx Kill is a narrow strait of water between Randall’s Island and the Bronx that connects the Harlem to the upper East River.

From the Bronx Kill they row the canoes to where the Harlem meets the Hudson. The group chooses to launch their boats into the Bronx Kill from Randall’s Island because it is safer than accessing the Kill by land from the Bronx, according to Ewers.

“It’s really awful, you walk right next to the highway and there is a switchback where you go up to the bridge,” he said. “It’s very hazardous, there’s no structure. It becomes even more hazardous during low tide. You can only take one canoe at a time.”

The Pratt Center for Community Development is working with local residents to learn how they currently use the waterfront.

“There is no question that access is a big issue,” said Eve Baron, the senior fellow for policy and planning at the center. “There are definitely people who are passionate about boating on the Harlem River.”

But Baron knows that these boaters often take risks.

“When you are finally on the water it’s pleasant. It’s a great experience for everyone, especially the kids.” — Dirk Ewers

“You have to be a daredevil to get to the river,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Ewers has been rowing on the Harlem River for the past three years.

“When you are finally on the water it’s pleasant,” he said. “It’s a great experience for everyone, especially the kids.”

The Ewers and other members of Friends of Brook Park, as part of the Harlem River Working Group, advocate for waterfront access and restoration along the Harlem River and the Bronx Kill. The group’s mission is to create a recreational place along the southern part of the river where the community can take back the land from the industries that overflow it.

“There is no single official waterfront access for six miles,” said Harry Bubbins, the director of Friends of Brook Park. ”It has divorced the community from engaging with the waterfront and allowed these industries to try to stream in and take over the rest of our land.”

Friends of Brook Park is not the only group using the waterfront.

Misa Tiam, 30 of Manhattan, goes to the water’s edge to take pictures of used motorcycles he sells online. He said the area creates a natural backdrop for his bikes.

“It’s raw, rural, ghetto. You know ghetto fabulous,” Tiam said.

Community members have been trespassing through vacant lots to access the waterfront for generations, according to Antonio Bassatt, the president of the Metropolitan Wholesale & Retail Beer & Soda Distributors Inc. He has been doing business in the area since 1972.

Mott Haven residents just have to look across the Harlem River to see a gleaning waterfront esplanade in Manhattan. The Harlem River Park opened in 2008. Slideshow by Matt McNulty

Bubbins is proud to follow their path. In his view, opening up the waterfront to the public would be a political act. He believes Mott Haven, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation, is also one of the most overlooked by the government. He said providing waterfront access would give the respect the community deserves.

“It would help us achieve greater self-respect if we don’t have to slink around,” Bubbins said. “Why can people fish off the Upper East Side greenways and we don’t have comparable amenities on this side of the water?”